Lebanon’s “Minister of Culture” Desperately Tries to Resurrect Past Taboos

2023-09-25    |   

Lebanon’s “Minister of Culture” Desperately Tries to Resurrect Past Taboos

Caretaker Minister of Culture Mohammad Mortada recently announced that he has referred to the Council of Ministers a bill to punish the promotion of homosexuality and gender transition, which he himself drafted. This step followed a week of social media buzz about the minister’s extreme stances opposing the screening of the film Barbie and attacking the bill that nine MPs submitted to abolish Article 534 of the Penal Code, which some judicial bodies still use to prosecute homosexual relationships.


Mortada argued that the MPs who submitted the bill to abolish Article 534 are trying to impose their liberal views on society in violation of its faith-based values and the Constitution. To justify his hardline stances, which he expressed using an unprecedented level of bullying and verbal violence (e.g. by describing the MPs as “scourges of deviance” and wrongly addressing one using feminine grammatical forms), he alleged that a conspiracy is being hatched against “our community” and “our country” and that he has a constitutional, occupational, and national (if not historical) responsibility to spread awareness against it. He claimed that by fulfilling this responsibility, he aims only to fortify “the principle of coexistence” and the “correct understanding” of public freedoms, which “can only be exercised in accordance with constitutional and legal controls”.


Hence, we can infer that the minister’s proposed bill is part of his self-proclaimed scope of responsibility irrespective of whether it accords with his responsibilities as a minister of culture (which it does not). This is clear from the bill’s rationale section and content, which portray the minister as resisting a great conspiracy to normalize homosexuality by criminalizing and repressing anything that facilitates it. Not only will homosexuality be punishable, but so too will any defense of gay rights or demand to decriminalize gay people. This is an effort by the minister to go back two decades to when homosexuality was still subject to strict social taboos. In other words, he is trying to resurrect these taboos and axioms by force of criminalization and punishment. We can only imagine the negative impact that this move could have on public freedoms.


Going into more detail, we must record the following observations:


A Bill Presented by an Incompetent Minister


Firstly, the bill presented by the minister falls completely outside his ministry’s powers. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction of the bills the ministry should have presented. Article 3 of Ministry of Culture Regulation Law no. 35 of 2008 defines its powers in the legislative realm as “proposing bills and regulations that improve the application of the cultural policies adopted, coordinate government moves and activities in the fields entrusted to it, and adapt these moves and activities to cultural needs”.


It does not take vast legal knowledge to realize that a bill punishing the promotion of homosexuality and gender transition absolutely does not fall within the application of any adopted cultural policy. To the contrary, it is a factor that threatens any LGBTQ person and potentially drives them to emigrate, inevitably impoverishing national culture and depriving society of many of those actively contributing to it.


Respecting Religions Does Not Mean Submitting to Their Rules and Beliefs


Secondly, the minister is treating Lebanese people as though they all belong to the Islamic and Christian sects and are governed by these sects’ beliefs, denying them any freedom of belief outside these frameworks. To this end, he has no qualms about distorting the content of Article 9 and Article 10 of the Constitution, which the bill’s rationale says stipulate “the state’s duty to respect religious teachings and the moral values emanating from them and to prohibit any teaching that contradicts them”.


In reality, Article 9 of the Constitution does not say that at all. To the contrary, it is distinguished by its description of the freedom it guarantees as “absolute”. This descriptor, which the Constitution does not apply to any other freedom, means that there is no scope whatsoever to restrict it, unlike other freedoms, which may be restricted under certain circumstances and conditions. This was confirmed during the campaign to erase people’s sects from their civil status records. In that case, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Justice followed with the guidance of the Consultation and Legislation Committee in the Ministry of Justice (July 2007), which deemed that Article 9 guarantees an individual’s freedom “to belong or not belong to a sect and to declare or not declare his choice in this regard”. This freedom is also confirmed by Articles 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which have constitutional force under Paragraph B of the Constitution’s Preamble. Note here that the UN Human Rights Committee, while explaining Article 18 of the ICCPR in General Comment 22, establishes that this article protects “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief” and that “the terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed”.


Despite the clarity of Article 9 and Lebanon’s international obligations in this regard, the minister of culture disregarded freedom of belief and its description as “absolute” in the article’s first sentence and jumped straight to the stipulation in the article’s second sentence that the state “renders homage to God Almighty”. Having done so, he declared with no hesitation that the state’s obligation to “render homage to God Almighty” necessarily means abiding by Christian and Islamic beliefs and moral values and prohibiting any teaching that contradicts them. He thereby opened the door wide for an onslaught on various freedoms, foremost among them the freedoms of belief and education.


This interpretation is categorically incorrect for several reasons. Firstly, the obligation to render homage falls on the state and not individuals, whose freedom of belief remains absolute and not open to any derogation or restriction. Secondly, rendering homage is interpreted as respecting the various religions and sects and enabling them to regulate their adherents’ personal status matters within the bounds of public order without promoting any religion or sect over another or forcing any individual to belong to it (in a break with Ottoman regulations). This is confirmed by Constitutional Council Decision no. 1 of 23 November 1999, which declared that Article 9 of the Constitution “implies that the state has a neutral position on religions”. In other words, the Lebanese state adopts no official religion and does not aim to impose religious morals on citizens because it is a civil state whose source of legitimacy is the will of the sovereign Lebanese people, per Paragraph D of the Constitution’s Preamble. This interpretation is reinforced by the plurality of religions and sects and the fact that their beliefs contradict each other, which makes adhering to them impossible. The best evidence of this is Pope Francis’ tolerant stance on homosexuality, which the minister of culture also chose to ignore. Thirdly, conflating “respecting religions” with “abiding by their values” reflects illegitimate and unconstitutional religious authoritarianism, as established by many judicial decisions. The most famous may be the ruling issued by the single criminal judge in Beirut in the case brought against Marcel Khalife for singing Quranic verses in the poem I am Yousef, Oh Father (15 December 1999). The decision explicitly stated that contravening the Islamic rule against singing Quranic verses is not a denigration of religion, artistic freedom is not subject to Islamic restrictions and prohibitions, and the “Islamic law-infringing” singing does not denigrate the religion as long as it is done with reverence and respect. The judiciary has taken similar positions in other decisions documented by the Legal Agenda, which all stressed that noncompliance with Islamic rules and beliefs does not constitute any kind of denigration of the religion and any contrary interpretation replaces freedom of belief with dictatorship of religions.


