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Robert Fisk: Please spare me the word ‘terrorist’

Please spare me the word ‘terrorist’

Lebanon is a good place to find out what tosh the ‘terror’ merchants talk

by Robert Fisk | The Independent | 3 Feb 2007

So it was back to terror, terror, terror this week. The “terrorist” Hizbollah was trying to destroy the “democratically elected government” of Fouad Siniora in Lebanon. The “terrorist” Hamas government cannot rule Palestine. Iranian “terrorists” in Iraq are going to be gunned down by US troops.

My favourite line of the week came from the “security source” – just how one becomes a “security source” remains a mystery to me — who announced: “Terrorists are always looking for new ways to strike terror… There is no end of the possibilities where terrorists can try to cause terror to the public.” Well, you could have fooled me.

Lebanon is as good a place as any to find out what a load of old tosh the “terror” merchants talk. For here it is that the hydra-headed monster of Iran is supposedly stalking the streets of Beirut, staging a coup against Mr Siniora and his ministers.

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, is the man Israel spent all last summer trying – vainly, of course – to kill, his black-bearded, turbaned appearance on Hizbollah’s own TV station a source of fury to both Ehud Olmert and – nowadays – to Siniora’s men in government.

Now it’s true that Nasrallah – an intelligent, former military commander of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon – is developing a rather odd cult of personality. His massive features tower over the Beirut airport highway, a giant hand waving at motorists in both directions. And these days, you can buy Hizbollah T-shirts and Nasrallah key chains. But somehow “terror” is not quite the word that comes to mind.

This is partly because the tens of thousands of Shia Muslims whom Hizbollah represents are staging a social revolution rather than a coup, a mass uprising of the poor who have traditionally been ignored by the great and the good of Lebanese society.

The men in their tent city downtown are a powerful symbol in Lebanon. They are smoking their hooker pipes and playing cards and sleeping rough next to the shining new city which Rafiq Hariri rebuilt from the ruins of Beirut – a city to impress foreigners but one in which the south Lebanese poor could not afford to buy a cup of coffee.

Hariri’s theory – or at least this is how he explained it to me before his murder – was that if the centre of Beirut was reconstructed, the money which it generated would trickle down to the rest of Lebanon.

But it didn’t trickle. The bright lights of downtown Beirut were enjoyed by the rich and purchased by the Saudis and admired by the likes of Jacques Chirac but they were not for the Shia. For them, Hizbollah provided the social services and the economic foundation of its part of Lebanon as well as the military spearhead to strike at Israel and demand the return of Shebaa Farms.

The Lebanese government may have its troops mixed in with the new UN force in the south but no one doubts that Hizbollah remain in their villages, as powerful and as influential as ever. Harirism, it seems, failed and now Hariri’s old friend Siniora – who, by the way, was never elected (he was appointed to the prime minister’s job although you’d never know if from watching Western television) – has returned from Paris with millions of dollars to sit once more in his little “green zone”, surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers and, outside the gates of his serail, by the poor of southern Lebanon and the suburbs of Beirut.

Hizbollah’s electoral partners are also interesting. General Michel Aoun – whom the Americans have not yet got round to calling a “terrorist” – is the Christian leader who allows Nasrallah to claim that the opposition is non-sectarian. Aoun’s supporters were involved in pitched battles with Samir Geagea’s Phalangists last week and what was striking was how poor many of Aoun’s Christian supporters also appeared to be. Indeed, Aoun was himself born in the same southern slums of Beirut which is Hizbollah’s power base and his constant refrain – that the government is corrupt – is beginning to take hold among the disenfranchised Christian communities in the east of Beirut.

The fact that Aoun is also a little cracked does not change this. Even when this week he produced a doctored photograph supposedly showing an armed Phalangist on the streets – the image was of a Hizbollah gunman, originally taken during last summer’s war but stuck on to a photograph of crowds on a north Beirut roadway – his loyal supporters did not desert him. Nestling beside their tents in central Beirut are canvas homes containing Lebanese communists – how friendly the old hammer and sickle seems these days – and a host of lesser groups which may or may not come under Syria’s patronage.

