Heated debate on civil marriage re-emerges in Lebanon

Any real effort to impose secular reforms should not sit at the same table with these supposed “religious leaders."
Sunday 24/02/2019
Lebanon’s Interior Minister Raya El Hassan at the Interior Ministry in Beirut, February 6. (AP)
In hot water. Lebanon’s Interior Minister Raya El Hassan at the Interior Ministry in Beirut, February 6. (AP)

The annual budget of the religious courts in Lebanon is more than $41 million, a huge number when compared to the $25 million that three of the main ministries — Environment, Industry and Youth and Sports — receive annually for many important and underfunded projects.

This simple yet revealing budgetary fact, published by Gherbal Initiative, an online portal encouraging accountability and transparency, clearly frames the debate involving the adoption of a law that allows optional civil marriage in Lebanon.

The resurfacing of this debate was brought about after Interior Minister Raya El Hassan declared she would work to convince religious authorities to allow the law to be enacted.

Since assuming office, Hassan, the first women Interior minister in the Arab world, has taken assertive measures and given the weary public a sliver of hope. However, Hassan’s supposed good deed over civil marriage yielded opposite results because religious authorities have taken to the offensive, dismissing talk of civil marriage as blasphemous.

This reactionary attitude is neither new nor unexpected from the Lebanese religious, who have repeatedly repelled attempts to curb their control over personal status laws of their communities.

The fatal error of Hassan and many other civil society groups that have tried to pass secular reforms is that they have chosen to play a populist game that cannot be won under the current circumstances.

In the past, civil society activists have tried to weaken the religious centres only to make them more powerful and controlling of their communities. This is partly due to a few factors, some of which have to do with the predominant civil society culture that lacks vision yet compensates this deficiency with opportunism and populism.

More important is the fact that the Lebanese in general do not seem to respect or acknowledge the legal notion of conflict of interest, which should lead them to refuse to even debate this topic with factions benefiting from the matter being discussed — in this case civil marriage.

Hassan gullibly declared she would engage the heads of the religious authorities in open debate, yet she failed to explain why such an empowered faction would even contemplate the matter.

If the $41 million does not provide enough material incentive for the factions to resist change, the sense of entailment and leverage it gives them over their subjects is immeasurable.

Any real effort to impose secular reforms should not sit at the same table with these supposed “religious leaders” because any such exercise will be futile and empowering to the latter group.

The right to enter wedlock and to exit it is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, given that Lebanon is a signatory of that treaty, any local legislation that prevents the aforementioned is unconstitutional.

Perhaps more important, Hassan and her fellow politicians, instead of merely speaking about reform, must translate their intent into action by proposing laws in the cabinet or bills on the parliament floor.

In 2013, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hassan’s political patron, publicly endorsed civil marriage, yet his liberal promises and soapbox tactics never made it beyond his social media channels and petered out.

It is no longer acceptable for the political elite to exploit these matters to divert attention from their continued mismanagement of public funds.

While the Lebanese were misdirected by the civil marriage debate, the Hariri cabinet advanced Electricite Du Liban, Lebanon’s main electricity producer, $265 million to pay its fuel bills and to keep its plants operating.

What is essentially needed is for these so-called champions of civil marriage to place the issue on the parliament table so the wider public can call out many who claim to be liberal but, in fact, support the archaic Lebanese political system.

Most properly this farce will soon repeat itself, if not in the civil marriage debate perhaps involving electoral law, domestic violence or other worthy causes that will rise only to be killed and buried by the Lebanese political system bent on corruption and, above all, hypocrisy.