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Oh yea of way too much faith!

It’s probably possible to find regions around the globe that are more religious, conservative and sectarian than the Middle East but why try? It has the market cornered on the three main monotheistic faiths and has been trying to live up to that reputation for millennia. Europe may have had its reformers and their reformations but none such newfangled ideas can penetrate the Middle East’s righteous conservative shell, buttressed by the conviction that as the birthplace of God, the region has a special duty to protect the sanctity of His (certainly not Her) faiths.

Part of this complex is an obsession with registering the faith of the residents of the region, which is common practice in almost all its countries. That is why a recent Lebanese decision to allow citizens the option of scrapping the whole religion category from the population registry is such a big deal. Lebanon is one of the most religion-blighted countries in the world, with a total of 17 recognised main sects. It fought a vicious civil war in the 1970’s and ‘80’s during which people were pulled from their cars and executed on the basis of the religion listed on their ID papers.Hariri mosque in downtown Beirut
The Grand mosque in downtown Beirut was built by Saudi Arabia and Rafiq Hariri. It is a sectarian statement, claiming the downtown area for the Sunnis, overshadowing older mosques and churches in the area.

In Lebanon, as in other countries around the region, religion rules civil affairs from the cradle to the grave. An infant is registered within a certain religion, can then only marry within that religion, if it is not changed, will have to go through divorce proceedings and inherit from parents according to religious rules and will be buried with co-religionists. In Lebanon, as well as in some other countries, representation on the national level is determined by religious quota, some government jobs are reserved and people even vote in separate, Sunni, Shia, Druze and Christian rooms in polling stations.

All this is to illustrate that while the US may have its loony evangelical wastelands, between New York and LA, and Europe may experience a minor religious revival in a xenophobic reaction to the influx of Muslim believers, the Middle East is the real deal. Where in most other places by now religious fanaticism can flourish exactly because of the room that it is afforded by the state, in the Middle East, religion is the state and it is often fanatical.

This includes so-called secular states, such as Syria, where a national-socialist state ideology only is only a thin veneer on top of the same old national-religious norms that are in place everywhere else in the region. Syria does not have civil marriage, for example, one of the bellwethers for the separation of church and state. Turkey does but is not part of the Middle East. Israel, on the other hand, certainly is despite its sometimes deceivingly western appearance. In a country that calls itself Jewish it comes as no surprise that the separation between synagogue and state is largely fictional. Again there is no civil marriage and there are special outrages, such as the fallen ‘non-Jewish’ soldiers who cannot be buried with their IDF comrades in Jewish cemeteries.

Religion on its own is bad enough but where it is aligned with state power or where it is a tool for the preservation of the power of petty chieftains, as in Lebanon, the combination becomes especially noxious. Lebanon’s whole sectarian system is based on keeping people quite strictly within several religious groupings that can be controlled by a few powerful families or ideological  warlords. Civil society only rarely gets a chance to fight back and that is why the decision by minister of Interior Ziad Baroud is so exceptional. Baroud did have to give the directive twice, though. The first time around, at the end of 2008, his own civil servants ignored it, claiming that is was worded too vaguely. He reissued the decree allowing citizens to scrap religion from the register in February 2009.

For some hard-core believers in secular values and civil society, in some cases survivors of the civil war, the issue is deeply emotional. During a brief window at the end of 2008 when some civil servants did allow the deletion of religion, a group of several hundred people took advantage of the confusion. Among them was octogenarian historian Kamal Salibi, author of the acclaimed history of Lebanon, A House of Many Mansions.

“I was so relieved when I did it,” recounted Mr Salibi. “This was a moment that I had waited for all my life.” In his emotional state, a religious phrase from the Gospel of Luke, actually made its way into his head, he said. “I really felt that I had seen it all now and thought, ‘Lord, release me, for I have seen thy salvation’.” The group also included another elderly gentleman, an orthodox priest who also had his religion scrapped from the registry.

Karim Kobeisi, from the civil forum group that pushed for the decree allowing the elimination of religion from the registry, said that this was exactly the point. People might be religious but it was no business of the state to keep track of that.

The step received a mixed welcome in Lebanon. Religious spokesmen actually welcomed it, “because it is not politically correct to speak out in favour of sectarianism,” said Mr Kobeisi. The Sunni Muslim religious authority, Dar el Fatwa, welcomed the decree indeed because it would help fight, “false distinctions” between people. But an official said that it remained implacably opposed to practical steps to secularise society, such as civil marriage.

A spokesman for the Catholic church, which also include the mainstream Maronites, stated that the church also welcomed the step and went even further, saying that he hoped it was the beginning of more secularisation. “Why not have civil marriage if people can just go to Paris or Cyprus and have it there?” But others doubted the sincerity of this stance, since last time around when civil marriage was discussed, the Church fell in line with Muslim opposition to the idea.

The only openly negative reactions to the Interior minister’s decree came for young, secular Lebanese who thought that the step did not go far enough and didn’t mean anything in practice, because the whole sectarian system is still in place. But Mr Kobeisi and others say to this that it now depends on the number of people who de-list religion. If enough people do it, they reason, the state will have to accommodate them. It would be nothing short of revolutionary in the Middle East.