The Lebanese President & The Arrest of Jean Assy

It was July 2011.

Some local band had their song picked up by Lebanon’s “security” agencies and were investigated regarding its supposedly president-insuling content. Everyone got up in a fit. The law being employed to justify the arrest was an ancient one that forbids Lebanese citizens from insulting the president.

A few hours later, it was our president Michel Sleiman himself who ordered the band be released when he found out they were arrested due to insulting him.

It is now June 2013.

A local activist named Jean Assy, who also happens to be a staunch FPM supporter, is arrested for insulting the president. All hell broke loose on social media. The constitution’s preamble that guaranteers freedom of speech has been quoted so many times that I can almost recite it at this point had I been paying closer attention. Jean Assy will soon be released because these charges never, ever stick. And he will become a local hero for many who are beginning to idolize him.

But is July 2011 similar to June 2013?

I do not follow Jean Assy on Twitter because I mostly disagree with content and find the tone unacceptable. But I occasionally get his tweets retweeted onto my timeline. Is this matter only because he “criticized” the president? I remember seeing many tweets in which the words “president” and “castrated” [in that order] were mentioned. Is that freedom of opinion or is it libel?

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Is the arrest of Jean Assy warranted? Possibly not. In an ideal situation, I can call my president anything and expect to get away unscathed. But this isn’t an ideal country. In fact, I can barely think of a few things that make standards of life here remotely acceptable. You only need to check the news – word of advice: do not – to know how deep in this hellhole we are. What Jean Assy’s arrest for investigation, however, is not a matter of political rhetorical martyrdom and the Lebanese president turning into a dictator when, for all matters and purposes, the Lebanese president may be perfectly unaware of this even happening and the whole arrest is carried out by some security men with a vendetta under the pretext of a law that needs to be changed and removed.

The other element of the Jean Assy arrest is some prominent FPM politicians running to his rescue with tweets and retweets of their own. I have to ask those politicians: where were you when Hachem Salman was killed at the front doors of the Iranian Embassy? Where are you now that Ramy and Marwa Olleik are forbidden from going back to their hometown due to their threats on their lives? Or are my liberties as a Lebanese contingent upon the political rhetoric they can spark?

It is a sad day when opinionated people get arrested due to silly outdated laws, regardless of how over-the-line those people may have gone. But look at the silver lining: at least Jean Assy has people to watch his back. Many other Lebanese do not.

The Relativity of Freedom of Speech in Lebanon

The last few days have taught me that the statement: “I believe in freedom of speech” has to be amended to become the following: “I believe in freedom of speech as long as I agree with the speech.” Beyond that point of agreement, all bets of civility of discourse are off. Bigot, ignorant, racist, condescending, extremist, hypocrite, illiterate or any derogatory word of choice gets dropped in order to counter a point, regardless of what that point may be.

Santa Muerte, Santa Ejre:

I didn’t want to go over anything related to this issue again. It was blown way out of proportion. But my words were taken out of context. Lebanon’s self-anointed blogging police started to ridicule what I had to offer. Somehow this blog being nominated for Blog of the Year at the Social Media Awards became a mark of shame for some people – as if that changed things. News outlets started contacting me for their stories. And I realized that, even though I had actually blogged about the issue, I had never gotten the chance to say what I had to say for my input was very brief. In spite of the issue being overdone at this point, I believe it is my right to tell my point of view in detail. You may want to read it and you may not but here it goes.

I found Bershka shirt, aptly called shirtgate – the Mexican Embassy IS opening a shrine - offensive. Is it my right to find it offensive? You bet it is. Did I call for the shirt to be banned from Lebanese markets? No. Did I say it wasn’t a person’s right to wear the shirt? No I didn’t.

You don’t need google to consider the shirt offensive. Any person’s first impression of what the shirt says is with what they connect it. I believe it was Descartes’ school of thought which said our perceptions are the actions of our mind on our senses. The actions of your mind come from your previous experiences. When Lebanese people look at that shirt, the first thing they’d see is what they previously know: Mary icons present in churches or homes.

