Fieldwork amid a pandemic, economic collapse and political impasse
It is safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has penetrated almost every aspect of our daily lives, leaving most elements altered completely. In the worlds of academia, policy-making and research, COVID has severely impacted the longstanding dynamics and methodologies related to fieldwork and field research, which has further added to the list of pre-existing challenges associated with tackling highly sensitised and controversial topics such as violent extremism and radicalisation in today’s Arab World.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, Lebanon has witnessed its own unique set of challenges that have further compounded the effect of the coronavirus on carrying out fieldwork in-country. Today, the Lebanese lira has lost almost 90% of its value in what the World Bank has now called one of the deepest depressions of modern history. Indeed, the World Bank indicated that more than half the population is likely below the national poverty line, with the bulk of the labour force – paid in lira – suffering from plummeting purchasing power. With the unemployment rate on the rise, an increasing share of households face difficulties in accessing basic services, including health care. Along with the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and unfortunately not our all-time low, the impact of COVID-19 has proven to be meagre in the face of greater existential crises for Lebanese citizens and the Lebanese state as a whole.
With that being said, government-imposed lockdowns in response to COVID-19 forced us to move stakeholder meetings to an online platform, making it increasingly difficult to build proper rapports with each of the stakeholders and therefore establish solid ground in the two localities selected within the framework of this research. To elaborate further, the localities are located in the Bekaa Valley which, despite its rich agricultural resources and numerous industrial facilities, was hit very hard by the current financial crisis. Inhabitants of the Bekaa regularly block roads in protests against the dire living conditions, and this tends to culminate in occasional (and at times violent) clashes between protesters and supporters of traditional political parties. Most recently, the fuel crisis has greatly hindered our ability to make regular trips to the Bekaa, located nearly 85 km outside Beirut, to resume our fieldwork.
Despite the apparent logistical nightmare of conducting fieldwork in the midst of these conditions, one must also address the impact of the crises on the responsiveness and engagement of the interviewees and stakeholders involved in the fieldwork. Today, we are constantly tasked with finding new ways to keep the topic of “violent extremism” relevant in the Bekaa, knowing that the majority of the townspeople have entered “survival mode” and are generally concerned with making ends meet rather than taking part in interviews and focus group discussions. To remedy our perceived irrelevance and detachment from Lebanese reality, we have resorted to drawing parallels with a return to violent extremism in response to the declining living conditions. This has resonated with some of the participants, who often refer to extremism as a “reaction” or “byproduct” of poverty, especially in the Bekaa – a typically rural area.
It has proven to be increasingly difficult to approach some key people in a locality where there is a collective belief that international intelligence agencies play a crucial role in framing their town and its inhabitants as “violent extremists”. It seemed difficult for them to collaborate with an EU-funded project as they were apparently unable to dissociate US intelligence agencies from the EU, categorising them simply as “the West”. As a result, focus group discussions were in some instances turned into defensive juries to set the record straight when it comes to misperceived and overly exaggerated accounts of violent extremism in one of the localities selected; the emphasis was placed on relaying certain messages to the West rather than on demonstrating genuine transparency and willingness to communicate openly. More than that, some participants even took the opportunity to go on the offensive against Western media, stating that it demonises Islam and Muslims in an attempt to strengthen a culture of Islamophobia, while also acknowledging the responsibility of Lebanese media outlets, intelligence agencies and security forces in feeding the false accusations against the town’s inhabitants. Additionally, interviewees and participants even urged us, as the project team, to report our findings accurately, ensuring that information collected is not later distorted and manipulated to fit the West’s prevalent narrative about the Arab World.
While the impact of the pandemic was certainly felt during the initial` stages of the research project, the implications of COVID-19 have since taken a back seat. The current socioeconomic and financial crises, coupled with the political impasse and accompanying political instability, have made fieldwork a challenging endeavour. In spite of this, the volatile situation still leaves room for minimal improvement (the fuel crisis has recently loosened its grip, for instance – an opportunity that was immediately seized to resume fieldwork). Even with the leeway around logistics, it is obvious that there is a prevailing reluctance and hesitance to open up during interviews and focus group discussions on account of the donor organisation and the nature of the research project. Violent extremism and radicalisation are still highly controversial and sensitive topics in the Bekaa – an area that supposedly has a “bad reputation” resulting from exaggerated accounts of violent extremists and radicals.
Maria El Sammak is junior project manager for the Middle East and North Africa unit. She is based in Beirut and Lebanon. Maria holds an Honors B.A. in Political Science/International Affairs from the Lebanese American University (LAU) with an emphasis in Conflict Resolution. She is currently working on the German Foreign Office-funded project “Supporting local dialogues, regional exchange and prevention capacities of Sunni religious and social actors”.
Lara Azzam is a Senior Project Manager in the Lebanon team in the MENA unit. She joined the Berghof Foundation in 2015 and she is currently working on several projects on enhancing religious tolerance and addressing violent extremism. She previously worked with the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) and AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. Lara has an MA Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from King’s College London and an MA in Conference Interpreting and Translation Studies from the University of Leeds.