Sunday - 25 February 2024

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Of luminaries and Assassins

Lokman Slim. (Reuters photo)
Lokman Slim. (Reuters photo)
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Rawi Hage*
 
 
 
 
Dieu me fit contempler la lumière du Pilote et le lever de l’astre de l’invocation.
 
—Ibn Arabi
 
 
It's better to illuminate than to shine.
 
—Thomas Aquinas
 
 
 
I met Lokman twice, briefly, in Beirut. Our exchange was one of mutual respect. Lokman Slim's father was a lawyer, and my mother, in her youth, worked for him as a typist. In her old age, this encounter with his family remains for her a source of pride and esteem. Perhaps this faint thread of community is not what I should remember in this time of lament and loss, especially since Lokman's death is part of another continuum: assassinations that went dormant but are now revived. 
 
What does the assassination of an intellectual disclose about a despotic or theocratic regime? A seemingly simple question might seem an indulgence when what is needed now is rage and protest. But each engagement with Lokman Slim's life is an attempt to pay homage to a person whose fight was political, cultural, and social – he understood that every part must be strengthened when a nation faces an existential threat. 
 
The assassination of an intellectual like Lokman Slim is further proof that Lebanon is a failed state incapable of protecting its citizens' rights to freedom of expression. Indeed, it is proof of a State's utter disregard, if not disdain, for the illumination that a learned man or woman provides to society. Lebanon has had its share of assassinations of visionaries — Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni, Salim Alawzeh, and Kamal El-Hajj – to name a few. Still, the killing of intellectuals is not exclusive to our country. The purging or murder of vocal intellects occurs at particular historical moments: when a hegemonic power is confident that it can kill with impunity, but before it has unchallenged legitimacy over a nation. When an ideological entity embarks on the killing of poets and thinkers, this period of unstable power indicates a transitional moment: a time of ambiguity, when the ideological entity exerts a forceful grip over a nation but, paradoxically, is unsure of the maintenance of its power.
 
An absolute power often openly makes its killing through various corrupted legal and judicial procedures. But a clandestine power, in a period of simultaneous strength and illegitimacy, is more likely to enact its killings in the form of unclaimed assassinations. 
 
And what are the consequences of these killings to the perpetrator, to a despotic force in ascendance, or to a theocratic establishment that builds its raison d’être on theological justifications?
 
To kill an intellectual for his or her thoughts is to extend towards an intellectual property status, a status that will ever surpass the killers' own. I say surpass because the elimination of an intellectual, who struggles to further a peaceful, humane existence for all, is a person whose virtuous existence far exceeds that of the killers – such an elimination only disseminates, amplifies, and exalts the intellectual's ideas, and spreads his name.
 
Many men and women of letters have, throughout history, taken it upon themselves to keep open a path to liberation. And many, in times of darkness and oppression, have risked their lives to salvage and preserve what can be preserved for future generations. These heroes are perpetually aware of the executioner's sirens surrounding them, yet some refuse to flee their homes or retreat, and some even return from exile to face their death. Gebran came back to Beirut against all the warnings; Lokman received death threats every single day and yet remained in his family home; Samir Kassir was aware of the consequences of challenging an occupier. And however, all of them maintained their convictions and their vision for a better world. 
 
I say world because these martyrs had a broader vision that reached beyond nationalistic sentiments or local affiliations. What intellectuals and writers like the late Tueni, Kassir, and Slim saw in Lebanon was a model for the wider region. They saw the seed for co-existence, freedom of expression, and a secular, egalitarian, and democratic state in an area dominated by despotic, theocratic, and brutal regimes. 
 
They and we all knew that this is an ambitious endeavour – a challenge to all the surrounding political forces – and yet they embarked on it, with some success and some tragic failures. Samir Kassir, Lokman Slim, and Gebran Tueni were realistic enough to know that ultimately evil would not leave without a last act of vengeance. And they knew they might be the ones sacrificed. They also knew that their killing would result in a lesson in martyrdom, and ironically this lesson is intended for their executioners.
 
Before they took it upon themselves to become political commentators, liberators, and, cruelly, martyrs, they were first and foremost people of letters, creators, and poets who took the risk out of love for society becoming politically vocal. They had dreams for a new social contract for the whole region and saw Lebanon as a foothold, a place that could provide that potential beginning. Ultimately their pledge and plight was a universal one: in their erudition, their love for thought, their cosmopolitan openness, they asserted a love for humankind.
 
In their own poetic and pragmatic ways, they attempted to preserve Lebanon as a distinct entity against geopolitical maneuvering forces; they saw it like an ember that is still kindling against the perpetual assaults and storms of the region. These embers barely shine at present; And yet, all these martyrs aspired to protect a persistent light that could one day again provide luminosity in a pit of defeats, chronic illiteracy rates, poverty, and oppression.
 
The brutal killing of Lokman Slim could be the beginning of yet another wave of assassinations of political figures and intellects who stand in opposition to obscurity. But then, in an ocean of martyrdoms and sacrifices, many fires burst into flame and eventually extinguish, and what always remains is a dim light that will outlast them all. 
 
 
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