Memory, violence and fear: Why Lokman Slim’s murder must not be depoliticized

This piece was initially published on L’Orient Today on February 11th 2021. Disponible en français sur L’Orient-Le Jour.

The brutal murder of Lokman Slim, a prominent opponent of Hezbollah, has shocked us all. It took us back to the series of assassinations that followed that of Rafik Hariri in 2005, and in particular that of other writers such as Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni.

That his assassination took place on the sixth month commemoration of the Beirut blast unfortunately took attention away from the relatives of the victims staging a protest. Six months on and we still are nowhere near accountability for the largest non-nuclear explosion in recent memory. 

The cruel irony here is that Slim was himself working with families of crimes that took place during the 1975-90 wars in Lebanon, and in particular the enforced disappearances of Lebanese and Palestinians in both Lebanon and Syria, just as he was working with relatives of Syrians forcibly disappeared in Syria in more recent years too. Those families, just as the families of the Beirut blast victims, have yet to receive any legal accountability for crimes committed on Lebanese soil. 

This points to a pattern that is now unfortunately familiar to many. The plight of these families will be treated as a humanitarian issue, one which can be indefinitely postponed due to its “sensitive” nature, rather than one which is explicitly political as it implicates the entirety of the Lebanese political establishment. The “discourse of the families,” as filmmaker Ghassan Halwani called it, is often used as a fig leaf to avoid dealing with the politics behind these crimes. Halwani would know, as his own father Adnan Halwani was forcibly disappeared in 1982 and his mother Wadad Halwani founded the Committee of the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon that same year.

This is what has been happening in Lebanon in the so-called postwar (post-1990) era. Those murdered or forcibly disappeared before 1990 were erased by the passing of the now-infamous Amnesty Law (Law 84 of 1991) and those who murdered since 2005 continue to get away with it. The closest we got to any accountability was a 15-year-long process at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a process riddled with unanswered questions which only produced a single conviction — that of Hezbollah member Salim Ayyash — in absentia. And that was for a prime minister.

The forcibly disappeared and the murdered in Lebanon are killed twice. First, physically and second, they are erased. The dates blur into one another until the murder of Samir Kassir on June 2, 2005, gets lumped in with the murder of Mohamad Chatah on Dec. 27, 2013, and with all those murdered in between. If we’re not careful, the same could happen with Lokman Slim’s assassination one week ago.

Lebanon’s October 2019 revolution led to a rethinking of what ash-shaab yurid isqat an-nizam (the people want the downfall of the regime) would mean in a country ruled by a network of warlords and oligarchs. We don’t have a single ruler to topple, which could be seen as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because our lives aren’t as cheap as in Syria, a curse because our regime has many names and many faces.

One scholar, Jamil Mouawad, argued for three pillars of Lebanon’s regime: discursive hegemony and control of the imaginaries; violence, including symbolic violence; and capital control and extraction. I’ll focus on the first two here.

When we chanted “killun yaani killun” (all of them means all of them) I think most of us didn’t know the extent to which it will remain relevant for the foreseeable future. We knew that including Nasrallah in the “all” would be different, because mentioning his name carries a higher cost than mentioning the other names. It is why the added “wa Nasrallah wahad minnun” (and Nasrallah is one of them) was needed.

The hesitancy many will have before confidently including Nasrallah is understandable, as is why many will not want to point the finger toward Hezbollah for Lokman’s assassination. For one, we know that other sectarian parties already include Nasrallah while excluding their own leaders. This was always the main obstacle in our killun yaani killun chant: How do we really mean killun? How do we prevent some of those currently with less power than others from taking advantage and claiming to be with us?

Anti-sectarians have to be very careful not to have their words willingly distorted by those who defend the sectarian regime. After all, we have seen both Saad Hariri and Samir Geagea claim to support the revolution, even as the revolution chanted against them by name too. This provided both their supporters as well as the supporters of Hassan Nasrallah, Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun with a convenient way out. To Hariri and Geagea supporters, they can tell themselves that they are part of the anti-establishment opposition. To Nasrallah, Berri and Aoun supporters, they can use that to dismiss the actual anti-establishment opposition as a whole. Both scenarios have played out multiple times since October 2019.

With Lokman’s assassination, we may yet see the same happen again. The fact that he was so vocally anti-Hezbollah, that he lived and worked in Dahieh, and that he was part of the Shiite community is what made him stand out. After all, sectarianism partly functions through fear and violence. It does have a political economy — maintained through clientelist networks and “wasta,” for example — but it is also strengthened by fear. If we’re not careful with our words, partisan media channels can simply use them to discourage their viewers from seeing us as brothers and sisters who share the same land, and smear us as agents of Israel, agents of Saudi Arabia, takfiris, “embassy Shiites” and so on.

In order to avoid the depolitized “discourse of the families” being implemented once again, we would do well to listen to Lokman’s actual family following his assassination.

His mother, Salma Mirshaq, said that those who murdered Lokman are hurting Lebanon as a whole. His sister, Rasha al Ameer, said, “It’s a loss. And they [Hezbollah] lost. They lost a noble opponent, a person who used to spar with them smartly and comfortably, and that is rare.” His wife, Monika Borgmann, tweeted “zero fear,” a reference to what Lokman said during the October 2019 revolution. 

We would do well to remember that Lokman himself said he would blame Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri should anything happen to him.

And we would also do well to remember that Hezbollah supporters plastered explicit death threats around the walls of Lokman’s house as late as 2019. 

At the time of writing, many people took to the streets to commemorate Lokman Slim. The fact that they gathered in Samir Kassir Square is, of course, no coincidence, so I will end this piece with a quote by Kassir, written shortly before his assassination: “Return to the streets, and you shall return to clarity.”