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Civil Marriage Fatwas, the Lebanese State, and Renegade Bacteria

[Photo by the author.] [Photo by the author.]

For some philosophers, the condition of being contemporary is to actually be anachronistic to and critical of the present, to see its darkness, and to avoid being absorbed by the vortex of neo-liberal capitalism, not to mention by the devastating logics of Lebanese political discourse. When the Sunni Mufti of Lebanon, Mohammad Rashid Qabbani–not a philosopher except in the colloquial sense–declared a fatwa on 28 January 2013 against those who support or endorse civil marriage in Lebanon, stating in clear terms how they will be expelled from the metaphorical "wolf pack," he gives a whole new meaning to being out of sync.

The civil marriage (or “optional civil marriage”) debacle and the issue of secular laws for personal status in Lebanon are not new. Civil marriage was last debated in Parliament in 1998 before being refused by the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and his coterie and shelved indefinitely. Secular laws for personal status have consistently been rejected by both religious institutions and the state. Secular personal status has been lobbied for and advocated by civil society groups, sometimes intelligently, within a range of other issues (such as the fleeting but vibrant Hurriyat Khassa group initiated by attorney Nizar Saghieh in the early 2000s), and sometimes less productively under the hubristic discourse of human rights, in the name of upholding the “National Pact,” “true citizenship,” “consensual democracy,” and other problematic signifiers that abound both in NGO-speak. The result: stalemate.

The Mufti’s recent fatwa declares:

Every Muslim official, whether a deputy or a minister, who supports the legalization of civil marriage, even if it is optional, is an apostate and outside the Islamic religion [...] would not be washed, would not be wrapped in a [burial] shroud, would not have prayers for their soul in line with Islamic rules, and would not be buried in a Muslim cemetery.

As predictable as it may be, Qabbani’s fatwa (a performative speech act with a degree of jurisdiction, even if symbolic) is still unprecedented, and its content is filled with contempt and threats, poetically calling those who espouse the secular choice “predatory” and “bacteria.” On the other hand, this might well be a compliment. We do need predators to defend us against authority, and good bacteria can mean a healthy digestive system. In other words, a bacterium that can warn us what we should and should not ingest.

The current personal status laws determine inheritance, burial, marriage and the like according to each sect’s jurisdiction, rather than according to a civil law that applies to all equally. In creating the illusion that we need this system firmly in place to protect us from entropy, the discourse of the state, and confessional discourse in general, enacts a fundamental paradox. It maintains the divisive, confessional laws firmly in place: it is essentially meaningless to cohabitate as communities–which the Lebanese state apparatus always presents itself as desiring–if one cannot proverbially and literally intermarry, interbreed or be buried solely based on membership in religious communities. At the same time, it serves as a platform from which to justify that this system is in place precisely in order to “protect us” from division and unrest between various factions so that we may cohabitate in demographically unthreatening ways. In other words, the raison d’être that constitutes the heart of Lebanese political rhetoric is upheld in the name of “communal living” (al-‘aysh al-mushtarak), “sectarian balance,” (al-tawazon al-ta’ifi) “national unity,” and “national dialogue,” all the while preserving a status quo that ensures confessional difference and divisions, precisely so that politicians and religious institutions can then voice their fears of the dissolution of “communal living” and “sectarian balance.” The snake bites its own tail.

Another constitutive hypocrisy is religious authorities’ curious insistence that the Lebanese state – which should technically and legally uphold a secular arrangement if it is, as it claims, not a religious state – should grant marriage rights solely through its institutions. Not to speak of other public and private domains under strict religious surveillance. Does this not undermine the very state that the entire political apparatus is allegedly so intent on building and maintaining? Rather, the state cannot distinguish itself from its religious institutions and needs them for its constituency and legitimacy.

That said, the Mufti’s tone and decree as well as the surrounding debates are very problematic for several reasons:

