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“Til Sect Do You Part?” On Sectarianism and Intermarriage in Lebanon

In August 2017, a Christian man and a Muslim woman (Boutros and Marwa) made headlines when they married in Lebanon. Why? One might assume that the interreligious nature of the couple prompted this media attention. However, that was far from the case. In my current research on Lebanese social responses to interreligious and intersectarian marriages/long-term relationships, I have had no difficulty locating people to interview. Mixed couples are more common than people often imagine, and exist to varying extents across generations, classes, and communities. As such, it is unlikely that a mixed marriage would make the news. No, what warranted media attention in this case was how the couple chose to marry.

While mixed marriages in the area pre-date the Lebanese state, in recent decades, most heterosexual interreligious couples who can afford to do so fly to Cyprus to marry, sometimes taking advantage of one of the many package deals provided by travel agencies that facilitate the process, from managing invitations to navigating state bureaucracy. They then register these civil marriages with the Lebanese state. The only marriage options available in Lebanon require adhering to one of fifteen personal status laws. Some of these laws allow for mixed marriages (a Christian woman can marry a Muslim man under both Sunni and Shi’i personal status laws without converting) but many require legal conversion or some other confirmation of sectarian belonging (baptism, for instance). Most people who marry outside Lebanon, whether in mixed couples or not, do so to avoid having to follow a specific personal status law, sometimes because one or both members of the couple feel strongly about their faith, but more commonly these days because both take an explicitly anti-sectarian or, in common activist parlance, “secular,” stance. (It is important to note that these civil marriages do not actually “solve” many legal problems stemming from personal status strictures, especially around custody, inheritance, and burial – but my interviews have revealed that many couples remain unaware of these potential legal difficulties until years later).

What seems to have caught social and media attention in Boutros and Marwa’s case is the couple’s visible religiosity. Not only do articles carefully note that she wears hijab, but more importantly, in addition to the Cyprus civil marriage, the couple held both a Shi‘i katb kitab and a Melkite Catholic church wedding. The articles and social media responses fixated on the question of the religious legitimacy of these ceremonies, which were carried out without either person’s conversion and were sanctioned by their respective clerics. The Melkite (Roum) Catholic bishop in Tyre declared the church wedding acceptable (this was not unprecedented), and a Shi‘i sayyid issued a fatwa saying that there was no reason a Muslim woman could not marry a non-Muslim man if she entered the marriage of her own free will and noting that there should not be a double standard in the legitimacy of mixed marriages for Muslim men and women.

Because I am using social responses to intersectarian relationships as my lens to complicate our understandings of sect and sectarianism, I am less interested here in the question of religious legitimacy – although this clerical flexibility is interesting insofar as it suggests a possible response, other than facilitating personal status conversion, to the increase in civil marriages abroad that are diluting clerical influence and income. The social media responses, however, are worth unpacking. These fell into two camps – either condemning the marriage as religiously illegitimate or putting the couple on a pedestal as a model of courage and coexistence. The choice to hold these religious ceremonies and the negative social media responses to them remind us that civil marriage does not negate the importance of religious practice to many Lebanese, some of whom consider marriage to be such a practice. But seeing this as a polarized binary between “religious” and “secular” responses, or “sectarian” and “anti-sectarian” ones, misses the ways in which they are two sides of the same coin. Whether castigating the marriage or praising it, the responses underscore the fact that sectarian (or sect-based) identity carries personal meaning for many people in Lebanon.

Much, often very eloquent and well-researched, ink has been devoted to debunking the notions that sectarian categories are unchanging and primordial and that sectarianism explains all conflict in the Middle East. A recent volume foregrounds the processes by which sectarian divisions and politics emerge and are perpetuated. In relation to the Lebanese context where sectarianism has been institutionalized into a political system, scholars have demonstrated convincingly that this political-sectarianism was not the inevitable outcome of age-old political or social divisions. The premise of Suad Joseph’s 1975 dissertation was that sects are constructed through social and political processes and matter because they are politicized. Ussama Makdisi shows how sectarianism is produced through Ottoman reform and European pressure in the nineteenth century such that sect comes to define modern political identity. Max Weiss shows how a Shi'i sectarian political identity and set of institutional practices were forged during the mandate period, via both top-down and ground-up processes. Scholars, including Joseph, Melani Cammett, Bassel Salloukh et al., Paul Kingston, Joanne Nucho, and Maya Mikdashi, among others, have also shown how sectarianism in contemporary Lebanon is maintained, reinforced, and reproduced at the levels of the state, municipality, civil society, elite networks, citizenship, and personal status law. There should be no question that sectarianism is constructed and contingent. The concept’s continued reign as the favored concept used by politicians and pundits to explain the Middle East speaks to its entrenchment in the policy world and not to a dearth of very good scholarship saying otherwise. It also speaks, as Makdisi suggests, to sectarianism’s utility to both U.S. and regional actors as a discourse for justifying ideological perspectives and political ends, a utility that presumes that sects are age-old and unchanging categories, again despite a plethora of research saying otherwise.

For the most part, this critical scholarship addresses sectarianism in its political, institutional, or legal registers rather than in the social or interpersonal realms. Why is there so little attention to the latter? Perhaps, as scholars of the region, we hope that we can move beyond the category by demonstrating that sectarianism is socially and historically constructed and maintained through institutional and political-economic processes. Perhaps acknowledging that people care about sect feels a bit like airing a family secret, or venturing into the messiness of discrimination and prejudice that we wish didn’t exist, or a betrayal of activist efforts that we support. Perhaps we fear that writing about how sect matters at an interpersonal or affective level will contribute to those seemingly intransigent assumptions that sectarianism is unchanging or primordial. But much as we want to escape or deny it, the fact remains that sect matters to a lot of people in their daily lives, not only in relation to politics, networks, legal status, or the material realm but in their interpersonal interactions.   

