President Michel Aoun told the United Nations General Assembly last month that Lebanon should be the permanent centre of an institution dedicated to peace education with a “focus on forgiveness and coexistence”.
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This was a reminder of how it has become socially acceptable to be racist in Lebanon, as well as elsewhere, as the rapid rise of xenophobia continues. As sociologist Rima Majed from the American University of Beirut noted: “In times of crises, ‘political correctness’ fades away and the real dynamics of power and social hierarchies appear more clearly, often taking the ugly shape of racism.”
Bassil urged people not to call him and his party racist; he claimed that he represents the antithesis of the racism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and of Israel. It did not occur to him that the best way to avoid being called racist is not to declare it publicly on Twitter.
How else did he expect non-racist Lebanese citizens to react to a tweet from their foreign minister including them in the “we”, and associating them with “racism” as a mark of their Lebanese identity.
‘Honourable patriot’ or ‘useful idiot’?
This juxtaposition of patriotism and the need to take an anti-refugee stance was also evoked in July, prior to the military operation to liberate Arsal. When activists tried to stage a demonstration in support of refugees and calling for accountability for alleged deaths under torture of at least five Syrians, there was a fierce backlash.
The choice was, as an editorial by the NGO Legal Agenda put it, being labelled an “honourable patriot” or a “traitor” – or, in the best case scenario, a trivial individual idealising human rights and supporting refugees who have only brought terrorism and economic and political hardships to the country.
It especially from Asia and Africa, to understand that Lebanon has a racism problem that goes beyond the discrimination of refugees.
In other words, the choice presented to the Lebanese people by Bassil and like-minded politicians is to be an anti-refugee honourable patriot or a refugee-loving useful idiot (or traitor).
This choice is not limited to those defending Syrian refugees. It also applies to activists for the cause of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Calls for improving their inhumane living conditions and putting an end to the policy of social exclusion have been ignored and viewed with suspicion. State policies of isolating the community have contributed to discrimination, dire living conditions, poverty, lack of economic opportunities and bleak future prospects for Palestinians living in refugee camps.
Racism and racial discrimination
Now, to avoid a futile debate on semantics, I am using the word “racism” as interchangeable with “racial discrimination”, as set forth by the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination that includes “national origin” as a basis for “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference”.
The Durban Declaration (pdf) also recognises that “xenophobia against non-nationals, particularly migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, constitutes one of the main sources of contemporary racism and that human rights violations against members of such groups occur widely in the context of discriminatory, xenophobic and racist practices”.
Undeniably, discrimination or targeted campaigns against Syrians based on “national origin” have been widespread and well documented. The prevalent discourse on the refugee crisis has been dehumanising and vilifying, describing refugees as a burden, ungrateful or unwanted guests, and even murderers and rapists (especially after the horrifying murder of a Lebanese woman by her family’s Syrian caretaker in a Christian village in the North of Lebanon in September).
As a result, all Syrians were asked to leave the village, and other municipalities followed suit in order to “act before it is too late” and to protect “our women” and “our country”. A local resident told the Washington Post in words that evoke the bad memories of Lebanon’s civil war: “If they didn’t leave we would have killed them. The whole town is against them. All Lebanon is against them.”
Little did it matter that many Lebanese women suffer crimes at the hands of Lebanese men and that scapegoating “Syrian refugees” overlooks the real solution to violence against women and girls that involves reforming discriminatory laws and combatting sexism and patriarchy in all its forms.
Racism before and beyond the refugee crisis
In Lebanon and Europe, the association of racism with anti-refugee and anti-migrant discourse has dominated the discussion recently, with the rise of far-right nationalism as the most obvious threat to democracy.
But is it fair to speak about Lebanon’s “racism problem” given the scale of the refugee crisis and the bloody history of the country that have left citizens genuinely worried for their stability and security?
Let us put aside the discussion of political, religious, demographic and geopolitical considerations – including legitimate frustrations and concerns of Lebanese citizens – that are used as justifications for the current discourse and simply ask whether racism exists independently of the Syrian and Palestinian refugee crises.
It is enough to look at the mistreatment of domestic workers, especially from Asia and Africa to understand that Lebanon has a racism problem that goes beyond the discrimination of refugees.
According to a survey conducted by Lebanese anti-violence NGO KAFA and the American University of Beirut in collaboration with Anti-Slavery International, part of the Lebanese society holds some twisted perceptions of domestic workers: 27 percent consider them “unclean” although they clean and cook for them; 36 percent consider them stupid although they are in charge of all domestic affairs; and 51 percent consider them untrustworthy although they take care of their children and ageing parents.
KAFA conducted a social experiment in supermarkets selling a “special soap” for domestic workers. While some Lebanese shoppers criticised this deliberately racist product, others were more than happy to give the soap – that would “clean” their “unclean” domestic workers – a try.
Another report by KAFA (pdf) found that “over 88 percent of employers withhold the passport of the domestic worker to prevent her from escaping and 80 percent do not allow her to leave the employer’s house on her day off.” The report also revealed that 31.3 percent of Lebanese employers lock the domestic workers they hire inside the house when they leave.
If this isn’t racism (and modern-day slavery), what is?
First things first
An insightful response reminding Bassil of the danger of racism towards Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike came from photographer Dalia Khamissy who tweeted back at the foreign minister the names and pictures of mothers still waiting for the fate of their missing sons and husbands. They are men who died or disappeared in the civil war, Khamissy said, “precisely because of our racism [towards each other]”.
At the end of the day, Bassil’s tweet can be a blessing in disguise. As Lebanese citizens, it can force us to rethink our attitudes and practices, not as a form of self-flagellation or self-hate, but in order to ask uncomfortable and difficult questions about the type of society we would like to live in, and for what causes we stand up for when it matters the most.
Lebanon has a racism problem. Let us deal with that first, and only then can we sincerely offer our services to become a global centre for peace education promoting forgiveness and coexistence.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.