If you want to light a cigarette and can’t find a match, burn down the whole nation. – Deltelv Mehlis
Deltelv Mehlis is the former head of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission that was established to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri; the above quote comes from a theater script that was later adapted – or rather maliciously modified for political purposes – into a stage comedy with an alleged collaboration between Syrian poet and playwright Mohammed al-Maghout and a fellow Syrian author Mahmoud Abd al-Karim. In fact, al-Maghout wrote the original script well before Hariri’s assassination, which means that this provocative quote and other lines that refer to Lebanon were added perhaps by the “co-author” of the newly revived script. For this reason, those who are familiar with al-Maghout’s intellectual works balk at the use of his name, especially when the original script had nothing to do with Lebanon or Hariri.
While the quote is from the comedy “Qiyam, Jlous, Skout” (Stand Up, Sit Down, Shut Up), the metaphor of burning down an entire nation if you can’t find a match to light your cigarette has been widely used by those sympathetic to the Syrian cause, including politicians and the media, to attack the Mehlis Report, which accuses Syria of being involved in the assassination of Hariri.
The statement is not merely a line of comic dialogue, but rather a widely accepted and employed metaphor used as an argument against the Lebanese and world communities, which insist on finding the killers of Hariri – and perhaps those of journalist Samir Kassir, political activist George Hawi, and parliamentarian and publisher of An Nahar newspaper, Gibran Tuweini, as well. I find myself more interested in the popularization of this reasoning than in the sick humor that marks the comedy.
What immediately comes to my mind is ideology, the chauvinistic nationalism that demotes the individual and subjugates him to the nation and the state. This ideology is making a comeback, despite its failure in many Middle East and Arab countries and despite major changes on the world stage that stress the importance of individual freedom in the face of state repression.
This ideology is back to perform a cruel and inhumane function; it is providing a cover-up for murder, deception, and distortion of the truth, just as it has in the past, in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world. This ideology is being used yet again to justify assassinations in the name of the national struggle against imperialism and Zionism.
What can explain the comeback of such an ideology even after its failure to inspire and guide social and political development in Syria and elsewhere? One explanation is the political predicament of the Baathist regime in the face of international pressure and the lack of viable political alternatives to deal with its situation.
Syrian officials and Lebanese apologists have resorted to ideology as a weapon to ward off international pressure on Syria for its alleged involvement in the Hariri assassination; this speaks of desperate measures in desperate times. Syria is doing whatever is needed to ensure the survival of the regime. Unlike the former Iraqi regime, which abandoned secular nationalism and Baathism in 1990 after the first Gulf war and embraced an Islamic ideology, Syrian leaders cannot embrace an Islamic ideology because the Baathist leadership has been warring with Sunni opposition for more than three decades.
Reform and openness, which are demanded by some of the Syrian opposition, could be an alternative to adopting this intolerant ideology, but these steps would strike at the heart of Assad rule, which remains a closed authoritarian regime that resists any attempt at political liberalization. Thus, with Islamism and political liberalization out of the picture, chauvinistic nationalism becomes the only alternative. Syrian officials hope it will wash away the regime’s sins and seal the ranks of the population with the collective goal of fighting Western imperialism.
A second explanation of why a chauvinistic ideology remains useful to the Syrian regime is found in the Arab and Islamic culture. This culture, according to Adonis in a lecture he delivered at the American University of Cairo in November 2005, remains monotheistic. This monotheistic tradition reproduces itself in other ideologies, including pan-Arab nationalist ones that legitimize themselves through Islamic Arab culture.
The utility of nationalistic ideology has been maintained through exclusion and the use of violence. In the same lecture, Adonis notes a correlation between violence and monotheism that exists in all monotheistic religions, including the Islamist monotheistic vision, in which the fate of the Other – the one who is different or the dissenter – is exclusion and death.
The individual in Arab-Islamic society, Adonis adds, is marginalized by institutions that kill subjectivism in favor of the nation, the group, the religion. Thus it is no wonder that the Syrian regime and its Lebanese apologists have no qualms about positing the killing of Hariri against the nation, which, in a sense, is about to be burned down by Mr. Mehlis as he actively pursues Hariri’s killers. Following this logic, even if Syrian leaders have been implicated in Hariri’s death, they deserve protection and exoneration since they are in charge of the affairs of the nation and therefore embody the nation! What is the value of one individual, important as he might be, when compared with national interest?
Aside from rational bewilderment at the “wisdom” of Syrian leadership, which uses an ideology associated with colossal failures, the reality of the current state of the Baathist regime has almost backed Syrian leaders into a corner. There seem to be no alternative strategies available to them except this nationalistic ideology with its assumed logic that the interest of the individual is subject to that of the nation – and that the leaders, naturally, embody the nation. The Syrian regime, meanwhile, benefits from almost a half century of rule, during which they propagated one idea, one party, and an infallible system of government that rationalized killing the Other – the opposition – under the pretext that the dissenters threatened the harmony and balance of society and diverted the state’s energies away from the external “enemy.”
But, is the future of Lebanon and Syria predetermined by this political and cultural predicament? Michel Kilo, a Syrian author, answers this question indirectly in an article published in the Beirut-based Al Mustaqbal newspaper on the first anniversary of Hariri’s assassination. He implies that whatever the conditions that empower the killers, the effectiveness of future political assassinations will never be the same. In some cases, “political killing transcends the intentions of the killers, especially if those who are killed remain alive in people’s memories.” This happens when the person who died “represents not just himself, but rather an idea or a higher interest, a public trend.”
Political assassinations in Arab history have been widespread, but according to Kilo, the reaction that followed Hariri’s murder deserves our attention. Prior to the assassination of Hariri, “assassination used to be a political means denounced by a few... But today, it has become a heinous crime denounced by millions of Arabs who condemn it and the parties that practice it, and who demand the punishment of those involved... Thus, political assassination can lead to the opposite of the killers’ intentions, reinforcing a popular opposition that values life and recognizes the necessity that life be protected by politics, because, simply put, life is higher than politics and all of the goals that it justifies.”
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid