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Why Secularism is not the answer; Gays in the Lebanese Khutba

(Maya Mikdashi) - A debate has erupted on the facebook page of the movement to “overthrow the political sectarian regime in Lebanon.” This debate was not about how to accomplish this lofty goal, or how to better strategize for more effective and powerful street demonstrations, or even what the actual demands of the movement are, should be, and how these demands can be enacted. Rather, the debate is about homosexuals and homosexuality in Lebanon.\n\n

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

17th May 2011 07:13

Alessia Valenza | ILGA Asia

What does homosexuality have to do with secularism? A lot, if you ask many of the people involved in this debate. Last Friday, the sermon (khutba) delivered by a local imam at a local mosque warned that if civil marriages were allowed in Lebanon, marriages between “Bassem and Tarik” were sure to follow. The imam was only repeating a trope that has been recycled for years and that has colored the strategies of generations of activists (many of whom actually share the imam’s revulsion at the prospect of a Bassem/Tarik Union) who have been working for decades to pass a marriage law in Lebanon that would allow Lebanese (heterosexual) couples to marry under the civil jurisdiction of the state. Such a law would allow Lebanese Muslims and Christians and Jews of all variations to marry each other in any sectarian combination of one male and one female citizen. In fact, most of the draft civil marriage laws clearly state that “marriage is a contract between one man and one woman.” So one would think it would be easy to expose the fallacy behind those that use the prospect of normalizing homosexual relations to scare away anyone thinking that allowing civil marriages to take place in Lebanon1 may be a good thing. But such an argument would only work in a fantasy world where conflicts are (only) resolved by the free and fair exchange of ideas, intellect and arguments. To put it more clearly, suggesting that it is easy to defang arguments that try to mobilize anti-homosexual feeling and harness them in order to weaken a civil marriage campaign that by its very own definition precludes the possibility of same-sex marriage misses the point that the practice of politics is not always, and is sometimes rarely, “rational.” Only in a liberal fantasy world are human beings disembodied minds that talk out their differences and either agree or agree to disagree and then either read newspapers to continue “the debate” and vote (liberalism) or go do all of those things and then go shopping together (neoliberalism).

But that is not the way the world works, and nor is it the way that people are built. Moreover, people do not always share the same (or even similar) moral frameworks. You cannot always “rationally” disabuse someone of their beliefs, even if they do commit the liberal faux pas of what in the 20th century came to be considered sexism, racism and (much later) homophobia. That is why right wing pundits on Fox News consistently argue that allowing homosexuals to marry will open the doors to men marrying their dogs, women marrying more than one man, and the end of Western civilization (wassup Sam Huntington?) as we know it. They make these arguments not because they make sense (although it may make sense to many),2 but because such arguments also mobilize other aspects of being human that secular liberal rationalists often discount. Humans are not only the process of rational thought; they are thoughts of all kinds (rational and not), they are emotions, memories, beliefs, interactions, relationships, histories, contexts, and they are bodies. These bodies sometimes rudely intrude into our fantasy of being “thinking beings” (wassup Descartes?) by their very mechanics; hunger, thirst, menstruation, the need to touch and be touched, to go to the bathroom, to wear a sweater when it is cold, and the desire for other bodies.3 That is why both the body and sex are often sites of political interest and anxiety in both religious and secular states of all flavors and varieties. Some of the politics (politics is understood here as the organization of shared life) that bodies and body parts incite are debates on birth control, modesty, nutrition, abortion, premarital sex, adultery, health, underage sex, ages of consent, marriage law and the debate over what makes a child “illegitimate.”

So, back to the original question, what does homosexuality have to do with secularism? To the extent that the regulation of sex is political and to the extent that a major demand of the demand to overthrow the sectarian regime in Lebanon is the legalization of civil marriages (itself a goal that only highlights that the body is both a political loci and a technology) performed in Lebanon, it has a lot to do with it. But, in actuality, homosexuality and homophobia have very little do with secularism. There are secular states that have been and are institutionally discriminatory (sometimes genocidally so) against homosexuals (Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, republican Turkey and the contemporary United States), just as there are secular states that are sexist and racist. As Talal Asad reminds us, secular states have been responsible for some of the most atrocious violence in modern history, the Jewish Holocaust and the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan being just two examples. After all, the United States was a secular state (and a democracy) when it was legal to own another human and breed him/her for economic benefit, it was a secular state (and a democracy) when more than half of the population could not vote in elections (the half with vaginas) and it was a secular state (and a democracy) when it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry each other. Furthermore, Lebanon today is a secular, sexist, racist, homophobic, patriarchal and sectarian state. Having a secular state is not synonymous with having a liberal democracy, a “one citizen one vote” model, or with achieving political, economic, or social justice. We seem to be confusing, again, secularism with all things progressive. In this model, people who call for secularism think that “secularism” is actually a defined set of values and practices such as a free press, feminism and, more recently, homosexual rights. Secularism as a political model is being posited as the vessel that will eventually bring about the end to all kinds of discrimination. But building a secular state (or, as in the case of Lebanon, building a differently secular state) is not the answer to the stubborn question of difference; whether that difference be sectarian, economic, gendered, religious, or ideological. Moreover, secularism is not the answer to the institutionalization of these differences and the unequal distribution of resources and opportunity accordingly. This conflation of “secularism” with good (liberal) values is dangerous because it makes it that much harder to focus on the complex ways that moral frameworks are implicated in the regulation of shared life in all states; from Iran to France to the former Soviet Union to Sweden. One of the most tangible differences between secular states and non-secular states is the stated source of this regulated moral framework. Secular states claim to derive their laws not from the legitimacy of God, but from the legitimacy of the public.

