Religious Freedom Beyond (or Below) the Purview of the State : The Case of Lebanon
In Lebanon, protecting and defending religious freedom is not the sole business of civic associations and NGOs; it is also the lifeblood of the State. Composed of eighteen State-recognized religious communities, the country prides itself on being a reference of religious coexistence and political management of difference, despite decades of war and tensions. The Lebanese state commitment to religious freedom is enshrined in its constitution (1926), which, unlike in most Arab countries, does not refer to Islam or to any specific religion at all.
Instead, the Lebanese constitution juxtaposes (literally and conceptually) the concepts of “religious freedom” and “public order.” Article 9 reads :
“There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the Most High shall respect all religions and creeds and guarantees, under its protection, the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It also guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, is respected.”
An investigation into the sites of boundary—including their overlaps and mutual exclusions—between “religious freedom” and “public order” is a first step away from the oft-repeated discourse of the Lebanese State on religious liberties. Here is a case in point: Lebanon’s State Council recently ratified a decision to outlaw sessions of group prayers organized by one group of Christian believers on account, the authorities claimed, that the activity threatened public order. For several years prior to this decision a resident of Jeita, a small town about 12 miles north of Beirut and notable for its Christian majority, held collective prayers in a lounge located on his property. The local religious authorities grew worried about these gatherings: two local parishes (one Maronite and one Greek Catholic) expressed displeasure to the local police authorities who responded by prohibiting these sessions of collective prayers in order “to avoid hazard to public safety.” (Lebanon State Council, decision #2012-188/2011). The group of Christian believers brought the case to Lebanon’s State Council, which, on 22 December 2011, confirmed the local authority’s decision. The judgment stipulates that: “unless it is legally recognized, a group or assembly (whatever its name) cannot practice religious acts of worship. Likewise, acts of worship cannot be held in buildings dedicated to them, unless these buildings or spaces belong to one of legally recognized sects” (Frangieh 2013).
The legal authorities did not inquire into the religiousness of the practices performed by the group. Nor did they investigate the threat the acts of worship supposedly pose to “public safety”. Without further inquiries, therefore, the State Council judged that these sessions of collective prayer might imperil the Lebanese “public order,” going so far as to add that such acts of worship “contradict the religious public order.” Yet, the notion of “religious public order” has no constitutional bearing. “Religious public order” refers here to the politico-religious architecture of Lebanon, within which each of the eighteen state-recognized sects enjoy organizational autonomy with regard to the management of their religious affairs as well as juridical autonomy in matters pertaining to “personal status.”
This case shows that state safeguarding and protecting religious freedom for the Lebanese means only safeguarding and protecting the autonomy of each of the legally recognized sects by further entrenching the decisions of its authorities. “Religious freedom in Lebanon is linked to the sectarian system, which requires each Lebanese to belong to one of the official sects,” said the State Council in an earlier statement. De facto, this means that the power to regulate religious freedom, the power to decide what counts as “religious” and what threatens “public order” is transferred into the hands of the authorities of the state-recognized religious communities. It also means that in a country like Lebanon most struggles, tensions and contestations over the regulation of religious freedom do not occur between the State and its religious communities but within the religious communities themselves—between their legal representatives and ordinary believers.
Yet, the religious traditions legally recognized as “sects” by the Lebanese State are not monolithic bodies. They are polyphonous entities which change and renew themselves through debates and arguments. A politics of difference is at play in each of them. Thus, to appreciate how in Lebanon religious difference is being regulated and how the norm of religious freedom is being mobilized—and toward what ends—we need to turn our glance toward the contestations fought beyond (or below) the purview of the State: in the “infrapolitics” of each of the sects within Lebanon (Scott 2005).
This paper was given at the conference “Politics of Religious Freedom. Contested Norms and Local Practices”, Northwestern University (USA, Illinois), October, 17-18th, 2013.
- Frangieh G., 2013, “شورى الدولة يضحي بحريات أساسية على مذبح النظام”, Legal Agenda, 9, may 2012, p. 2-3.
- Lebanese Constitution : http://www.ministryinfo.gov.lb/en/sub/Lebanon/LebaneseConstitution.aspx
- Scott, J., 2005, “The infrapolitics of subordinate groups” in Amoore, L. (ed) The Global Resistance Reader, London and New York, Routledge.
- Sullivan, W., 2005, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Jean-Michel Landry is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His work focuses on Islamic Law and the anthropological uses of critical theory. Jean-Michel is also a research fellow at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient and the Orient Institute-Beirut.