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Lebanon is a country where amnesia is considered a civic virtue. Given its long history of inter-communal bloodletting, this is understandable, if regrettable.

Less easy to comprehend is why the leaders of some of its 18 different, recognised religious sects appear to regard civil marriage as almost as great a threat as civil war.

Lebanon has no provisions for civil marriage. Its family law set-up, inherited from the Ottoman empire and opportunistically endorsed by the divide-and-rule French during their colonial mandate between the two world wars of the last century, vests control of matters such as marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance in clerics and their courts. Many Arab and Muslim countries do the same but, as one of the region’s most open societies, Lebanon’s ability to combine being secular and profane with being sectarian and (ostensibly) religious is a bit odd.

Civil marriages contracted abroad are recognised by the state, as they are in Israel. This is a useful money-spinner for nearby Cyprus, which claims to be the birthplace of Aphrodite but, more practically, performs thousands of Lebanese marriages a year (Google it, and you’ll get the picture).

Alternatively, some Christian spouses convert to Islam, at least formally: Eli becomes Ali; indeed, come to think of it, Alistair became Ali too; and so on.

There is more to this than the endurance of tradition or belief. As with many things in this merchant republic, the easiest explanation is to follow the money. There is a business to protect here, as well as occasional arbitrage opportunities across rival sectarian jurisdictions.

A well-known Sunni leader, for instance, “converted” to Shia Islam because of its more generous inheritance provisions for women (this is tricky stuff, so readers will have to inquire elsewhere for actual names).

In recent weeks, however, there has been the most tremendous kerfuffle over the first civil marriage to be contracted in Lebanon since independence in 1943. The couple concerned, now local celebrities, found a loophole in a French mandate law dating from 1936. Their union looks unlikely to be recognised, at least in its present form – but they may have started something.

President Michel Suleiman, the former army commander and a Maronite Christian, came out strongly in favour of civil marriage. Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the Sunni grand mufti of Lebanon, issued a fatwa calling this pernicious import “a bacterium”, telling any (Muslim) politicians who supported it they would be declared apostates, as “renegades outside the religion of Islam”.

Power is at stake here, as well as money or belief. In Lebanon it is not so much religion, as the leaders of religious sects that intrude on the prerogatives of the state, having first usurped the rights of citizens they prefer to maintain as subjects and grateful recipients of their patronage, from cradle to grave.

In this region, the importance of an issue is often best judged not by its intrinsic weight in the greater scheme of things, but how vested interests react to it.

Are they overreacting? Well, a much-cited poll from 2010 suggests the Lebanese are fairly evenly divided on civil marriage – but about two-thirds of them would like an end to the confessional system that divvies up political power between sectarian leaders. Many of the latter must fear that civil marriage, with its potential to involve big cross-sections of society, is the thin end of the wedge.

Civil marriage not civil war” may even have potential as a slogan.

Don’t look back

Beliefs are sometimes less obvious than appearance would suggest. A Beiruti writer tells me that when he was in Paris recently, he had a taxi driver who, from his beard and his garb, was obviously a Salafi.

While the term has become shorthand for (sometimes violent) Islamist radicals, generically it covers all those who look back for guidance to the al-Salaf as-Salih, the pious and righteous forerunners from the dawn of Islam. My friend decided to ask the driver, a Moroccan, what exactly he believed.

“It’s just like driving,” the Salafi said, without missing a beat. “You definitely need the rear mirror to see what’s behind you, but if that’s all you are going to look at, you’ll crash for sure.”


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