North Africa, West Asia

Anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon

Lebanese nationalism has historically been exclusionary - as are all nationalisms - and isolationist, in that it accentuates differences between the Lebanese and other Levantines or other Arabs while downplaying shared attributes and characteristics.

Mahmoud Mroueh
15 September 2014

“Beirut kills one of us everyday, and everyday looks for a new victim. Beirut is narrowing around us…”

— Nizar Qabbani, Balqis – A Poem

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of September 11, 2014 close to 9.5 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes since the uprising began in March of 2011. Of those who were forced to move, 6.5 million are internally displaced; the remaining three million left the country as refugees.

Forty percent of those who left Syria (1.2 million people) headed into neighbouring Lebanon. In Lebanon they were met with endemic racism manifesting itself through chauvinistic rhetoric, discrimination, curfews, evacuation notices, and increasingly frequent racial attacks against their person and their livelihood. The Lebanese laud themselves for their sense of hospitality and exceptional generosity, but these claims are now being tested by what has been described as the ‘worst refugee crisis in recent history’, and Lebanon has been failing miserably.

Violence against refugees has been steadily becoming more common and more gruesome, most notably after the conflagration in Arsal‘Revenge’ attacks for the actions of groups like the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, or for isolated crimes by Syrian individuals, that target refugees, their homes, and their property are becoming increasingly frequent. It is worth noting that the Islamic State militant responsible for the beheadings of two Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers, an act that spurred a large part of these ‘revenge attacks’ was Lebanese, not Syrian. Reports of refugee camps being set alight, drive-by shootings, and attacks against refugees by racist mobs are now a daily feature of Lebanese news broadcasts, and some have begun to (accurately) describe these events as ‘pogroms’.

In addition to these so-called revenge attacks against refugees, some aggressions seem to be carried out for sport. The dehumanisation of the Syrian refugee in the minds of most Lebanese has resulted in acts of immeasurable cruelty. Two particular incidents made headlines after videos taken by the perpetrators spread on social media. The first video showed Lebanese parents prodding their toddler to beat a cowering Syrian child with a wooden stick. The second video shows a knife-wielding Lebanese man threatening to behead three sobbing Syrian children, while accusing them of belonging to the Islamic State.

Drawing upon these two incidents one can conceptualise the nature of the disease that ails Lebanese society, of which these are only two of many symptoms. In addition to that, a depressing study carried out by Dr. Charles Harb and Dr. Reem Saab of the American University of Beirut showed high levels of explicit support for violence against Syrian refugees among the local Lebanese populations in Akkar and the Bekaa valley. 

In addition to collective punishment, misdirected rage, and dehumanisation, these attacks are also motivated by the widely held belief that Syrian refugees are largely responsible for most of Lebanon’s ailments. The Lebanese have traditionally been masters at projecting and diverting blame onto others. Syrian refugees are being scapegoated for a plethora of issues including, but not limited to, electricity and water shortages, the uptick in crime, traffic jams and accidents, inflation, and terrorist attacks.

A few days ago the owner of a bakery by my house in Beirut lectured me on how splendid life in Lebanon was before Syrian refugees. “We were all living in plenty, no one was unhappy. Do you remember those days?” Not only does this amnesiac rhetoric blame Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s current predicaments, it also creates and invokes a fictional (not-so-distant) past that isn’t even remotely rooted in reality. Living conditions in Lebanon have been terrible for decades. As would be expected, Lebanon’s nefarious politicians and government officials are taking advantage of the situation by blaming their shortcomings (and the effects of their corruption) on Syrian refugees.

What’s most worrying about this upsurge in violence against Syrian nationals is how it is being normalised. Racially motivated attacks receive almost no condemnation from government officials or the public. Instead, many will explicitly express their approval. A number of Lebanese politicians and government officials have made thinly veiled racist statements regarding Syrian refugees. Member of parliament for the Kataeb Party Samy Gemayel told parliament that “the Lebanese Army is capable of closing down and controlling our borders, all the army needs is 10-20 drones”. He continued to say, “Lebanon is bleeding, the refugees are bleeding, Lebanon is getting destroyed, its [sectarian and national] identity is changing, as is its nature”. He concluded his remarks on Syrian refugees by saying, “Syrian refugees are responsible for 50% of all crimes committed on Lebanese soil”.

