The exposure of a non-Christian housing ban in the Lebanese municipality of Hadat last week caused controversy over Lebanon’s religious coexistence. Supporters of the ban, spearheaded by President Michel Aoun, are promoting a dangerous cause.
The controversy erupted after Mohammed Awwad, a young Muslim man, tried to rent an apartment in Hadat, a majority Christian municipality in Mount Lebanon. Awwad was told by the landlord that a local municipal decree prohibited her from renting or selling her apartment to non-Christians. Awwad then asked his fiancé Sarah Raed to contact the municipality, which confirmed that the ban had been in existence since 2010. George Aoun, the Christian mayor of the municipality since 2010, enacted the ban to keep the Christian milieu of the town.
Awwad’s post about the incident went viral, provoking criticism from many Lebanese commentators who accused the ban of being both illegal and immoral. On Thursday, Interior Minister Raya El Hassan called for an investigation into the constitutionality of the ban, telling local news channel LBCI that the ban promoted a “sectarian discourse [that] contradicts coexistence.”
However, supporters of Aoun rallied to his defense, arguing that the ban was necessary and justified to protect the integrity of Christian communities in Lebanon. While some Christians might be receptive to these arguments, Aoun’s approach is flawed on several levels.
Politically, Aoun’s non-Christian ban undermines the rhetoric of his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The FPM, which is headed by President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and the Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Hezbollah back in February of 2006, forming the basis of the March 8 political coalition. The MOU put Michel Aoun in the presidency and allowed Hezbollah to expand its presence and thus become seemingly acceptable in Christian areas such as Hadat. Aoun’s support for the ban therefore exposes the Memorandum for what it is: a Faustian deal based on political ambitions rather than actual tolerance or understanding.
The ban is also unethical and threatens Lebanon’s narrative of religious coexistence. It is no secret that the Lebanese for years have been practicing a mechanism of discrimination when it comes to renting or selling land, but they have done so discreetly. Landlords are entitled to ask about the party they are selling to, and while they may base this decision on religion, the decision is ultimately a personal one. The non-Christian ban in Hadat is different and represents a collectivization of this mentality. Collectivized segregation is bad for all parties involved. It sends a message to Muslims that their Christian counterparts consider their presence an existential threat, and not as equal compatriots.
Ethical implications aside, the Hadat affair is a violation of the Lebanese constitution. The preamble of the 1990 Lebanese constitution states: “Lebanese territory is one for all Lebanese. Every Lebanese shall have the right to live in any part thereof and to enjoy the rule of law wherever he resides. There shall be no segregation of the people on the basis of any type of belonging, and no fragmentation, partition, or settlement of non-Lebanese in Lebanon.”
By enforcing his segregationist beliefs, Mayor Aoun has violated the constitution. Claiming he was protecting his imagined community of Lebanese Christians is no excuse: he should not escape punishment. Adding insult to injury, Mayor Aoun claimed that President Michel Aoun had called him and voiced his unequivocal support for Mayor Aoun’s promotion of segregation. If true, President Aoun’s support for segregation belies his self-curated image as “the father of all” – he is clearly just another sectarian leader who has failed to champion the constitution he swore to uphold.
Conceiving of segregation as a demographic tool is misguided. To think that segregation is a tool to protect Christians from the implications of Muslim demographic expansion shows a 19th century mindset and a subscription to outdated theories of racial, religious and ethnic purity. Neither Muslims nor any other Lebanese community are an inherent threat to the existence of any other group. The threat only comes when a group espouses a project, which clearly weakens the pillars of the state and challenges its coexistence. Rather than ordinary Muslims looking for housing, the main threat is Mayor and President Aouns' sacred allies Hezbollah - whose unfaltering commitment to Iran’s project in the region has caused Lebanon’s Arab and international isolation.
Adopting a segregationist mentality can only bode ill, not only for the natives of Hadat, but to anyone who truly thinks that segregation can save them from their imagined demographic doom. Lebanese Christians have a long history and a long future in Lebanon. Their prosperity is not based on segregation and isolation as promoted by the likes of Aoun, but rather on their ability to integrate and participate in Lebanese society.