Confessionalism as a Phase-out Model

Confessionalism, where religion is placed firmly at the centre of daily life, is seen as a fundamental obstacle to internal peace within Lebanon. A study by Anne Françoise Weber explores daily life and attitudes of Lebanese families in which more than one religious confession has been brought together. Martina Sabra presents its findings

Flag of Lebnon, the Cedar State
There is no civil status in Lebanon apart from membership of a particular religion. Despite the various disadvantages there are few intitiatives to abolish confessionalism

​​Whether seeking to marry or applying for a job in Lebanon, the first question is always what religious confession you belong to.

Confessionalism (in Arabic ta'ifiyya, meaning membership of a religious or ethnic group) dominates both politics and daily life in Lebanon. In politics the particular interests of individual religious groups are often placed before the majority interest; the associated rivalries continually result in foreign powers playing one group off against another, thus ultimately able to determine the country's fate from the outside. The social implications of confessionalism are that Lebanese citizens lack the freedom to decide which religion they would like to practice as there is no citizenship status in Lebanon not tied to a religious confession.

Many Lebanese are wholly aware that their political system is compatible neither with the modern notion of the nation state, nor with universal human rights. Despite this there has till now been no serious move to abolish confessionalism. All efforts – to introduce civil marriage ceremonies for instance – have failed pitifully. It is clear however that, much like the notion of state religions, confessionalism is a concept which has had its day.

In her dissertation the sociologist Anne Francoise Weber examined two key questions: how urgently do the Lebanese people wish to end confessionalism? And where in Lebanese society can structures, spaces and actions be found, which explicitly or implicitly break down the boundaries of confessionalism?

Few inter-faith marriages

In order to answer this question Weber analysed Lebanon's Islamic-Christian dialogue initiatives. She also investigated everyday life and attitudes to religion in mixed Islamic-Christian families. Although, according to official figures, over ninety percent of Lebanese marry within their religious community, and inter-faith marriages and families are rare, Weber found the experiences of mixed-religion marriages and families highly relevant because their everyday experiences provide an insight into how that national unity and that dialogue – so often talked about – might look.

Two Christian crosses and the top of a minaret (photo: AP)
Mixed-religion marriages are not only frowned on, they also pose a legal problem. In Lebanon the laws governing marital status and inheritance are different for each religion

​​Many Lebanese proudly point to the religious and cultural diversity of their country. But mixed-religion marriages are largely frowned on by society. The law also presents mixed-religion couples with immense hurdles, beginning with the marriage ceremony itself which, as civil marriage ceremonies are impossible, have to take place abroad (mostly in Cyprus) and continuing with divorce, custody and inheritance laws. Because the laws governing married status and inheritance are completely different for Muslims, Christians and Druze, after a while some spouses convert for purely pragmatic reasons.

Weber held in-depth interviews with a total of thirty-four mixed-religion married couples and six children with mixed-religion parents. Most of the people interviewed were either Sunni Muslims or Greek Orthodox Christians and came from the upper echelons of Beirut's middle-class or from the country town of Halba.

Traditional support for confessional identities

One thing is immediately apparent from the interviews: although the couples questioned have experienced the disadvantages of confessionalism directly, and although they have often had to fight immense social resistance, only some of them are against the confessional system. And only a minority are in favour of an inter-faith education for the shared children. For some spouses, the mixed-religion marriage has led to the strengthening of their own religious identities.

During her investigation Weber also focussed on religious practice in daily life and on the handing-down of religious identity to the children. Here she determined three types: firstly the a-religious family where the children receive no religious upbringing at all, secondly the religiously asymmetrical family where one of the parents takes charge of the children's religious education, and thirdly the inter-religious family, where the children adopt elements from the religions of both parents.

"Grandpa is now with Jesus"

It is noticeable that the father does not always determine the children's religion; the mother often decides their religious identity. A further astonishing discovery is how pragmatic many couples are. A Shiite Muslim woman married to a Maronite Christian man enrolled her children for Maronite Christian religion studies lesson although the children's father had not insisted on it. When the grandfather died she told her daughter that grandpa was now with Jesus: it seemed more vivid and easier to envisage.

Anne Françoise Weber's study shows that even if the logic of difference is deeply embedded in a society there are always elements counteracting it. And there are a small but growing number of Lebanese demanding the right not to believe anything. The Cedars of Lebanon are not solely Islamic-Christian, as Weber says.

She ends with the conclusion that sooner or later Lebanon cannot avoid separating religion and state. Collective identities cannot be abolished overnight however. The important thing is not to continue politicising these identities. Weber says that instead shared spaces should be created, within political as well as private life. Individual emancipation is ultimately dependent on whether people can choose – or choose not – to be members of a collective.

Martina Sabra

© 2008

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

Anne Francoise Weber: Le Cèdre islamo-chrétien (Nomos Verlag, Baden-Baden, 2007). The book is written in French and based on a dissertation supervised simultaneously in France and Germany.

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