Then Minister of Energy (now Minister of Foreign Affairs) and MP for the Free Patriotic Movement Gibran Bassil, made a similar point in 2013 when he said of the influx of Syrian refugees, "what is happening is organised crime carried out by Lebanese and foreign officials to change the country's demography". This fixation on sectarian and demographic balance and on national identity has been a feature of right-wing rhetoric since before the Lebanese Civil War, when it was directed against Palestinian, rather than Syrian refugees.

Racism against Syrian nationals in Lebanon cannot be understood outside of its historic and economic context. The proliferation of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanese society already was a cause for concern and condemnation well before the beginning of the Syrian uprising and the subsequent influx of refugees. For decades, the demonym ‘Syrian’ has been employed to insult, denoting vulgarity, low social and economic status, bad taste, poor hygiene, etc… Racially motivated attacks against Syrian nationals aren’t without precedent either. In 2005, Syrian workers in Lebanon were the victims of (often fatal) attacks motivated by the suspected culpability of the Syrian government in former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri’s assassination.

It is imperative to expound the underlying class dynamics of Lebanese racism against Syrian refugees as this racism is fundamentally and typically classist. Syrian migrant workers have dominated construction and other labour-intensive sectors of the Lebanese economy since colonial times. Syrian workers can be credited with building Lebanon, before and after the Lebanese Civil War.

Before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, an estimated 300,000 Syrian migrants worked in Lebanon. ‘Syrian’ came to signify an unskilled, uneducated labourer in the Lebanese psyche, as the vast majority of Syrians with which the Lebanese regularly interacted were of the working class (an excellent read on this topic here). The massive influx of refugees into Lebanon with the start of the Syrian uprising simultaneously challenged, but to a greater extent reinforced, this bigoted and classist notion of the Syrian people. Not all those who fled Syria for Lebanon are impoverished, but many are, and they are considerably more visible than those who are not (on the streets, in refugee camps) and their presence helped solidify previously mentioned notions of race and class held by the Lebanese.

On the other hand, affluent Syrians who fled the war back home into Lebanon have been frequenting the country’s top restaurants, clubs, and other social venues. Their interactions with similarly wealthy Lebanese have led some to abandon their preconceived notions, but not entirely. Well-off and wealthy Syrians are perceived as entirely distinct from lower middle class and working class Syrians, as if the two hail from different parts of the planet. Rather than perceive well-off Syrians as Syrian and abandoning their generalisations in the process, the Lebanese bourgeoisie, vindicating Marx, resorted to sundering the Syrian people into two distinct and oppositional groups along economic lines. Upper class and upper middle class Syrians constantly hear statements (and I myself have been privy to these conversations dozens of times) of the “but you’re not Syrian Syrian”, or “I know you’re Syrian but you’re different” variety. Needless to say, the vast majority (if not all) racially motivated attacks against Syrian nationals in Lebanon have targeted lower middle class or working class Syrian refugees.

Of course not all racism against Syrian nationals and Syrian refugees is rooted in class. A tiny part stems from archaic notions of Lebanese exceptionalism, rooted in different forms of (sometimes violent) Lebanese nationalism that is antithetical to pan-Arabism or even the Arab label. Lebanese nationalism has historically been exclusionary - as are all nationalisms - and isolationist, in that it accentuates differences between the Lebanese and other Levantines or other Arabs while downplaying shared attributes and characteristics, and it is an unfortunate fact of our time that basic human empathy and solidarity is strongly dependent upon notions of shared identity. 

Resistance to this widespread racism and racial violence on the part of Lebanese activists has been weak and mostly confined to symbolic gestures and social media. The Lebanese State is at worst complicit and at best uninterested in putting an end to these attacks and transgressions. Further exacerbation of the situation will inevitably lead to resistance on the part of the refugees themselves, which in the absence of an impartial state is justified in all its forms

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