Thursday, January 31, 2013

Don’t give in to Lebanon’s men in black

Evidently no one can free Lebanon of its turbulent priests. The latest example is the decision of the mufti of the republic, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, to declare that Muslims who support civil marriage would no longer be considered Muslim.

In a fatwa issued Monday, Qabbani wrote that “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.” In other words these officials, once they die, “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.”

For merely approving of civil marriage, a foundation of the civil state, one can be banished forever from his or her faith? This takes the debate over the authority of clerics in Lebanese life to a new high. Worse, it says that one of the most fundamental of civil habits, preparing a marriage contract, is a privilege solely of the clergy.

What Qabbani realizes is that civil marriage, if implemented, would represent a financial opportunity cost for religious professionals, who live off the services they offer. Worse, it would legitimize this notion of opportunity cost, justifying the idea that there are domains where the state must not defer to clergymen. Once that idea grows, clerics fear, their dominion over all personal-status actions will collapse.

We are under no obligation to feed the clergy, a major preoccupation of that mostly overweight profession, who have positioned themselves in highly lucrative corners of Lebanese life. But let’s assume for one moment that the status quo over marriage holds, and all the signs are that it will, what can we demand from our clergymen in exchange?

For a start, that they stay out of politics. This is addressed above all to the Maronite patriarch, Beshara Rai, whose political impulses, unlike his political talents, are second to none. When Rai came into office, his priority should have been to reform his malodorous church, which is riddled with factionalism and corruption. He had the means to do so, as most senior clerics were over retirement age. Rai did nothing.

Even as the patriarch has delayed reform of the church, he has embarked on political initiatives left and right. Rai has been a conveyor belt of political impulses, on virtually every topic under the sun. Now his priority is to push for a consensual election law, though that really is no business of his. Rai is constrained by his closeness to Michel Sleiman, so that he will neutralize any inclination he has that clashes with that of the president. Thank heavens, because on most matters Rai has tended to behave like a parochial Christian rather than as a man endowed with a national role.

So, we might allow Qabbani and Rai to continue to marry us, on condition that they stay resolutely out of political life. Would they agree? Certainly not Rai. Nor Qabbani, who has enjoyed playing politics, knowing this is accepted by his community.

But then again, is it within our rights to make such an exchange? Isn’t conceding marriage to the clerics a step too far? The line defended by supporters of civil marriage is that the churches and mosques have hijacked questions that should be well within the sphere of the state. Lebanese citizens must be granted the right to opt out of their sectarian cages, with a form of civil status as a replacement. In other words, we are entitled to tell clerics to stay out of our lives and our politics.

One wonders how this will wash with another prominent political cleric, namely Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Recall what happened several years ago when a satirical program poked fun at Nasrallah. His angry followers drove their motorbikes into Ashrafieh and clashed with youths in the Sodeco district. Their line of reasoning was that, as a cleric, Nasrallah was off limits to satire.

Nasrallah is the most extreme example of clerics having power in Lebanon. He indirectly has a say over the fate of most Lebanese through his political choices, but also uses his clerical status to justify his views on the religious choices of his community, while being shielded from critics outside Shiite ranks. One thing that has given Nasrallah his tremendous sway is the nature of the Lebanese system itself, which surrenders far too much influence to those speaking in the language of religion, and even more so those who use their religious clout to bolster a political agenda.

We have seen this in Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who took his followers to Farayya last week for a day of frolicking in the snow. He had every right to do so, but one shouldn’t be surprised that the inhabitants of the area viewed the visit as a political challenge. For them, there are no borders between religion and politics. As they saw it, Assir’s aim was to show that he had the courage to defy his Christian foes in their heartland, since few Salafists generally take to the slopes in order to relax.

Everywhere, it seems, the Lebanese have made religion a part of their daily existence. Every other sentence has the word “God” in it, and to every good wish is appended some heavenly blessing. Now clerics are trying to intimidate believers who back civil marriage, as if this most sensible of demands invites divine punishment. Intimidation comes naturally to those who feel untouchable. Their boldness is our shame.

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