Victims, not martyrs
Ana Maria Luca/Now Lebanon/November 13/15
Martyr: someone who suffers persecution and/or death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, and/or refusing to advocate a belief or cause of either a religious or secular nature.
“My cousin was martyred last night,” the taxi driver said this morning. He was somewhat resigned to it, as if his cousin had died for a just cause; as if his cousin had made the choice willingly, understanding the risks.
The driver’s cousin was in the Burj al-Barajneh neighborhood of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the midst of a crowded square, 200 meters apart on Thursday night. His cousin was among the 45 Lebanese killed in the explosions, which were later claimed by the Islamic State. But the man was not angry. His cousin had been martyred, he said, and now he was in a better place: the paradise where martyrs go when they die for their cause.
About an hour after the bombings, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said: “Following consultations with the prime minister, it has been decided to close all public and private schools, universities and technical institutes tomorrow in solidarity with the souls of the innocent martyrs.”
The word ‘martyr’ travels quickly after an explosion in Lebanon. It’s a very deceiving word. It makes people believe that their relatives have died a great death; that it was not in vain; that it was for a cause and that their souls have gone to paradise. It makes people forget their anger; it makes them feel empowered and not helpless.
This word is more than deceiving — it’s pure propaganda. Civilians in Lebanon are helpless. When they die in bombings and assassinations they are innocent victims, not martyrs. The idea of martyrdom in the face of an outrageous act like a terrorist bombing strips people of their agency — it puts everything in God’s hands rather than demanding accountability from those responsible.
The Lebanese who died on Thursday night are victims in every way possible. Before becoming the victims of a terrorist, they were victims of a political system that is based, and in deed thrives, on sectarian divisions that keep the same people in power, year after year, decade after decade.
The roots of radicalism
There is always a political reason behind terrorism. In Lebanon, it’s not the creation of a caliphate, but a fight against oppression. The security agencies have been hunting for terrorists for the past two years, arresting scores of people. Most of them are from Sunni neighborhoods in Tripoli and villages in the Bekka Valley and North Lebanon. Others come from the Islamist corner of the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.
There are always radical elements in any community, but in Lebanon in the past few years this radicalism has flourished. Nobody in the government wanted to have a serious talk about the real reasons. It’s the Syrian spillover, they said. But the roots of radicalism and sectarian hatred were here all along.
For one radical group to grow in a sectarian community and go to war with another radical group fostered by another sectarian community, there should be deep, structural reasons. There should be competition over resources, as well as a chosen trauma or unresolved mourning that the group hasn’t had the time or the opportunity to deal with. Then the group builds an image of the enemy — the enemy is dehumanized and demonized, which leads to the ability to kill that enemy without remorse.
The Sunnis and Shiites of Lebanon were subjected to all of these after 2005: they competed over political rights, they dealt with assassinations, and their political leaders blamed each other without allowing justice to follow its course. Hezbollah talks to its constituency about takfirisandthe end of days,and sends young men to Syria to die for a strictly Shiite cause — Sayyidah Zainab. Fundamentalist Sunni sheikhs talk about Hezbollah as the enemy that kills their Sunni brothers in Syria and ask for jihad as a duty for young Sunni men.
In the meantime, because the Lebanese system is based on patron-client relationships and everybody tolerates this, a large number of Shiites depend on Hezbollah for their daily needs and a large number of Sunnis depend on charities. Both leaderships are fundamentalist, Islamist forces and they cannot leave their ideologies behind. Many people are forced to listen not because there’s a gun pointed at their heads, but because they’re poverty-stricken.
A weak and disorganized state
For radicalism and terrorism to rise, the state also has to be failing. The Lebanese security agencies don’t really work together and are politically aligned. At first, while Salafist political activism was on the rise and Hezbollah was sending its fighters into Syria, the Lebanese security forces did not interfere. Then, when things got ugly in Bekaa Valley on the Syrian border and bombs started killing civilians in Beirut and Tripoli, they decided to crack down on Sunni terrorism, hunting down Salafists, Syrians and Palestinians suspected of having any relations with Syrian opposition groups.
Radical movements are never a majority. There is definitely a strong anti-Hezbollah sentiment in the Sunni community in Lebanon. But there is definitely a strong anti-ISIS sentiment, too. Islamic State adepts in Lebanon probably number in the tens. There were also some Al-Qaeda militants — Jabhat al-Nusra supporters and some other factions — but many of them were already caught and jailed. The radical sheikhs in Tripoli have been quiet for months now. Quiet is more dangerous than loud political voices who can be convinced to shape a direction of thought among the angry poor followers.
Now, the new ISIS militants have all the space in the world to act and cause damage because they have no one with authority to tell them otherwise. They find in Hezbollah a dehumanized enemy. The question is: how did Lebanon get here?
What the Lebanese security apparatus did in 2014 was absolutely pointless and dangerous: it designed localized security plans for Tripoli, Bekaa and, apparently, a formal security plan in Dahiyeh to appease Sunni fundamentalists who were being hunted. But nobody fell for that narrative — Sunnis still perceived the state as protecting Hezbollah’s people.
Moreover, some of the really dangerous Sunni radicals who had the real connections and training fled from one region to another. Young Salafists from Tripoli who fought in Syria — becoming radicalized and toughened in one of the cruelest and bloody wars the Middle East has ever seen — moved to Ain al-Hilweh, where Lebanese security forces have no jurisdiction and where an attack by the Lebanese Army would cause more civilian casualties than would kill radicals.
During the security plans, scores of Sunni Islamists were arrested and videos of them being tortured were leaked from Roumieh prison. According to a Sunni cleric in Tripoli, security forces arrested many of the older leaders of armed groups in the neighborhoods, leaving room for the unexperienced, uneducated and angry youths to act as they saw fit. The Islamic State only had to reach out to them. These young men were ready to do what they asked.
Things aren’t going to get better in our daily lives, either. Companies in Beirut were closed on Friday morning because Shiite employees got into fights with Sunni employees. On construction sites, Shiite technicians tried to beat up Syrian and Palestinian workers. This hatred springs from the fact that everyone has his own martyrs, because many people don’t think beyond the ideology that’s offered to them by sectarian entrepreneurs. It’s not for a sacred cause that people die because they happen to pass through a crowded square at 6 pm on a Thursday. This is not God’s doing. Politics makes victims.
Innocent victims are not martyrs. Martyrs die because they believe in something; because they are oppressed; because there is an injustice they oppose. The people who died last night were not martyrs. They were collateral in a regional political match fought not only in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but now also on the streets of Lebanese cities. The streets of Beirut, the streets of Tripoli, the streets of Arsal, the streets of Hermel.
**Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.