An analysis in the wake of deadly attacks by ISIS in Lebanon and France, published in The Cairo Review in November 2015.
Last Friday evening, I was in a bar in the eleventh arrondissement of Paris, celebrating a friend’s birthday, when we heard that there had been a shooting in a restaurant in the area. Then more news trickled in of an attack at the Stade de France, and of a hostage situation at the Bataclan theater, only five hundred meters from where we were gathered.
As the bar owners ushered us indoors for safety, the confusion brought me back to a feeling of apprehension I had experienced during similar incidents in Lebanon, where I worked as a journalist for four years until September this year. During that time period, numerous deadly attacks in the country killed dozens upon dozens of people who, just like those in Paris that night, had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The latest bombing in Lebanon took place on Thursday, killing forty-six people and wounding more than two hundred in the southern Beirut suburb of Burj Al-Barajneh, a popular area where many Palestinian and Syrian refugees live, along with working-class Lebanese and migrant workers. Their deaths did not elicit calls for international solidarity, or Lebanese flags and “safety checks” on Facebook.
Many have denounced, and rightly so, the double standard at play when it comes to who gets to be mourned on the international stage. There are few things that expose the continued endurance of Western supremacy quite as starkly as the global reaction to loss of life. After all, Lebanon has a reputation for being a violent place. That such horror was perceived as commonplace—despite it being the first attack of the sort in the country since January—somehow made it seem less tragic, less important.
That the attack in Lebanon was widely reported as having taken place in a “Hezbollah stronghold” erases the demographic and political diversity of Beirut’s suburbs, and plays into the logic of the attackers who see this civilian population as a legitimate political target. It’s also telling that the Burj Al-Barajneh tragedy received renewed attention from Western, and especially francophone, media after the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) claimed the attacks in Paris.
Would the link have been made as readily if the Beirut bombings had been the work of another organization, if they weren’t perceived as being tied in some way to French security?
These criticisms are not just an issue of human decency, but are profoundly tied to the dangers of fundamentalist violence. Global indifference to suffering in places like Lebanon, Palestine, Syria or elsewhere undoubtedly fuels resentment in the region, resentment that groups like ISIS instrumentalize to their benefit to garner support for operations such as the one in Paris on Friday. The assailants also hope to stoke xenophobic and militaristic reactions from the French state and its population to justify their actions and serve as a recruitment tool.
France has already carried out significant retaliatory airstrikes in Syria, and more are to be expected after French President François Hollande announced a “merciless struggle” against terrorism. With regional elections less than a month away in France, populist (and popular) far-right politicians may very well gain a boost in the polls. This could have dire consequences for not only for foreign policy, but for the lives of citizens who are not français de souche, those with immigrant origins.
By aiming to fight extremism, France might in fact strengthen it, and the consequences will be felt first and foremost by people in the Middle East. The already small number of individuals granted asylum in France might drop to a trickle, a troublesome possibility given how many are fleeing the kind of groups that targeted Paris. Next in line are those who, while they may have been born and raised in France, are nonetheless categorized as “Other” by the politicians who have capitalized on the idea of the French identity being under threat.
Back when the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred, it felt strange to have Lebanese friends come up to me to express their condolences, when I knew so few of my fellow French citizens would extend the same courtesy—that is, if they ever even found out about similar events occurring in Lebanon.
There is a well-known “rule” in francophone journalism about la mort-kilomètre, which theorizes that a single death one kilometer away will garner more attention than one-hundred dead a thousand kilometers away. But that logic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For how much further are Beirut, Baghdad or Ankara from Paris when expressions of support flow in from New York, Sydney or Rio de Janeiro? This is where the trivialization of non-Western death becomes self-evident, and troubling.
While a little late in the game, there is a growing awareness of the double standards at play given the occurrence of these two terrible events, one so soon after the other. But when the next bombing happens in the Middle East, who will remember this lesson? Will French citizens put up Iraqi flags on their Facebook profiles? Will news anchors stop using dehumanizing and inaccurate sectarian descriptors? Will France cut its profitable ties with unscrupulous and authoritarian governments in the Middle East? Will those who cowered in confusion in the bars of Paris remember that the people of Beirut share the same fears, the same right to live?