It was difficult to tell what was more cringe-worthy. Was it the Mufti’s bizarrely maximalist and unreasonable position on civil marriage in Lebanon? Or was it the spectacle of embarrassed Sunni politicians pussyfooting and dancing around the issue, trying to both appease the Mufti and distance themselves from him at the same time?
Witness the reaction of prime Minister Miqati, to whom this was a “divisive” and “sensitive” issue that is better dealt with later (Translation: I support civil marriage but I’m not going to be the one who stands in the way of the Mufti). Meanwhile over at the Future Movement, Lebanon’s largest Sunni party, poor Ahmad fatfat was the one left to articulate his party’s position (Mr. Hariri was too busy carving out his electoral share in Paris with other political bigwigs.) Fatfat, an ex-communist and a medical doctor, had to jump through rhetorical and logical hoops to square this circle: “It’s better not to address this topic today”, he said, but then he added “Each Muslim has the right to hold on to his/her convictions, [the] Future bloc is a civil party”. There you have it, the world’s most complicated way of agreeing and disagreeing with the Mufti at the same time.
So why are Sunni politicians going in circles? Why the lack of clarity and missing convictions? To understand that, we will need to dig a bit deeper.
Many Sunni Muslims, even the most moderates, don’t support civil marriage. They see in it a slippery slope towards loose social morals, uncommitted marriages, sex out of wedlock (since the only “real” marriage is religious, civil marriage sex is considered out of wedlock), dismembered families, fault-free divorce and other social ills. One of the most common arguments you hear from them is the high divorce rate and single-parenthood in the west. But that is not what makes Sunnis unique, after all religious Christians and others are against civil marriage for very similar reasons.
Where Sunnis are unique is in their official view of the scope of religious authority. While other religions allow for “free will” in leaving one’s faith and liberally interpreting some rules, Sunni orthodoxy and practice makes a big deal out of “apostasy” and creates all sorts of barriers that scare people out of committing it. Hence, a Sharia court has the authority to annul your marriage, separate you from your spouse, deprive you of your inheritance and even deprive you of a proper religious burial (see the Mufti’s threat). There is no such thing as an “optional” civil marriage with such a mind set. This is real power, the kind of power that scares parliamentarians and gets a Billionaire prime minister to mumble sheepishly.
Is all hope then lost for civil marriage in Lebanon?
At the moment, the Sunni roadblock is too serious an obstacle in the face of this cause. To try to take the topic heads on, to somehow force the issue through, would be both naive and foolish. The solution can only come through a long-term “facts on the ground” strategy, ie doing little things like allowing people to strike off their sects from their ID cards (God bless you Ziad Baroud), the individual efforts like those of Nidal and Kulud to get married, with the public debates they encourage, the gentle pushing by the Lebanese president on the issue, all this will lead to an eventual situation where it will become very obvious that some parties are just sticking their heads in the sand.
And the good news is, despite all evidence to the contrary, this strategy seems to be working. Why else do you think the Mufti was so angry?