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January 27, 2014

Lebanese Youth Speak Out Against Sectarian Violence

by Jamie Dettmer

Lebanon's young people have taken to social media to denounce the sectarian violence engulfing their country, and some of those taking the lead are trying to shape the outrage into a political movement, though critics say young online protesters are naive.

At first there were just a few dozen social media messages decrying Lebanon’s sectarian violence, but within days of a December 30 suicide bombing that killed seven people, including a 16-year-old boy, thousands of young Lebanese participated. In tweets, they insisted that if they get killed in a blast they should not be thought of as martyrs, but as victims.

They also rejected the idea suicide bombers should be seen as martyrs.  

The online protest has snowballed and, using the Twitter hashtag "notamartyr" [#notamartyr] and Facebook postings, young Lebanese are venting about sectarian politics and mocking Lebanon’s old order.  

Hitting close to home

One of the organizers, blogger Gino Raidy, said the outpouring surprised even him, but he said the violent death of 16-year-old Mohammad Chaar, who was hanging out with friends in downtown Beirut when he was killed, is something the young feel personally.

“It is something affecting us, affecting normal people like Mohammad Chaar, 16-year-old killed taking a selfie in a very popular area of Beirut," said Raidy. "So it is something all of us can relate to, it is not some political figure assassinated somewhere or a fighter killed in the war zone.  It is in a supposedly very calm area of Beirut, where you should be safe. I think that is why it has struck a chord.”

From a string of deadly car-bombings sparked by the civil war raging next-door in Syria, to the flood of nearly a million Syrian refugees, sectarian strife has been engulfing Lebanon. Of greatest worry is that more of the recent explosions have been suicide bombings, something not seen in the country since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when they were a rarity.

The suicide bombings are clearly designed to terrorize and cause high death tolls by often targeting residential areas during the rush hour.

'Me' movement

Rejecting the concept of martyrdom was highly strategic move, said 26-year-old Raidy, speaking at the Urbanista café, a popular hangout.

“The word martyr still has a lot of meaning, a lot of gravitas to it with the religious and social and cultural underpinnings it has," he said. "So when someone is called a martyr, you never really argued about that. But people now are beginning to realize it has become a way to remove responsibility from the government, or whichever party is responsible, to actually investigate and punish the people who perpetuated the crime.”

Now he and other organizers are hoping to shape a “Me” movement to agitate for change. Much of their focus is on lifestyle issues, from restrictive drug laws to police hassling young people late at night.  

But some others, including older guard non-sectarian political campaigners, argue this is naive. Human rights activist and climate change scientist Rania Masri is one of them.

“What upsets me about the so-called ‘Me’ movement is it strikes me as a de-contextualization of the issue," said Masri. "So rather than understanding why people become martyrs, or rather than understanding the violence around them and working to stop it as member of society, they are just claiming their own life as individuals, and claiming that is political awareness, while I think that is reinforcement of political apathy.”

"Me” movement organizers say the Arab Spring was fueled partly by campaigners pressing for individual rights and they believe they can make a difference.