18 Nov 2011

Lebanon’s Multicultural System: No Vacancy!

National myths can often mean little in practice. However, they represent a good way to interrogate the ideals that a nation holds and how consistently they inform its politics and policy. How can we for example reconcile Lebanon’s self-image as a shelter for persecuted minorities with the antagonism towards newcomers? How could we tolerate the rhetorical celebration of Lebanon’s diversity while the army and security forces wage a brutal campaign against migrant workers in Beirut?

We could argue that those ideals never really mattered and that they were always used cynically to promote an underserved image. But I find it more useful to understand this cleavage between our ideals and our pathetic lack of consistency in upholding them. It is also important to challenge the political class and the way it appropriates and subverts those ideals. We can build a new form of politics around this engagement that is grounded in our reality and aspirations.

So let’s look at the ongoing campaign against migrant workers which was sparked off by the rabid Murr TV report. The rise in crimes levels in the areas of Dawra, Nabaa and Bourj Hammoud was blamed on the migrant workers who live there, and a campaign of arrests and forced evictions targeting both legal and ‘illegal’ migrant workers followed. The campaign was characterised by arbitrariness and the intent to demean and denigrate migrant workers. What is the source of this vindictiveness?

To understand that it’s useful to examine the nature of Lebanon’s multicultural system. As the modern state took shape this developed into a formal and managed socio-political system that empowers confessional groups but with some necessary exclusions in place. The bitter irony of the migrant workers’ saga is that it takes place in a neighbourhood associated with the Armenian community, and is driven by the largest Armenian party, the Dashnak. The case of Armenian migration to Lebanon and subsequent integration should be seen as a model for successful immigration, were it not for the conditionality that characterised this integration. Armenians were required to behave as one political block to prop the existing order with no tolerance for individual dissent.

This placed Armenians under the same burdens that members of other groups have to cope with: demands for allegiance and the difficulty of behaving as individuals. In parallel, the same status that the Armenian community acquired was not granted to other groups, like the Syriacs and the Assyrians for example, who remained largely marginalised. Many of them are still deprived of the Lebanese nationality despite living in Lebanon for decades. (Not to mention the Palestinians of course, but there are a number of other factors involved in their case.)

When it comes to the issue of naturalisation, one statement common in political circles is very telling. It is often claimed that the Lebanese nationality is ‘a privilege not a right’. Never mind that this statement contradicts one of the national myths, Lebanon the shelter, what it conveys is that the selective admission of incomers to the confessional arrangement must be strictly managed so as not to inconvenience the prevailing order. So the idea of Lebanon’s diversity degenerates into the management of ‘undesirables’ by excluding elements that are perceived as threatening, such as the Palestinians, or ineffectual, such as the Assyrians. Those must remain as constant transients.

The vindictiveness against migrant workers is of course a manifestation of bigotry and racism at an individual and institutional levels. But it also shows how ‘strangers’ must be constantly reminded that they are transient so as not to aspire to that ‘privileged’ status of settlement and naturalisation. Lebanon created a multicultural system that is sustained at a state of ‘fragile and delicate balance’, a claim that legitimises those processes of exclusion. The Lebanese system has no vacancies. But in fact this is a recipe for instability and chronic anxiety.

Watch my immigration TedX talk 'Society Beyond Borders' 

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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