A strategy to legalize civil marriage

How to keep the momentum in the battle for civil ceremonies

Khouloud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish, two seemingly ordinary people in love, became overnight the poster children for the fight to legalize civil marriage in Lebanon, an uphill fight the positive outcome of which is still far from assured.

Travel agencies, the clergy and even the municipalities of Nicosia and Larnaca can feel safe knowing that Lebanese of different religious denominations, persons of limited financial means and agnostics and atheists will still need to take the 40-minute flight to Cyprus (or alternatively the slightly longer flight to Turkey) to get married in a civil ceremony.

However, if well leveraged, what Sukkariyeh and Darwish were able to do has far-reaching ramifications that can have greater impact than finding a legal loophole that can easily be shut. To their credit, Sukkariyeh and Darwish succeeded in publicizing their case and in placing the issue on center stage, aided considerably by a social media frenzy that gave the topic momentum and forced the leaders of the country, whether political or religious, to take a stand on it. 

Yet, the challenge going forward is to sustain that momentum and not allow the issue to wither away and again be relegated to the ranks of a taboo or non-issue — as was the case when late President Hrawi brought it up in the 1990s. This is especially true considering that the political circumstances that helped propel the topic to the forefront, by turning it into a matter of political bickering, are arguably temporary. 

Evading elitism

Keeping the pressure on will thus require rethinking the approach to the issue from a more strategic perspective, particularly that any social media campaign, in the context of Lebanon, has its limitations, whether in terms of mobilizing a critical mass of supporters, influencing policymaking or avoiding seemingly preaching to the converted.

In fact, what has hampered efforts to really push through the agenda of separating church from state, or at least giving individuals the freedom to choose whether to be married in front of a clergyman or a notary, is the fact that the issue of civil marriage is still very much “elitist” and of concern to only a few, whereby it is discussed and debated among a handful of intellectuals or social activists and most Lebanese do not feel concerned about it. 

This is mainly because the discourse around civil marriage has been process-driven rather than being benefit-centric. Instead of focusing on the social, cultural, economic and even political benefits of allowing civil marriage, all the talk has been on how it would lead to numerous complications on areas such as inheritance, for instance, while concurrently shrinking the role (and some might say control) of religious institutions in the daily lives of citizens. Irrespective of whether the latter is true or desirable, it remains that the majority of Lebanese, out of religious fervor, cynicism, perceptions of the existence of more pressing priorities or demographic concerns and existential fears, continue to be neutral at best to the idea of legalizing civil marriage. 

Accordingly, if the proponents of civil marriage in Lebanon are to translate their recent breakthrough into an actual change in legislation, their focus should be on convincing their fellow countrymen of the benefits of such an option of marriage, prior to getting politicians on board. Any attempt to circumvent the need to build a popular base of support for the topic would surely lead to failure, as politicians would only endorse the issue if it is seen as enjoying significant public legitimacy and thus the “quintessential” political/electoral trade-off between having the support of constituents and that of the clergy is favorably tipped to the former.

In that regard, “social lobbying” should supersede any “political lobbying” strategy, whereby the case for civil marriage should be seen as a concern to all Lebanese by explaining to them what it would mean to them if civil weddings were to become the legal standard. It could reduce sectarianism and political tensions, promote social cohesion and genuine citizenship, having one law applied to all citizens regardless of their religious denominations, or lower the cost of marriage, among others.

Social lobbying, by definition, would require an all-inclusive effort in reaching out to all Lebanese, beyond simply to the receptive ears of the left-leaning and socially-progressive intelligentsia, by using all available communication channels in helping effect a paradigm shift in attitudes and perceptions through a focused, benefit-heavy argumentation and content.

While social media can help reach a certain segment of audiences, other mass-oriented channels to leverage could include an all-encompassing media campaign; television and radio shows; conferences and seminars; school and university meetings; media roundtables; articles and editorials in major publications; and a testimonial campaign by key opinion leaders, helping break the stigma or accusations of heresy for supporting civil marriage.  

Changing public perception

Social lobbying can effectively culminate, in a parliamentary elections year, by having all candidates take a clear stand in support or opposition to civil marriage, rendering the topic a central theme in their program, with constituents later holding them accountable if they ever win the much-coveted seat in Parliament. 

Traditions are hard to break, especially when they are fuelled by the fear of the unknown or of opening up a Pandora’s box. Yet, through a concerted effort in changing public perceptions and attitudes, on a national scale, “honor” killing, another practice long combated by the “elites”, was eventually outlawed in Lebanon too, leaving hope for the possibility that one day in the near future civil marriage could become a reality in the country.

In the end, the larger question remains whether we need to separate church and state, and whether doing so would be detrimental to people’s faith, as some proclaim. It can be argued that most countries that go through bloody civil wars eventually emerge at least with some gains on the political or social levels, as did the French after the revolution with the “Code Civil” and later in 1905 with the law on the separation of the church and state. One can wonder why after the long war in Lebanon, nearly nothing was achieved in terms of reforming the country’s governance system or establishing a new social contract between the state and its citizens.

Rany Kassab, Zeina Loutfi, & Ramsay  G. Najjar work for S2C

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