Sects and marriage in Lebanon

It wasn't a high-society occasion and the bride and groom were not celebrities but it has become Lebanon's most talked-about wedding in years. Even the president and government ministers have expressed opinions on it.

Khouloud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish tied the knot last November in what is claimed to be Lebanon's first civil marriage ceremony – though it has not been recognised by the government. In so doing, they have stirred up renewed debate about the country's marriage laws and, indirectly, the wider issue of Lebanon's political and social confessional system.

Marriage in Lebanon is regulated according to the customs of the 18 officially-recognised faiths. Some types of mixed-faith marriage are not allowed (the rules are very complicated) and there is no provision for marriages involving people of unrecognised faiths (Hindus and Baha'is, for example), people who have no religion or simply those who want a non-religious ceremony.

Lebanon does, however, recognise marriages made abroad and this has resulted in an endless succession of couples trekking across the sea to get married in Cyprus.

Rather than taking the Cyprus option, Sukkariyeh and Darwish, who come from different sects (Sunni and Shia), decided to challenge the system.

They did so by invoking Decree No 60, issued in 1936 under the French Mandate. That decree, which had been almost forgotten until recently, originally helped to institutionalise the sectarian system by saying that individuals are bound by the personal status laws of their sects. But it also added that people who do not belong to a particular sect are subject to civil law.

Sukkariyeh and Darwish began the process of becoming "subject to civil law" by having their sectarian affiliations removed from their identity documents – a move that has been permitted since 2009. An article by Arwa al-Husseini describesthe other steps they went through to establish their claim to a legally-valid civil marriage contract.

Their wedding led to President Michel Sleiman declaring his support for civil marriage, though the prime minister, Nijab Mikati, is opposing it.

Meanwhile, it appears that the marriage of Sukkariyeh and Darwish will not be officially recognised without a change in the law. Even if the marriage contract is regarded as valid, it places the couple in a legal void because Lebanon has no secular version of its sectarian personal status laws – there are no existing rules for other aspects of civil marriage, such as inheritance and divorce.

Prime minister Mikati seems to regard the issue as too divisiveto be addressed "in these circumstances" and has also referred to it dismissively as a "useless debate".

There are, of course, plenty of sectarian interest groups that would rather preserve the status quo than address the problem and it's difficult to see them ever accepting that "circumstances" are right for a change. The 1989 Taif agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war described abolishing political sectarianism as "a fundamental national objective" but next to nothing has been done about that. The Taif agreement also said "mention of sect and denomination on the identity card" would be abolished – and that hasn't happened either.

The civil marriage debate is therefore not "useless" or purely about civil marriage: it opens up the whole can or worms about confessionalism in Lebanon – a debate that cannot be postponed indefinitely.

Also, the dispensation allowing people to have religious affiliation struck off their identity records has implications that go beyond marriage and probably make some sort of legislative changes inevitable in the longer term. Elias Muhanna writes:

"Lebanon’s politics are based, in a fundamental way, on the parsing of the country’s population into discrete confessional communities. What happens when we begin to see people transgress the boundaries of these communities in greater numbers? What happens if, five years from today, there are 150,000 people who do not belong–administratively speaking–to an official sect? How would such people run for political office under the current system?"

One solution, Muhanna argues, might be to treat people with no sectarian affiliation as Lebanon's "19th sect". Alternatively, he suggests, "would it not make more sense to start taking seriously the long deferred problems of the confessional system altogether?"

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 January 2013.