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memri
July 15, 2019 No.
1465

Ban On Selling, Renting Property To Muslims In Lebanese Town Sparks Sectarian Conflict In Country

By: B. Shanee*

In a June 18, 2019 Facebook post, Lebanese Muslim social and political activist Muhammad 'Awwad revealed that the municipality of Al-Hadath, a Lebanese town in Beirut's southeastern suburbs, bans the sale and rental of homes to Muslims. Al-Hadath was originally a Christian town and its municipality is still dominated by Christians, although today the majority of its residents are Muslim. 'Awwad wrote that he tried to rent an apartment in the town, but the landlady told him that the local authority prohibited renting to Muslims, a claim that he later verified with the municipal authority itself.[1] Subsequently, a recording of a conversation between 'Awwad's wife, Sara Ra'ed, and an employee  at the municipality, who informed her that this ban has been in effect for many years, also went viral on social media.[2]

Given the sensitive sectarian fabric of Lebanese society, the affair sparked an uproar on social media and responses from local leaders, as well as from Lebanese MPs and other senior officials. Many Muslims on social media attacked the ban as racist and illegal. Lebanese Interior Minister Raya Al-Hassan stated that it contravened the Lebanese constitution, which sweepingly prohibits limiting property deals on a sectarian basis.

Al-Hadath mayor George 'Aoun, a Christian, hastened to rebuff the criticism and justify the town's policies, explaining that the ban has been in effect for many years and is intended to preserve the sectarian character of the town, which was originally Christian. He also claimed that Lebanese President Michael 'Aoun and leaders of the Shi'ite movements in the country support this decision. As a matter of fact, there reportedly exists an unwritten agreement between the Al-Hadath leadership and the Shi'ite Hizbullah intended to preserve the sectarian identity of communities in Beirut's southern suburbs. The Lebanese media also claimed that sectarian restrictions on residency exist in other places in Lebanon as well.


Poster on Al-Hadath street: "In order for Al-Hadath to remain the town of its inhabitants – don't sell your home, don't sell your land..." (Source: Saidagate.com, June 19, 2019)

The media buzz created by the affair prompted Al-Hadath's Christian residents to stage a demonstration in support of the mayor and his policy.[3] A few days after the demonstration, the flag of the Shi'ite Amal movement was hung over the municipality building in an act of counter-protest.[4] However, Amal leader and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri condemned the act and clarified that he had ordered to investigate it. Berri expressed understanding for the sentiments of the town's Christian residents and their desire to preserve their way of life and the existing social fabric.[5]

A survey of the responses to the incident reveals that they largely follow sectarian lines, with the supporters of the ban mostly Christian and its opponents mostly Muslim and Druze. .

This report presents translated excerpts from some of the responses by Lebanese officials and in the Lebanese press.

Supporters Of The Ban: This Is An Old Arrangement Made With Hizbullah, Crucial For Preserving Coexistence

In a June 21, 2019 interview with the Lebanese website elnashra.com, Al-Hadath Mayor George 'Aoun explained that the ban had been instated by the municipality already in 2010, when it became known that, since 1990, 60% of the town's homes had been purchased by Shi'ites. He claimed that the ban was intended to preserve the town's demographic diversity, and was widely supported by the town residents, as well as by Lebanese officials, including President Michel 'Aoun and the leaders of the country's Shi'ite movements, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.[6] Noting that President 'Aoun,  as well as Foreign Minister and Free Patriotic Movement head Gebran Bassil, had contacted him personally to express their support,[7] he added that the decision conformed to the constitution and was aimed at preserving coexistence in the town. He warned that if the ban was canceled he would resign.[8]

Al-Hadath resident Hikmat Dib, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, also justified the policy and described the background to the decision and the understandings reached between the municipality and Hizbullah. Dib said that, since the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s, Christians had been leaving the town, sometimes due to persuasion or intimidation, hinting at Shi'ites who moved into the town and bought homes there. "This situation," he explained, "compelled us to sign [an agreement of] political understandings with Hizbullah." The agreement was signed in 2006 under the personal sponsorship of President 'Aoun and Hizbullah Secretary-General  Nasrallah, and was aimed at stopping the emigration of Christians from the town, he said.[9] Dib claimed that Nasrallah even asked Shi'ite investors and entrepreneurs to ignore the Al-Hadath region in order to preserve coexistence.[10]

Ghassan Hajjar, editorial director of the Christian-owned Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, wrote in a column that the ban was a realistic and "nationally courageous" step, because the town's original Christian population had dwindled, and noted that in Hizbullah-dominated areas similar bans were in effect. He added: "Everyone has expressed his opinion [on this affair], whether they understand it or not:  secularists and fundamentalists, [as well as] people who live far from Al-Hadath and from all the regions where there is coexistence, and particularly residents of homogenous villages. Some were against and some were in favor, but most did not base their positions on any substantive arguments. The gap between the [Lebanese] constitution and laws [on the one hand] and the realities of life [on the other] is immense…"

Hajjar wrote further: "It is true that [banning] the sale of land and homes to Muslims in a Christian area contravenes the constitution, but this is the reality in several regions, even if [people] don't know this. In areas close to Hizbullah's strongholds, the identity of buyers is investigated, and if some doubt arises, the property owner is prevented from selling on some security pretext – yet none of the parties makes this public. Statistics indicate that, between the end of the Civil War in 1991 and 2000, about 50% of the properties in Al-Hadath were sold, meaning that the town was beginning to change. Its inhabitants began selling their [properties] on the border of the southern Dahiya [a south Beirut suburb considered a Hizbullah stronghold], in droves. At some point, anyone who had held on to his land began to feel like a foreigner [there] and the emigration [of the Christians] became a fact on the ground. [They left] not because the neighbors were Shi'ite Muslims, but because the way of life had changed and [Shi'ite] tribes had taken over the [public] space, [and] there was a decline in security and in certain liberties... As result, the Christians began retreating and building their homes to the interior neighborhoods, farther from the [zones] of direct friction with the powerful [Muslim] tribes and parties [i.e., Amal and Hizbullah], and the town's [Christian population] began to diminish.

