To those provoked by freedoms in Lebanon, I write to you:
If I were to engage in a discussion with any of you on social media, I would have chosen to abstain from continuing such a debate, because it's simply useless when it comes from a personal and emotional perspective rather than one of social justice.
I understand that most of you operate with the intention of defending our community and societal values. Thus, your anger is palpable, but it's misplaced. If you're genuinely concerned about the ramifications of this anger, allow me to convey the following message. Not because I seek to persuade you and sway your views (as I simply don't believe persuasion works this easily), but because I'm interested in documenting the waves of aggression against individuals and freedoms we are currently experiencing in Lebanon.
This feeling of insult is misplaced
Some time ago, I decided to write about Lebanon's comedy scene. I wanted to shed light on comedians who steadfastly support one another through every adversity and to highlight the intellectual uprising that the "Awk.word" comedic group expresses in a satirical and bold manner, despite the "dimming" of the uprising on the ground. Some of these comedians have managed to initiate direct and realistic discussions about what we're experiencing today through social media, in a unique way.. However, I got busy with other things and didn't write that article.
The idea remained pending until something even more ironic than Awk.word's comedy happened. Comedian Nour Hajjar was summoned based on content he posted on social media, where he described our dire situation and its impact on us.
This comes after Shaden Fakih, another comedic writer, was summoned in 2021, after she had published a post that also humorously mocked the grim situation, and an attack involving the hurling of a grenade at the LBCI channel some months before. The attack was in response to a satirical sketch featuring actors Hussein Kawouk and Mohammad al-Dayekh, which had aired on the channel, provoking widespread controversy.
Hajjar was summoned to appear before the Military Court, due to a video critiquing the state of the army and the devaluation of salaries as a result of the collapse of the currency. He was detained and interrogated for 11 hours
Some choose not to comment on Hajjar's summons, considering it a secondary issue, or believing that Hajjar's jokes were indeed offensive to religion or the security forces, and thus, he deserves a "lesson" from the police, in their opinion. But others among you choose to threaten and teach Hajjar – and others – a substantial lesson in respecting beliefs. Your anger is understandable, but I would like to step back a bit to talk about what Hajjar endured compared to what has offended you.
Nour Hajjar was summoned to appear before the Military Court, due to a video where he critiqued the devaluation of the salaries of army personnel as a result of the collapse of the currency. He was detained and interrogated for 11 grueling hours. After that, he was subjected to a systematic attack on his freedom of expression, where some individuals "dug up" and spread a small portion of a video unrelated to religion and taken out of context, but where he spoke of his mother and what she had once asked of a sheikh. They accused him of blasphemy and threatening civil peace, all while conveying direct and menacing threats.
The administrators of the "Awk.word" comedy platform were summoned for interrogation, as if it were a terrorist platform that needed to be immediately confronted and shut down. Then last week, Hajjar was arrested again as he was heading to sign a residence permit related to the first complaint. He was interrogated by the criminal investigation department for about 6 hours, all due to a joke that was 5 years old. This means that the charges were baseless and had expired over time. However, as usual in Lebanon, insult outweighs justice.
The core issue is your fragility; anyone who is threatened by a joke, a film, a flower, love, or high heels.
Beyond the concept of understanding "dark humor" (which I understand isn't everyone's favorite form of comedy), let's move away from dissecting the joke itself. Comedy was never meant to be personal. If you're watching a comedy show, you shouldn't feel insulted in any way. Comedy, in general, is about ridiculing everything around us, not necessarily with malicious intent. If you're quick to take offense and misunderstand jokes, then perhaps it's advisable not to watch any comedy shows.
Many comedians tackle highly sensitive topics, but they are actually trying to convey a point, even if the joke is painful or offensive. Therefore, there's no doubt that you may have felt insulted, but I believe that what truly insults you isn't Hajjar but the harsh reality he described in the first video.
I assure you that the encroachment on freedom of expression will reach you one day, even if you continue to walk on eggshells. If you keep allowing the state and other groups to censor speech, Lebanon will become a repressive system with no social protection
The real insult is when living conditions become so dire that some army personnel are forced to work a second and third job. Insult is when Lebanon's comedy scene is silenced, while those who embezzled depositors' money and those involved in or who covered up the Beirut Port explosion remain unaccountable. As for the second video, the insult lies in the principle of protecting the community and religions, and this is a debate that goes beyond what happened to Hajjar alone.
