Sunniva Rose/The National/Lokman Slim assassination: one year on, Lebanese intellectual’s absence leaves void/سونيفا روز/موقع انترناشيونال: فراغ بعد سنة على اغتيال الباحث والمفكر لقمان سليم/فيديو تقرير من موقع درج يغطي ذكرى مرور سنة على اغتيال لقمان سليم فيما التحقيق القضائي معطل
فيديو تقرير من موقع درج يغطي ذكرى مرور سنة على اغتيال لقمان سليم فيما التحقيق القضائي معطل
سونيفا روز/موقع انترناشيونال: فراغ بعد سنة على اغتيال الباحث والمفكر لقمان سليم
Lokman Slim assassination: one year on, Lebanese intellectual’s absence leaves void Sunniva Rose/The National/February 02/2022
One year after his assassination, friends of Lokman Slim mourn the loss of an independent Lebanese thinker whose absence is felt at a time of great upheaval in Lebanese society.
Lebanon is reeling from its worst economic crisis yet, pushing the public to increasingly question the country’s governance since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Slim, 58 at the time of his death, dedicated his life to trying to promote a sense of Lebanese citizenship outside of traditional sectarian divisions.
In his view, the main obstacle to a more cohesive society was Hezbollah, a Lebanese regional militia backed by Iran that is also active in local politics. His family and friends believe the Shiite party played a role in his assassination – a charge it denies.
They all said that Slim was more than a political commentator. He was a publisher, an archivist, a writer, a film maker, and a grass roots activist among Lebanon’s Shiite community who tried to offer them alternatives to Hezbollah. He would have so much to say right now in building a new society. And now he’s gone,” said artist and writer Chaza Charafeddine.
Freedom is a word often used by Slim’s entourage to describe him: freedom of thought, of expression and of movement. He defied convention. The son of a Shiite Lebanese father and an Egyptian Christian mother, Slim came from a left-wing background but spoke to everyone, including members of the US administration under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Unlike many Shiite critics of the Iran-backed party, he often drove to visit friends in south Lebanon. Despite death threats, Slim never chose to live away from his family home situated in a Hezbollah stronghold south of Beirut.
“It’s very difficult to replace him,” said his German widow, Monika Borgmann. “A lot of people are trying to do things, but he did his work from here,” she said, referring to the neighbourhood. The fact that his body was found riddled with bullets in that same region is a strong signal, for his supporters, that Hezbollah may be behind his killing. The investigation is continuing but few expect arrests. Lebanon has a long history of unsolved assassinations of party critics. “He lived free so that others could live like him,” said Slim’s long-time friend Moustafa Yammout, who goes by the name Zico, Zico House being the cultural centre that he runs in Beirut.
‘A brave guy’
Slim’s idealism and lack of political ambition made him unpopular with Lebanon’s political class, which was mostly absent at his funeral. He faced huge backlash after WikiLeaks 2008 revelations that showed that he was willing to talk to Lebanon’s longtime enemy Israel – a taboo in Lebanon. At the same time, he pushed the unpopular idea that Lebanon’s refugees, including Syrians and Palestinians, needed more rights.
“He was a patriot, a progressive who believed in real democracy,” said Lebanese historian Makram Rabah, who often collaborated with Slim. “He believed that peace is a way forward for humanity.”Pro-Hezbollah media tried to tarnish Slim’s reputation by accusing him of being an Israeli or a western spy. Mr Rabah, who has also been the target of such accusations, pointed out that “previous experience has shown that people who spy on Hezbollah are usually party members themselves.”Lebanese media reported on Monday a crackdown against at least 17 suspected Israeli spies that included a Hezbollah member who the group refused to hand over to the judiciary. Such accusations resurfaced after Slim’s assassination. A report published in September by media and press freedom watchdog Skeyes Media showed that accusations of collaboration with Israel, which is considered high treason in Lebanon, started increasing in the weeks before Slim’s death.
Lebanese Shiite journalists with large Twitter followings took a lead in propagating hate speech against Slim and celebrating his killing. Slim made no secret of his meetings with senior US and western officials. He informally advised on policy towards Lebanon, which is facing financial collapse and the emergence of critical, reformist political parties.
Combined with his strong presence at the grass roots, his ties to the international community might be why he was killed, friends and supporters said. “You name me one guy who has tried to engage western intellectuals on a specific policy towards the Shiite community,” said a close friend. “He [Slim] was not clandestine about it and despite this, he died.”
But there are many other reasons that could be behind his killing last year, his friends, said.
This could include a change in US presidency – Joe Biden’s inaugural ceremony took place two weeks before Slim’s death. Mr Biden’s Democratic party is widely viewed as more conciliatory towards Iran than his Republican predecessor Mr Trump.
In 2016, Slim refused an asylum offer made by the US government, which warned him that he could be killed, said David Schenker, senior fellow at the Washington Institute and former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “He was a brave guy. He said that he’d stay and do his work,” Mr Schenker said.
Slim rarely spoke about death threats. He broke his silence in December 2019, when explicit calls for his assassination were stuck the outside walls of his home. In a public letter, he wrote that Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah should personally be held responsible should anything happen to him or his family.
“No way they were going to let him live”
Slim’s killing succeeded in durably instilling fear among independent Shiites, said his close friend. “His death was so brazen. There was so little condemnation targeted at Hezbollah,” he said, referring to the State Department’s statement following Slim’s death which did not mention the group. “Instead of emboldening his community to embrace his legacy, we were left to fend for ourselves.”
