The instructor started the class: “First, let’s have a moment of silence to honor and pray for those victims of terrorism in Paris on Friday night.” The university students and I held that silence and, after a respectful pause, he introduced me as a guest speaker.
I started the class, “First, let’s also have a moment of silence to honor and pray for those victims of Daesh (ISIS) terrorism in Beirut on Thursday night.”
Surprised, the students looked at each other – and respectfully held the moment of silence. In that moment of silence this past Monday, four days past Beirut, three past Paris, I thought about those innocent Lebanese, victimized by the same terrorists, whose loss had been so ignored, overshadowed by the violence in Paris.
Thursday night I was sad.
I lived in Beirut, Lebanon (my parent’s homeland), for years and it wasn’t uncommon, especially before the Lebanese civil war, to hear residents and visitors say, “Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East,” and in many ways it was true – especially for the Christian Lebanese who had been privileged during many years of French occupation. Beirut’s residents were multilingual – usually Arabic, French and English – and its inhabitants had an elevated fashion sense, trendy boutiques lined downtown shopping areas and cafes and restaurants stayed open late into the night.
And both Beirut and Paris had their unseen corners, where neighborhoods of non-assimulated Other lived marginal existences far from Beirut’s Hotel St. George and Paris’s Hotel George V. For Beirut, it was the Shi’a from south Lebanon and Palestinian refugees that were marginalized and ignored in slums on the city edges. For Paris, it was the desperate banlieues filled with Arab, mostly Muslim, immigrants from North Africa.
Unseen, undesired, unloved.
Like the news junky that I am, I watched TV through Friday night, much of Saturday and through parts of Saturday night. I switched channels, mostly between CNN, FOX and MSNBC. Through them I witnessed the horror and grief of survivors and citizens of Paris, a city I also know well. Beirut was unwatched, unseen.
I witnessed and joined in the condemnations of violence. Is there no limit to the depths of violence and evil that can be inflicted by man upon man? Is there no horror that we will ever be spared?
Friday night I was very sad – and felt very alone.
As details unfolded, prejudice and bias emerged alongside facts. I should know better, perhaps, than to have expectations beyond the fourth estate’s usual capacity to be patronizing, condescending and dismissive but I do: I actually expect some of them to be conscious that we’re facing a transnational criminal enterprise, Daesh, that draws its support from the marginalized and dispossessed and from criminals, sadists and the psychopaths.
That there are no scholars among them.
That it’s not about religion. It’s about power.
Over the weekend there was no reflection on the historic marginalization of Muslims in France, that France had been the brutal and exploitive colonizer of Algeria from 1834 to 1962, when Algerians fought and earned their independence after a bloody civil war.
There was no reflection that France was the colonizer, the occupying power in Syria and Lebanon after World War II, where they privileged the minority Christian population above Muslims.
There was no reflection, by journalists, pundits, politicians, on how such issues may in any way suggest why Paris became Daesh’s target – and without such reflections we cannot find ways to counter, oppose and eventually eliminate this evil scourge.
And one of the reasons there was no such reflection was that scarcely anyone bothered to invite Arabs or Muslims to the microphone – to the pulpit – to speak. Since Friday I can recall only four non-European, non-Western voices speak to the trauma, the horror and the terrorism.
Without such reflections, how can we the people judge the responses of our government, judge whether our government is on the right path?
It was without any reflection, too, that at a time of global crisis, of grief and sorrow, Republicans chose to play to their party’s nativist base. With voices raised in anger, demanding revenge, they deployed Islamophobic rhetoric across multiple platforms, making this a conflict between us and them, between the West and the Other.
Donald Trump tweeted: “When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can’t say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!” Saying “Radical Islamic Terrorism” doesn’t make us safer – it does the opposite.
First, it conflates terrorism with Islam, a conflation that all Muslims except terrorists reject. Second, such rhetoric risks alienating and marginalizing Muslim communities that are supportive of aggressive action against Daesh – especially in America.
Federal law enforcement has repeatedly acknowledged that America’s diverse, multi-generational, mostly assimilated Muslim community, which regularly without reservation condemns such attacks, is a critical source of anti-terrorism intelligence, one of the reasons we have remained as safe as we have since 9/11 – and we need to support them.
They are our brothers and sisters, they are refugees and the children of refugees, and America is their home.
Shamefully, we are today hearing from governors and congressmen that America should desist from any humanitarian effort to settle Syrian refugees in America – to close our doors the needy and homeless.
Based on State Department figures, America has admitted nearly 785,000 refugees, including Syrians and Iraqis, since 9/11. Of those thousands, three were accused of illegal terrorist activities – and none of those activities targeted America.
To shut-down this refugee program is to fail to take ownership of the fact that we are in part responsible for their plight – that the broken Middle East that is casting its peoples upon international waters is partly our fault, that the arrogance of our 2003 invasion of Iraq released demons that have morphed into today’s Daesh.
Certainly, we cannot leave the refugees festering in camps throughout the Levant, resentful of their lot; disenfranchised, marginalized, hungry, poor, desperate for resources and susceptible to the entreaties of terrorists like Daesh and al-Qaida.
Sadly, it was out of such circumstances that terrorists emerged Thursday in Beirut, killing and wounding hundreds – families, shopkeepers, students and babies.
Sadly, it was out of such circumstances that terrorists emerged Friday in Paris, killing and wounding hundreds – families, students, diners and dancers.
When TV pundits and presidential hopefuls elevate terrorists by giving them legitimacy (falsely) as some sort of transnational religious movement rather than as a transnational group of criminals who use the rhetoric of religion, we add fuel to their ambitions.
When pundits and politicians advocate for “boots on the ground” to stomp out the cancer of Daesh they fail to realize that Daesh has already metastasized beyond the territory it holds, and that such an invasion is exactly what it wants.
To hold onto power, and to continue to draw support for their agenda, Daesh has two needs. First, to keep Europe and America from accepting refugees, forcing indigenous peoples to remain under their control and second, they want us to put boots on the ground, to draw Western “Crusader” forces into some sort of apocalyptic battle on Mesopotamian plains.
It was a long, long weekend.
As the world rightly condemned the terror and violence in Paris, there were no national monuments bathed in light colored by the Lebanese flag. No one mourned for the Lebanese – except the Lebanese, except those who were related or those who believe we’re all related in this time of unprecedented violence.
Sadly, I believe that the reason that so few are ready to embrace the Beirut victims alongside the Paris victims is that if we sympathize with the Lebanese, if we acknowledge we share a common enemy, if we raise the colors of the Lebanese flag above the Empire State Building then the Other becomes us – and we become responsible.
For too many people that’s too big a step. For them it’s easier to mourn those who are most like us. It’s easier to say that we condemn terrorism as acts against civilized peoples if we ignore Beirut’s victims.
Today, I insist we include the Lebanese in our communal mourning – that we embrace them among the civilized deserving of our tears and prayers and worthy, too, of our protection.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.