CCAS Post-Doctoral Fellow Raja Abillama asks what debates over civil marriage law in Lebanon tell us about secularism in Arab countries today. CCAS Post-Doctoral Fellow Raja Abillama asks what debates over civil marriage law in Lebanon tell us about secularism in Arab countries today.
Interview by Steven Gertz
As one of two Jamal Daniel post-doctoral fellows for the Study of the Levant, Dr. Raja Abillama presented his research on civil marriage law at a seminar CCAS sponsored on March 15, 2013. The Center interviewed him about his research and his reasons for studying an issue that has fired passions on both sides of the debate.
How has your post-doctoral fellowship at CCAS assisted you in advancing your research? Are there any scholars that have been especially helpful?
The fellowship has provided with me a unique opportunity to focus solely on my research. Conversations with my fellow post-doctoral scholars, the faculty, the students, and the staff have all been conducive for that. My research draws on a body of literature on law, minorities, and colonialism in the Arab world to which Judith Tucker, Hannes Baumann, and Osama Abi-Mershed have significantly contributed. Also, the Center has made it possible for me to teach a course on secularism. Reading this literature with my students has been exceptionally rewarding.
What first interested you in studying civil marriage law in Lebanon?
It was my interest in secularism that led me to examine civil marriage law in Lebanon. The decision to say something meaningful about secularism by focusing on a place marked as eminently antithetical to it might seem paradoxical at first. However, it is around the ambiguous status of sectarian family laws and the controversies surrounding marriage that we hear secularism invoked in Lebanon.
Tell us what you mean by secularism in the Arab world. Are we talking especially about sectarianism in the Arab context, as distinct from secularism in the West?
When it comes to the Arab world, the word secularism is typically used to refer to a kind of state. States that seem able to keep religion at bay are characterized as secular, versus those in which religion informs politics or law. Thus, secularism offers a normative standard to classify and compare states.
I do not deal with sectarianism in my work. Historians have written on sectarianism and its relationship with imperialism, colonialism, modernity, and the state of law, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead, I am interested in what secularism looks like in Lebanon. For this, it is insufficient to note that religion and the state are separate, or that they ought to be.
Anthropologists have pointed out that to understand secularism in different contexts, we must take a closer look at how this norm is actually implemented, the institutional and discursive arrangements it informs, the tensions and ambiguities that accompany them, and the new possibilities and constraints to which they give rise. Drawing on these insights, I do so in the context of contemporary Lebanon.
In your presentation at CCAS, you focused particularly on the passions that motivate the camps for and against civil marriage legalization. Why is this important, and what do these tell us about the debate over civil marriage?
In the debates that accompany suggestions to enact a Lebanese law of civil marriage, the interlocutors usually assert a limited range of positions. Some are supportive; others are not, either categorically or conditionally. However, the various positions are not expressed with equal force. So you have some who vigorously reject civil marriage, while others merely indicate their opposition to it. One can discern a range of passions that does not map out exactly over the positions. You have passionate and dispassionate opponents and passionate and dispassionate supporters of civil marriage.
By ”passions” I do not mean psychological states, or motives that determine a position. It points rather to a sensibility discernible in the articulation of each position. It enables me to ask certain questions: What is the relationship between the particular position with or against and the force with which it is asserted? What is at stake in civil marriage?
Is there any correlation between secularism and passion? In other words, does one’s commitment to religion (or lack of it) make one more or less passionate in his or her position on civil marriage?
Paying attention to the passions is a way around the problem that many religiously committed people are also supportive of civil marriage, and explicitly distinguish civil marriage and their religious commitments. By including the passions, I can pinpoint a common concern between passionate supporters and opponents of civil marriage, namely, the link between anxieties about who we are and the state. Religion certainly figures into this, not just as a commitment, and not as a determining motivation. I am suggesting that these interconnections between identity, religion, and the state are something distinctive about secularism.
Let’s talk a bit more about the specifics of civil marriage law. In your presentation, you mentioned that advocates of civil marriage particularly point to insniyya (humanity) as a reason for supporting civil marriage, though proponents may have more personal or communal reasons as well. What is it about insniyya that is so attractive to them?
Yes, I mentioned a conversation in which my interlocutor reproached me for not having an opinion about civil marriage, and for claiming to be only curious about it. She considered civil marriage to be a masala insniyya, a human matter. For her, it is obvious that marriage is a human affair, but for others, one’s humanity is irrelevant to marriage, for it is primarily a holy sacrament or a matter of sharÇÛ÷a. Humanity means different things to each as well.
Why is it that on this issue of civil marriage the passions run so high?
Before I answer that, let me distinguish between two different uses of civil marriage. One refers to a procedure, when individuals travel to get married under civil law. The Lebanese state recognizes these marriages. But ”civil marriage” also refers to a formal law of civil marriage. I focus on the passions that run high specifically when a Lebanese law of civil marriage is proposed.
As for an answer to your question, surely passions run high for many reasons. But embedded in these passions is anxiety about the state’s character. Enacting a Lebanese Civil Law of Marriage entails a shift from a state that recognizes only Islamic, Christian, and Jewish jurisdiction over marriage, to one in which the Lebanese state asserts its own jurisdiction over it. Each consists in a distinctive articulation of marriage, the state, and ”religious” identities.