Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ashura on campus stirs student complaints

[Originally posted at NOW]

While some Lebanese University students defend the campus makeover in the run-up to Ashura, others say university is not the place for political and religious activity.

Amal Movement flags flank a banner saying "O' Hussein" greeting entrants inside the foyer (Source: "Hope [amal] of the media, hope of Lebanon" Facebook group)
A visitor to the Lebanese University’s UNESCO Street campus this week might be forgiven for believing they had walked into a political party’s office, or, as the running joke among some students goes, a “Husseiniya” (Shiite religious center), rather than a public higher education institution.

Hanging squarely above the main entrance is the flag of the Amal Movement, Lebanon’s oldest predominantly-Shiite political party and a leading member of the pro-Damascus March 8 bloc. Only once inside, however, does the extent of the decoration become apparent: countless Amal flags, along with posters bearing messages of religious devotion to Imam Hussein ibn Ali as well as Amal founder Imam Musa al-Sadr, are all set against a backdrop of ubiquitous black cloth. The theme continues in the campus courtyard, where speakers have been playing a steady stream of religious anthems for the past few days. And on all floors throughout the building, there is scarcely one noticeboard or hallway without either a Shiite banner or an Amal logo.

The campus isn’t always like this, but this week is a special one for Shiites across the world, who are preparing to commemorate Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, marking the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein in the Battle of Karbala in 61 AH (680 AD). Although Lebanese University bylaws prohibit the display of explicitly political and religious materials on campus, students say the practice has been going on for years with little opposition from the administration.

And several students NOW spoke to on campus Wednesday afternoon defended it.

“It’s not only for Shiites that we do this. At Christmas time we also put up Christmas trees,” said one who would only give her name as Samar. “I don’t think it should be a problem, people should learn to accept and live with one another.”

“They’re just flags,” said another student, who gave her name as Zahra. “It’s not like we’re converting people to Shiism or forcing anyone to join a political party. This is Lebanon, all sects celebrate their festivals in public, it’s not something new.”

Other students, however, argued campus was not the proper place for such celebrations.

“If someone wants to commemorate Ashura, there are more mosques and Husseiniyas than universities in this country,” said Eva Choufi. “We came here to learn. When they play the speakers, we can’t even hear the professor’s words in our classroom. That’s not logical. I’m not saying don’t commemorate Ashura. I’m saying the commemoration of Ashura has a specific place. Even Sheikh Jaafar Fadlullah, the son of [Grand Ayatollah] Muhammad Fadlallah, wrote yesterday on Facebook that Ashura should not be commemorated in universities.”

“There are things happening that should not be in a university campus,” agreed another student, who gave her name as Yasmin. “The black flags, the pictures, this is not supposed to be a political office. And this is not about sectarianism – it’s not only Christians or Sunnis or Druze who oppose it, it’s many Shiites as well.”

According to Yasmin, the university’s administration has made attempts to rein in the students responsible, but to no avail.

“Once there was a message for the students – a paper was put on the door of the elevator – saying all political signs should be removed. After two days, instead of removing the signs, they removed the paper,” she told NOW.

It’s unclear why staff have not done more to prevent the practice when the university’s president himself, Adnan al-Sayyid Hussein, has publicly condemned it. “I don’t agree with what’s happening, especially since no one requested official approval before proceeding,” Hussein told the Annahar daily. “The university has already warned students against these activities, but God help us.” Yasmin and other students alleged to NOW that the administration was being intimidated by Amal Movement members, though Amal itself also rejected the activities to Annahar and called on students to abide by university bylaws.

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

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