The Principle of Hope
On the morning of Thursday, June 2, the Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir left his apartment for the offices of the daily Al-Nahar in downtown Beirut. Kassir's editorials, which appeared in Al-Nahar each Friday, were models of lucidity and passion, expressing the hopes shared by many Lebanese for freedom from Syrian domination. His writing not only captured the popular mood in Lebanon; it inspired people to take chances they would not have otherwise risked.
Kassir never made it to work: When he got into his car, a bomb placed under it exploded. In killing him, Kassir's assassins silenced one of the leading progressives in the Middle East, and one of its bravest voices: an unflagging advocate of democracy, an opponent of Arab dictatorships and of Western double standards, a champion of Palestinian rights who was also a scathing critic of anti-Semitism.
Born in 1960 in Beirut to a Palestinian father of Greek Orthodox confession and a Syrian mother, Kassir taught history at St. Joseph's University in Beirut. A fully bearded, dashing man of considerable charm and wit who bore more than a passing resemblance to the Italian cinéaste Nanni Moretti, he cut a glamorous profile. His charisma was more than matched by his mind. Equally at home in the newsroom and in the archives, in Arabic and in French, he wrote for Le Monde diplomatique and La Revue d'études palestiniennes and published several important works of scholarship in French, including a massive history of his native city and a study of the Lebanese civil war.
Independence seemed to come naturally to Kassir, who never shied away from a cause merely because it was unpopular. In the late 1990s he led a lonely crusade against the French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, who had been making inroads into otherwise progressive Arab intellectual circles; four years ago, he helped prevent the pernicious Institute for Historical Review, a Garaudy-affiliated revisionist group based in the United States, from holding a conference in Beirut. At even greater personal risk, Kassir protested what he called Syria's "mafia-type protectorate" over Lebanon, campaigning tirelessly for independence and railing against a security apparatus most of his colleagues were too timorous to name. Kassir's open defiance of Damascus brought him unwanted attention from the pro-Syrian security establishment, which harassed him with menacing phone calls, briefly confiscated his passport on the spurious grounds that he was an "influential agent of the Palestinian Authority" and tailed him in unmarked police cars.
Yet Kassir was not "anti-Syrian," as the American press glibly described him. In fact, he was a supporter and publisher of Syria's secular dissidents, who shared his contempt for the Assad regime and who drew hope from the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon two months after the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The desire to extinguish this hope may have figured in the plot to kill Kassir, who was scheduled to make a speech in Damascus in mid-June, and who had recently dared to suggest that the end of the Assad dynasty might be closer than anyone could imagine.
Kassir stood apart in other ways from the anti-Syrian movement that he helped spawn. He understood that restoring--or, rather, establishing--Lebanon's sovereignty was not simply a matter of driving out Syrian troops and intelligence services or, contrary to the Americans, of demilitarizing Hezbollah. (Although Kassir despised the party for its assassinations of Lebanese leftists in the 1980s, and for the "cult of death" it had spread among the children of Lebanon and Palestine, he told me that he would oppose any "aggressive policy against Hezbollah" by the US government.) Kassir espoused both these goals, but he viewed Lebanese independence as only a prelude to the struggle for popular sovereignty, secularism and democracy. With its extraordinary diversity, its history of constitutional politics, its rich intellectual and literary tradition, its magnificent port city, its longstanding openness to the West, Lebanon had the potential to become a "laboratory for modernity," he argued, but only if it broke with the ways of the past and challenged the entrenched privileges of the country's political elite.
And so, as elated--and, indeed, startled--as he was by the success of the Independence Intifada ("We can at last speak freely," he said the night before his death), he was disheartened that some of the movement's leaders had fallen back on old habits as soon as the Syrians departed, bickering over the spoils of power, playing the old game of confessional politics that led to the civil war thirty years ago--and that allowed Damascus to present itself as a peace broker. Nor did he hesitate to raise his voice against this trend. Having led the call for the repatriation of Christian General Michel Aoun, who had fled to France after mounting a failed uprising against the Syrians in 1990, Kassir was planning to criticize Aoun in his next column for cozying up to the intelligence services upon his return to Lebanon, thus dividing the opposition. Returning to business as usual would only leave Lebanon vulnerable once again to the designs of bigger powers.