When I suggested that aid incentivises rent-seeking and stasis among refugees in Lebanon, I was met with vituperation. The fact that I presented evidence harvested from on-the-ground inquiry was dismissed, as was my data. In academia, as I learned, ideology trumps evidence
I wasn’t certain whether I should write this article. I watched from the sidelines the back-and-forth over the ANU’s rejection of Ramsay funding for a new centre for the study of Western civilisation. And I have a confidence problem. For the past few years I have suffered from academic ostracism, my research being treated as the intellectual equivalent of asbestos. When I dared suggest that some humanitarian programs to the Palestinians of Lebanon should be reconsidered if not stopped altogether because they are defrauded by refugees, and the competition to get hold of funds sparks violence in the camps, I received the most melodramatic objections from colleagues and friends. Their reactions ranged from a look of somebody encountering a bad smell to howls of offence and accusations that I was saying what I was saying because I come from Maronite Christian ancestry.
Nobody cared to ask about the data. And here I was, thinking I was working in an evidence-based discipline!
I now have pariah status amongst the cliques of leftist do-gooders, of which I once considered myself part, that inhabit social science departments at universities around the country and abroad. But I can be silent no longer. My heart is full and I must have my say.
This memoir appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
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In mid-2009 I returned to Australia after a year of field research in the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila in Beirut with the most fantastic data. I lived in the camp for three months that year, witnessing disputes over the implementation of UN-funded humanitarian projects among the various armed Palestinian factions that run the camps as autonomous territories. On a number of occasions a clan of refugees stood in the way of earthmoving equipment and stopped the construction of a new sewer pipe until they were paid off. This incident was symptomatic of the racketeering that has plagued the camps of Lebanon for decades. When any aid comes to the camps, factions or even gangs of refugees threaten the projects and demand to be paid protection money to stop disrupting. Once paid, they become the projects’ protectors, so no other group can attempt the same racket. As the Palestinians have long insisted on the principle of self-rule in the Lebanon camps, no external security force can intervene in the racketeering. This means a lot of money is wasted on bribes, and group rivalry can erupt into shoot-outs that destroy camp stability.
After supervision of my PhD thesis by my wonderful and supportive primary supervisor at the ANU and a secondary adviser; after receiving a recommendation of a pass with no changes from one examiner and another recommendation of a pass with mostly editorial corrections from another (a result that would be considered above average); after three offers of publication from leading academic publishers—nevertheless, somehow, according to my leftist colleagues, I am still not trusted to speak about the defrauding of humanitarian programs in the camps of Lebanon.
When I was nearing completion of my thesis, I offered to share my research with any colleagues who would find my data interesting. Initial enthusiasm was high. I received a number of invitations to speak: a conference on humanitarianism organised by a University of Western Sydney academic; a trade-union-affiliated aid organisation that funds projects in the camps; guest lectures to students at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). However, once I explained the direction I would take in my presentation, I either never heard back, or I got arguments based on platitudes found in the activist literature—and then never heard back.
Some of the academics who turned their noses up at me seemed to forget that I once worked for them, taking their tutorial classes and lectures, organising their conferences, conducting their literature reviews over some years of work as a sessional academic. I worked for four years at UTS in the School of Social Inquiry, where I had completed my masters degree. Some of my employers were associated with or supportive of various pro-Palestinian groups. I had been among the loudest in their campaigns, circulating petitions, manning protest lines and attending fundraisers. I conducted all of those activities before I set out on my PhD research, when I was in total ignorance of the issues. Those leftist colleagues trusted my actions back then. I wonder now why what I have to say is so suspect?
This bloody-mindedness is not confined to people I know personally. It also dominates academic scholarship. When I returned to Australia with my ethnographic data, I could not relate it to anything in the activist scholarship that characterises most of the literature on the Palestinians in Lebanon. When I say “activist” I mean those academics who adopt a narrative where the universe is divided between good and evil, and victims are absolute in their victimhood with no agency to change any of the outcomes of their daily lives and where the perpetrators are always bigots.
I am thinking here of the prolific output of a Palestinian academic tenured at the American University of Beirut and member of the Issam Fares Institute, who was one of the professors I consulted during my field research, or at least until I realised he was not interested in new evidence. When I attempted to discuss my first lot of data he refused to accept that my focus on factional rent-seeking was valid. I should instead focus on the “neo-liberal” development agenda that humanitarian agencies are foisting on refugees, he argued.
I was flabbergasted. The primary aid organisation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is 99 per cent staffed by Palestinian refugees (this is identity politics par excellence) and in the constellation of all other UN agencies, has unprecedented autonomy in how it manages its budget and runs its projects, and nowhere demonstrates a neo-liberal agenda. It seemed that for this activist academic, trendy discourse trumped real data.
