On the Asharq Al-Awsat Attack: If We Are Truly Different from the Middle East, We Should Act Like It

A caricature published in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper writes "April fools... the Lebanese state" over the Lebanese flag in its Friday, April 1, 2016 edition. (Image source: The Daily Star/Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper)

Staff at Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in Beirut observe the damage done to their office by protesters (Image source: The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

Today, on the 1st of April 2016, about a dozen activists stormed into and trashed the Beirut office of the Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat after it published a cartoon in its Friday edition depicting the Lebanese state as an April Fools’ joke.

For the past four years, I have mainly posted political analysis on this blog. I have criticized all the Lebanese parties and politicians, every week, every month, every year. I looked up WikiLeaks cables about political maneuvers. I posted WikiLeaks cables about the Civil War. I wrote with sarcasm – and I enjoyed every sentence. I even criticized Fouad Chehab for censoring Mohamad Machnouk’s father fifty years ago. All of this has been possible because Lebanon made it possible, because we – at least theoretically – were not like any other Middle Eastern country: We had a little margin of maneuver when it came to freedom of speech. After all, the blog is called Moulahazat (ملاحظات), so it needs a little bit of free speech in order to work. True, a lot of bloggers and journalists (even comic writers) in this country are sued, and even more practice self-censorship. At least I know that I do it in every blog post – It’s one of the cons of being a political blogger in Beirut. You have to keep everything within the limit, you have to be harsh – but not too harsh, and you have to treat them all equally to avoid trouble. Not only do you fear the state, you also have to fear the parties. So it was a little margin to maneuver with, and I’ve never liked it anyway, but that little margin felt like heaven in the middle-eastern context.

But today, it was confirmed that not only we had to fear the state and the parties, but we also had to fear the people. And by people, I definitely do not mean everyone: Dozens were enough to make us feel we lost free speech. Dozens were enough to make us fear. That is bad. That is very, very, very bad. I would even say garbage crisis-bad.  We do not have to fear the people. In fact we should not fear the people: Freedom of speech should be defended by the people and not the other way around. And it doesn’t matter what the caricature said, whether we agree or not, because at the end of the day, we were the ones who lost our free speech – hopefully temporarily.

Freedom of speech (or at least, the illusion of it), is the last thing we have in this country, which makes it not only sacred, but more important than anything anyone would ever say. Nothing is worth sabotaging that right. Not a caricature, not a Facebook post, not a tweet, not a hate article, nothing. You respond to an article with an article, to a tweet with a tweet, to a post with a post, to a caricature with a caricature. Never with violence or censorship. Never. Unless you’re ISIS, or a dictatorship, or something between those two. The moment we destroy free speech, we become the very thing we fear, and lose the last thing we barely even had.

Freedom of speech is not a jesuisCharlie hashtag you use – in beautiful hypocrisy – when journalists die thousands of Kilometers away. It’s when you respect what the other has to say, no matter what the other has to say, and it’s when you respond to what the other has to say, like any normal sane human being in the 21st century should respond: via speech – it’s free.

Today’s events – the thuggish behavior against a media outlet, any media outlet – will encourage the self-censorship, the official censorship, and will make everyone think twice before writing anything – Not that they already do that. We should not care what other countries or regimes would have done or are doing. We are not other countries.

Lebanon’s print media is dying. Newspapers are closing. Other media outlets are leaving the country. Bloggers are being sued. Yes, the media might not be perfect in this country – in fact it is far from being perfect – but we don’t have to make it worse by denying freedom of speech because “we care about the dignity of the country and we want to protect it”.

The only dignity left in this country is the freedom of speech, perhaps we should try to protect that. It is the first step required to save Lebanon’s dying media, and it is a necessary one. The Lebanese should ask for a constitutional amendment giving them absolute freedom of speech before it’s too late.