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Rima Merhi

Is the Arab world a graveyard for love?

By Rima Merhi
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2010

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TAKE THE regular Arab surviving corrupt governments, political turmoil, religious intolerance, struggling economies, terrorism, and ask him what love is.

He’ll say, “My family.’’

And yet this sacred institution lies at the heart of the instigation of fear, mistrust, and rejection of other sects. More than any other social ailment, sectarianism has turned the Arab world into a graveyard for love.

Typically, if your partner does not come with the correct religious label for the family, then it isn’t love. It’s more like an assault on the family honor, a social disgrace, and complete disrespect for culture and roots.

If you intermarry, you are usually ostracized for being a traitor to your parents, religion, and community. And suppose you can withstand the pressure, what happens to love when your children are rejected as second-class citizens?

Many of us come to the West to escape the intolerance of the Arab world. We get the education, acquire new attitudes, and broaden our perspectives, but we are shoved back to the starting point the moment we return to our communities.

The West makes us and the East breaks us again.

So why don’t we speak up, put up a fight for intermarriages, and demand an end to sectarianism?

It’s hard to explain. No matter how highly accomplished you are in the West, you remain a number. Our need to belong is so intense that many of us abandon core values just to feel at home.

Certainly there are Arabs who would not intermarry out of religious convictions. The attack on Islam in the West makes many Muslim Arabs more protective of their religion.

But more than anything, it boils down to fear. We fear rejection by our family and community. I have seen many Arab friends forced to leave people they love and settle for a marriage of convenience arranged by family and friends.

Verbal and physical abuse, threats, and confinement to the home are common measures taken by families to prohibit daughters from marrying outside the religion.

The family will typically have a list of brides for the man to visit when he goes home. It would be left for the family to define the “correct’’ religious background, socioeconomic status, and sometimes the political affiliation of the bride.

With so many Arab men working abroad and high unemployment rates in the Arab world, the man who is educated in the West is a real catch for many Arab women eager to escape family pressure and overcome limited working and learning opportunities.

It is not uncommon for an educated, cultured Arab man to pick up a bride over a two-week summer or Christmas vacation. No wonder divorce rates in the Arab world continue to increase.

The question remains: How can we fight sectarianism, and what is the alternative?

There is no quick fix solution, but Arabs and Americans alike cannot afford to ignore the rise of religious extremism in the region.

It is not enough to introduce religion classes in schools and universities. The Arab world needs experts in comparative religion who will target both the older and younger generations and educate them about different religions in a scholarly manner.

Civil society in the Arab world needs to educate the masses about civil marriage, present it as an option but not an alternative to religious marriage, and advocate for change from the grass roots. Direct American involvement and funding would not work and would likely destroy the project’s legitimacy.

In a region where there is limited freedom for the press, international media remains a critical platform to lobby for change.

The alternative to sectarianism is not the secularization of Arab societies. It is a return to the essence of all religions, and a promising venue to bring back to the region the moderate educated Arab youth who refuses to live in this graveyard.

Life in America taught me a very valuable lesson: My roots, religion, and identity are all in my heart, and if I step on it, I lose the very things I am fighting for.

Rima Merhi is the first Lebanese recipient of Gibran Tueni fellowship at Kennedy School in Harvard University.

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