Until the civil war of 1975, Beirut was often described as the Paris of the East. In the last couple of days, both Beirut and Paris suffered attacks, but only one of those cities will make the news as a victim of violence.
The grim news of the 13 November attacks in Paris give me a strong sense of déjà vu, even as I struggle to comprehend the violence and the toll on that world city and its people. This feeling of uncomfortable recall is not only because of the Charlie Hebdo shootings that had taken place in Paris at the start of this year, a link that, no doubt, will be made very strongly by politicians and the media in the days to come. Rather, I am also thinking about the Burj el-Barajneh bombings that claimed many lives in southern Beirut a day before Paris and of a smaller but still violent attack on the University of California campus at Merced on 4 November.
I am concerned for the people of Paris. I dread what is to follow. The anxiety I sense building up inside of me is akin to how I felt on 9/11 here in the United States, a premonition that was sadly fulfilled when innocents became the victims of hate crimes based solely on their appearance. But to say the blameless brown-skinned, bearded, or turbaned were targeted in retribution is too simplistic, for their vilification also indicates the deeper current of xenophobia that exists in the United States. Of France and the January attacks, Jacobin’s Richard Seymour had this to say: “No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized ‘secularism,’ or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.”
Only a few days ago, suicide bombers claimed the lives of 41 Beirutis. Already that news is in the process of being eclipsed by the violence in Paris. It is as if Beirut, once described as the Paris of the East, is only to be understood as a zone all too familiar with violence and, what is more, even deserving of it precisely because of its Muslim populace. The damage done to the city with its many European influences is what it is remembered for since the civil war of 1975. Thereupon, other episodes of unrest have occurred over the years, with the Syrian crisis most recently taxing Lebanon. Such events have rendered the cultural and religious diversity of its people invisible to most of the rest of the world as Beirut has become more synonymous with strife. But as Al-Jazeera reports, residents of the predominantly Shia region “expressed shock that such deadly explosions were taking place in the southern suburbs again”, given the relative peace since the previous suicide bombings of 2014, for which al-Qaeda claimed responsibility in the “Hezbollah stronghold”.
It is noteworthy that such nuance escapes the usual reportage when it comes to the Middle East, but is all the more heightened in regard to the West. In other words, violence in the West is generally configured as an external threat of an Islamic nature that is aimed at rupturing civility, while similar forms of violence are seen as being inherent to the East and less worthy of coverage, therefore. It is at times like these that the European world is thought of as being solely the domain of white people, and not the product of past colonial encounters as well as its result – contemporary multiculturality.
As Seymour chronicles in the aforementioned Jacobin article, it did not take long for the Hebdo incident to be labeled an act of terrorism by French President Francois Hollande, for the use of the word is meant to act as a register of any and all difference. “‘Terrorism’ is not a scientific term; it is inherently normative”, Seymour reminds us, going on to explain that the word “functions as a narrative device, setting up a less-than-handful of people as a civilizational threat … It justifies repressive and securitarian responses that tend to target Muslims as such…”
I am concerned for the people of Paris. I dread what is to follow. I hope the days to come will disprove this anguish, but already a fire seems to be lit.
From The Goan.