On Sunday, the Lebanese government was on trial on Beirut’s seaside Corniche. The presiding judge peddled the language of rights and weighed melons on the scales of justice. The jury was a group of citizens and non-citizens, many of the latter born and raised in Lebanon to Lebanese mothers yet unnaturalized because a Lebanese woman cannot pass on her citizenship to her husband and children. A Lebanese woman married to a non-Lebanese,  as well as a girl and a young man born to Lebanese women presented their cases in this public court, giving accounts of the legal hardships they face. The Lebanese government sat on the raised platform, unmoved and redundant, puffing on his cigar. We, the jury, got to vote in the end and the verdict was a unanimous and resounding “Guilty!”

You can read more about the protest in the Daily Star and here are some photographs.

As expected, there has been a lot of discussion on the topic of secularism following the Laique Pride March on April 25. I hope to find the time to post more on this shortly. For the time being, here is a translation of an op-ed piece I wrote, published in the May 7 print edition of the left-of-center Norwegian weekly, Ny Tid. A scan of the original Norwegian version can be found here:

On Sunday the 25th, more than 3000 people marched for secularism in Beirut. Civil society groups, feminists, student clubs, and LGBTQ- and cultural activist were brought together in protest of the current Lebanese political system. The atmosphere was festive and spirits were high. The question is can slogans ranging from “Queers for secularism” to “Civil marriage, not civil war” succeed in giving birth to a movement for political and social change?

[some paragraphs on the Lebanese political system and the main demands of the march]

