Lebanon’s shrinking room for debate

Two seemingly opposing groups — the BDS activists and the religious authorities — succeeded in fostering an atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Narrower horizons. People take a picture of waves crashing as the sun sets along Beirut coastline, on October 26. (AP)
Narrower horizons. People take a picture of waves crashing as the sun sets along Beirut coastline, on October 26. (AP)

We live in a time of growing intolerance, we’re told, with the forces of the left and right gnawing at the bonds that once bound us together in common consensus. This is as true at Lebanon’s American University of Beirut (AUB) as it is anywhere.

At AUB the self-avowed voices of progress and moral conservatism have sought to trample the free expression that, for more than a century, has been central to the institution’s role in one of the most divided countries.

Both visiting Oxford Professor Jeff McMahan and AUB’s LBGTQ Gender and Sexuality Club fell foul of the university’s moral guardians and those who would tell us what can and cannot be said in an institution dedicated to the pursuit of free thought.

McMahan was to deliver a lecture at the university. However, members of the student body, wilfully overlooking his long-standing commitment to the Palestinian cause, elected to be outraged over McMahan’s links to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

These spirited young men and women claimed McMahan was guilty of admitting that the state of Israel exists and, by serving as an occasional adviser to the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, had no right to go to Lebanon or AUB, even if his talk was in support of the Palestinians and their cause.

Contrary to what the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement wanted the public to believe, McMahan and his hosts were not breaching Lebanese law compelling Lebanese citizens to boycott Israel. If their argument is to be taken at face value, none of the foreign academics who have visited AUB would make the cut, with such prominent figures as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said left out in the cold for their ties to Israel.

Bashshar Haydar, a professor of philosophy who hosted McMahan at AUB, said the BDS movement was essentially a “tool for internal oppression used by those factions to suppress and bully people into political submission.”

Haydar said the BDS movement’s anger was not really directed towards McMahan so much as against “people who refuse to endorse the massacres being perpetrated in Syria by [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and his allies or Hezbollah’s domination over Lebanese politics.”

A few days after McMahan’s talk, the LGBTQ, Gender and Sexuality Club of AUB was forced to cancel an off-campus Halloween party after threats and accusations of promoting moral turpitude from the former Sunni Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani.

Qabbani was forced from office due to legal and financial discrepancies. Yet he found it acceptable to appoint himself Lebanon’s morality police and rally the public against a student club that had no intention of openly breaching Lebanese law, which criminalises homosexuality.

The AUB administration was at pains to support both the club and McMahan, confirming that it would not waiver in its commitment to promoting freedom of speech and expression at the university.

In an e-mail to the AUB community, Provost Muhamad Harajli said: “This university will, and must, remain a place where every person is afforded every opportunity to express themselves and conduct their lives as they wish, while respecting others, one where they can thrive without fear from threats and intimidation. The university’s commitment to these principles dates to its founding in 1866 and the administration will never abandon them as key components of AUB’s canon of values.”

While ostensibly unrelated, the backlash against the McMahan lecture and the Halloween party are intrinsically tied, revealing the dwindling avenues for freedom of expression and liberal thought across Lebanon. Two seemingly opposing groups — the BDS activists and the religious authorities — succeeded in fostering an atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry, which refuses to acknowledge any view that contradicts their own self-righteous vision of the world.

For the first group, McMahan’s crime was only that he did not share its anti-Semitic interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, refusing to conflate Zionism with Judaism and ultimately isolating many of those who genuinely support the cause of the Palestinian people. As for the former mufti, he simply refused to acknowledge that sexual preference is an intrinsic part of one’s rights and no worldly power has a say over this matter.

In February 2009, the late British journalist Christopher Hitchens spoke to a huge crowd at AUB, sharing his controversial political and religious views. While this was possible almost ten years ago, much of the free-thinking activists from a decade ago are losing ground to the peddlers of intolerance and Arab nationalism, who are actively trying to curtail AUB and what it stands for.

It is perhaps ironic that some of the zealots among the BDS crowd, faculty included, voiced full support for the Gender and Sexuality Club, shunning Qabbani’s medieval inquisition of the LBGTQ community in AUB and beyond. Yet, these “revolutionaries,” who enjoy the liberalism and freedom AUB provide could not sit silent, at least momentarily, and allow McMahan to deliver his lecture before engaging in constructive debate over their boycott of academics.

Crying “Death to Israel” and gay bashing are broken records. Each has long exposed their proponents for the opportunist populists they really are. What is needed is for these bigots to be called out in public and held to account for their intolerance.