Supporters of the Lebanese model routinely praise it as fairly representing the country’s religious make-up. Critics, however, point out that codifying Lebanon’s religious divisions in law has caused the sects to self-segregate, perpetuating the merging of religious and political identities in ways that may well lead to a repeat of the recent civil war. There is a widespread sense of frustration, particularly among young, educated Lebanese.

By Irina Papkova

Lebanon. For decades, the very word evoked sectarian bloodshed, conjuring images of Christian-Muslim hatred and sectarian destruction. Despite the fact that the civil war in this tiny Mediterranean country ended more than twenty years ago, my decision to relocate here provoked panic in some quarters, together with warnings that I am going to be living “on a tinder box” of religious hatred ready to explode at any moment. Such fears do resonate in a country whose capital is located a mere fifty kilometers from the carnage of Damascus, and whose population is divided roughly into four mutually suspicious religious camps (Sunni, Shiite, Druze, and Christian).

Tensions in Lebanon are indeed rising. Refugees from Syria stream through the streets of Beirut, some in luxury cars, others in tattered rags, begging for food. Their presence is like a match waiting to light the fuel of Lebanese sectarian tensions – with the influx of refugees, the population of Lebanon has grown about 10% in the last year alone, with the majority of those arriving being Sunni or Shiite Muslims. The delicate balance of Lebanese politics rests on a power sharing arrangement between the Shiites, Christians and Sunnis, all of whom are assumed to have approximately the same demographic weight. Add in the 400,000 recently arrived Syrians, and the balancing act becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.

So it is tempting to write about the dangers facing Lebanon, to forecast doom and gloom, and to capitalize on the poignancy of yet another Middle Eastern country facing potential collapse in the wake of the Arab Spring. But the Lebanese story is not typical of the region. There is no tyrant to topple in this parliamentary democracy. The economy, though badly affected by the war in Syria, continues to grow. For all the outside pressures, the Lebanese seem set on avoiding descent into civil war – they’ve been there before, and want none of it. And, in a region where Islamist governments are rapidly becoming the new normal, Lebanon is poised to modify the role of religion in public life by allowing civil marriage for the first time in the country’s existence.

In late November 2012, Kholoud Succariyeh (a Sunni Muslim) and her fiance Nidal Darwish (a Shiite) made Lebanese history by getting married by a notary in a civil ceremony in their hometown in the Bekka valley. To Americans embroiled in our own controversy over gay marriage, and long used to civil marriage as a normal state of affairs, the importance of Kholoud and Nidal’s courageous step may not be immediately evident. But in Lebanon, their attempt to go outside the religious communities to register their marriage carries enormous implications.

According to Lebanese law, family matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance are all delegated to religious authorities representing the country’s eighteen officially recognized denominations. Until Nidal and Kholoud appeared on the scene, both civil marriage and marriage between people of different sects were unequivocally understood to be illegal. For decades, mixed-faith couples, and those not wishing to get married in religious ceremonies, have gotten around these restrictions by exploiting a loophole in the law: Lebanon does recognize marriages registered in other countries (with the exception of gay marriage). This has led to the uniquely Lebanese phenomenon of couples heading for Cyprus or other countries that do allow inter-faith marriage and/or civil marriage, and then returning to Lebanon and applying for legal recognition of their wedded status.

So why is Kholoud and Nidal’s ceremony such a game changer? The couple decided to attempt the marriage on Lebanese soil based on another legal loophole. In the period between the two World Wars, the country was governed by France under a League of Nations Mandate. After independence, many of the Mandate-era laws remained in force. Article 60 of one such law, dating from 1936, grants civil rights – including civil marriage – to people with no official religious affiliation.  Until recently, this meant little since another law required that all citizens indicate the sect they belong to in their identity cards. In 2009, however, then- Minister of the Interior Ziad Baroud issued a decree allowing the removal of religious affiliation from all official documents. Hypothetically, civil marriage has been possible in Lebanon since 2009, at least for citizens willing to strike their religious status from the record.

Poster in Beirut advertising a rally against sectarianism in Lebanon. Photo by Irina Papkova.

Poster in Beirut advertising a rally against sectarianism in Lebanon. Photo by Irina Papkova.

