the interrogations of shamshouma

Civilization and its discontents (A comment on the article: “Lebanon cannot be ‘civilized’ while domestic workers are abused”)

Following the abuse and suicide of Alem Achasa in Lebanon, an article was published by Nesrine Malik  in the Guardian entitled Lebanon cannot be ‘civilized’ while domestic workers are abused.  The article addresses the racism and abuse that resulted in the suicide of Alem. In the third paragraph however, Malik embarks on a description of Lebanon’s “status” via-a-vis other Arab countries:

“No country in the Arab world is free from racial discrimination. But there is a perception, encouraged by the eagerness with which people in other countries, particularly Gulf ones, devour Beirut’s cultural exports and standards of beauty, that the Lebanese are somehow superior to other Arabs in that they are more liberal, more occidental in inclination and above all else, much lighter-skinned and therefore more “attractive”. The last 20 years has witnessed an invasion by Lebanese music and entertainment. After many painful years of civil war that crippled the country, Beirut emerged, unencumbered by the conservatism of the majority of Middle Eastern countries, more “modern” and “civilised”. But it surprises few in the region that the worst discrimination occurs in Lebanon, and that it is inflicted on only certain races and nationalities.”

the rest of the article addresses the recorded abuse of different domestic migrants in Lebanon then ends with this remark:

 “Farah Salka from the Lebanese Anti-Racism Movement says that it is time for a redefining of the word “racist” in Lebanon. Hopefully across the region we can also begin to redefine the meaning of “civilised”, making it not only about dress, physical beauty and liberal lifestyle, but empathy with other human beings whatever their race or nationality.”

What I want to address here is Malik’s use of “civility” as an indicator of anti-racism or the absence of racism.

Malik’s argument can be summarized as the following: Lebanon is seen as superior to other countries because of its “culture” (ie music, clothes), “light skin” (apparently we are all light skinned but let’s humor Malik for a while) beauty and liberalism. But the mark and indicator of civility is not all of the above, but the ability to respect and empathy with all human beings regardless of their race and nationality. 

Malik’s framing of the whole article in terms of civility is useless at best and problematic at worse because this sort of framing refers the cause of racism to an ethical and individual form of acquired civility that requires “empathy with other human beings regardless of their ethnicity and nationality”.

By framing the racism committed against Alem Dechasa and other migrant workers in Lebanon as “uncivilized”, Malik is first assuming that the problem of racism in Lebanon is a  problem of uncivilized Lebanese individuals who lack “real”  moral attributes of humanism against the other.

Second, and most important, framing Lebanese racism as an uncivilized individual form of humanist morality completely overshadows and neglects the form of systemic and structural racism that migrant workers suffer from on a daily basis. While migrant workers are directly maltreated and abused by Lebanese individuals themselves, there is however a whole institutional  system of labour, trafficking, migration, poverty and marginalization that not only made this form of racism possible but produced it. Racism in Lebanon is a product of a an institutional system of exploitation that renders migrant workers vulnerable to racist abuse and violence.

This form of institutional and systemic racism is not only found in wanna be “civilized” Lebanon, or in the “barbaric” and uncivilized Gulf, as Malik is suggesting and describing. Structural racism in Lebanon is connected to global and universal  processes of exploitation that manifest in capitalist labour, migration and human trafficking.

Also, framing the problem of racism in terms of civility because it occurs in a country like Lebanon works to reify the civilized/uncivilized dichotomy between the “really civilized” West and the “uncivilized” other parts. But let’s not fool ourselves, racism is a universal issue and  problem, as the latest events in the USA for example have shown us with the murder of both Trayvon Martin and  Shaima Alawadi. Framing racism in terms of civility, just because it happened in a country like Lebanon, only serves to reify the “West’s” own civility and render it absent of discrimination.

Instead of framing events of violence and abuse in terms of civility/uncivility, it would be more useful for Malik to present us with an inquisitive and analytical framework of the systemic form of racism that is producing racist individuals and employers in Lebanon. Using the “civilized” argument is getting pretty old and is really useless to everyone.


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2 thoughts on “Civilization and its discontents (A comment on the article: “Lebanon cannot be ‘civilized’ while domestic workers are abused”)

  1. houssam on said:

    I agree with your main point – but you unjustly turned Malik into a punching bag, and you didn’t need one to make your point. Throughout her article, she uses the words ‘civilized’ and ‘modern’ in quotes – including in the title of the article. This suggests at least an ambivalence about these words, and the whole of the article suggests that she is merely repeating the words that Lebanese like to use to describe themselves. A phenomenon that you and I are only too familiar with. The very use of these words, in fact, is part of the individual (and instituionalized) racism in the Lebanese society and system, because they are invariably used to offset ourselves from the Arab environment. We’re “modern”, they’re not. Seen in this light, Malik’s admonishment at the end of her article to “re-define civility” is saying to Lebanese “stop drumming our ears with your ‘civility’ just because you wear jeans, when this is the sort of thing you do”.
    In fewer words, you completely missed the tone of her article. It is the Lebanese themselves who frame this in terms of civility and modernism. (And she did say “lightER-skinned”; not light-skinned 🙂 Your sarcasm, I fear, comes back to haunt you because it was misdirected).
    That said, her article isn’t entirely free of references to the systemic aspects of the problem: granted it’s the one sentence, but I feel it is not her self-assigned task, here, to engage in a full-fledged analysis (that’s for the next PhD student 😛 ). The sentence is “Against this backdrop of a legal vacuum and racial hierarchy, conditions are ripe for abuse.” Sounds like a clear acknowledgement of a systemic racism, albeit in passing.

    • This is why I referred to her “framing” of the article. She simply used a useless framing analytically. I am not interested in turning anyone into a punching bag. Critiquing someone’s work should not be confused with criticizing or demeaning it and is pretty much a legitimate act whether I was an academic or not I do believe! I am just critiquing narrative frames that sell in journalism, hence the title for the article.
      Malik used the quotation not to deconstruct “civility” but to insist that a “true” civility is “the empathy to other human beings regardless of their race and nationality” and not “beauty, culture and liberalism” and this is what i was critiquing, not her use of the actual word. So I am actually critiquing the framing and tone of the article itself and not making her a punching bag because she used the c word ya3neh..

      And I believe strongly that using these kinds of framings turns the problem of race into an individual one and overshadows the systemic and structural violence that racialized people suffer everywhere. Therefore they should be analyzed themselves. In order for any form of social change to occur, we need to de-construct these useless and boring narratives and push for more analytical ones.
      punching bag 3al…I’ll turn you into a punching bag when you come visit in Lebanon walla..

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