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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When fundamentalists define freedom of expression in Lebanon

Lebanese parliament member Deputy Hassan Fadlallah, a member of the Hezbollah organization affiliated with the Iranian Islamic Republic of Iran, unfortunately chairs the so-called "Committee of Information and Communications".

Here is how he defined "freedom of expression" against a background of local TV programs and series pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and appropriate in a country dominated by religious neanderthals and by sectarian parties that often band together to protect their power over their respective herds. These are the same parties and sects that will not shy away from massacres, warring, and other forms of organized violence against other sects, as if morality is limited to sexual matters while murder and killing in the name of God are immune to criticism and to standards of morality.





Among the statements he made today at the conclusion of a meeting of his committee, Mr. Fadlallah said, "There is a warning call today, not only from the Information Committee, but from society and the religious authorities, about the dissolute morality situation on certain television programs, and this is not an acceptable matter in Lebanon that could corrupt the younger generation, teenagers, and families." He also said, "We are working on freedom of expression, but there are values of morality and decency that should be adhered to, and that which is not allowed in advanced countries should not become permissible in Lebanon." [Notice the Freudian slip of making a distinction between Lebanon and advanced countries, which implies that Lebanon is not an advanced, but a backward, country in Fadlallah's mindset].

The hypocrisy and bigotry in Lebanon's official and social practices and customs are flagrant. As long as their power interests and the financial interests of their affiliated businessmen and corrupt politicians are not threatened, the sectarian special interests (religious authorities and their subservient political parties that together represent the establishment) tolerate as much indecency and smut as you want, both openly and under the table. But once they feel that a certain threshold has been crossed, they react.

There is currently a program on Al-Jazeera's English language television exposing the filth of religious marriages and divorces in Lebanon, and the program and the people it features clearly argues for allowing an entirely civil judicial system in matters of personal status. Currently, civil marriage is prohibited in Lebanon, but Lebanese fly to Cyprus or anywhere in the civilized world and marry civilly. Once they are in Lebanon, however, civil courts will process their divorces because Lebanon's judicial system is schizophrenic. It wants to emancipate itself from the claws of organized religion, but the religious authorities continue to defend their turf. The Al-Jazeera program describes in excruciating details the suffering of mostly women who are trapped by a patriarchal social system that is backed by the religious authorities. In the program, you can see several religious figures declaring their opposition to instituting any civil marriage in Lebanon.

Now, Fadlallah is not addressing the Al-Jazeera program directly. In his statement he referred to some unidentified program(s), and despite a search on the Internet, I was unable to find any reference to the "guilty" program(s). I do nevertheless think that the call by Fadlallah in reference to these program does aim at a broader effort by civil society activists to move the country further along the path of liberalism and secularism, which threatens the religious establishments and their political parties that hide behind bigoted pretenses to family values and such.

Here are some nuggets of the bigotry:

1- Lebanon's prostitution industry is flourishing. Go to Maameltein near Jounieh and see the crowds of Eastern European, Russian, and Syrian prostitutes and the hotels where they plow their trade.  This is so critical to Lebanon's tourism industry that it is openly tolerated. Once in a while, though, much publicized crackdowns are put on display as a cosmetic lip service to the conservative elements. Similarly with the hashish cultivation and industry: Once a year, a puny few fields in the Bekaa Valley are burned with much fanfare, but everyone knows that it is a flourishing source of income for the locals. Similarly with the alcohol issue: Christian Lebanon tolerates alcohol, but Muslim Lebanon by and large does not. Once in a while, local ordinances are issued to ban the sale of alcohol, but within a week or so, no one hears about it. Alcohol and prostitution are the real magnets for Arab tourists from the Gulf who can have neither in their own countries. Arab tourists from the Gulf are manna from heaven for Lebanon's greedy money-sucking businesses.  President Aoun went on his first foreign visit since his election to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, asking these countries to lift the warnings and bans on travel to Lebanon. What do these people come to do in Lebanon which they cannot do in their home countries?

2- Television in Lebanon consists of a handful of companies, each affiliated with a religious sect or sectarian political party. Same thing with the printed press which is, thankfully, dying like everywhere else. There are really no "independent" media in Lebanon. But the big monkey in all of this is that every household in Lebanon has access to hundreds of channels via satellite dishes. This is completely unregulated, and every household has access to several pornographic channels that no one seems to mind. So if Mr. Fadlallah's august morality committee wants to be consistent, it ought to ban these channels.

3- Finally, the Internet is awash with pornographic material and the government knows it, the religious establishment knows it, and the political establishment knows it. Why has there been no effort to ban, regulate, prohibit .... just like the stupid television program(s) that is targeted by Mr. Fadlallah?

I do not have the answer to the hypocrisy, other than to attribute it to ignorance coupled with bigotry coupled with the love of money. Lebanon's aura - as proclaimed by the ultra-nationalists who resent any criticism - is that the country is a "land of freedom". That slogan supposedly should appeal to foreigners (westerners and Arabs alike) who would want to come and spend money in its sex industry, on stupid imitation drunkenness, to watch garbage everywhere, to have their bodies insulted by rampant air, water and land pollution, to risk their lives on the country's dangerous roads, to see how mountains and forests are raped by developers, and how beaches get stolen by politicians to build their own exclusive resorts to use and abuse. What else is there that Lebanon offers that one cannot get elsewhere in a cleaner, more decent and civilized environment?

What the subtext to this grand megalomania is the following: Freedom in Lebanon is not personal freedom. It does not refer to the same concept of individual liberty as practiced in the West. In Lebanon, freedom refers to "communitarian" freedom, i.e. for example the freedom that Christians as a group have to ring their bells on Sunday and be free from oppression by Muslim Sharia. This so-called freedom is not a higher concept couched in human rights; it is merely relative to other religious sects and does not refer at all to the individual personal freedom of any one individual, be he/she Christian or Muslim. Within the Christian community there are no individual liberties of expression, conscience, thought or opinion. Women remain oppressed by a patriarchal society holding ideals from the Stone Age. The Christian community is as much an oppressive monolith as is the Muslim community. A Christian is of course "free" to disagree with Muslims; that is perfectly fine. But dare a Christian individual challenge the authority of the mastodons of the Maronite, Orthodox, Catholic....churches and the tight grip they have on education, politics, and the personal status judicial system. Which explains why the churches will never acquiesce to civil marriage and to a secularization of the entire system. For the Muslims, the issue is the same, except perhaps in a matter of degree: The concept of freedom for Muslims is less material as they dwell within their own sectarian concentration camps that are more rigid than the Christian concentration camps.

In sum, Lebanon wants its cake and eat it too. It wants to remain conservative (because of the domination of the religious cults), but it loves money and will sell its conservative principles (and therefore will violate every conservative religious tenet) to paint itself as a liberal outpost in a conservative environment and attract stupid Europeans and Arabs who, apparently, love this schizophrenic identity.

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