This past February, I spent an evening in a Caribou Coffee shop located in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood, conversing with a 30-something lawyer and civil marriage activist who preferred to remain anonymous, and whom I refer to here as Walid. According to Walid, the idea for Nidal and Kholoud to register their marriage under Article 60 arose as a response to Baroud’s decree. Walid is a member of an informal coalition of young professionals united through the Facebook page “Civil Marriage in Lebanon,” or “CML.”  At some point in their investigations into the history of marriage both in Lebanon and elsewhere, the group’s members came upon Article 60, and by 2011 concluded that Kholoud and Nidal should take the pioneering step of marrying in a civil ceremony.

Already significant enough in its implications for personal status law in Lebanon, Kholoud and Nidal’s marriage also reflects a broader movement in favor of reducing the role of religion in the country’s political life. In the Middle East’s only functional democracy outside of Israel, the citizenry is slowly beginning to ask for more secularism, not less, in sharp contrast to developments in places such as Egypt and Tunisia. One can feel this most strongly in Hamra, a neighborhood paradoxically known to American television viewers as a supposed center of jihadist activities.

In October 2012, the television show “Homeland” featured Hamra as the supposed meeting site of Shiite Hezbollah militants. In reality, most of the people who live in Hamra are anti-Hezbollah Sunnis. The neighborhood is the center of left-wing intellectual life in Beirut, sheltering Marxists and other secular-leaning ideologues under the umbrellas of its many cafes. In contrast to the dusty street scene portrayed in the “Homeland” episode (which was shot in Haifa, Israel, much to the outrage of the Lebanese), Hamra today is a booming commercial and entertainment hub, sprouting luxury apartments and new restaurants and bars like mushrooms after a spring rain. Here, the forward-looking energy of a post-war Lebanon seeking to reinvent itself is evident on every corner. And so I should not have been surprised, while on a stroll through Hamra in May 2011, to find the streets plastered with posters advertising a rally in support of changes to Lebanon’s sectarian system.

The May 2011 protestors marched under the banner of “Laique Pride,” a slogan that evokes both the French term for secularism familiar from Lebanon’s francophone past and popularly known emancipatory movements such as “Gay Pride.” The event drew a few hundred people, but it ended abruptly when news broke that ten people had been killed by the Israeli army during pro-Palestinian protests near the border with Israel that same afternoon. Yet it was hardly a flash in the pan: in 2011, organized rallies in favor of transforming Lebanon into a secular state were a regular feature of Beirut’s street life.  Earlier, on March 6th, some 8,000 protesters marched through the center of Beirut in an effort coordinated with similar events in the cities of Baalbek and Saida (the first a stronghold of Hezbollah, and the second effectively the capital of militant Sunni movements). On March 18th, anti-sectarian activists set up a tent in downtown Beirut’s Riad el-Sohl Square, staging a sit in much in the style of Occupy Wall Street. On March 20th, more than 30,000 protesters marched several kilometers from the predominantly Christian east Beirut district of Achrafiye to the Ministry of the Interior located in Hamra.

If Lebanon is constitutionally a secular state, what is it exactly that the anti-sectarian movement seeks to change? In order to accommodate the country’s religiously divided population, Lebanon recognizes eighteen official “sects,” roughly split among Sunnis, Shiites, Druze and various Christian denominations. Matters of personal status such as marriage and inheritance are only some of the areas in which the answer to the question of “what sect do you belong to” has real consequences. Following a tradition that dates back to 1943, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the President a Maronite Christian, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. Most political parties are based around sectarian identities, and historically the distribution of parliamentary seats has been designed to proportionally reflect the eighteen sects.  The sectarian label in one’s passport also determines which government jobs one can or cannot get, as state employment is regulated by confessional quotas. In the army, high ranking positions are similarly distributed according to sect.

Supporters of the Lebanese model routinely praise it as fairly representing the country’s religious make-up. Critics, however, point out that codifying Lebanon’s religious divisions in law has caused the sects to self-segregate, perpetuating the merging of religious and political identities in ways that may well lead to a repeat of the recent civil war. There is a widespread sense of frustration, particularly among young, educated Lebanese.

One warm February evening in 2013, I sat on the terrace of Hamra’s organic and environmentally-friendly cafe Brisk, talking with 25-year old digital media strategist and activist Assad Thebian. Thebian, who is Druze, became palpably angry as he told me that the sectarian system has prevented the Lebanese from understanding themselves as members of one nation. “How am I, a Druze,” he said, “supposed to be attached to a country where I can’t become president, but the Maronite Christian kid I grew up with next door can?”

