Everyday more and more news articles are telling us that Tripoli is engulfed in “a sectarian war” pitting “pro-Assad Alawites” against “Sunni Fighters”. One recent piece used the words “Sunni” and Alawite” 30 times, mentioning religion as an indicator of the violence in almost every single paragraph.
Likewise I’ve heard many Lebanese use the phrase “this country is sectarian” to explain away the violence. This sentiment was expressed recently by fellow blogger Mustapha who downplayed poverty as a reason for the fighting, saying: “What’s happening in Tripoli is sectarian hatred, pure and simple.” I consider Mustapha a friend and always enjoy his posts and recommend them, but I respectfully disagree with him here.
I think he and many others are totally justified in raising the issue of racism and stereotyping in Lebanon, which often takes on the most visceral and demeaning of language. I believe such rampant discrimination is one of the country’s biggest challenges. Not only is it built around religion– damaging inter-Lebanese relations– it also revolves around ethnicity, targeting migrant workers including Africans, South Asians and Arabs, particularly Syrians. The hurtful stereotypes are even promoted on Lebanese television, both in parody entertainment programming and news stories.
But just as racism and discrimination is rampant across Lebanon, it is also very present in the US, Europe and other regions. What is happening today in parts of Tripoli however, is beyond the latent xenophobia and hateful feelings we find in other parts of Lebanon and the world. It’s one thing to talk trash about others, it’s another thing to pick up machine guns and rocket launchers and fire them incessantly at one another for weeks and months.
The longstanding procurement of arms in certain Tripoli neighborhoods is all the more curious because most people living the area can’t afford them. A single machine gun pictured above could easily cost a family several months’ salary. But savings are sparse in the two neighborhoods at war, which are among the poorest in country, according to the UNDP.
While Tripoli and North Lebanon face some of the nation’s greatest shortages in health care, education and jobs, the rival neighborhoods of Bab El Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are the epicenter of that misery. At 35 percent unemployment, residents of the two districts suffer from the nation’s highest illiteracy and high school dropout rates.
Now I’m not saying poverty has caused the weaponization of these neighborhoods. I just wonder how the residents can afford these guns.
Too often this question is answered in vague terms. The fighters are funded by ‘wealthy Arab Sunnis’ from the Gulf kingdoms or ‘the Syrian regime’ or various ‘Lebanese politicians’– all this part of the ‘bigger picture’ of Sunni/Shia/Alawite animosity. But where are the actual details in this grand scheme? Who are the groups and individuals receiving and distributing these bullets and guns? No the whole town is not at war, otherwise it would have been vaporized by now. These fighters and suppliers are individuals. What are their names?
I think answering these questions will bring us much closer to understanding the dynamics of what’s happening in these battle-worn neighborhoods. Focusing on intangible issues like religion only blurs the specifics of how all this is happening. The more the actual suppliers and street soldiers remain shrouded in opaque and monolithic descriptions, the further they fade into the shadows of unaccountability.