Recently, my academic response to encountering sect-based prejudice in conversations (something most researchers on Lebanon have likely experienced) has been to address it directly by focusing on a site that often triggers such prejudice and is equally interesting when it does not: intersectarian marriage/long-term partnership. I use both terms because I am interested in the ways that sect emerges as a potential point of contention in social responses to queer and other unmarried long-term couples who participate in their kinship networks, as well as those who are legally married. One of the goals of this project is to redouble an insistence that it is not only sectarianism that is constructed and contingent, but sect as a category itself. As Maya Mikdashi argues, sect is more than the personal status category attributed to a citizen by the state; one’s socially recognized sect and personal status may not line up. In addition to holding meaning in relation to Lebanon’s political system, personal status law, religious belief or practice (none of which necessarily align), sect holds meaning in terms of how people understand themselves and are understood by society (again, not necessarily in alignment).

My interest is in better understanding what one might call social sectarianism. A more precise phrasing, following Fanar Haddad’s critique of sectarianism’s lexical opacity unless used as an adjective, would be sectarian identity or sectarian social difference. When and how and why does it matter and what do people do when it does? Can we break it apart into components, untangle how sect intersects with class and gender and other factors, in people’s personal interactions? How do people practice social difference in Lebanon? Can we dilute the emphasis on the religious in favor of class or status as the primary motivating factor in policing social boundaries, even when they are described as related to sect by those doing the policing? Because intersectarian marriage or partnership often triggers such boundary policing, it is proving useful as a site to explore these questions. What I have learned thus far is that many of the patterns suggested by both scholars and Lebanese with whom I have spoken are turning out not to be patterns at all. For example, it’s not necessarily more difficult for women, nor most difficult for Muslim women, to intermarry. Family opposition isn’t necessarily related to fears of personal status or legal inequalities and a surprising number of people have no idea what legal difficulties await them. Being of the “minority” sect in the relationship does not necessarily explain social or familial opposition to one’s partner. And self-described “secular” parents (people who raised their children to view religion with skepticism, sent them to “secular” schools, and encouraged their activism for civil marriage) sometimes still want the person those same children marry – in a civil ceremony – to be of the same religion or even the same sect. 

If there is a pattern, it is that here, as anywhere, social difference is intersectional. Sect cannot be understood except as one part of a complex and entangled understanding of social identity and difference that includes gender, class, region, race, ethnicity, and citizenship. Here are just a few reasons why: In explaining opposition to intersectarian relations, many of my interviewees have described a vague notion of what several of them called “cultural” difference as contaminating or insurmountable, often tripping over words and unable to explain clearly what they mean. Sometimes it emerges that this is related to a fear of being ostracized in their social circle, or to (not unrelated) class or regional prejudices. Like elsewhere, racism and anti-black racism operate in Lebanon and affect social responses to marriage and relationships in ways that may intersect with sectarian bias. The historical construction of difference along national lines between Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians also plays a role in how families and communities respond to couples that appear to cross these lines (whether “in origin” or in citizenship status). And both the state’s personal status categories and broader understandings of sectarian social difference overlap with and disrupt ideas about ethnicity, especially but not only in relation to Armenian Lebanese.

Complicating our understandings of sectarian social difference in these ways will also allow us to better understand how it manifests in discrimination and bias. Scholars of sectarianism can learn from anti-racist activists in the U.S. and Lebanon, as well as critical race theory, without over-analogizing with race in the U.S. For example, we know that understanding race as a socially constructed category that carries different meanings in different places does not negate the importance of those meanings. Nor does it mean that racism isn’t real and killing people and deeply rooted in society. Similarly, we can insist that sect is a constructed and contingent category and still understand it to hold meaning and affect daily life and interpersonal relationships for many Lebanese. Another lesson we can take is that “blindness” is not a solution. Desires to avoid sect in conversations or to insist that secularism will abolish sectarianism are “sect-blind.” I know I’m not the only one who has avoided responding to questions asked in order to locate me, at least partly in terms of sect, in Lebanese society. Sami Hermez describes how such efforts to ignore sect can mask its importance to one’s fieldwork interlocutors. Such sect-blindness, like colorblindness in the U.S., is not only misguided but perpetuates discrimination and bias. Distancing oneself from or attempting to ignore sect-based identity, as those who praised Boutros and Marwa for their love and courage do, can serve to reassert the meaning that sect has in Lebanon.

Returning one last time to the responses to this couple’s multiple weddings, what I suspect many people found notable was not that this was a mixed marriage, but that they were unapologetically and insistently interreligious. Some of those who hailed them as a model for coexistence may have appreciated the way they appeared to be true to themselves and their faiths while intermarrying, rather than resorting, as most people do, to the legal workaround of the offshore marriage. Instituting a civil marriage option would certainly reduce the difficulties faced by intersectarian heterosexual couples who want to marry. It won’t, however, necessarily lead to a less sectarian society. Changing the law won’t divest sectarian social difference of its meaning, not only in the lives of people for whom sect explicitly matters as faith or identity, but more broadly in Lebanon, including among many who call themselves “secular.” As researchers, one of our challenges is to analyze how sectarian social difference works in the realm of interpersonal interactions, and to attend not only to how sect is reproduced as a political, institutional, and legal category, but also as a category and marker of social difference that, whether we like it or not, holds a great deal of meaning.