The march on April 25th exceeded expectations. Organized solely at the initiative of civil society organizations and young cultural activists, it was a political rarity in Lebanon. The organizers did not have access to the usual media outlets, mostly reigned in by predetermined loyalties when it comes to political mobilization. The organization and recruitment took place primarily on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.
It remains to be seen whether this colorful blend of activists can develop into a more concrete political program. And if it does, the question remains whether it will find wider support in a country all too often driven to violence in the name of sect and religion.
Lebanon’s political system has grave shortcomings and can at best be described as a stunted parliamentary democracy. But in contrast to most countries in the Middle East, Lebanon does not have an official state-religion. At the same time, the majority of Lebanese are protective of their religious identities. For the ideas behind the march to find broader support, the greatest challenge is to shape a vision of secularism which embraces both Lebanon’s religious and non-religious identities.
As participants in the protest march were shouting: “Neither Turkish, nor Western – Lebanese secularism”. Such a secularism would entail something so rich as to transform the country’s pluralism from weakness to strength. In many ways this problematic resembles the difficulties faced by several European countries trying to reconcile themselves with growing religious divides. The difference is that in Lebanon, it is the secularists who constitute a minority.
One of the popular criticisms leveled at the Laique Pride – and secularism in general –  is that whereas sect is an integral part of Lebanese identity, secularism is a foreign import. My problem with this reasoning is that it somehow assumes that sect is the most “authentic” form of political identity, whereas in fact it crystallized as a modern phenomenon in the course of the 19th century. Both Waddah Sharara (Fi usul Lubnan al-ta’ifi) and Usama Makdisi (The Culture of Sectarianism) have made convincing arguments on this point. The collapse of the quasi-feudal system in Mount Lebanon around the mid-19th century left a political gap. The language of religious equality that characterized Ottoman reforms and a European production of knowledge that understood our region in terms of sects, tribes, and clans intersected with local political aspirations to produce sect as a modern political identity.
The “sect is an integral part of Lebanese identity” argument overlooks the other narratives that emerged in parallel. In the aftermath of the 1860 war, Butrus al-Bustani published Nafir Suriyya where – in an explicit reference to sect as political identity – he called upon people to forgo religious solidarity. At the same time, there were various ideals for society that could be labelled “secular.” The founders of al-Muqtataf scientific journal and graduates of the Syrian Protestant College (today, American University of Beirut), Ya`qub al-Sarruf and Faris al-Nimr are one example. They and the clique around them embraced Darwinism, much to the chagrin of the missionary men who ran the College, and the conflict ended with al-Muqtataf and its founders leaving for Egypt in 1884. While Sarruf and Nimr were more concerned with free scientific inquiry, Shibli Shumayyil tied these views more explicitly to politics, preaching the separation of religion from political life. All these individuals and others like them were as much a product of their environment as any of their adversaries, be they Christian and Muslim.
To imply somehow that sect is a more “authentic” basis for a political system is a gross simplification of the vibrant currents of thought that constituted and continue to constitute the political and public identities of Lebanese citizens. The idea of a national community with a non-sectarian basis has run parallel to sect as political identity and has had considerable appeal at various junctures. In the 1943 elections, for example, pro-Communist candidates won 12% of the vote based on a class-based political program – unthinkable in today’s Lebanon. That none of these narratives ever became hegemonic or acquired a clear political articulation does not make them any less authentic. And until the writing of Lebanon’s history manages to integrate these narratives,  sect – a political fiction like any other – will continue to perpetuate itself as the only admissible political identity (for a history that does other political identities justice, see the recently published The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi).
There are criticisms leveled at the Laique Pride that I agree with, primarily its lack of clarity and the confused and uninformed nature of its early demands. There is also the assumption that “secularism” is a self-explanatory concept. Although Norway, France, and the United States have all been called secular countries, they are based on different political systems and different relations between state and church rooted in their respective histories. I doubt any of them will work for Lebanon.
Despite these reservations, if I were in Lebanon, I would have participated in tomorrow’s march pretty much for the same reasons Elias Muhanna gives in his excellent piece for the Guardian. The current political system in Lebanon is not working and the lack of an alternative to sect as political identity is one reason, though not the only one. Lebanon is in dire need of a vision, one that incorporates the other identities it engenders. Such a vision cannot simply drop from the sky, full-formed and ready for implementation. Nor will it be handed on a silver platter by a self-preserving political elite. It needs to be formed. And no matter what the criticism leveled at the Laique Pride initiative, one has to grant it at least this: it has managed to renew the debate on these issues.
Why is it that Islamic movements and sometimes the mere whiff of Islam often give rise to conspiracy theories about a political takeover? This is true of completely different categories of actors such as the AKP (Justice and Development) Party in Turkey, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Muslim groups in various countries of Europe. AKP is a political party functioning within a democratic system of governance in a majority Sunni country and with an economically liberal and EU-friendly agenda. While the Shiite Hizballah is also a political party, albeit in a barely functional democracy, its organization is much more opaque than AKP’s and it also commands a paramilitary organization. And, finally, Muslims in Europe are a panoply of barely politically organized individuals and groups who do not even speak the same language. Nevertheless, all three have been accused of secretly wanting to subvert and Islamisize an existing democracy despite public proclamations to the contrary.
There are doubtless many reasons for this tendency. First, there is the fact that many people have interpreted Islam to offer a theory of state or a mode of governance. Then there is also the past of the aforementioned political parties. Although Hizballah’s open letter of 1984 acknowledges people’s liberty to choose the form of government they desire, it also expresses a belief that Islamic governance alone can guarantee justice and liberty for all. As for AKP, some members have a political history in (now banned) parties that openly advocated a religious political agenda and/or “Islamic values.”
Still, it is intriguing that very different categories of Islam and very different relationships between Islam as a religion and Islam as politics elicit similar structural reactions. Not to mention that these accusations of take-over have also been directed at disparate Islamic minorities in Europe, many of them socioeconomically marginalized and politically underrepresented.
An earlier post on this blog deals with some of the issues concerning Islam in Europe — the more interesting part of the post is the discussion, actually. The Dutch anthropologist and scholar of religion Peter van der Veer offers another perspective on the matter. He basically links the phenomenon to a modern form of governance, the state, that renders political activity falling outside its purview as suspect. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Not only are communication and “openness” crucial to civil society, public sphere, and religion, but also, paradoxically, so is publicity’s opposite: secrecy. [Reinhart] Koselleck has argued in a book that appeared three years earlier than that of [Jürgen] Habermas [The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere] that the emergence of secret societies of freemasonry were crucial in the development of Enlightenment critique of the absolutist state. In the mid 18th century masonic lodges saw an immense increase in membership and can be seen as the most important sites for the new sociability of the Enlightenment, besides the more public ones such as coffeehouses, clubs, salons, and literary societies. The important point here is that these lodges were able to erect a wall of protection for their debates and rituals against both intrusion from the state and intrusion from the “profane” world.

Religion is a privileged site for examining an aspect of secrecy that is simultaneously the opposite of the public sphere and foundational for it. Religious movements and religious sites are often suspected of secret conspiracies by the powers that be. And it is precisely the moving away from state institutions and official politics that gives possibilities for fundamental moral critique. It should also be clear that this critique can take an unpleasant and terrorist form, as it did in the Jacobin ideology fo the French revolution. This uncomfortable dialectic is what German theorists like Koselleck and Habermas were interested in after the Nazi period.

