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.