The problem is the identity card not the sect!

There is a little clarification at the end of this post.

Some people voiced satisfaction over the idea that the sect was removed from the personal status register (it was already removed from the identity card). I don’t find this that extraordinary. If anything, this consecrates an even more irrational and ill-founded idea of ‘being Lebanese’.

I don’t see why people cannot be happy to be called Maronite, Sunni or whatever but must find it very normal and ‘just’, probably more ‘modern’ to be called “Lebanese”. I seriously wonder which tradition precedes the other and which has richer claims over “authenticity”.

The confessional narrative itself is not what is to blame but how it is used to advance political interests. Confessions like any other form of imagined belonging to a community (such as nationalism) will draw boundaries of differentiation but not especially create conflict. Differentiation can also mean respect for differences, curiosity and knowledge.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of confessionalism as a political framework to resolve conflict. It is the later creation of the “Lebanese State” that kind of dealt the most severe blow. Some Lebanese historians like to think that the confessional system itself is the real evil. I think that it is the creation of the Lebanese State which has solidified one political style of preferential confessionalism that has really messed things up. Were it for the creation of an Arab state or a Syrian one after the fall of the Ottoman empire, we may have seen a different outcome. But then again, colonialism and the ‘westernization’ of institutions in what was called the Middle East had already paved the way for a gloomy future.

So the solution is not to remove the sect from the identity card in order to conform more and more to a replicated version of European nation-statehood, more homogeneous and so more discriminatory to whatever escapes the liberal paradigm.

The solution is to reform the idea of an ‘identity card’, create other types of legal and institutional mechanisms that are more elastic in order to accommodate for the different sources of tradition. The idea of an Islamic state could go in this direction, but for now owes too much of its intellectual elaboration to Western conceptions of polity.

If the Ottoman system or any pre-capitalist Islamic system should be praised it was because of an elastic sense of ‘identity’, or naming not based on a system of rights but that of belonging to a community of tradition that has texts, ‘rituals’ (to use a Western terminology) and ways to create virtuous human beings. It does not mean it always worked in terms of avoiding conflict but it looks like it avoided way more clashes than in the age of nation-state, ‘human rights’, democracies, and being catalogued on an identity card.

Clarification: I did not mean to say that there is something more authentic about being defined by the confessional label. I just meant that one is not better than the other (the national one). In the first place I am questioning the problem of ‘definition’.

3 Replies to “The problem is the identity card not the sect!”

  1. Bech, I hear what you are saying but I think you are confusing the communal and the political.

    The idea of ‘being Lebanese’ may be irrational but right now its what we have and as a nation anything that builds any kind of trust and general connectivenss between the various communities can only be a good thing right?

    The Arab world is much like Africa in that it is still torn by its tribal traditions. While these traditions are ancient and honorable they are no longer so relevant in the modern world. And the problem with tribalism is that it is, by its very nature, antagonistic.

    I think people are more than happy to be called whatever sect they are but people will always be wary when “the man” insists on knowing and storing the information.

    I dont think we need to wonder which tradition precedes the other and which has richer claims over “authenticity”. And ironically, rather than be a modern phenomenon, I think it is entirely possible that the notion of some sort of national secterianism is possible, but only after the notion of national unity, on the street level, has been achieved.

    I would add one final small aside. The removal of sect from all public records may help a hell of a lot of people who still suffer psychologically from the war and the effects of driving up to the wrong checkpoint with the wrong sect on your id.

  2. I have had to reread this post in disbelief. How on earth is an Ottomanesque millet system more elastic than what exists in most Western states today? What allows for elastic identity when every person’s personal lives are handed governed by essentially permanent, non-electoral, non-democratic, patriarchal ecclesiastical/rabbinical/shar3i structures without their consent?

  3. From Experience:

    a civil marriage makes live much easier.

    And the less people define themselves through sects the less, hopefully, one will have to listen to Sfeir and his colleagues from the other companies opinionate about politics. For one it would mean that Benedictus lost some political influence 🙂

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