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Tuesday, 18 May 2021

The threat of racism in Lebanon

Directed against Syrian refugees, an ugly parochialism has emerged in Lebanon that could threaten the country's delicate model of coexistence

Hassan Abou Taleb , Thursday 10 Aug 2017

I wouldn't have imagined that one day I would write about Lebanese racism that some incite publicly and shamelessly and that is practised by many in largesse and a good-natured manner as if it is a recipe for superiority and surpassing past complexes.

According to comments circulating by some big politicians, analysts and heads of municipalities in the north and south of the country, and what is worse, in the statements of major religious personalities, Lebanese racism is directed mainly to Syrian refugees obliged by the accursed war in their country to seek asylum in a friendly country, or so they thought.

It treats them as if they are the core of all problems that erupt in the country, even if the roots of those problems emerged tens of years ago and have nothing to do with these temporary refugees.

Some politicians who incite against Syrian refugees are repeating the same fears that were brought up against Palestinian refugees four decades ago; fears that these refugees come to stay and obtain citizenship. Thus, the balance between Muslims and Christians will be changed.

If fear of dramatic changes that may befall religious balances, followed by uncomfortable political consequences, is legitimate, it doesn't justify abhorrent racist practices accompanied with ridicule and incitement campaigns that do not befit a country known for accepting diversity in all its various forms, whether religious or ethnic. Lebanon became an excellent example of coexistence.

Definitely not all Lebanese incite or resort to racist notions. There is a considerable section of the population, composed of journalists, politicians, writers academics and artists, that refuse this altogether. This was demonstrated by a statement signed by 260 of the Lebanese elite who see the current campaign against Syrians as unethical and inhuman.

The voices denouncing racist practices revealed a latent cultural heritage in the structure of Lebanese society and the existence of those who defend it sincerely. But unrestrained forces and currents possess the loudest and most clamorous voices and are more influential in Lebanese society and more organised in the media and political domains, inciting against Syrians. These campaigns, which newspapers and satellite channels participate in vigorously, not to mention the electronic chat groups that regularly insult refugees, are conducted without fear of accountability.

Forces include Christian currents and organisations and Muslim Sunni ones that attack the refugees in the context of historical grievances with Syria without differentiating between an unjust regime and those used as forced labour, and now made refugees. According to racist forces, everyone is to be punished in the frame of settling old scores.

In order to mitigate the moral burden, these forces conceal their rejection of the Syrian refugee population by pointing to the difficulties this population faces in terms of earning a livelihood, including the lack of resources and the inability of the Lebanese government to provide subsistence to 1.5 million displaced or refugee Syrians.

Under the pretext of calling on the Lebanese state to work on returning these Syrians to their country, multiple statements are issued from the highest religious and political authorities saying that these refugees are eating the food of Lebanese citizens, throwing them into a state of poverty and deprivation and driving future Lebanese generations to emigrate. Those were the words of Maronite Patriarch Bishara Al-Raie in a mass attended by President Michel Aoun and his wife. This was construed by the general public as a call to make haste in deporting Syrian refugees from Lebanese soil.

The beginning was signs erected in villages ridiculing, insulting and threatening to amputate the hands of refugees for having cut off Lebanese resources. Considering Syrian refugees as a reason for the scarcity of work for Lebanese is not the only charge. There is also the accusation that they are terrorists or have terrorists among them, such as those the Lebanese Army said blew themselves up when the army stormed one of the camps in Arsal 30 June.

This was followed by arresting 400 Syrian refugees. A number of them died during interrogation and were buried without autopsies. It was said at the time that hygiene was the reason while Lebanese human rights activists said that torture was the reason for the deaths. In such a case and in order to ward off suspicions and to uphold the value of the state and the law, criminal and medical investigations had to be conducted. However, they weren't, lest the army be accused of wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, some Lebanese affected by the racist incitement saw that they must avenge themselves against Syrians, as video clips widely circulated have shown. One showed four Lebanese hitting cruelly and violently with hands and legs a Syrian boy who was not more than 12 years old. They incessantly insulted, hit, cursed and swore at the boy. It ended with forcing the boy to salute the Lebanese Army and cursing the whole lot of Syria. The cruelty shown in the clip and the debate it raised drove Lebanese security to hastily detain the culprits.

Arresting tens or hundreds of Syrians is not the only collective punishment Syrian refugees have undergone. Forms of collective punishment Syrians have been subjected include being barred from moving from nine o’clock at night until six in the morning. This was acknowledged and applied by many municipalities throughout Lebanon under the pretext that they are probable terrorists and their movement must be restricted and always kept in check. Although such measures are not supported by law or legislation, they are practised without objection except for some critical voices that went unheeded. 

In one of the villages in the northern Matn district, Syrians were forced to work an additional day without payment; cleaning the village and its surroundings, according to As-Safir newspaper. This is a practice that represents a kind of dreadful primitive enslavement that can only be imagined in societies before the state, not in a country that knows the value of human beings and the law.

The biggest fear is that Lebanese practise repugnant racism against themselves after the refugees return to their homes. Then coexistence in Lebanon will be a relic of history.

The writer is a political commentator.

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