What people don’t seem to get is that people have different red lines whose crossing means getting offended. If people are offended by the shirt, it’s okay. If people are not, it’s okay as well because those people have their own lines as well and if they are crossed then they will bring their own fury to being. What’s not okay is some people calling those who are offended bigots, ignorants, etc… For not being aware of Santa Muerte, which 90% of the Lebanese populace wasn’t even aware of prior to yesterday.

This brings me to another point: Santa Muerte is irrelevant. It is not culturally relevant here and it’s being used to iron out the issue by those who want to portray all religious folk in Lebanon as a bunch of narrow-minded individuals. Is the shirt Santa Muerte? It could be. At least that’s what Bershka said. But it could be Our Lady of Guadelupe as well, which is actually present in many Lebanese churches, one of which is in my hometown which could be why I found the shirt print familiar.

The point is: the fact that Santa Muerte is not something most Lebanese are familiar with means that the shirt will be taken offensively. People do not have to google a shirt print. You judge it based on what you know. As an example, alcohol is allowed in Lebanon but it’s not culturally permitted in Saudi Arabia. Would you walk in their streets with a Jack Daniels shirt? Cow meat is allowed here but it’s not culturally allowed in India… how about a shirt with a burger on it? The list goes on.

You may not want to be culturally limited even if you are aware but what I believe many need to realize is there’s more to the world than the space between them and their computer and Twitter followers and, if a person has a blog, readers. We talk and analyze and extrapolate but the fact of the matter remains that less than a third of the Lebanese population has smartphones and not everyone has access to the internet and not everyone likes to read our English-written blogs. I may not get up in a fit if I see someone wearing that shirt on the street but are you willing to bet no one else would?

Only today, I had my legs crossed at a bank in Tripoli when a man asked me to uncross them because he was offended by my shoes’ sole being in the far corner of his eyesight.

Another important thing to note is that Santa Muerte is not a saint nor is it a holy figure. It’s Mexican folklore. Lebanese people who are not aware of their own folklore are supposed to know international folklores as well now? The Catholic Church of Mexico considers those who worship Santa Muerte as heretics-lite. This may not be relevant to those who don’t care what any religious institution has to say but it does for those who do, of which I am not. But there is another aspect to the conversation that is being disregarded because it doesn’t fit with the perfect Santa Whatever explanation.

After all, why would Mexican relatives of mine find the shirt print offensive if it were all that “innocent?”

Another point being raised is that Bershka is simply bringing in their entire collection to Lebanon, which I find to be non-sensical. Do companies always automatically import everything they make into this country without any form of market study or market appraisal? Any look at the shirt would have sufficed to realize it might cause a backlash among many of their customers. The shirt may have not been brought into the country but the price tag of 49,000LL means there was a will to bring it in.

The bottom line is: both sides of the story have arguments in their favor. It goes down to what you believe in. If you believe holy figures should not be demonized then the shirt offends you. If not, then the shirt will not. But people from both sides attacking each other is unacceptable as I witnessed firsthand with people calling me ignorant, a bigot, condescending and a bunch of other things just for the fun of it.

Ziad el Rahbani vs AUB Students:

Nothing can beat Santa Muerte when it comes to attention over the past few days. But the man of whom I am not a fan Mr. Ziad el Rahbani had an open dialogue session at AUB during which a bunch of attendees protested his political stance against the Syrian revolution and called him out on it.

The interesting part, though, is that I found out about the Ziad el Rahbani protest not from someone who is supportive of those students but one who was absolutely outraged because they made AUB students look like fools in front of such a man. That person, typically, felt it appropriate to call those students every word imaginable from the belt down. And he wasn’t alone at it.

The protesting students had their share of supporters as well who felt what they did was absolutely noble. I am personally with what those students did because it was 1) peaceful, 2) a demonstration of their basic right of free speech and 3) it didn’t interfere with the session’s proceedings.