"This is why Al-Hadath Mayor George 'Aoun decided to take a bold measure by prohibiting the sale [of property] to non-Christians, in order to protect what was left of the land and of the [Christian] population. 'Aoun's decision preserves Al-Hadath and its people and allows them to [conserve] their status while conducting dialogue with others, living alongside them and working with them without fearing for their fate and their future… The municipality's decision may be abhorrent from a sectarian point of view, but it is bold from a national one..."[11]

Opponents Of The Ban: It Is Racist And Subverts The Constitution And Coexistence In Lebanon

Not surprisingly, opposition to the ban was expressed mostly by Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, and Druze.  Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipal Affairs Raya Al-Hassan, a Sunni, declared that if this practice  indeed exists, it is illegal that she will act to stop it. She noted that she had instructed Muhammad Makkawi, head of the Mount Lebanon Governorate, where the town is located, to investigate the matter and conduct a hearing for the mayor, and added: "The sectarian narrative stands in flagrant contradiction to coexistence, and we cannot adopt such measures under the pretext of [preventing] demographic change… If we have respect for [the country's ] institutions, this cannot be allowed, for it is unacceptable.[12]

Druze MP Faysal Al-Sayegh, of the Democratic Gathering faction headed by Walid Jumblatt, wrote on his Facebook and Twitter accounts: "It is disgraceful and revolting that the mayor of Al-Hadath publicly declares his refusal to [allow] the renting of a home to a Muslim family in his Christian town. His call for Muslim municipalities [to do the same by] not renting to Christians, in order to preserve what he calls coexistence, is despicable and repulsive. To what [kind of] backward Lebanon are these people taking us? Where is [the principle of] citizenship? Where is the Taif Agreement[13] and where are the constitution and the law…?[14]

Shi'ite journalist Dima Sadek warned that the Lebanese public would not remain silent over this racism, tweeting: "You [proponents of the ban] tell us this is not racism, and that you are pro-Lebanon. Fine, so what about the Muslims? Are they not Lebanese? You have sown terrifying thoughts in the minds and souls of our young people. The racism and sectarianism that you are nurturing is a horrifying threat, and we will not remain silent about it. We will not remain silent!"[15]


Dima Sadek's tweet

Journalist Fadi Shamiya, who writes in the anti-Hizbullah Shi'ite Lebanese website Janoubia, also noted that the Al-Hadath ban contravenes the Lebanese constitution and paves the way to the division of Lebanon along racial and sectarian lines, in a manner that recalls the civil war. He wrote: "Instead of being summoned to the Interior Ministry to give account for violating the Municipalities Law, George 'Aoun defies the constitution and the [Interior] Ministry, with the support of the [Free Patriotic] Movement [headed by President] 'Aoun. [He does this]  on the pretext that there is an agreement with Hizbullah that is not anchored in law… stipulating that Muslims may not buy or rent [property] in the 'Al-Hadath Republic,' which also encompasses the towns of  Sabiniya and Wadi Al-Baten. The surprising fact is that a look at the records reveals that there are Muslims, [both] Sunni and Shi'ite, in Al-Hadath (in its south and north) and also in Al-Baten, and that there are Sunnis, Shi'ites and Druze in Sabiniya. Are these [people] also prohibited from owning or renting [homes] or working in that region, which is prohibited to Muslims? What would happen if towns with a different sectarian makeup behaved the same way?

"The danger of his matter lies not only in the fact that it contravenes the constitution and laws of Lebanon, but also in that it allows the sectarian [consideration] to take precedence over the most supreme of laws. This also opens the door for other towns to declare that they are following a similar path, and [then] the homeland will be fractured. Is the Orange Movement [i.e. the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by Michel 'Aoun] aware that it is leading the homeland into a furnace of sectarianism that goes beyond the [existing] racism, and reviving the ghosts of the civil war?! [16]

* B. Shanee is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 


[1] Facebook.com/mhammad.awwad, June 18, 2019.

[2] Twitter.com/DimaSadek, June 19, 2019

[3] Facebook.com/Hadat-Municipality, June 21, 2019.

[4] Elnashra.com, June 24, 2019.

[5] Akhbaralyawm.com, June 27, 2019.

[6] Elnashra.com, June 19, 21, 2019.

[7] Almouhallel.com, June 21, 2019.

[8] Elnashra.com, June 20, 2019.

[9] Beirut-news.com, June 21, 2019.

[10] Facebook.com/mphikmatdib, June 21, 2019.

[11] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), June 25, 2019.

[12] Al-Hayat (Dubai), June 21, 2019.

[13] The 1989 Taif Agreement ended the Lebanese civil war and distributed political, civil, and military authority in the country along sectarian lines.

[14] Facebook.com/faysalsayeghofficalpage, twitter.com/mpfaysalsayegh,  June 20, 2019.

[15] Twitter.com/DimaSadek, June 19, 2019.

[16] Janoubia.com, June 24, 2019.