Mr Schenker, another close friend of Slim, agreed. “The fact that the international community hasn’t rallied around Lokman has had a bit of a chilling effect, which is exactly what Hezbollah hoped to accomplish,” he said. “There has always been a concern about not exacerbating all of Lebanon’s problems. But Lebanon would be more stable if people were held to account.”
Inga Schei, a US national who worked closely with Slim, believes that one of the consequences of his killing will be that no independent Shiites will dare run in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May. “The point was to scare people,” she said. In the past, independent Shiite candidates have been physically assaulted. The NGO that Ms co-ran with Slim, Hayya Bina, represented a direct challenge to Hezbollah, she said.
Hayya Bina’s first campaign in 2005 was to promote the idea that Lebanese communities can vote outside their confessional identity. It also trained English teachers and conducted interfaith meetings.
Ms Schei paused the NGO’s work after Slim’s death out of fear for the safety for their Lebanese employees. She always knew Slim would be assassinated. “There was no way they were going to let him live,” she said. Yet many try to put on a brave face about Slim’s death, in part in tribute to his formidably creative life. “He lived more free than Nasrallah. That’s why killing him isn’t a problem,” said Zico, with a chuckle.
Secret communist cell
Zico and Slim first met as part of a secret communist cell during the late 1980s. The two men were told to cut ties with party leadership and that after one year, they would be contacted. Nothing happened. “Maybe they wanted to get rid of us, maybe it was a joke, maybe it was one of Lokman’s tricks,” Zico said.
They failed as communist spies but became lifelong friends, sharing a desire to live unfettered by Lebanon’s conservative social norms.
“Lokman liked to play. Nothing stopped him, neither religion, nor family or anything. It was how life should be. You respect your roots, but you don’t allow yourself to be pressured by them,” Zico said. One of the first projects that Slim and Zico worked on after the war was campaigning against a concert staged by Lebanon’s superstar singer Fairuz in downtown Beirut in 1994.
Hailed at the time as an emotional reunion between the diva and her public in a country finally at peace, the concert also kick-started a controversial reconstruction project of the war-damaged area. Slim launched a slogan, “Fairuz Say No and Kill The King” – a reference to a sentence that Fairuz used in her theatre plays before the war, Zico said.
“Lokman knew that Fairuz was being used to demolish downtown with little popular protest,” he said. In parallel to his activism, Slim founded in 1990 publication house Dar Al Jadeed with his sister Rasha Al Ameer, which she looks after alone since her brother’s assassination.
Like Zico, artist and writer Mrs Charafeddine remembers a larger-than-life character who balanced multiple projects at once, ranging from saving archives from a historic hotel by buying it from a waste company, to delving into sensitive regional security matters.
“He was brilliant, courageous and had an exceptional, critical mind,” she said. “He was eloquent. “His language was perfect. That’s also one of the reasons they hated him,” she said, referring to Hezbollah. In addition to speaking Arabic, Slim switched easily between English, French and German.
As a single young woman living in Beirut’s southern suburbs in the 1990s, Mrs Charafeddine recalled intense social pressure, including from former militiamen who repeatedly finding excuses to drop by her flat to check on her visitors.
But she was surrounded by friends like Slim who gave her courage to bear it. “It is something that I wasn’t expecting to find,” she said. She and Slim hailed from similar backgrounds – big Shiite families that included prominent politicians on Slim’s side and clergymen on hers. “Normally, when you come from a family that is well-known, you try to hide when you live your life,” she said.
For Mrs Charafeddine, Slim was at his professional best during his years of collaboration with Monika Borgmann, whom he met in 2001. Together, they founded Umam, an NGO devoted to the memory of the civil war, in 2005, which is still based in Slim’s family home. They rose to prominence with an exhibition featuring a bus where a massacre that triggered the war in April 1975 took place. They later produced two films together, one on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre and one on Lebanese detainees in Syria’s Tadmor prison, a widely hailed feat in a country that refuses to engage with its troubled past.“What we were trying to do at Umam was to build a memory which can be shared by all the Lebanese,” Mrs Borgmann said.
Umam’s exhibition centre is open to all, including to people from the Hezbollah-controlled neighbourhood. One of its most popular events was the screening of the 2010 World Football Cup. “Hezbollah was trying to forbid people to come, but they came anyway because their wish to see football was bigger than listening to the party,” Mrs Borgmann said. The bus exhibition and the subsequent films were Lebanese photographer Marwan Tahtah’s introduction to the couple. He went on to exhibit his photos of Lebanon’s 2019 anti-government protests at Umam for what was to be the last exhibition organised by Slim.
“I only knew him for six months but we talked about a lot of things. About archives, about the city. Many only see Lokman as someone who was against Hezbollah, but for me he was more important than that,” he said. Mrs Borgmann said that the exhibition was a way of honouring the “momentum” of the 2019 “revolution.”“Not everyone agreed with Lokman’s political views, but I think we managed to maintain political balance and objectivity over the years at Umam,” she said.
In addition to participating in launching a foundation in Slim’s name devoted to political assassinations, Mrs Borgmann has continued Umam’s work after her husband’s death. This is Slim’s most important legacy, Mrs Charafeddine said “Lokman was first of all a researcher. The work he did for history and for memory was exceptional,” she said. “It’s so sad that he died because of his political activism because he played such an important role in preserving Lebanon’s memory.”