The streets of Beirut, usually bustling with social and cultural life, are empty these days. In America, Lebanon may have a reputation as a conflict zone. But in the Arab world, it is considered the Switzerland of the region and a vibrant destination. The country has it all: mountains and sea, delicious food, wild parties, and people of all backgrounds and beliefs co-existing, at least in the streets. Women who cover from head to toe walk side by side with women dressed in shorts, just like in New York or London.
Because it is an Arab country where visitors can communicate in Arabic, and party or pray without reproach, Lebanon has been for years a major attraction for tourists from the surrounding Arab countries and, particularly, for those from the Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and others. That tourism has been hit hard lately, as tension has increased in the region. Many in the Gulf countries see themselves as one side in a fight against the expansion of Shi’a power and Iran’s influence in the region. As a result, a travel ban was issued to tourists from the Gulf more than a year ago.
In addition, Gulf countries withdrew their financial support for Lebanon — most of it from Saudia Arabia. And, in early March, the Arab League, an organization representing Arab countries, lead by Eygpt and heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia, declared that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, and that anybody found to be a sympathizer, a supporter, or a collaborator may be immediately expelled from any Gulf country. By March 12, news outlets in Lebanon were reporting on the sudden deportations of four Lebanese women from Bahrain, on suspicion of sympathizing with Hezbollah.
The American public may assume that the Arab League resolution is connected to Hezbollah’s role as a terrorist organization fighting against Israel. But, in fact, the Arab League decision has nothing to do with Israel. After all, the Arabs see Israel as an occupying force on what it considers to be Palestinian land. In other words, from the Arab countries’ perspective, Israel is the offender both for its occupation of Palestinian territories and for its attacks on Lebanon throughout the past three decades. Palestinian and Lebanese opposition to Israel have always been acceptable to the Arabs. Rather than Israel, the Arab League decision has everything to do with what is consuming the Arabs these days: Shi’a in the Arab world and Iran’s influence in the region.
In Lebanon, whose population is a politically diverse mixture of Shi’a, Sunni, and Christians, Hezbollah exerts a major influence on politics and security, given that they represent the Shi’a majority. And the Lebanese are not happy about the Arab League resolution.
Najat, a Christian woman in Lebanon told me how she sees the situation. “If I have to choose between other religious militias and Hezbollah, I will choose Hezbollah. They have their ideologies but they never interfere in our way of life. At the end of the day, it is them who leave us alone as we wear our swimsuits and sunbathe by the beach. They keep their politics to their own neighborhood and they never interfere in other people’s way of living. It is the other religious groups that we are afraid of, be it ISIS, al Qaeda or the like.”
Najat’s views are not unique in Lebanon. Many Christians share her perspective and so, of course, do the Shia’a. As for the Sunnis, it depends on the individual.
There were times where no one in the region asked if you were a Sunni or a Shia’a. As a matter of fact, it was considered a very impolite question. When Americans first invaded Iraq in 2003 and started to categorize people in terms of Sunni or Shi’a, most Iraqis were horrified at first. But soon, Iraqis and many in mixed-population Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, several of the Gulf nations and Yemen, adopted this question. Today, if you are a Shi’a from Lebanon, you most likely cannot get a visa to any of the Gulf countries, and as of a few days ago, you will most likely be deported from some Gulf countries, as in the case of Bahrain.
Arab hostility toward Shi’a is related to a belief that Iran is attempting to meddle in Arab politics, and destabilizing Arab countries by supporting their Shi’a populations. It is unclear how much of this fear is based on current facts and how much on old prejudices. The difference between Sunni and Shi’a in Islam has everything to do with political history and very little to do with the religion itself. The tension between the two sects has been sparked at times in history and been subdued in other times. This provides some hope that the two sects will reconcile again, and the tension between them will calm down.
I asked a very moderate Muslim who happens to be of Iraqi Shi’a origin which political party he is supporting. “Of course I am supporting the Shi’a militias of Al Sadr,” he quickly answered. “But why?” I asked. “You are a moderate Muslim whose lifestyle entails drinking and partying and many things they would not approve of. So why are you supporting them?”
“Yes, I am a moderate Muslim,” he responded, “but I am a Shi’a and when I hear extremist Sunnis from various Arab countries, including my own, giving speeches on how it is allowed to kill Shi’a, I get scared. People like me do not fight. But I am afraid for my life and my family’s life just because I am a Shi’a. So I do support the militias not because I agree with their ideologies but because they will fight to protect me as a Shi’a.”
Nothing could be said in response, so I just took a sip from my Turkish coffee and remained silent about the complicities people are facing in the region.
Meanwhile, the streets of Beirut remain empty, with no wealthy tourists from the Gulf in sight, and news of the deportation of Lebanese Shi’a from various Gulf countries back to Lebanon, without any prior notice, even if they had been living in the Gulf country for decades. And that includes four women in Bahrain.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
Salbi will join us onstage at the 7th Annual Women in the World Summit taking place in New York City April 6-8.