Lebanon's refugee crisis through a sectarian lens

Lebanon’s refugee crisis through a sectarian lens

It is important to reflect on the essential role sectarianism has played in preventing the Lebanese State from establishing an effective and rational asylum policy rather than one that is motivated by security considerations and/or “begs for international aid.” Considering the many other problems Lebanon is facing, such an exercise may include a genuinely therapeutic dimension, especially compared to the intransigence associated with choosing to remain in denial over the very nature and value of asylum.

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By UMAM Documentation and Research

On March 10, 2017, a regional television channel aired an interview with Patriarch Bechara AlRahi, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Church. While responding to a question about his ambiguity toward Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, Al-Rahi stated, seemingly extemporaneously, “The Palestinians are the ones who stirred the war against the Lebanese army in 1975 in Lebanon, and as a result we went through a civil war.”[1] As might be expected, his statement raised some ire. In fact, it precipitated a brief debate between those who opposed the patriarch’s opinion and those who supported it. When that debate began to wane, it was replaced with one focused on another, fresh group of “refugees” that had begun arriving in Lebanon a few years before.[2]

Another “incident” occurred several weeks later. Just as Lebanon’s prime minister was preparing to attend the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference in Brussels (coordinated by the European Union), he reportedly disclosed to a group of “foreign media correspondents in Beirut” that Lebanon was at the “point of collapse.” He also expressed concern that the 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon could cause strife between the refugees and their Lebanese hosts.[3]

Then, somewhere between Patriarch Al-Rahi’s spontaneous observation (which remains controversial among the Lebanese) and the prime minister’s dire warning, Lebanon’s minister of tourism (a man of Armenian descent who is thus affiliated with a refugee community that once sought shelter in Lebanon) also spoke seemingly out of turn. While criticizing Turkey, the minister angered some Lebanese by implying that he favored his loyalty to Armenia over his Lebanese nationality.[4]

One need not be a meticulous observer of Lebanese affairs to encounter, almost on a daily basis, disclosures that approximate at least one of the three instances mentioned previously. After all, many such declarations express, sometimes quite unintentionally, the centrality of the very notion of “asylum” in Lebanese life—past, present and most likely in the future. A vital pillar (whether hypothetical or historical) that supports the idea of “inventing Lebanon” holds that at some time in the past, the “Lebanese” (more precisely the group related to geographical Lebanon) also sought asylum in the country. Some did so because of prejudice directed toward them in their countries of origin, while others were persecuted for a variety of reasons until they feared for their lives.[5] It must be noted, however, that the notion and practice of asylum has not only had a bearing on Lebanon’s history and founding mythology, but also in determining and shaping Lebanese national pride. Almost to an individual, the Lebanese describe their country as a mosaic of religions and sects, a diversity-oriented attitude that has helped instill another essential Lebanese quality: the ability—periodically of course—to “coexist peacefully.”

From the time Lebanon first appeared as a discrete country—and despite its emergence as a destination for the disenfranchised and persecuted—the issue of asylum has been associated inextricably with “sectarianism.” Any latter day analysis that fails to disclose the important role played by sectarianism will also have failed to recognize the “bigger picture” in Lebanon. In decree No. 60, which was issued March 13, 1926, Lebanon’s “historical sects” were listed. Chief among them were the Armenians, who achieved their “historical status” due to contingencies associated with World War I. This official action underscores the enduring presence of a naive bias, which clearly has demonstrated a unique ability to emplace obstacles on the path of Lebanese life, particularly in the society’s ongoing debate over how their coexistence can be weakened. Examples of such naiveté abound, and some people claim that even the simple mention of their existence can inflame “sectarian” tensions that pose a direct threat to “civil peace” in the country. That notwithstanding, it is always beneficial to recall that Lebanon’s reluctance to welcome and assimilate newcomers is not indicative of a demeanor based on systematic mechanisms. Rather, the attitude is selective in nature and origin.

In parallel with Lebanon’s institution as a sovereign state, Armenian refugees (among others) were given Lebanese nationality. Similarly, thousands of Christian (and other wealth) Palestinians also received Lebanese citizenship during the 1950s and 1960s. As they did, their Palestinian status changed instantly from “enemy” (a general characterization applied to Palestinians by certain civil war-era Lebanese militias) to “Lebanese nationals.” Of course, it could be argued that these two examples are archaic and no longer apply to “21st century Lebanon.” Thus, a closer look at recent events in the country is necessary to freshen this inclination toward selectivity.

In March 2015, just a few months after the “Zero Refugees” policy had been adopted by Lebanese authorities, an exception was granted by those same officials to welcome a number of Assyrian families from Hassakeh.[6] In the final months of that year, the United Nations brokered the exchange of several hundred wounded fighters and their families between the predominantly Sunni area of Zabadani (just outside Damascus) and the Shia areas of Kifrya and Foua (Idlib, northern Syria). Ultimately, more than 100 people from Zabadani arrived in Turkey and over 300 from Kifrya and Foua arrived in Lebanon. Of note, there is no evidence that anyone from that latter group has ever departed Lebanon….[7]

These recent developments may seem burdensome to some Lebanese who are already confused about agreements regarding their sect-based “right” to revisit the history of asylum in Lebanon. After all, many of us might wonder who would dare analyze the stances that have been instituted by the country after peering at life through a “sectarian lens.” These same people might reflect on the essential role sectarianism has played in preventing the Lebanese State from establishing an effective and rational asylum policy rather than one that is motivated by security considerations and/or “begs for international aid.” Considering the many other problems Lebanon is facing, such an exercise may include a genuinely therapeutic dimension, especially compared to the intransigence associated with choosing to remain in denial over the very nature and value of asylum.

UMAM Documentation and Research aims to preserve, examine and debate the memories of civil violence as well as to provide a platform for public access to, and exchange of such memories. 

To learn more about the work of UMAM Documentation and Research, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, please click here. 

Footnotes

  1. Sky News Arabia interview broadcast March 10, 2017.
  2. The sidebar, “Refugees” vs. “Displaced” on page 23 provides further information.
  3. An-Nahar. April 1, 2017. http://www.memoryatwork.org/public/uploads/files/annahar-20170401-01,08.pdf. Also, “Lebanon near ‘breaking point’ over Syrian refugee crisis: PM Hariri,” http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-lebanon-idUSKBN1722JM
  4. Cf. http://www.memoryatwork.org/public/uploads/files/Al-Jareeda-20170401-21.pdf
  5. Firro, Kais. Inventing Lebanon: Nationalism and the State Under the Mandate, I.B. Tauris. 2002.
  6. Cf. http://www.memoryatwork.org/public/uploads/files/si-almustaqbal-20150301-01,18.pdf and http://www.memoryatwork.org/public/uploads/files/misc-annahar-20150304-05.pdf
  7. For an extensive analysis of this exchange, see: “The Zabadani-Kefraya/Foua Evacuations – Linking the Capitals of ‘Resistance.’” http://www.shiawatch.com/article/629

 

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