(Source: “Secrecy and Publicity in the South Asian Republic Arena,” in Public Islam and the Common Good, edited by Armando Salvatore and Dale F. Eickelman, 31-32. Leiden: Brill, 2004.)

It follows logically from this that the dialectic between the state and political religious movements is more potent the longer the distance between the two. Once they become one and the same, as for example with an Islamist regime, then Islam’s location as a site for the critique of the model of modern state government is weakened. Admittedly, this poses more questions than it answers. But if you have spent too much time dwelling on these issues, then the Van der Veer excerpt can at least offer some food for thought.

Rayess Bek raps the Lebanese Laique Pride song. The Lebanese Laique Pride parade is on 25 April @11am. More info can be found on twitter, facebook, and the LLP blog. Spread the word!

The aftermath of the Ethiopian Airline crash has demonstrated how the events of the past five years — the targeted assassinations and the wanton bombings — have turned us as a nation into quasi-experts in collecting debris, bucketing body parts, taking samples, testing for DNA, etc… This is not to belittle the efforts being put into this by various state and other institutions, but it is truly sad how throughout the haze of collective mourning, the sweeping up took place rather automatically this time. Even as citizens many of us have become adept at collecting information, checking their sources, verifying them through various social networks, and weeding out rumors from a veritable media mess.

An article by Hassan al-Zayn in today’s issue of al-Akhbar managed to eloquently capture an aspect of this sad state of affairs. This is a quick translation of some parts:

This is the [Lebanese] political crew’s understanding of the state: […] a spectacle concealing behind it several realities; the reality about administrations, their capacities, and their black holes; the reality of disaster. Have citizens been able to observe how these administrations function and have functioned? It is almost self-evident to admit that the state is incapable of playing a role beyond collecting corpses and plane parts thrown up by the sea! What have these administrations done except wait and play the role of the mother of the bride  [i.e. soaking in the attention when it is not her day]. Circling aircrafts; spreading boats at sea; calming families; playing the role of a caretaker who is true to the slogan of honoring the dead by burying them; standing in front of cameras and playing the roles of technocrats; taking care to exonerate the airport control tower and stressing the unlikeliness of sabotage… And, lest we forget: singing the praises of DNA, this charm repeated by “officials” the way conjurers repeat their gratuitous phrases.


Despite the wizardry performed by the political crew and its success in kidnapping the disaster of the Ethiopian plane, it has not been able to cover up for the poverty of its understanding of the concept of state.


The political crew has performed a trick no less fragile and cruel than the racist and sectarian talk flying like sparks in a dry haystack. The national carrier is being discussed as if it were a Superman accused of sectarian preferentialism among the sons of a unified country. Having neglected some Lebanese and deprived them of peace of mind, they find themselves forced to fly with incompetent airlines hailing from inferior countries, according to the Lebanese racist pyramid.


The Black box that the Lebanese are looking for is “the Lebanese state” whose plane has not taken off, but is rather sinking. And the political crew are but ghosts in the forms of captain, survivors, and angels.

As most of this blog’s readers know, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed into the Mediterranean just south of Beirut a few minutes after take-off early Monday morning. This tragedy has shed some light on a well-known, but less discussed Lebanese connection to Africa. Many of the Lebanese on this flight, most of them men, were on their way to various countries in Africa where they had jobs or businesses. Most of them are from the south. 16 hail from the town of Nabatiyeh alone. So this tragedy is compounded by the sad facts of emigration and the “estrangement” (الاغتراب/الغربة) from homeland and family imposed by harsh economic conditions and government neglect. Many Lebanese politicians and citizens have commented on this phenomenon since the flight crashed. But few have managed to throw the nets of empathy wide enough to include another group of passengers aboard flight 409 who have also had to endure emigration, estrangement, harsh economic conditions, and much more. Most of the 31 Ethiopians who were aboard this flight were female domestic workers heading back home after a long, long stay abroad. One can only hope that this shared tragedy will also bring forth a shared humanity.

“Why do you Lebanese never treat us good?” screamed one Ethiopian woman as security forces prevented her from entering the governmental hospital in Beirut today to identify a body. “We are human beings like you. God created us. Why don’t I have the right to come in and see my sister?” (from The Guardian)

The list of passengers who boarded flight 409 can be found here (in English). You can also get to know some of the passengers on this Facebook group.

