The Principle of Hope

The Principle of Hope

The death of Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir is a terrible blow to the cause of Arab freedom.


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.

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.

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