The same confusion is found in the minister’s interpretation of Article 10 of the Constitution, which states that “education shall be free in so far as it is not contrary to public order and morals and does not affect the dignity of any of the religions or creeds”. This article, too, indicates that the principle is freedom and the exception is the prohibition on undermining the dignity of religions, which once again is to be interpreted in accordance with reason and without allowing religious authoritarianism or intolerance. In other words, noncompliance with Islamic rules constitutes a free departure from them and absolutely not a denigration of them. The best evidence of this is the objectives of the education curricula (the 1997 decree). They explicitly state that the curricula 


“seek to develop the character of the Lebanese person as an individual (and ensure that he can achieve self-actualization in various realms, including the emotional and sentimental), as an upstanding and productive member of a free, democratic society, and as a law-abiding civil citizen who believes in the principles and foundations of the nation, and respond to the imperatives of building an advanced, integrated society whose members meld together in a climate of freedom, democracy, and equality”. 


The objectives elsewhere stress commitment to human values and principles, to reason, and to Lebanon as a nation of freedom, democracy, and justice. They also stress that Lebanon’s spiritual heritage is valuable and must be protected and strengthened as a model for interaction and spiritual and intellectual openness that runs counter to systems and beliefs based on racial discrimination and religious intolerance. Such curricula are at complete odds with bigotry, tyranny of religions, and certainly the attitude of the minister of culture.


An Attempt to Resurrect Past Taboos


The bill impinges not only on freedom of belief but also on freedom of expression via an apparent effort to reimpose taboos on any discussion that could defend LGBTQ rights or normalize homosexuality.


This is evident from the vague phrasing used in the bill. In addition to punishing any act (or statement) aimed at promoting homosexuality or gender transition, the bill refrains from defining “promotion”. Increasing the ambiguity of this term, the proposed punishment indicates that the promotion may be implicit, not just explicit. The same ambiguity is found in the proposed punishment for encouraging or inciting homosexuality.


Given this ambiguity, is advocating for homosexuality to be decriminalized considered implicit promotion or encouragement of it? Is presenting a bill to abolish Article 534 considered promotion of homosexuality on the basis that it impinges on faith-based values? Is a statement issued by psychiatrists stating that homosexuality is a natural orientation and not a disorder, as concluded by the World Health Organization, considered promotion or encouragement of homosexuality? Is criticizing [police-ordered] anal exams, anti-LGBTQ violence, or homophobia considered promotion of homosexuality?


These questions do not reflect bias or exaggerated concern about the minister’s intentions. Rather, they arise from the flexible terms used and the bill’s rationale, which begins by stating that Lebanon is facing 


“an attack that should it succeed, God forbid, could have the most vile impact on society and younger generations.This attack consists of a systematic effort by some elements operating in line with the agendas of some parties working under the cover of NGOs to promote and incite sexual deviance and gender transition, and portray them as not only normal but an axiom of modernity, social advancement, and human civilization”.


Hence, the target of this bill is not just enticement to practice homosexuality or undergo transition, e.g. by broadcasting sexual films, but also – and perhaps before all else – any statement, seminar, conference, artistic work, or legal or scientific article that addresses homosexuality as normal. The primary target appears to be public debate about LGBTQ people, which the minister of culture is expressing a desire to control and erase, just as occurred in the eras when discussing LGBTQ matters was subject to repressive social taboos. This concern is exacerbated by the fact that the bill’s rationale begins by demonizing NGOs and portraying them as trojan horses via which normalization of homosexuality infiltrates Lebanon. The bill goes on to include several clauses dissolving any private law entity (NGO) that violates it.


From this angle, this bill is a reaction to decisions that the State Council has issued holding that discussing LGBTQ issues and rights is an exercise of the freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 13 of the Constitution. It also conflicts with Article 19 of the ICCPR, which in principle disallows any restriction of freedom of intellectual debate about any public issue in a democratic society. Making the bill even worse, it seems to be completely divorced from the reality of globalization and the internet: when ideas and beliefs flow freely across national borders, any censorship of thought and public debate serves only to suppress opposition voices. Moreover, it is impossible to revive taboos that fell by the wayside more than two decades ago, as evidenced by the fact that the minister had to use the term “homosexual relationships” to define what he means by “sexual perversion” (a term he has been using since the beginning of his war on homosexuality).


A Bill Threatening Coexistence


Finally, the minister, via his bill, is continuing his denigration of a large swathe of social groups by using labels rife with prejudice (such as “sexual perversion”) and describing tolerance of homosexuality as vile, destructive, and unnatural. By frequently repeating these slurs and hateful expressions, the minister seems to be trying to force them onto the reader and undo decades of efforts to get rid of these prejudices. In this regard, the minister’s stance seems like an attempt to drive not only LBGTQ people to emigrate but also their families – who may seek to spare their children being socially attacked and bullied – in total breach of the principles of state unity and coexistence.


From this angle, the bill also conflicts with Paragraph J of the Constitution’s Preamble, which denies legitimacy to any authority that contradicts the “pact of coexistence”. This paragraph delegitimizes not only the bill but also its author.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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