In Lebanon, laws are promulgated under one of two statements . . . [bi-ism al-sha`b al-lubnani – In the name of the Lebanese People] or the religious version (saved for “personal status"), such as [bi-ism allah ta’ala] for Christian sects or [bi-ism al-rahman al-rahim] for Muslim sects. We forget under our own peril that the laws that criminalize homosexual sex, adultery, abortion, and the laws that bar women from giving citizenship or that allow for a rapist to marry his victim and evade punishment are promulgated in the name of the Lebanese people. That is to say, they are secular laws that derive their legitimacy from some notion of a “public good,” a concept which is just as much of a moral framework as is legal one. Abolishing political sectarianism does not guarantee ideas of what constitutes the “public good” in Lebanon will be overhauled. Moreover, overthrowing political sectarianism does not guarantee that ideas and interpretations of the “public good” will be more progressive or conservative. Abolishing political sectarianism removes one type of institutionalized discrimination, but we should not assume that it will lead (in a progressivist fashion) to the abolishment of other institutionalized discriminations. The beauty of the growing movement to end the regime of political sectarianism in Lebanon is that many of the activists (most of whom are youths) already know this, and are struggling to grapple with how to put this critical knowledge into practice within a mass movement. The fit is not always easy, but the activists themselves admittedly know that the relationship between law and justice, and justice and change, is closer to a game of “catch” than to an embrace.4

What does this eruption of a debate on homosexual rights on a facebook page devoted to overthrowing political sectarianism reveal? Besides publicly revealing the acrimonious and embarrassing debates that plague every movement, this debate reveals that a discourse of gay rights may have gone mainstream in Lebanon. People feel compelled to stake a position in this debate to an extent that they never did before. One person felt strongly enough to post “we are all bassem and tariq” as an act of solidarity with the fictional couple singled as embodying the dangers of civil marriage and thus the fall of Eastern civilization (hello again Sam Huntington!). Immediately after this group admin’s post, hundreds of people posted with and against the idea of tying the project of civil marriage (which will itself extend legal equality to Lebanese citizens exponentially) to a (more) progressive discourse of sexual rights. Thousands of posts later, patterns began to emerge. Many leaders of this movement to abolish sectarianism are openly supporting those that argue that a commitment to secularism in Lebanon should also encompass a commitment to bodily rights and the repeal of sexist and homophobic laws. These people may be termed the intersectionality secularists. Other leaders and activists argue that these issues are too divisive and should not be brought up until after the public has been made ready through the removal of political sectarianism and “education”. I suggest that these people could be called the da`wa secularists, in a nod to similar movements who seek to first prepare the population for change through educating them and prostelatizing their version of a just society. Still others are emphatic that although they may want the end of political sectarianism in Lebanon, they do not believe that “our culture” or “our society” has a place for “these issues” and “these people.” This final group could perhaps be termed the “moral majority” / literal secularists. Members of this group do not believe that a secular state should proactively interfere in issues of "morality," particularly when the issue at stake is divisive and/or may go against the beliefs and opinions of the majority. They thus elide the fact that in fact the state is both a producer and a regulator of what we call normative morality and of the political culture of its citizenry. Members of these three different camps should remind each other that in Lebanon, secularism is not the problem (because the system of political sectarianism is secular) and secularism will not be the solution to the difficult project of building an alternative model of shared life. This exposed facebook debate is an invitation for all of us to imagine what content we want under the words “b’ism al sha`b al lubnani” (in the name of the Lebanese people) and who we imagine this “sha`ab al lubnani” (Lebanese people) to both be and to be for.


1. Passing a Lebanese civil marriage law would also end the economically discriminatory and legally confusing practice of allowing civil marriages conducted abroad to be adjudicated in Lebanese civil courts. In such cases, Lebanese judges and lawyers practice the law of the country wherever the marriage was conducted. The legal quagmire this creates was has been eloquently summarized by Judge John Azzi.

2. If one understands Western civilization to be built upon the unequal exploitation of bodies and the regularization and economization of human reproduction then one could understand the “danger” posed to such a civilization by two men and/or two women wanting to join the institution that has been a major force in these projects; marriage.

3.Theorists such as William Connelly, Judith Butler, Charles Hirschkind and Beth Povinelli have suggested that affect is also mobilized in political discourses and political desires. These theorists argue against the liberal ideal of resolving conflict through reason and expose the ways in which other registers of being are both implicated in political discourse and are scarred by them.

4. For a much more erudite explication of this dynamic see Derrida’s “The Force of Law.”