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Terror in Istanbul, Discord in Beirut – When are the Innocent Guilty?

Elie Chalala

Celebration descended into grief in Istanbul as a terrorist attack on a nightclub claimed 39 lives, and left dozens more wounded just an hour after midnight on New Year’ s Day. The victims, many of them foreigners, included three Lebanese dead, with four more wounded.

However, rather than coming together to mourn the deaths of innocent victims, members of Lebanese TV and press – particularly social media – have engaged in starkly divisive discourses, not only politicizing the three individuals killed in the attack, but also making their deaths appear negotiable. Fierce exchanges between different ideological groups have led some religious extremists to celebrate, either blatantly or inadvertently, the pain suffered by the victims’ families, sharing the killer’s joy in his crime rather than condemning it as terrorism.

Engaging in semantics, debates have emerged over whether the victims should be regarded as martyrs or victims. The term “martyrs” generally refers to those who die while fighting for a political cause or struggling against an enemy, not those whose deaths prove unrelated or coincidental to political causes. The “martyr or victim” controversy has, nevertheless, figured prominently in the conflictive discourse with anti-Turkish government activists wanting to claim the Lebanese dead as martyrs. Others, labeling their deaths as coincidental, deem them victims, and deny their affiliations with any political groups.

Lebanon’s political discord has taken a religious turn as some Christians accuse Turkey, a Muslim country, of targeting Christians, when in reality the attack targeted Turkey. Triggered by the Lebanese religious division, as well as irresponsible conventional and social media, this hostility towards Turkey has become especially apparent in the manner in which the media reported the reactions of the victims’ families.  Emotionally vulnerable and grief-stricken over the loss of a son who happened to be Christian Orthodox, some members of his family contextualized their grief by referring to ancient Eastern Christian grievances against the Ottomans. They cited the Hagia Sophia, the famed Greek Orthodox Christian church in Istanbul, seized by the Ottomans in 1453 and transformed first into an imperial mosque, and later into a museum. Transforming this and other private moments of grief into media spectacles, news stations and journalists capitalized on their voyeuristic coverage to the general detriment of the public, inflaming religious tensions and discord rather than fostering support and unity for the victims and their families.

Religious or sectarian undertones have continued to color Lebanese reactions to the tragedy. Even the extremists among Lebanese Shiites, whose unfriendly sentiments towards Turkey should have guaranteed their sympathy for the Reina Nightclub victims, have instead regarded them with disfavor due to their participation in behaviors such as drinking, dancing, and singing, behaviors considered inappropriate by strict Islamists, whether Sunni or Shiite. While some feel this justifies criticisms and negative characterizations of the victims, one appalled Lebanese columnist has voiced his belief that “condemning the victim’s happiness and sharing the killer’s pleasure in his crime” cannot be condoned, according to Ziad Touba in Al Modon electronic newspaper.

Indeed, those who anticipate a condemnation of the ISIS-sponsored terrorist attack may find it disorienting to follow the culturally and religiously inflamed verbal skirmishes on social media in which some of the pro-Hezbollah activists have engaged. However, such heated exchanges can be easily understood, if not condoned, within the context of significant Lebanese events – past and present – involving strong religious and cultural tensions between Christians and secularists on one hand, and Hezbollah-affiliated students on the other. In one incident, verbal altercations between two student groups in one Lebanese University branch stopped a memorial service for a fellow student who had died in a car accident. This allowed pro-Hezbollah students to prevent songs by Lebanese diva Fairuz from being played during the service. Sufficient documentation exists concerning Hezbollah positions on issues like banning “non-anthem” music, discouraging meetings between opposite sexes in public spaces, and encouraging the harassment of internet cafes. Even during the writing of this essay, another similar controversy erupted during the 40th day memorial for Fidel Castro at the UNESCO Hall in Beirut. Invited to give a eulogy representing the Party’s leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, one of Hezbollah’s major parliamentary personalities, Mohammad Raad, surprised a largely leftist audience with the Party’s opposition to two segments of the program which included a musical Oud performance.