  1. The fatwa sets a precedent not merely in rhetorically standing against civil marriage and the possibility of a civil law for personal status, but in stating that even support for civil marriage is against the tenets of Islam and should be outlawed. In other words, like an Orwellian “thoughtcrime,” even to think in secular terms means being criminalized. And by proxy eliminates the option of civil marriage to everyone else. As such, a fatwa (of takfir one might add) is not merely a difference of banal opinion: “I am for, no, but I am against.” It is a performative edict that acts by outlawing a civil and constitutional right, and, prior to that, outlaws even thinking along the lines of a civil state. The Mufti and some of his cohorts in the region at large might like to live in the era of takfir, Inquisition-style, but they will not drag the rest of us along. If that is the case, I am certain that many would in fact celebrate being outside the “law,” certainly in a way that does not limit our lives or our capacity for critical thought. Being a renegade is not such a bad position to occupy given the Lebanese socio-political landscape.
  2. Let us for a moment be pragmatic, if not naïve, however reluctantly. Laws are not meant to be obeyed blindly, but are intended to safeguard us. The separation of powers is supposedly the pinnacle of alleged democracies and how modern states function. Regardless of what we think of the often archaic Lebanese legal system (entire codes need rewriting, and perhaps a new constitution while we’re at it), one small fact remains: it is the personal status code (of those who have removed sectarian identification from their state records) not religious law that applies to citizens in the Lebanese state.[1] We might be safe in saying that embedded within the legal system, the constitution and even the National Pact is the right for civil marriage as well as other secular rights. If these are not intended as euphemisms for power sharing, then they are meant to ensure that we cohabitate in this land irrespective of sectarian affiliation and religious belief or unbelief. There are innumerable barriers to producing a healthy body public in Lebanon; one that needs to be creolized, as well as definitively separated from religious jurisdiction. Fatwas take us to a new low and terribly demean the need for those changes, as does the conservative discourse of some strands of civil society who are complicit with the Lebanese state and who uninterestingly mimic its vacuous methodologies and language. Can we think outside the polemic?
  3. Forget the rule of law. And forget citizenship for a moment. One of the serious problems with edicts such as these is that they tend to make people who are habitually far more radical in their positions reactively take the middle ground. Those who, both politically and philosophically, do not even believe either in a state apparatus or in the institution of marriage to begin with, suddenly find themselves defending both the state and marriage! If you look closer, however, you will see that it is not marriage or the state per se that are being defended, but the right to say “I do not want to be governed in this way.” I will not play by the games or the discourse of Lebanese Realpolitik. I will speak my own vocabulary. We are still in the process of discovering and continually creating that renegade, bacterial vocabulary. And hopefully not doing so along already existing terms.
  4. Many have compared the fight for same-sex marriage in Europe, Latin America, and North America to the Lebanese fight for civil marriage, using it to proclaim how backward or anachronistic the Lebanese state is. This might indeed be accurate; countries are battling for same-sex marriage, overall rates of marriage in Europe are dropping significantly, while most Lebanese are still defending religious marriage or fighting for civil marriage, never questioning the fight for marriage per se. Like most false choices, we are presented with a polemic that renders our relationship to institutions very conservative of the status quo in the long run; and as such makes us fall prey to the logic of “with or against.” In order to "unstick" ourselves, perhaps we should be thinking further and farther about rights for cohabitation and for the non-married, putting into question those very institutions qua institutions. “Thoughtcrime” as a form of criminalization is at its most pernicious when it sets up a situation, or limits the already scripted debate to whether or not we can think secularly, be pro- and against civil marriage, when we should also be widening the critique to ask whether or not we should still be fighting for marriage at all, and what rights can be guaranteed for us if we do not.
  5. The problem with surveys like the one conducted by Information International in the wake of the fatwa is that, as "informative" as these surveys wish to be, at their heart lie double-barrelled questions organized around confessional identities and empirically predetermined subjects: marriage or marriage? Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Maronite, Orthodox, or Catholic? Communities are never homogeneous. On the scale of minor offenses, they organize respondents according to sect, rather than asking if and how people feel affiliated or represented by their alleged sect to begin with. Where is the “unaffiliated” column in their survey? We already know about Lebanon’s mini-hegemonies. If anything, the issue of civil law is about minorities, not the herd. This has always been the blind spot and danger of empirical methods: they appear to be neutral or representative, when they are just as easily appropriated by power to push forth its agendas and justify its raison d’être.  The politics of calculation and surveys on civil marriage are not only of little importance to an analytical debate, but can actually hinder minoritarian logic as well as communities and individuals in their acts of being-together.
  6. Others have said this is not the “right time” to bring up the issue. How comical and paternalistic. If there is ever a right time (that is not messianic), this is it. Opposition in the form of an all out fatwa (as well as electoral law histrionics) only confirms how urgent and transformative a new civil code might be. It is the right time precisely because we are already swimming in quicksand: the list might well be endless, but includes greedy, corrupt neo-liberal politics, mostly mediocre Manichean bickering by the 14 and 8 March groups, horrendous violations of building laws, rampant racism, a leftover Ottoman penal code, failed water and electricity services that loop back into points one and two, honour killings, cronyism, patriarchal laws, etcetera.

Some of the issues at stake here are part of an old (socialist) debate about the role and meaning of the state, the public, the private, and the collective, and is one that we do not have time to enter into here. Suffice it to say that we somehow need the state structure and the rule of law to serve us, protect our rights, provide us with free public services, green spaces, functioning roads, and so on, while it is also this very state apparatus, its complicit religious institutions and politics that need to be consistently questioned, criticized, sometimes delegitimized and undone.

For the future (not the already kidnapped future), it would be good to imagine a place, temporality, and position from which we do not have to address these powers to begin with. This does not mean only protests, virtual solidarity or requests for legitimacy addressed to the state, but also attempts to conceptualize what this state is really about, suggesting alternative forms of collectivity and finally raising questions about what is the commons.

In a sardonic twist of fate, when Lebanese PM Najib Mikati responds to President Suleiman’s support for the introduction of civil marriage by claiming that these decisions on civil marriage and civil law should not be decided “top down,” he is committing a gross contradiction in, and an abuse of, terms. Parliamentarians and ministers are now the underdogs? This is news. I think those of us who actually are the underdog would like to hold on to that speaking position. I do not expect cooperation. I simply say, “I would prefer not to” be governed this way.



[1] Article 10 of decree RL 60 issued in 1936.


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