One key debate during the reconstruction of Beirut’s city centre after the civil war revolved around the ‘privatization’ of this process and the contradictions emerging from the expropriation of private lands, in the name of public utility, by a private real-estate company, Solidere. While the bulk of the critical commentary echoes common warnings about the consequences of the privatization of public space under neoliberal regimes for citizenship and the democratic process, this formulation leaves unexplored the possibilities of contestations around the notion of the public, particularly as based on religious affiliation. Indeed, among the very few who could escape systematic expropriation was the Directorate General of Islamic Waqfs [DGIW]. In a nation-state where public utility forms the only constitutional limit to the right of property, how was the DGIW able to negotiate such an exception? This talk analyses how, when, and by whom the concept of public utility was marshalled, and the concepts forwarded in counter-arguments for these expropriations, namely ‘the interest of the waqf’. How did public interest and religious interest intersect? What types of spatial possibilities did appeals to religious interest create and foreclose? In this case of urban reconstruction, while religious interest allowed the various religious communities not to be dispossessed, this paper argues that it subjected religious interest to the law of capital.
Nada Moumtaz is Assistant Professor in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University, having completed a PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with a dissertation entitled ‘Modernizing Charity: Remaking Islamic Law’.