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Lebanon Edges Away from Identifying Religion on ID Cards

By March 13, 2009

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The practice of including an individual's religious or ethnic denomination on his or her identity card isn't that uncommon. (The dark-age practice of requiring identity cards, let alone requiring individuals to carry one at all times, is even more common.) It doesn't make it any less of a dark-age practice. It has no purpose other than to enable discrimination, or worse: the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was facilitated, in part, by a category that listed Rwandans as Tutsi or Hutu. The category was eliminated in 1997.

To be eligible for European Union membership, Greece had to remove the religious designation from ID cards in 2000, since the European Union insists on member states respecting a clear wall between church and state.

Israel still includes religious denominations on ID cards. So does Lebanon, which recognizes 18 religions. In Lebanon, the ID card was used, during that country's civil war, as a short-cut to salvation--or execution. Christian-militia roadblocks notoriously used the ID check to pick out Muslims and execute them. Muslim and Palestinian roadblocks did the same at their end, picking out Christians for execution.

Lebanese flag
On Feb. 11, Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a directive allowing Lebanese citizens to remove any reference to their religion from ID cards or Civil Registry Records.

"This is a step in the right direction, but the government needs to take the next step and ensure that all Lebanese can have access to personal status laws that are not religiously-based and provide for equal treatment," said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Otherwise all Lebanese will continue to be forced to be officially members of specific religions and subject to their laws on key issues like marriage and inheritance."

Eliminating pointless identifiers from identity cards is not a minor matter of civil rights and protection from state abuse, especially in repressive regimes. The occasional nut suggests on nutty reactionary sites that all Muslims in the United States should carry identification cards denoting their religion, "Since the Muslims of todays [sic.] world are basically grouped as serious criminals against freedom [sic.]." It's thinking like that, left unchecked, that leads to abuses and atrocities.

Let's not forget what the most extreme case of state-controlled identification system by ethnicity and religion led to--Germany's Holocaust.

As Raul Hilberg describes it in The Destruction of the European Jews,

The whole identification system, with its personal documents, specially assigned names, and conspicuous tagging in public, was a powerful weapon in the hands of the police. First, the system was an auxiliary device that facilitated the enforcement of residence and movement restrictions. Second, it was an independent control measure in that it enabled the police to pick up any Jew, anywhere, anytime. Third, and perhaps most important, identification had a paralyzing effect on its victims. The system induced the Jews to be even more docile, more responsive to command than before. The wearer of the star was exposed; he thought that all eyes were fixed upon him. It was as though the whole population had become a police force, watching him and guarding his actions. No Jew, under those conditions, could resist, escape, or hide without first ridding himself of the conspicuous tag, the revealing middle name, the telltale ration card, passport, and identification papers. Yet the riddance of these burdens was dangerous, for the victim could be recognized and denounced. Few Jews took the chance. The vast majority wore the star and, wearing it, were lost.
Lebanon is moving in the right direction, but it's not there yet. In Israel, all identity cards issued before 2005 included the bearer's identity. Not so after 2005. With this subtle difference, nullifying the effect of removing the explicit ethnicity: Jews' date of birth is given according to the Hebrew calendar. Non-Jews' date of birth is given according to the Gregorian calendar (not, mind you, the Islamic calendar, though most non-Jews in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories are Muslims).

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