Strongholds and Tragedies: A Tale of Two Cities

by Elia El Khazen

Internationalist to our core, Salvage is committed to translating and publishing material by radicals overseas, from a variety of traditions. Our ambitions are high: we intend to increase the amount of such work we can showcase, to host a variety of debates and viewpoints, to be an indispensable outlet for comradely discussion on the international Left.
In our own Salvage statement after the horrifying Paris and Beirut attacks, we decried not only these mass murders but their instrumentalisation by our leaders. As the dust begins to settle, the scale of the reaction they are being used to legitimate is becoming horrifyingly clear – the clampdown on civil liberties in France and the expansion of surveillance; the banning of demonstrations; imperialist adventures; and a terrifying tidal wave of racist reaction against Muslims. 
In such an atmosphere, as they have for a long time, the Arab Left have an unenviable and Herculean task ahead of them – as now do the French Left. We are pleased here to offer our solidarity, and to publish a voice from these movements: first, a translation of an editorial by Mathieu Bonzom of the French Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA), first published in French in Contretemps; followed by this piece by Elia El Khazen of the Lebanese organisation Socialist Forum on the ideologies of victimhood, ‘safety’ and politics.

The world has witnessed a deadly week. Last Thursday, forty-three people died in Borj Al Barajneh, a crowded working class neighbourhood in the southern suburb of Beirut where a double suicide bombing ripped apart the busy market sector of the street. One day later, a suicide bombing at a wedding southwest of Baghdad killed seventeen people and injured thirty-five, and several attacks in Paris left 129 dead and hundreds of injured.

Other than the fact that they were all carried out by Daesh, the clear thread that joins these three attacks is the way they were all depoliticised after they happened and re-politicised accordingly, albeit on different levels, serving different purposes and schemes. But all of these explosions were stripped of the political context that binds them together and explains the ripe environment that made them an event rather than a possibility. As Sam Kriss points out in his Jacobin piece ‘death is always political, and nothing is more political than a terrorist attack. These events happen for political reasons, and they have political consequences’.

But politics in these instances are used and misused to a degree in an era of specialisation mostly by politicians and experts who hold monopoly over political analyses. Most rallying cries on social media and in demonstrations stress on the apolitical and post-political as a means to find the lowest common denominator between people to be able to counter this crisis with the least conflict possible, to be able to rally the greatest number of people around a just cause without having to debate, argue and bicker over minor ‘secondary details’. On Facebook, solidarity was expressed in the form of French flag filters all over profiles, homogenising struggles, victims and consequences alike under the guise of a necessary unity after such a tragedy.

Also important to note that many people on my Facebook newsfeed were being marked ‘as safe’ after the Paris attacks. In a blog post Facebook explained why it enabled the Safety Check for Paris but not other recent attacks:

‘During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly ‘safe’.’ They add:

‘It’s not clear if the team would have enabled it for Beirut because the Lebanese city is included among other parts of the world, where violence is more common and terrible things happen with distressing frequency.’

This statement really conveys how Facebook perceives its users, creating real binaries based on the concepts of safety/violence, important/disposable ongoing/temporary western cities/other parts of the world, key words here being an: ‘ongoing crisis’ with ‘clear start or end point’ ‘truly safe’ ‘other parts of the world’ ‘violence is more common’ and of course ‘terrible things happen with distressing frequency’.

‘Violence being more common’ is being used here as an argument for not deploying a safety check, which seems absurd if taken at face value. If anything a safety check should be more useful and effective in these ‘other parts of the world’. At the depths of it, Facebook’s statement and the mainstream depiction of the violent orient puts in opposition the commonality of violence for those who have disposable lives on one hand and on the other hand highlights the rarity of its occurrence for people who they perceive to be valuable, alive or dead.

In fact, minutes after the double suicide bombings in Beirut, the New York Times and Reuters declared on their social media accounts, respectively:  ‘Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah stronghold in Southern Beirut’, and ‘Two Suicide Bombers hit Hezbollah bastion in Lebanon’.

The same way ‘stronghold’ and ‘bastion’ are loaded terms used interchangeably to describe working class neighborhoods and markets in the global south and participate in the victim blaming and dehumanisation of supposed Hezbollah supporters, ‘terrorism’ is a loaded term too. It crosses across borders to describe specific violent acts aimed at specific kinds of ‘western civilians’ in specific situations. If that wasn’t the case, black people, people of color and transpeople in the US would be described as suffering from state terrorism in media outlets on a daily basis. Not only are their struggles delegitimised, but their status as dissidents also legitimizes the violence used against them; the same way residing in a neighborhood assumed to be controlled by Hezbollah, where all people are irrational ‘blind followers’, evidently justifies a terrorist attack by a similar group with ‘blind followers’ but locked in a different ‘ideological trap’.

Whereas all of the victims of the Beirut explosions are overpoliticized as complicit agents, Paris victims are individualized to the point where they become only victims to be mourned but never to be contextualised. As Maya Mikdashi puts it in her ‘What is a Car Bomb’ article in Jaddaliya, ‘to put a distance between you and an explosion is to imagine a logic to violence, and a logic to safety’. A logic to safety here implies that violence is not/should not be part of the daily routine of the people in question, and an attack on them would come as a surprise to anyone. As for the others, they live in another part of the world, fiercely homogenised, and their daily lives are, as Facebook describes it so eloquently, in an ‘ongoing crisis’.

Solidarity also comes in other political forms: within hours of the Paris attacks, capitals of the western world (for the most part) chose to show their allegiance to French state ideology of flag worshiping by projecting the tricolor flag on benchmark buildings that are perceived to symbolize the capital as a whole. A reductionist approach on both accounts aiming to homogenise the narrative of western ideals versus barbarism, as if the Eiffel tower was erected in response to the ‘Raqqa stronghold’ and as if these symbols of hegemonic culture and western civilization were put in opposition to the ‘Hezbollah bastion’. And more importantly, this tour de force aims to reduce the contradictions within these cities to mere details, dismissed at will in the ‘War on Terror’, to highlight unity in the face of danger within and between western cities, and thus civilization.

This particular juxtaposition is reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s essay ‘Clash of Civilizations’ where Huntington defines ‘civilization’ as ‘the broadest level of cultural identity people have.’ He suggests that the world contains ‘seven or eight’ major ones: ‘Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African’ where western culture or civilization is regrouped under one umbrella and opposed to other cultures and civilization (mainly oriental) under the roof of their respective religions.

There is also the discussion around the absence of republican values that are clearly in clash with irrational oriental/Islamic values that the ‘Muslim community’ cannot fathom and is thus prey to be manipulated by dictators and takfiris. In that sense terrorism becomes a constant potential expansion of Islam, making Muslims apologetic and the first to pay its price every time there’s an attack on western ground.

All of these narratives are used and re-used to counter dissidence in times of crises; they are carefully manipulated and inserted to vigorously reproduce state violence on an ideological and coercive level, within and outside of borders. It comes as no surprise that forty-eight hours after the Paris attack, Hollande extended the state of emergency from twelve days to three months, intensified the airstrikes on the ‘Raqqa stronghold’ killing more than 130 people, mostly civilians, all the while proposing a rewriting of the French constitution to modify the different juridical ‘states of exception’ that exist under French law. The state of emergency, under the terms of a 1955 law, allows the state to impose curfews, take ‘all measures to control the press and the radio’, carry out arbitrary searches and seizures in individual residences, ban meetings and organise military tribunals.

In that sense, Hollande seems to have solved the biggest riddle of all, by adopting the western reductionist rhetoric that declares that ‘ISIS hates our freedom; let us then dispose of our freedom to fight ISIS better’.

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