Thebian describes himself as a “concerned citizen,” fighting against sectarianism any way he can without attaching himself to any political party or secularist NGO. But he volunteers in support of organized campaigns and maintains strong ties with those activists who do pursue their goals through the non-profit sector. Towards the end of our conversation, he asked me if I knew about Shaml, a Beirut-based NGO dedicated to non-violence and non-sectarianism. When I told him that yes, I’d heard about Shaml, Thebian jumped up and headed towards the far end of Brisk. A moment later he returned, dragging over a tall, slim young man whom he introduced as Hussein Mehdyy. “Hussein is with Shaml, he can talk to you now, I’ve got to go to a cousin’s birthday party, yallah ‘bye.” And with that, Thebian disappeared into the night.

In stumbling English accompanied by a winning smile, Hussein gamely sat down across from me in Thebian’s stead, and we talked for a while about Shaml and its activities. For the moment, Shaml views achieving the right to civil marriage as a key step toward the larger goal of dismantling the sectarian system entirely. “We’ve been working on [civil marriage] since 2009,” Hussein told me, “and in 2011 we submitted a draft law to the parliament, but the parliament hasn’t discussed it actively.” In anticipation of the day that the legislature will deal with the question, Shaml keeps the anti-sectarian cause alive by participating in mass protests, staging sit-ins, and holding informational events to spread the message. “We participate in all the marches [organized by Shaml in conjunction with other NGOs],” he said. “They’ve become like a yearly festival. It’s a good step, reminding society that we need a secular state.”

Poster in Beirut advertising a rally against sectarianism in Lebanon. Photo by Irina Papkova.

Anti-sectarian graffiti in Hamra, Beirut. Photo by Irina Papkova.

Once or twice a year, a loose coalition of NGOs organizes marches in favor of dismantling the sectarian system. To get a better understanding of how these protests function, I spent an evening at another Beiruti cafe, talking with 25-year old Maya, an activist who was involved in the protests’ inception. “It was the energy of the Arab Spring,” Maya told me, which inspired civil society activists to join forces in mobilizing supporters across the country through personal and social networks. Looking back, the March 2011 protests did have all the hallmarks of a mass movement resonant of the Arab Spring demonstrations that broke out at the same time in neighboring countries. So revolutionary was the atmosphere in Beirut that I remember nervously observing events from outside and being relieved that I was not in the country at the time.

But the routinization of protest has been accompanied by a precipitous drop in participation – in sharp contrast to the tens of thousands who gathered in 2011, the most recent march in May 2012, drew only a few hundred participants. Nearly all of the people I spoke with about the movement expressed the feeling that mass protests alone were not an effective means of changing Lebanon’s sectarian laws. To some, the petering out of participation signals the failure of the cause entirely. When I contacted Yalda Younes, a key member of a Laique Pride, a group that had been prominent in the anti-sectarian movement’s early stages, she refused to grant me an interview on the grounds that “the movement is kind of sleeping this year, as there are not enough people taking the lead in it.”

Dismantling Lebanon’s sectarian system is a daunting proposition on any day, given the entrenched opposition of political and religious authorities afraid of losing power and privilege. Less obviously, many citizens are actually satisfied with the status quo. Sipping an overpriced cappuccino at Beirut’s uber-intellectual Cafe Dar, Maya acknowledged that “people are benefitting…the system actually does represent minorities. This is an activist movement, it does not have the support of the masses.” So the marches have lost momentum, not least because of contradictions among the organizing activists themselves.

The civil society groups coordinating the anti-sectarian protests are promoting very different agendas. Shaml, for instance, is broadly interested in non-violent social change, with secularism as an important but secondary element of the NGO’s program. Other concerned NGOs have included the feminist groups Nasawiya and Jinsiyati, and the American University of Beirut’s Secular Club. In 2011, the coordinating committee also encompassed the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a leftist and therefore pro-secular political party that also happens to be strongly in favor of the Assad regime in Syria. As an ally of Assad, the SSNP is politically allied to Hezbollah, whose political platform involves the eventual transformation of Lebanon into a state run by sharia law. According to several of the sources I spoke to, SSNP’s participation in the secularist movement (which was over by 2012), was a constant source of contention, leading on occasion to physical confrontations between protest organizers.