This post is part of the Kolena Laila initiative.

Like most other places in the other Arab world, the Lebanese Laila is subject to an institutionalized form of patriarchy that finds its purest expression in the personal status. When a Lebanese woman is born she, like her male counterpart (say, Louai), has a personal status and a familial status and she can ask for an extract (ikhraj qayd, a form of ID) of both. When they get married, however, Laila and Louai part ways in the system. Whereas Louai opens his own “khanah” — a new familial extract listing the members of his nuclear family under his name — Laila is transferred from her father’s extract to that of her husband’s. At first glance it might seem that the new “khanah” actually belongs to the married couple, but should Laila get a divorce, she has to reapply to be transferred back to her father’s “khanah” while her children remain under her divorcee’s khanah.
This might sound like a trivial matter, but bear with me.
Many of the problems civil society is attempting to tackle today are linked to this form of registration. Into this personal status is written the sect, where the children follow the father’s. It also locates the individual in the sectarian matrix upon which marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws are based. Had we had a matriarchal society instead, where the khanahs are headed by women, these would still be issues to contend with. But because we live in a patriarchal society, Laila faces a problem Louai does not face. Should she get married to a non-Lebanese, she cannot start a “khanah” of her own under which she can include her children because Laila can give neither her children nor her husband the Lebanese citizenship. Though the way we are registered is not its cause, this problem traces yet another thread forming this Gordian knot of registration.
By a fluke of the system, I happen to be one of few Lebanese women who has a khanah of her own. A few years ago, I was discussing with a friend what might be a possible way to maintain this institutional independence should I get married to a Lebanese. Eventually I did not, so now I am extending the solution we came up with into a generic recipe for my other, new problem: giving the Lebanese citizenship to my future children. For this, you would need:
2 unmarried people
1 understanding family
1 or more baby born out of wedlock
* Do not get married just yet or, if married, get a divorce
* Have baby/babies out of wedlock — but in Lebanon — and register them in the nufus (personal register) as “illegitimate” (mawlud ghayr shar`i). This will add the children to your khanah or, usually, the family’s khanah and they will carry the last name of the family that acknowledges him. Documents needed for this procedure can be found here.
* Based upon this personal status, go to Internal Security and get the children a Lebanese passport each. Documents needed for this procedure can be found here.
* Finally, get married or remarried to your foreign husband, have him recognize the child or children as his own, and live happily ever after.
* To avoid the derision of bureaucrats, you could really abuse the system and get your father to do the paperwork!*
I know that doing this will cause problems to most Lebanese women, but I bring it up also to illustrate the interrelatedness of many of the problems civil society is attempting to address individually: sectarianism, religion, patriarchy, the way we are registered… and how these are embedded in the smallest details of our personal lives. I think that changing one aspect of the system without addressing more fundamental issues helps at some level, but in the long run it is only a band-aid that serves to make the system even more Byzantine. To be relevant for wider sections of society, the right for a mother to give her family the Lebanese citizenship and women’s rights more generally need to be addressed both individually as well as part of the larger struggle for a more just, more inclusive Lebanon.

* A disclaimer: I do not know anyone who has tried this method and I am in no way saying it is fool proof. In fact, if you find any problems with it, I would like to know before I try it myself!

On Thursday, Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries celebrated the first Lebanese woman to open a bank account for her minor children. The Women’s Union of the Progressive Socialist Party (i.e. Walid Junblat’s party), in coordination with the Central Bank and the Association of Banks in Lebanon, was instrumental in bringing about this accomplishment. Initiated locally, the project was funded by USAID and based on a legal study by the young lawyer Paul Morcos of Justicia.

PSP’s Women’s Union marketed the project primarily using the language of rights. But the problematic and the way Morcos proceeds to deal with it is a bit more complicated. The full study can be found here, but the main obstacle, according to the banks, was that in Lebanon the father is the compulsory legal guardian (وليّ جبري) for minor children. This is according to “secular” and religious law, both Christian and Muslim. This is a long story, but “secular” in this particular case relates to an article from Majallat al-Ahkam al-Shar`iyya, or Mecelle in Turkish — this being the Ottoman civil code of 1877 which was an attempt to codify the principles of the religious (Hanafi) court. Byzantine indeed!

