By Martin Accad
Maryam was born a Muslim. Her society required her to live as a Muslim and eventually to die as a Muslim as well. Youssef was born a Christian. His society too required him to live and die as a Christian. But when they fell in love with each other, they came before a dilemma. Youssef would have to convert to Islam for their marriage to be legally recognized. Had they been Lebanese, another option would have been for Maryam to convert to Christianity as well, but not in any other Arab country, not in her country.
They could get a civil marriage outside the Arab world, in Cyprus or Turkey, but it would never be recognized legally in their country. And if the thought of living life together discreetly in quasi illegality was bearable, they could not bear the thought of bringing children into this world that would be considered illegitimate because born out of wedlock. Not only that, but their children would not even have a legal identity. No citizenship, no civil rights, no passport, forever trapped…
Maryam and Youssef wish they could suddenly wake up and realize this was just a nightmare. But sadly this is their reality, and they know that there are dozens of other couples in the same situation. The story, two years ago, of that other Maryam in Sudan remains etched in their memory: the way that she was imprisoned and how she received a sentence of lashings and stoning for adultery, even though she had been legally married to her Christian husband in another country. That other Maryam had to give birth to her second child in prison, and were it not for international pressure that forced her release and exile, the sentence would have been carried out.
Maryam and Youssef are my good friends. They are caught in this dilemma. In Arabic, marriage is often referred to with the endearing expression: ‘the golden cage.’ When they signed those papers in Cyprus, they knew they were signing off on their own sentence of a ‘civil cul-de-sac,’ an actual nightmare scenario for life! At this point, they don’t have much of a choice apart from emigration. If they don’t do it for themselves, they will one day have to do it for their children.
It is this mind-boggling reality that makes a new book by Jonathan Andrews so real, relevant and absolutely vital for anyone who feels passionate about human rights issues. Identity Crisis: Religious Registration in the Middle East will be published on the 10th of January 2016. You can pre-order it here or here.
The analysis is historically thorough and thoughtful. Each country is examined in its own right, while more intrinsic communal ills are recognized, leading to a more unified approach. Thanks to the numerous case studies that help illustrate the complex problem, I could not put down the book. Andrews manages to bring to life a technical legal question that may otherwise have felt boring, and he also proposes some solutions.
The core problem that he identifies as needing to be addressed is what he calls the ‘pluralism deficit’ that all the countries examined have in common. By emphasizing this ill, he manages to universalize his topic. Though globalized and networked like never before, our societies – still post-colonial – both in the East and the West, nevertheless suffer miserably from this ‘pluralism deficit.’ The causes may be different, and so therefore the solutions, but the ill is universal.
Andrews’ search was triggered, by his own admission, by the call of Middle East Christians to ‘help us find a way through.’ Therefore the author does not stop at an impartial analysis of history and of legal facts, but he offers very pertinent recommendations in his concluding chapter: the need for the emergence of a civil system that would complement the existing religiously-based mechanisms; a call for people’s right to change their religious registration to align with their beliefs and practices; a clear rule of law applied equally and impartially to all citizens; and the decriminalization of an individual’s decision to change religion – the infamous accusation of ‘apostasy.’
Through these closing recommendations, Andrews becomes a veritable advocate for Christians and other numerical minority groups within Middle-Eastern societies. His book needs to be viewed as a solid, convincing and practical blue-print for individuals, groups and governments seeking reform and transformation. Only this sort of vision can help Middle-Eastern countries transition out of the quagmire of injustice and backward social order.
Jonathan Andrews’ book, Identity Crisis: Religious Registration in the Middle East, is impressive and imminently relevant. The author tackles head-on the single most significant issue affecting the future of the Middle East region and its flourishing, namely: religious registration. But rather than treating the question as merely a legal dinosaur inherited from the Ottoman era, he is able convincingly to frame it in its more profound sociological context of deeply tribal societies.
The story of Maryam and Youssef is the story of thousands like them. And in its assault on human dignity, it is the story of us all. It is also an insult to individual religious freedom. No one should be forced to change their religion, whether a Christian to Islam or a Muslim to Christianity, against their own conscience. Yet this will continue to happen unless we start fighting this sick insult to human decency called ‘religious registration.’