The Principle of Hope
The Movement of the Democratic Left that Kassir helped found was an alliance of Lebanese progressives, many of them former Communists who had come to recognize that Israeli expansionism and American imperialism, although obstacles to Arab progress, had become alibis for autocracies that refused to reform. The creation of democratic, accountable institutions and the establishment of the rule of law, Kassir underscored, are vital aims in themselves; for what was the point of overthrowing colonialism if not to put something better in its place? Some of his critics complained that, with his focus on Lebanese-Syrian relations, he had abandoned the cause of Palestine. Rather, as a Lebanese citizen, he understood that his first obligation was to liberate his own country--a lesson lost not only on his peers in the pan-Arab camp, who have long dreamed that the liberation of Palestine would spark a revolution in their own countries, but on our own liberal-hawk missionaries.
At the same time, Kassir understood that Lebanon's predicament could not be separated from regional struggles over land and capital, faith and power. The Lebanese could not afford to be provincial, the curse of small countries. With the Saudis building mosques in Beirut (and turning seaside resorts into a holiday harem); the Iranians arming Hezbollah and funding its schools and hospitals; Israel and Hezbollah trading fire on the border; the United States vying for influence with France, Lebanon's former colonial master; hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in wretched camps, still awaiting their fate; and, not least, the Lebanese fractured into more than a dozen clans, many connected by religion and ethnicity to groups beyond the country's borders--with this intricate web of forces, Lebanon held up a mirror to the wider Arab world. The political and intellectual stagnation of that world, what he called the "Arab malaise," was the subject of his last book, Considérations sur le malheur arabe. In Kassir's view, the region had succumbed to this malaise not only because the West had overtaken it but because the Arabs had failed to modernize, instead taking consolation in false solutions like pan-Arabism and Islamism.
Predictably, Kassir was accused of being an "Arab pessimist" who had lost faith in his own society. In fact, he was animated by a quality seldom found in the Middle East: hope. "If a liberal Middle East were not possible," he told Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star, in an interview with Reason, "things would be unbearable for secular people like us." But "for it to be possible,"
the liberal West must also be liberal in the Middle East: It must abandon its support for dictatorships, even those considered as moderates and allies. Look what happened with Libya: Once Muammar al-Qadaffi renounced his nuclear ambitions, Bush and Blair acclaimed him. What a message when you are calling for democracy in the Middle East!... Most importantly, the West must accept that the strategic importance of the Middle East must not justify denying its peoples the rights to self-determination, and that means, particularly, the Palestinians.
Kassir's murder went almost unnoticed by the American left, in large part because few here had even heard of him. But there was perhaps a less innocent reason: Kassir's cause converged inconveniently with the anti-Syrian agenda of the American government, which promptly turned up the heat on Damascus after his death. (Imagine the outcry from the left if a man of his stature had been cut down by American or Israeli arms.) It was his misfortune to incur the wrath of a state vilified by the United States; this deprived him of the sympathy to which he was entitled. No such parochial calculation deterred the Palestinian left--or Syrian dissidents, who have made it plain they do not wish to be rescued from Baathism by the American military--from paying tribute to Kassir, whom they recognized as a kindred spirit.
In Lebanon he has ascended, if that is the word, to the status of "the martyr Kassir." Yet Kassir was an unusual kind of martyr in today's Middle East, a staunch secularist who wanted to live in a free country, not to die for one. In a region driven increasingly by a politics of death and sacrifice, he stood for a vision of peaceful reform, progressive social change and democratic secularism--the values of any left worthy of the name. The day after Kassir's murder, hundreds of journalists poured into Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut to observe an hour of silence. Many raised black pens to the sky, visually evoking the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. It is not. But to wield the pen rather than the sword in the face of mortal threats requires uncommon courage. This Samir Kassir had in abundance. His death is a terrible blow not only to his family and friends but to Lebanon, Syria and the cause of Arab freedom.