BEIRUT — On Thursday evening, suicide bombers from the Islamic State set off explosives in Bourj al-Barajneh, a southern Beirut neighborhood, that killed 45 people. On Friday night, I fell asleep to the numbing news that Islamic State militants were now attacking Paris. By Saturday morning I woke up to find Facebook telling me that my friends in France — most of whom I know from Lebanon — were safe.
There was no such check-in for Beirut, a highly diasporan country where people have friends and relatives scattered all over the world, many of whom were frantically trying to make sure their loved ones back home were alive.
“To the world, my people’s deaths in Beirut do not matter as much as my other people’s deaths in Paris,” wrote blogger Joey Ayoub at Hummus for Thought. “‘We’ don’t get a safe button on Facebook. ‘We’ don’t get late night statements from the most powerful men and women alive and millions of online users. ‘We’ don’t change policies which will affect the lives of countless innocent refugees.”
He’s right. And it’s about more than just a Facebook button. The Safety Check slight showed up a deeper disparity. When something bad happens in Lebanon, the world takes an unspoken attitude that it’s no big deal—that people here are “far more used to violence than Paris.” The refugee crisis is a perfect example.
The Syrian refugee crisis has had a crushing impact here. According to the official numbers, there is one Syrian refugee for every four Lebanese. (The real ratio is probably higher.) If the European Union took as many Syrian refugees as Lebanon has, proportionally, the number would be upwards of 300 million.
In Beirut you see the impact of this every day. Water and electricity were scarce and expensive even before the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Now, with over a million more people in the country, everyone has to pay even more for both. Generators pump out more poisonous fumes. More cars clog the streets. Giant tanker trucks of water, which people have to pay for themselves when the taps run dry, block traffic on narrow residential streets. Every night, Syrian women and children fill the streets, begging or selling Kleenex and flowers. Every winter, when the rain and snow come, a handful of Syrian children in flimsy tents freeze to death.
When a Syrian child dies in Lebanon, there is no viral frenzy of sympathy — the way there was when 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned on his way to Europe. Lebanon’s Syrian refugees get no global outpouring of support, no donations from all over the world. Unlike the refugees in Europe, they don’t get 24-hour media coverage.
Is this because nobody cares about Syrians or Lebanese people? Does the world only care about Syrian refugees, or victims of the Islamic State, if they’re in Europe?
I don’t think so. As a writer, and a journalist, I think part of the explanation for this double standard is language.
In the Western press, Lebanon is a country perpetually at war. To Western readers, the pressures of a 25 percent population increase, a war next door, and another series of bombings don’t seem like an inconvenience, because most Americans think of war when they think of Beirut.
The beauties of everyday life — the smell of fresh bread from a bakery, the laughter of children on their way to school, lovers sitting in a cafe — don’t define Beirut’s image in the West the way they do for a city like Paris. And yet all those things happen here, too. They are the daily neighborhood life that the bombing here, like the one in Paris, was calculated to destroy.
But when there’s a bombing in Beirut, nobody mentions these things.
On Friday, my news feeds were full of articles describing Bourj al-Barajneh as a “Hezbollah stronghold.”
The next day, news outlets described the civilian Paris neighborhoods where the Islamic State killed 129 people as the city’s “young, progressive core.” Others talked about how this was an attack on “liberal, multicultural Europe.”
Never mind that Bourj al-Barajneh is a vibrant, working-class civilian neighborhood where all kinds of people go to shop. Never mind that, as the Lebanese journalist Diana Moukalled pointed out, the bombers targeted a densely populated neighborhood with a popular bakery. Like most neighborhoods described as “Hezbollah strongholds,” Bourj al-Barajneh could also be called multicultural, since it’s one of the places where poor and working-class people of all nationalities go to shop, drink coffee, get their hair cut or buy bread.
Ironically, none of the Western media outlets that labeled Bourj al-Barajneh a “Hezbollah stronghold” realized they were echoing the Islamic State’s own language: In its statement claiming credit for the bombing, ISIS used that exact phrase, including the Arabic word “ma’aqel”—which translates, literally, to stronghold. Both ISIS and the Western press, it seems, are flattening a multifaceted neighborhood into a one-dimensional stereotype.
This language is ubiquitous: On Sunday, when French warplanes bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa, English-language newspapers described it as an “ISIS stronghold.” As an English-language reader, you could be forgiven for imagining the Middle East as a series of strongholds, linked together by stretches of desert and the occasional camel.
Why does this matter? Because it describes civilians in terms that make them sound, however subtly or unconsciously, like combatants. Like a bastion, or a battlement, the literal meaning of a stronghold is a location that people barricade themselves behind and launch attacks from. It’s not a neutral way to describe a civilian neighborhood that has just been bombed. It implies that the civilians who live there are part of the military campaigns of the people who are in charge.
In defending its use of the word to describe Bourj al-Barajneh, the New York Times pointed out that Hezbollah controls security in the neighborhood, which is true. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who happens to be there during rush hour supports their military actions — and even if they did, they’re still civilians.
In Raqqa, for example, plenty of civilians who are not Islamic State sympathizers aren’t able to leave. Describing it as a “stronghold” implies that they support the Islamic State when they are effectively being held hostage by it.
When Paris or London or Madrid are attacked, Western newspapers don’t follow this logic. “Would one say the Paris attacks took place in a “neo-imperialist, neo-colonialist stronghold”?” asked Lebanese writer Lina Mounzer, on Facebook. Of course not. It would be absurd to assume that someone living in Paris is a “supporter” of the French bombing campaign in Syria simply because they live there. So why bring that logic to Beirut?
When a Western city is attacked, we see the city’s security measures as vindicated by the killings, not as subtle justifications for them. We do not cite them as evidence that the victims were living in a “stronghold” of militarism. We don’t usually criticize the cultural values or the security measures of the place that has just been targeted. Instead, we talk about the victims — as we should for any city.