Lebanese social media, as well as the press have also reported that pro-Hezbollah mayors have issued warnings against internet cafes and have been forcing an illegal ban on selling alcohol in Shiite villages and towns in southern Lebanon. Thus the positions and attitudes revealed after the Istanbul attack remain consistent with Hezbollah involvement in the non-political and military realms of society, and reflect their policy to foment intolerance to political and social-cultural issues.

To better understand the tensions involved, one needs to explore the role of Lebanese media, both digital and print, when dealing with issues beyond the scope of politics and religion. With a 43-year old major newspaper folding, and others expected to follow suit, the Lebanese print media hardly provides a model of inspiration. Faced with similar economic crises, TV stations attempt to rescue themselves by violating any acceptable professional standards just to win rating wars. Given their current predicaments, members across a broad spectrum of the Lebanese media have indulged in below-standard coverage, focusing on scooping each other with complete disregard of the human and ethical consequences of their journalistic decisions. Lebanese TV conduct, in the words of columnist Ziad Touba, has “exceeded all the limits of our humanity,” making it both primarily “commercial” and secondarily “divisive,” showing little consideration for “death, funerals and mourning.”  Touba continues his analogy and imagery, likening television cameras to “machine guns,” and correspondents to “killers dishonoring the people’s tears and sorrow, violating all mourning traditions.”

While the Lebanese media never lived off its subscriptions, advertising or sales revenues, the diminishing external aid has allowed it to abandon whatever self-censorship it once practiced in favor of a self-reliant commercialistic approach. In contrast to American yellow and tabloid journalism, which has focused on car-chases and sex scandals to generate profits and increase ratings, these types of news stories have not found a strong niche audience in Lebanon (although such an audience appears to be gradually growing). Instead, using sensational coverage to exploit religious and sectarian divisions remains the most profitable source of revenues and high ratings. Whether reporting political or personal violence, television stations stand ever ready to interrupt regular programming and go live on air. Although such coverage seems legitimate on the surface, it harbors no immunity to the lure of pathological religious and sectarian politics, engendering little concern for the social consequences of such reporting. If well-meaning viewers expect an even-handed approach, they will be disappointed. However, the Lebanese viewership, largely divided along religious and sectarian lines, will, more likely than not, tune to channels which mirror their own views, favoring the more extreme and sectarian the coverage.

This tendency towards sensationalized reporting holds true even when the topic concerns personal crimes of a purely secular nature. The ugliest and most brutal crimes suddenly acquire religious and sectarian implications in Lebanon. For example, if the attacker happens to be a Muslim, and the victim a Christian, the TV stations, each with its own sectarian identity or affiliation, rush to provide biased coverage, ensuring that loyal viewers can easily assign blame to “Others,” and identify their own parties as innocent of any wrongdoing. This holds true even with incidents caused by road rage, where angry drivers generally have no awareness of the religious-sectarian identities of the “offending” parties with whom they engage in a fist or gun fights.

Needless to say, deaths and funerals often elicit uncontrollable expressions of raw, painful emotions, with some members of the victims’ families bordering on hysteria. These very private moments, which belong only to the victims’ families, should be respected rather than being invaded and exploited. According to Mr. Touba, in the case of the Reina Nightclub terrorist attack, Lebanese reporters reporting on the families of the victims “should have shared the sorrow and stayed away from faces that could not control the expression of their emotions.”

In short, the Lebanese media tends to handle private funerals and personal moments of grief like episodes of reality TV, an approach which has increased viewership at an immense moral and political cost. In the wake of the Istanbul massacre, many Lebanese reporters have betrayed the private space of the grief, while politically they have succeeded in popularizing intolerant and sectarian reactions, making union and solidarity in Lebanon extremely difficult.

An Essay by  Elie Chalala

Artwork: “Porous States: Turkey and Lebanon,” collage and archival pigmented ink, Doris Bittar 2017
This essay is scheduled to appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 21, no. 72 (2017)

Copyright (c) 2017 by Al Jadid