The issue, hence, risked stepping on spiritual toes and questioning the patriarchal and sectarian foundations of Lebanon (God forbid). Morcos circumvented the problem by shifting the focus from the Gordian knot of guardianship and highlighting instead how allowing a woman to open such accounts not only does not threaten this existing structure, but also contradicts rights accorded to women and enshrined in Lebanese law. A very intelligent solution given the imperfect circumstances. The recommendations in Morcos’s study deal with the woman not from the point of view of her rights as a mother, but as a “stipulator/assignor in trust” in a commercial contract. Her son or daughter is “the beneficiary” and the bank “the assignor.” The achievement, nevertheless, is not to be underestimated. More so because it had to do with asserting rights already accorded to women by law and of which she has been stripped through cultural/economic practices. To meet this recommendation halfway, the banks need to engineer account types to allow it to progress legally.

Which brings me to another aspect of this accomplishment. The other study that fed into the project was led by economist Kamal Hamdan and dealt with a completely different aspect of the issue at stake: economic benefits. The study demonstrates that this bank “service” would lead to an additional 100,000 bank accounts over the next ten years with a cumulative value of $400 thousand. I think this too is key to understanding how concrete results were achieved in less than a year. The project has all the right ingredients, indicating broad political support: a civil society actor linked to a sectarian party, private banks interested in expanding their economic possibilities, public institutions interested in empowering private interests, and outside funding interested in shaping the world in its own image. Far from ideal, but it seems to get things done.

The vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has elicited negative reactions from many non-Muslim quarters. The European press, religious leaders, as well as some politicians have spoken out against it. But it has also given an unexpected boost to the far right in Europe. In Norway, we woke up Monday to a far right politician pondering a ban on the burqa and on the call to prayer (the latter is allowed as long as it is under 64dB). But the scene is gloomy because this goes beyond individual politicians or parties. The Swiss vote has left many wondering whether similar referenda in other European countries would yield similar results.

What is happening in many countries of Europe today when it comes to Islam is a curious and complex phenomenon and relegating it to bigotry does not explain anything. Tariq Ramadan has written one of the most reasonable articles I have come across that tries to make some sense of it. He is right to point out that the minaret is a symbol. The Union Démocratique du Centre, who proposed the ban in Switzerland, first considered targeting halal slaughter of animals but did not want to offend Swiss Jews. Minarets, I might add, work better here precisely because they are visible symbols. But symbols of what? This is the crux of Ramadan’s argument:

[…] while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary. At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, “What are our roots?”, “Who are we?”, “What will our future look like?”, they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.

The part of his article that calls for more Muslim participation as a solution is open to debate (wouldn’t more visibility cause more fear?), but still, he brings attention back to the main issue: this is about Europe as much as it is about Islam in Europe. But Ramadan’s article raises more questions than it answers. Identity crisis, fine. But why Muslims? (This issue predates 9/11, so the answer is not “terrorism”) Why not racism, which offers more visible scapegoats?

In addition, Ramadan points a finger at the “flame-fanning” populists, but what about the liberal politicians? What about, for example, the headscarf debate in France and Jack Straw’s comments on the burqa? Don’t they lend more legitimacy to anti-Islam sentiments than raving right-wingers? And how does this relate to Europe’s current wars in majority Muslim countries? And why should Islam in Europe be perceived as an extension of an external, homogeneous Islam rather than as a European phenomenon? Why is it that in Norway, for example, where things are relatively great, it is perfectly normal to find every once in a while reminders in the main stream press that Muslims are Norwegians too — and one need only make such reminders about Muslims and Jews these days? And as far as identity is concerned, why does Europe have to end where Islam begins? Why is it that despite (because of?) a suppressed shared history, Europe and Islam are assumed by many to be inherently incompatible?

These questions are not exhaustive, some are probably irrelevant, and those that are relevant do not have easy answers. But this debate is at its infancy and if Islam in Europe is to have a normal future, one should at least start by asking the correct questions and reframing the debate on premises not dictated by the right. Premises that bring economy, politics, and history — even anti-Semitic history — back into the picture. It is easy to forget that we are talking about a Muslim minority that in most European countries does not pass the 6% mark. A minority that often finds itself, for internal and external reasons, in a weaker socioeconomic position than average. Yet, precisely because the premises of the debate are being set by the far right, a growing number of citizens choose to succumb to public passions that have little to do with facts.