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A Middle East Airlines airplane sits in the tarmac at Beirut airport. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A Middle East Airlines airplane sits in the tarmac at Beirut airport. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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The firing of a Middle Eastern Airline employee after she publicly insulted foreign passengers is proof that, in a society which still has far to go in combating racism, public opinion is powerful and moving in a positive direction.

The story is a testament to the power of public pressure, beginning with the Lebanese onlooker, Abed Shaheen, who witnessed the MEA employee insulting a group of Filipino and Nepalese passengers and took to the Internet.

Condemnations of the airline came in fast, from social media and the local press to the international media, culminating in an online petition. MEA responded with assurances that the incident was a one-off and fired one of the employees involved.

That the incident occurred in the first place is sad evidence of the persistence of racism in Lebanon directed most obviously at those in positions of weakness: migrant workers who come to the country with few protections, under laws that ensure their status as second-class citizens.

The attitude of the MEA employee, who reportedly laughed as she publicly humiliated the group of foreign passengers, is one that can be heard all over the country, from all sections of Lebanese society. Indeed the fact the woman was so unabashed in her actions, unconcerned with what fellow passengers or her employers might think, is proof of how widely accepted such attitudes are.

Shaheen’s account was met with stories from many individuals of similar racism seen on airlines, much of it done in the belief that staff are following the desires of their customers. The same is true of other businesses, such as beach clubs, who will not allow foreign workers to use their facilities, believing it will upset other customers.

The Lebanese cannot pretend that racism is a problem that comes from anywhere but inside their own society, from themselves. Nonetheless, the negative attention that these stories have received shows that attitudes are far from monolithic.

Several groups and movements have sprung up in recent years to combat the problem of racism. That they have to exist at all is regrettable, but their existence is one of the first steps toward combating the persistence of racism in society.

The Lebanese must do more to combat racism’s pervasiveness and condemn it when it occurs. The MEA controversy shows how important that can be. It is not enough to tut at such instances and move on. A fuss must be made, a dialogue created and scorn made public to challenge racist attitudes.

Businesses respond to negative attention and need to be aware that their customers will not accept mistreatment of others on discriminatory grounds.

Pressure must be put on the government to ensure they enact legal protections against discrimination, to make it clear that it has no place in the country.

The problem of racism in Lebanon isn’t simple, nor is it likely to disappear any time soon. Mistrust of the other is pervasive and reproductive, and goes well beyond racist insults. Discrimination is entrenched in laws and fed by communities.

The recent raids on migrant workers in Beirut’s Ashrafieh district had a clear xenophobic undertone, seemingly exacerbated by a mistrust of foreigners within some elements of the community.

But it is not inexorable or impervious to change. And it must not be met by silence by those who are offended by it. Instead they must speak out loudly and often, to shed light on archaic attitudes and ensure they cannot be allowed to continue.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 11, 2012, on page 7.
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