When I learned of the killing of Lokman Slim in South Lebanon, the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr came to mind.
Both of the Shi’a Muslim men chose a journey of defiance that led to their premature death. Lokman Slim, a leading Hizbollah critic, was abducted and found shot to death in his car on 4 February 2021 in an area under the armed group’s control, and Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken opposition figure to the Saudi government, was executed on 2 January 2016 by Saudi authorities after standing a trial that did not comply with the minimum standards of fair trial.
Both men were social, approachable and accessible. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr enjoyed the support, admiration and love of many members of the Shi’a community especially in his hometown of al-Awamiya in the Eastern Province where he lived, for voicing their grievances and demanding their rights loudly and clearly in a country that has consistently oppressed this minority since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932.
On the other hand, Lokman Slim’s approachable personality trait was not enough for him to attract the Shi’a populace in Lebanon due to his opposition to Hizbollah that the community widely credits for liberating South Lebanon from the Israeli occupation in 2000 and for transforming the Shi’a from a historically neglected and deprived underclass to what today is Lebanon’s most powerful political force.
A remarkable similarity between the two men, however, is that they both sought to promote plurality and diversity: Sheikh Nimr by demanding religious, cultural, political and economic rights of the Shi’a that were detailed in the “Petition of Pride and Dignity” which he submitted to the administrative governor of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 2007; and Lokman Slim by advocating for the creation of a Shi’a milieu within the Shi’a community with principles and opinions that are different from those carried by the powerful Hizbollah and its Shi’a ally, Amal Movement.
Both Lokman Slim and Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr were vehemently vocal about their hostility towards their opponents with Lokman Slim openly exploring ways to defeat Hizbollah, and Sheikh al-Nimr publicly calling for breaking allegiance to the ruler and the overthrow of the House of Saud.
“When I learned of the killing of Lokman Slim in South Lebanon, the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr came to mind… Both Shi’a Muslim men chose a journey of defiance that led to their premature deaths”
Both men had long-term political aims: Lokman Slim advocating for and working on the establishment of Shi’a bodies that would counterweight Hizbollah and supporting the rise of Shi’a elements opposed in opinion and politics to the armed group with the aim of integrating them into Lebanon’s political system. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr called for the right of Shi’a in Saudi Arabia to have Wilayat al-Faqih, which is rooted in Shi’a Islam and may justify the rule of a just and capable Islamic jurist over the state, and demanded the proportional representation of the Shi’a in the government and state institutions as well as the right to religious freedoms.
Both Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and Lokman Slim were subjected to media campaigns and defamation launched by their political opponents at various stages of their activism. Pro-government Saudi newspapers portrayed Sheikh Nimr as a terrorist describing him as the ‘head of sedition’ and ‘Iranian agent’ and accusing him of splitting national unity and inciting violence. The campaign started before his arrest in 2012, during his trial and after his sentencing to death in October 2014, and even after his execution in 2016.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and Lokman Slim... “The media was able to discredit them through smear campaigns that paved the way for the public opinion to accept their killing”
An article published less than five weeks before his execution in the Saudi-owned daily al-Sharq al-Awsat alleged that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and al-Qaeda member Fares al-Shuweil were two ‘terrorists’ of “a single coin,” each representing a different side of terrorist thought, and that they both practiced treason.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was convicted of several charges, including those that should not be offences under international human rights law as they criminalise the right to freedom of expression, such as his calls for disobeying the ruler, the downfall of the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the arbitration of Wilayat al-Faqih. According to Amnesty International, evidence for these charges he was convicted of came from religious sermons he had held and interviews attributed to the cleric and which contained no incitement to violence and, therefore, fell under his right to exercise freedom of expression. He was also convicted of other charges tying him to acts of violence without any physical evidence presented at the court.
Lokman Slim, on the other hand, was generally portrayed as a US collaborator by pro Hizbollah media. On 11 December 2019, a group of men entered the garden of his house in the southern suburbs of Beirut where he lived hurling accusations of treason after he organised a debate on ‘neutralisation’ of Lebanon from regional politics, which his opponents said was promoting normalising ties with Israel. The day after, messages on his family home’s gate were plastered and read: ‘Lokman Slim the collaborator the traitor,’ ‘Glory to the one that silences the voice,’ and ‘Your turn is coming.’
A pro-Hizbollah newspaper, al-Akhbar, had described him in the past as the ‘star’ of the Shi’a of embassies, in reference to Lebanese Shi’a figures opposed to HIzbollah and who have relations with the US embassy. The article was based on a Wikileaks report about his meetings with US embassy officials in Lebanon.
The same newspaper, however, published an article entitled, Saudi Media: a Campaign of McCarthyism Against al-Nimr, in reference to the practice of making accusations of treason without evidence which US Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy used in the 1950s against his political opponents by claiming they were agents of the Soviet Union.
The fact that Wikileaks revealed that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr had met with US embassy officials at least in 2008 was not highlighted by pro Hizbollah media and supporters who support Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. During his meeting with the US officials, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr expressed his ‘unswerving belief ‘in the right of the Shi'a community to receive foreign assistance should they become involved in a conflict in Saudi Arabia. The same Wikileaks cable reported that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr moved away from Iran in the meeting and spoke ‘somehow’ positively of America with the US official.
The celebratory mood among Hizbollah supporters on social media and the derogatory terms they used when referring to Lokman Slim and his killing have revealed the ugliness of media campaigns targeting people who hold dissenting views. Similarly, five years ago, loyalists of the Saudi government celebrated the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Regardless of one’s views on Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and Lokman Slim’s beliefs and opinions, they fall under the right to freedom of expression. However, the media was able to discredit them through smear campaigns that paved the way for the public opinion to accept their killing.