The experience of having my data dismissed was repeated in a conversation with another prolific activist author on the Palestinian camps of Lebanon, a professor at the University of Louisville. She told me that the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Beirut was a tragedy of historical proportions because it signified the end of revolutionary potential, and it was too bad I did not see it as she had done. All the action was now in the West Bank, and that would be her focus for the good fight! I feel sorry for the West Bankers if she is the measure of their allies.
I also attempted to publish my evidence in journal articles, after the release of my book, but I could never make it past the activist reviewers (no doubt from their comments, they came from those tenured and prolifically published usual suspects) because they would not accept that my line of inquiry into refugees seeking material advancement through racketeering was valid.
The experience reminded me of the consistent warnings I got as an undergraduate student that when I was older and working in the field, it was my duty as a responsible social scientist to self-censor any unpalatable data that would reflect badly on the community I was studying because it could disadvantage them politically. I had no idea then of the full repercussions of this censorship. I was entering a discipline of taboos and navel-gazing literature that was useless in informing policies.
Nonetheless, I did my work. I religiously read the activist writings from the likes of Sari Hanafi and Julie Peteet, as well as other authors who viewed anthropology as an act of social justice, like Diana Allen. There were also those academics that conveyed a romanticised view of the refugees, as in the accounts by Laleh Khalili of the apparently “grassroots” politics. (Khalili was one of the leading signatories to a letter published in Le Monde denouncing Kamel Daoud, who had written a sophisticated analysis of the New Year sexual assaults against women in Cologne. Daoud argued that the event was indicative of a deep sexual dysfunction at the heart of Islamic communities. His public shaming by Khalili and others forced him to abandon journalism—a great writer silenced.) As a postgraduate student I had to do the hard graft of covering this literature, and so I conducted a critical reflection on those ideas throughout my writings.
Unfortunately the academic community has not given me the same consideration. Instead of my data being challenged, which would mean someone would have to read it or at least let me give a paper, I have instead been attacked personally for some alleged ideological prejudice, which apparently I had in me all the time because of my Maronitism. At a party attended by activist academics from universities around Sydney, one retired professor, a prominent eco-feminist, reacted with indignation that I could blame the poor refugees for their predicament and suggested I was allowing my Christian bias to influence my research. That was not the first time such an accusation had been levelled at me. I had heard it from fellow anthropology PhD’s, which is not surprising as the discipline attracts social justice warriors.
One former friend even suggested that I should seek out Zionist organisations as an audience for my research since no one else would find it of interest. To have senior academics make such remarks was enlightening.
I recall another contentious exchange with an ANU anthropology professor in the staff kitchen, about the Sunni and Shiite conflict in Lebanon. I suggested that repatriation of the refugees to the Palestinian territories might ameliorate the crisis, since most reside in Shiite areas and the Shiite hold bitter memories of the time they were occupied by the Palestinians. Rather than addressing my argument, she accused me of Christian bias. Such exchanges reveal a reverse identity politics; rather than elevating me in my career (as for some), my ancestry has been my downfall. Now I get a glimmer of what it means to be a middle-class white man. We are both on the wrong side of history.
At the height of the civil war in Lebanon (1975 to 1991), German activists, along with Japanese, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and even Swedish volunteers, stood side by side with the Palestinian guerrillas and attempted to overturn the Lebanese government. They were the useful idiots of the Left, who justified their participation in one of the most vicious “civil” wars of recent times because of their belief that the Palestinians were a vanguard leading a socialist revolution to destroy the archaic Lebanese political system, which was led by a Maronite president. The whole world was in ferment in the 1970s, so why not Lebanon? Academic activists like Peteet and Hanafi but also Rex Brynen and Fawwaz Traboulsi would repeat the same myths in their writing because it fitted their Marxist theory of the march of history.
What those militant activists and Marxist academics did not heed was the fact that Lebanon was the only democracy (aside from Israel) in the region, which allowed political freedom to all people, often becoming a magnet for dissidents escaping other Arab regimes. Those rights extended to the Palestinians, rights not allowed them in any other country. Nor did they understand that the Palestinians did not use these freedoms to liberate their land. Instead they cartelised Lebanese territory for the purpose of self-enrichment.
Starting in 1969, well before the official start of the civil war, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the guerrilla umbrella group known as the PLO, funded the militarisation of all refugee men as guerrillas. The territory in each refugee camp was divided between different PLO factions, seeding the dynamic for future competition and rent-seeking. Arafat then also funded the incorporation of Sunni Lebanese gangs, which conducted smuggling and thieving activities throughout Beirut, to expand the ranks of mercenaries under his command. (Some members of these gangs migrated to Australia under Malcolm Fraser’s slipshod migration program, which suspended the necessary character tests and criminal-history checks.) Black market activities expanded alongside checkpoints manned by PLO and Sunni militia, enriching the Palestinian guerrillas. Everyone else in the country, who now had armed Palestinian patrols in their neighbourhoods, forcibly soliciting funds and requisitioning property for the sake of their “revolution”, panicked. The panic sparked an arms race amongst all sects, including Shia and Christian. This all took place before 1975, when the country officially exploded into “civil” war.