I believe it is their right to protest in the way that they did. Their right stops in a hypothetical scenario where they wreck the hall or attack Mr. Rahbani himself.

I am personally supportive of what the students did and I commend them on it. But isn’t it the right of both who are against and supportive of Ziad el Rahbani to be heard?

George Abdallah:

On the other side of the political spectrum, many Lebanese are protesting what they are calling the French authorities unjustly keeping Lebanese George Abdallah behind bars. To that extent, they set up protests outside of the French embassy occasionally, most of which were peaceful and only served to prove the point being raised.

I do not agree with the protests, nor do I agree with the whole “unjust imprisonment” idea. But isn’t it their right to voice their disdain of the situation as well without having irrelevant me ridiculing them for it?

Boycotting Guns ‘N Roses, BDS, Israel:

Prior to the Guns ‘N Roses concert in Lebanon, a movement calling to boycott the concert was started. Many Lebanese may have not gone to the concert because of it but many other did. After all, the concert was a success. The boycott call was picked up by many Lebanese and often ridiculed.
The only question that popped in my head was: are they bothering me if they are not attending a concert without calling for the concert to be canceled?
The only answer that answered my question satisfyingly was: no they are not.

So I shrugged it off and didn’t write about it. Let them have their fun. I don’t think we should panic every time an artist who has set foot in Israel decides to hold a concert here. But what if someone wants to have a panic attack because of it? Simply, let them have it.

I draw the line when those movements start expanding to some form of neo-culutral terrorism whereby they get the concert in question to be canceled, the artist to cower from coming over and, sometimes, Lebanese acts to suffer in the process.

The bottom line:

Be it a shirt, a political movement, a concert, a dialogue session or a simple conversation, people are allowed to differ in opinion and have their opinion heard even if others find it subpar, unconvincing or unacceptable. What is becoming clearer to me, however, is that the concept of freedom of speech in Lebanon is relative. You get to enjoy its perks as long as you conform to what the vocal bunch expects of you to write or say.

But you know what, the past few days have also shown me that if being ignorant, a bigot and condescending comprises of what I did, then I am all those three and more and I’m proud of it.

Do you regret the whole Bershka shirt post, I was asked over the past two days. My answer was and will always be: definitely not.

Notta-Bene:

For those who were up in a fit how we weren’t discussing more “relevant” issues in Lebanon today, I invite you to read the following articles which I have written over the past two weeks:

It’s not my problem the only time you read is when a post goes viral enough for you to get a link.

Today… Proud To Be Lebanese.

As I followed my friend’s tweets on what he was going through in Tahrir Square in Egypt, today, I couldn’t help but feel proud to be Lebanese – at least for today.

I’m not going to start embellishing the life we lead in Lebanon for the sake of impressing a reader that might stumble on my blog. But today has proven the vital importance of something we’ve come to take for granted – at least in the last six years. Our freedom of speech.

We have gotten accustomed to saying anything that comes to our mind that we don’t really think about those who cannot do so.

Look at what happened in Egypt today… the government cracked down on those who tried to defy it. A bloodbath ensued in Tahrir Square.

Can you imagine what would have happened if the government cracked down on those that tried to topple it in 2006? They protested and had a two-year long sit in. And no blood was shed because of the protest directly.

Even more so, can you imagine what would have happened if March 14, which is very similar to what happened yesterday, on February 1st, in Egypt, was followed by a similar crackdown by the authorities to the one that took place in Egypt today?

So for all matters and purposes, I am proud to be Lebanese today. I am proud to be able to decide on a cold Wednesday in February to protest against the government and expect no one to beat me up in return. I am proud that I can support causes that most people frown upon and still expect nothing to happen to me. I am proud that I can criticize most top politicians in my country and be able to sleep soundly at night. I am proud to be from the country that is lightyears ahead of the whole region in everything that counts.

So do remember from time to time that there are things more important than super-fast internet, a booming economy and a fragile political peace… sometimes, being free is what matters the most.