Launched by a small group of non-partisan civic-minded citizens called Laïque (Secular) Pride, the March for Secularism will bring Lebanese together on 25 April in support of secularism, and to bring attention to the letter and spirit of the Lebanese Constitution. Participants will walk from the Beirut neighbourhood Ain El Mraissé on the Mediterranean Sea to the Lebanese Parliament buildings.
All too often, Lebanon is represented as a collection of diverse faiths in delicate balance, engaged in an ongoing power-sharing negotiation. One forgets that the Constitution is the only text recognised by all. And, as a social contract, it is the basis for all Lebanese to live together "without discrimination", irrespective of religious affiliation, gender, ethnic origin or personal beliefs.
The preamble to the Lebanese Constitution states: "Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic based on respect for public liberties, especially the freedom of opinion and belief, and respect for social justice and equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination." Article 7 affirms that "all Lebanese are equal before the law. They equally enjoy civil and political rights and equally are bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction." And Article 9 guarantees "… the free exercise of all religious rites … and religious interests of the population."
Contrary to current practice based on the National Pact of 1943 which established Lebanon as a multi-confessional state, and the later Taif Agreements in 1989 which led to the end of the civil war, there is no mention in the Constitution of religious apportionment of parliamentary seats or sectarian distribution of administrative employment. Nor does it mention allocating high-level government positions by religion, for example, designating the role of President for a Maronite Christian, the role of Prime Minister for a Sunni and the role of the Speaker of the House for a Shi’ite.
Article 9 of the Constitution clearly determines the secular character of the Lebanese state and consequently the secular character of Lebanese citizenship. Lebanon is a republican and secular state in which all citizens are equal. In theory, that is.
In practice, however, Lebanon is controlled by a political oligarchy composed of businessmen, community leaders, descendents of feudal families and former militia chiefs who, from the first days of independence, used their influence to allocate state positions through confessional haggling. Renegotiated whenever a major political crisis occurred in Lebanon's short history, this horse-trading system is now well encamped outside the democratic sphere and worse yet, is in blatant violation of the text of the Constitution.
In fact, the nation's legislators never established a civil status that would distinguish Lebanese citizens from their religious status. Citizenship is contingent on religion first and foremost, since all personal legal acts (birth, marriage, death and inheritance) are recorded in separate official records established along religious lines.
However today, many Lebanese citizens endorse the stated values of the republican, secular and equalitarian Constitution. Religious or not, practising or not, they do not identify with the sectarian and unconstitutional practices put in place by the political oligarchy. These Lebanese claim the right to enjoy their civic rights and carry out their civic duties irrespective of any religion, in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Constitution – no more, no less.
Thus, the principle of "social justice and equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination" laid down in the preamble to the Constitution should clearly apply to such issues as the civil status of marriage; the right for all citizens to be elected and represent voters irrespective of religious criteria; and the right for all Lebanese to apply for government positions based strictly on professional merit.
As such, the civic movement behind Laïque Pride is neither a syncretic movement nor an attempt at pacifying interreligious relations. Essentially areligious and apolitical, this movement demands the re-establishment of the civic rights guaranteed by the Constitution and broadly ignored by Lebanon's political representatives.
The march has received the green light from the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities. It is the first step in bringing together the individuals and groups in civil society that support a secular Lebanon. For now, its goal is to make all Lebanese aware of the text that lays down the foundations of their state and to strive for its application through legal means and the media.
* Alexandre Medawar is an editor of l'Orient Littéraire, a monthly literature supplement of the Lebanese daily, l'Orient-Le Jour. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).