Memo to remove confession from records is ‘not enough’

14 Feb

By Dalila Mahdawi               Friday, February 13, 2009

BEIRUT: Just one day after Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a memorandum allowing citizens to remove their confessional identity from their Civil Registry Records, a number of Lebanese political analysts and civil society activists have said the measure does not go far enough to tackle Lebanon’s confessional political system.

The memo, which was circulated on Wednesday, stipulated that the registrar should accept requests to remove a person’s religious identity and replace it with a slash sign ( / ). Although Baroud’s move was welcomed by civil society organizations and political analysts, many said it was merely a cosmetic change that would make little real difference to people’s lives as long as Lebanon’s political system remained rooted in sectarianism.

“I think this is an exceedingly important and positive first step on an issue that has long been a demand of secular and civil society groups,” said the director of public policy think tank Carnegie Middle East Center, Paul Salem.

But he noted that the move to remove religious affiliations from government records would create a number of problems for those who chose to do so. There are no secular family courts in Lebanon – citizens are instead referred to state-subsidized courts run by their religious sects which implement their own personal status and family laws. Those who choose to remove their sectarian affiliation from official documentation would therefore no longer be registered in religious courts and it is not yet clear where they would be referred. “What needs to happen is for these people to be covered constitutionally and legislatively,” Salem said, urging the government to address the issue.

While he also hoped the move would also pressure the government to begin talking “seriously about de-confessionalizing Lebanese politics,” Salem was careful to emphasize that this did not necessarily suggest a weakening in people’s religiosity. “I hope political and religious figures do not take it as such,” he said.

Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Baroud’s move was “a welcome but insufficient step” for a society with an “embedded” confessional system. “While people can now remove their confessional status from civil records, their confession will continue to govern their lives and the political office they run for,” Houry said. “It doesn’t get said enough, but sectarianism in Lebanon is discriminatory. If you’re Shiite, you can never dream of becoming president,” a position reserved for Maronites.

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “The fact is, this [memo] doesn’t change anything. If I want to get married, divorced or to adopt, I still have to go to a religious court. The system will still work in a sectarian manner.”

Salem, Houry and Dabbous-Sensenig all said Baroud’s memo would need to be followed up with moves on creating secular personal and family status laws.

For Nadine Farghal of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, the move also raised other questions. A possible follow-up law “would be to have a secular electoral system,” she said.

For some, the move came much too late. “While this step is highly welcomed, it is a decree that should have been introduced more than 30 years ago,” the web-based Middle East Times wrote in an editorial on Thursday. “The absence of one’s religious affiliation on the national identity card could have saved the lives of thousands who were mindlessly killed during the Civil War, based purely on what religion was marked on their ID cards.”

 Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment.

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