If the activists coordinating anti-sectarian rallies had come up with a unified position on what dismantling the sectarian system actually means, these internal contradictions may not have been so damaging. But their failure to do so has led to some bemusing episodes. For example, on February 26, 2012, a group of approximately 400 people gathered together in front of the Beirut headquarters of Lebanon’s electricity provider, Electricite du Liban (EdL). The organizers informed reporters from Daily Star Lebanon that their goal was to “reignite” the secular Lebanon movement. The protesters did chant anti-sectarian slogans as they marched through the streets. However, their demands also included higher wages, rent control, and improvements in electricity service, transportation, education, and women’s rights. This may have seemed logical to some participants: according to one 19-year old protester, “sectarianism is responsible for everything” (a phrase I heard often during the course of my research for this story). The protest’s organizers crowned the event by hanging a funeral wreath on EdL’s gates, a dramatic gesture to be sure, but not one that clarified the relationship between sectarianism and poor electricity service.

Still, though the anti-sectarian protests no longer attract the crowds, as they did in 2011, there is a sense of change in the air. Both Walid and Maya told me separately that while the mass protests have been largely symbolic and substantively ineffective, Lebanon is a country in which small initiatives often lead to real change; which brings us back to Kholoud and Nidal. Their individual decision to test the boundaries of Lebanon’s legal system elicited a storm of controversy, but also revealed important elements within the political and religious establishment open to the possibility of at least modifying the sectarian system by legalizing civil marriage. Lebanon’s Grand Mufti issued a fatwa against civil marriage, branding any Muslim politician that supports it an apostate. The Ministry of the Interior opposes the idea. But the patriarch of the Maronite Christian Church has publicly endorsed it, as has Lebanon’s president Michel Sleiman and the Ministry of Justice. The wheels of bureaucracy in this country turn slowly, but as I write this it looks as though Nidal and Kholoud’s marriage will be legally registered, a small but significant victory for the anti-sectarian movement.

There are other indications that the movement towards the reform of Lebanon’s sectarian system is alive and well. My exploration of this topic began with a chance sighting of anti-sectarian posters in Beirut’s Hamra’s district. It seems fitting to end the piece with another Hamra-related episode. The neighborhood’s westernmost boundary ends with a gate that leads into the verdant gardens of the American University of Beirut. In early March, I went to AUB for a lecture on civil marriage organized by the University’s Secular Club. The speaker was Ogharite Younan, a prominent civil society activist deeply involved drafting a law on civil marriage submitted to the Lebanese Parliament in 2011. In 2003, Younan co-founded the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights, which has emerged as the primary resource in Lebanon for training civil society activists, particularly in the areas of non-violence and non-sectarianism. When I talked to her in 2011, she had just submitted the draft law to parliament, and told me that in her view, the path towards change was not through mass protest movements, which are too diffuse and unfocussed in their goals. Rather, “change should come through persuasion.”

Judging by the turnout for Younan’s speech at AUB, a significant portion of Lebanon’s elite youth is ready to listen. When I arrived at the university’s West Hall, the auditorium was filled to capacity with AUB students. Outside, I met one of the event’s organizers, 21 year old engineering student Karim Khansa. We sat down on the steps of West Hall, and chatted for a while about the AUB Secular Club, it’s members dreams and aspirations. For Karim, who is Shiite, the civil marriage issue is but part of a larger effort to transform Lebanon into a society where everyone will consider themselves Lebanese, placing national affiliation above sectarian concerns. The job of the AUB Secular Club, he told me, lies in “pushing for anything that will unite us….and convincing people to think for themselves, rather than blindly following leaders.” For him, AUB is the ideal place to start, since the university brings together students from all of Lebanon’s sects, demonstrating Lebanon’s diversity and encouraging cross-sectarian friendships that will, he hopes, lead to the diminution of the barriers between “us” and “them.” He may be right: the AUB Secular Club was founded by students from highly religious families, some even deeply involved with Hezbollah. These young people have thrown down a challenge to their parents’ generation, envisioning a Lebanese future free of sectarian divisions.

Irina Papkova is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University and has previously taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. Her book, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” was published by Oxford University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press in 2011.Irina’s current research includes religion and politics in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.