I read the anthropological accounts of the German professor Theodor Hanf and anthropologist Michael Johnson, who lived in the Sunni quarters of Beirut from the mid-1960s and witnessed the start of the troubles. But I have relied heavily on Palestinian scholars so as not to be accused of prejudice. I read the 700-page account of the war, based on research conducted in PLO archives and interviews with its top leadership, by Yezid Sayigh in Tunisia. Sayigh’s political patrimony is outstanding, with various family members having senior positions in Palestinian institutions.
Since the civil war it has been impossible to disarm the refugee camps. The Lebanese government is hamstrung by conditions imposed by neighbouring Arab regimes which are too complicated to discuss here. But activist academics continue to blame the Lebanese for the state of the camps, especially the infrastructure, even though the camps are full of armed gangs who turn their arms on each other in the racketeering competition, and the government has no authority over them.
The danger of the leftist activist reading of history which has gone mostly unchallenged in the literature is this: the spread of bigotry and prejudice against the Lebanese. The activist literature, for example, insists that the Lebanese government must support an official return of the PLO to the camps so that order can be restored, and that the Lebanese (in particular referring to the Christians), should stop scapegoating the Palestinians for the civil war, a lament often repeated in Hanafi’s and Peteet’s writings. This of course violates the evidence that the coming of the PLO to Lebanon actually resulted in increased violence in the camps, not only because of the cartelisation of camp territory between factions, but also because each Palestinian man was obliged to join a guerrilla group (which means that those men who participated in the war, legally speaking, can no longer be considered refugees with a right to protection), making arms so commonplace that disputes between households were often settled with guns. It also ignores evidence, again based on research by Hanf, Johnson and Sayigh, that the PLO fomented rebellion against the only government in the region that had given Palestinians political freedom.
The other danger of the leftist activist literature is bad humanitarian policy that remains immune from criticism or reconsideration. At the start of this year, the Trump administration announced a cut to the UNRWA budget, the only UN agency in the world dedicated to the assistance of one ethnic refugee group, the Palestinians. People have raised alarm over the consequences of such cuts to vulnerable communities in Gaza and the West Bank. However, UNRWA funds assistance to people throughout the region, providing healthcare and other forms of welfare assistance not available to the citizens of the nations in which refugees reside. I cannot comment on how UNRWA disburses its funding. But I can say that aid for the infrastructure programs in the Lebanon camps, which are run by factions solely for the purpose of rent-seeking, should be reconsidered, if not immediately halted.
When I suggested, in a paper presented at an ANU conference organised by a peak Australasian anthropological professional body in 2013, that aid incentivises rent-seeking and contributes to a handout mentality among refugees in Lebanon, I was met with vituperation from one academic in the audience. The fact that I presented evidence, and even though her own expertise was nothing to do with the Middle East, seemed irrelevant. Ideological commitments trump evidence.
The refusal to acknowledge my evidence goes to the heart of the controversy around the proposed centre for the study of Western civilisation. The controversy highlights the existence of a “groupthink” mentality among cliques in many university departments that threaten expulsion to anyone who dares challenge the orthodoxy (even on the basis of sound research methodology). Universities can now be characterised by an illiberal climate in which, instead of orderly debates and exchanges, any deviation from a certain established political consensus is punished by ostracism. Given that an academic career often, but not always—depending on how chummy you are with the professor doing the hiring—is preceded by an apprenticeship as an overworked and underpaid bottom-rung casual, most aspiring academics are reluctant to voice opinions that deviate from the ideological commitments of their employers.
Academics are also not interested in collaborating with juniors, unless those juniors can co-author papers that uphold the political commitments of their employer. This regime of conformity eats away at the very purpose of social science at university for generating new knowledge about our societies that can inform sound policies and allow us to take action to ameliorate problems.
My grievance is not about how this leftist bias has ruined my career prospects. I’m to blame for that. Being an anthropologist is not the wisest career choice. But the most serious implication of leftist bias is much worse than that. It has consequences that are so far reaching that I struggle to express their enormity. We have lost our ability to make logical reasoned arguments, simply because we will not listen to any proposition that is antithetical to our own. My case highlights that, rather than receiving challenging evidence as an opportunity to exercise our thought muscles and renew our commitments to good and true ideas, leftist intellectuals routinely go on the attack, calling people racists in order to silence honest debate.
I am not a cultural relativist. But I will not accept the logic that this automatically makes me a racist, as the topsy-turvy rationale of the Left would have us believe. Being of Middle Eastern descent and a woman (yes, I am using identity politics now as evidence that I can make these observations), I know what it means to have the privilege of an upbringing in an Anglo-European political culture. Being celebratory of one culture does not make me a racist—the intellectual equivalency with which these two ideas are treated in the illogical thinking of the Left makes reasoned debate all but impossible.
Rayyar Marron is author of Humanitarian Rackets and their Moral Hazards: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon (Routledge, 2016).