Of course, the crisis in Lebanon is also about Iran and Syria, especially Iran’s determination to damage or destroy any Middle East government which has earned America’s friendship. In the growing, overheated drama being played out between Washington and Tehran (and Israel, of course), Lebanon is another board game for the two sides to use. America thus lined up to defend Lebanon’s democracy – though it didn’t care a damn about it when Israel bombarded the country last summer – while Iran continues to support Hizbollah whose government ministers resigned last year, provoking the current crisis.

Nasrallah is said to have been personally shocked by the extent of the violence and hatred manifested in last week’s miniature civil war in which both Sunni and Shia Muslims used guns against each other for the first time.

But they too emerged from the slums to do battle with their co-religionists and I rather suspect that – when this latest conflict is over – there will have to be a serious evaluation of the explosive nature of Lebanon’s poverty belts, a re-examination of a country whose super-wealthy launder the money which never reaches the poor, whose French restaurants and Italian designer shops are for the princes of the Gulf, whose government – however democratically elected (and Washington still doesn’t seem to understand that sectarian politics mean that Lebanon cannot have a normal democracy) – seems so out of touch with its largest religious community.

But as the story of Lebanon continues, please spare me the word “terrorist”.

2 comments on “Robert Fisk: Please spare me the word ‘terrorist’

  1. Curtis
    7 February, 2007

    Howdy! Haven’t been by in a while and it looks like I’ve been missing out on some great information. I finished CARToons and it’s already circulated through several friends…a terrific book, we agree, full of engaging illustrations and interesting facts and figures. Particularly interesting to me were the book’s references to Ivan Illich, whose Energy and Equity and Deschooling Society I’ve already managed to work into philosophy class. I hope things are going great up there in Australia, and also I hope you won’t mind if I recommend your site to a number of schoolmates interested in news and views on the Middle East.

    One of Fisk’s most compelling points–compelling in that common sense sort of way that seems to defy mainstream media–has been that the words “terror” and “terrorism” occlude the posing of serious questions. He has noted that in post 9/11 America, for instance, Americans and their journalists were allowed to ask every conceivable question except for “Why?”

    As little as I know about life and politics in Lebanon, it does appear that the country is ruled by a pro-Western élite that has remained generally insensitive to the needs and the will of the majority. This is the “New Middle East” that many Western planners wish to propagate, so it is no wonder that the dissidents are able to seize hold of increasing disenfranchisement and desperation.

  2. peoplesgeography
    7 February, 2007

    Howdy dear Curtis,

    Good to see you back and hope all’s wonderfully well. Delighted to hear CARtoons has been doing your friend-rounds and that you’ve also already had occasion to weave in Ivan Illich in philosophy — brilliant.

    In my second last year of high school, my modern history teacher generously gave me a copy of Deschooling Society just before he left his teaching position at our school. It sure accorded with how I and a group of my friends felt about school then — a couple of us even surreptitiously wrote a Manifesto Of Student Rights to post up in various places around what we saw as our fascistic, ridiculously over-regulated environment! It was fun organising in the rebellious student underground at our school then — its a place I don’t think I’ve yet left ;)

    Pleased to have my URL passed on if it can be of any use or interest — the more, the merrier.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment on Lebanon, site of so many proxy interests, primary among them: the USA, Europe, Iran and Syria (Israel too of course is involved) — the first two are never mentioned in the same breath as the latter two in the propagated and simplistic dichotomy of benevolent/ malevolent influence respectively, of course, but I think all four can be seen in a similar way.

    Internally, I think greater sectual healing will come when groups such as the Shia Muslims receive the greater representation that is only their due. This is only fair and I for one do not begrudge them this.

    Ancient divide and rule tactics seem to the intended state of the play for the ‘”New” Middle East’. As you suggest, I just hope that out of this tumult, some good can come and that long-time dissenters and reformers can strike while the iron is hot to forge better internal and international relations.


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