How can a group feel vulnerable in the face of one individual?
Here's the finer point of the discussion: encouraging the summoning of any comedian following a joke that affects a group is disproportionate in terms of power, especially since Hajjar did not insult, slander, or defame a specific individual.
If a joke insults a large number of people who believe in a certain thing, or if it insults a large institution, for example, how can a single person pose a threat to this group? And how can a single point or individual undermine your beliefs? The group remains a collective entity, so how can one individual inflict harm upon a group or challenge the group's ideology, even just technically speaking?
Therefore, even the charges of hate speech cannot be applied here because groups cannot be considered victims unless a single individual directs hate speech toward a vulnerable or marginalized group, for example. In all the previous comedic cases I've mentioned, no group incited against another vulnerable or marginalized group. Moreover, they didn't engage in direct slander or defamation against a single person. Therefore, even from a legal standpoint, freedom of expression should transcend charges of defamation in these cases. Herein lies the fundamental problem, in my opinion: Do we all view freedom the same way in Lebanon?
I am not writing this message exclusively in defense of Hajjar
The most commonly used phrase when suppressing free speech is usually: "Your freedom ends where others' freedom begins." But what is "the freedom of others"? The freedom of others is an individual's freedom, not that of a group or an idea. The freedom of others is about not infringing directly and precisely upon an individual. Therefore, do you think that the 'freedom of others' means that a particular group or community should feel insulted, and so it decides to threaten, harm, or kill an individual because of an idea?
Is it the freedom of others for a particular group that feels insulted to resort to violence against those who do not harm them, like what 'Jnoud El Rab' did to the LGBTQ+ community in Mar Mikhael last week, without any form of accountability? Is it the freedom of others for Lara Bitar, Jean Kassir, Hayat Mirshad, Dima Sadek, and others to be summoned for investigation while working in the journalism field, simply because they criticized the state or investigated issues related to social justice that touch upon certain political parties?
Is it the freedom of others that a new group emerges based on the principle of self-protection in Tripoli, claiming that it will defend itself against anyone promoting "homosexuality"?
Is it the freedom of others for two groups to clash, and for each to kill an individual from the other side in Kahaleh, without any accountability for either party?
The real insult is when living conditions become so dire that army personnel are forced to work multiple jobs. Insult is when Lebanon's comedy scene is silenced, while those who embezzled money and those implicated in the Beirut Port explosion remain unaccountable
The purpose behind summoning Hajjar for investigation has one motive: disciplining individual freedom of expression in order to protect what is deemed "sacred" according to the norm. This may be welcomed by many of you who wish to "protect" social norms. However, the protection of social norms must start with safeguarding freedoms, accountability, and the independence of the judiciary. It is the very same judiciary that allowed those who looted our money and blew up and killed an entire city to go unpunished. It is the very same judiciary that allowed pressure on Hajjar by groups who felt insulted, even when the charges were no longer valid 5 years later.
How do you truly feel protected? Because this group that is protecting you today from "homosexuality" may declare itself tomorrow concerned for values in Lebanon, and allow itself to attack groups without religion, or those who dress in a way they don't approve of.
It may very well be a group created for much larger goals than self-security and the fight against sexual orientation freedoms. Has extremism ever been able to build a nation to this day in Lebanon? Do you genuinely believe that those who attack groups living peacefully without harming anyone, cannot threaten others if we reinforce their presence? And do you believe the idea that homosexuality is a Western conspiracy designed to harm or "spread" as if it were a social plague when we know that homosexuality has existed throughout history?
The infringement on freedom of expression is not just an issue for activists today. What's alarming is the wave of assaults on freedoms we are witnessing and must closely monitor. What's even more dangerous is that it doesn't only come from the authorities, but has begun to give legitimacy to rogue groups who have appointed themselves as the police over the people, and freely exert pressure on the judiciary, all under the absence of clear laws ensuring the independence of the judiciary and impunity from any form of punishment or accountability.
Therefore, the fragility of individuals who halt at a point that criticizes a system they love or believe in is profoundly sad. It makes us wonder: why do we always feel the need to defend a religion, system, or state, while we accept many personal insults against us without any anger?
Infringing on freedom of expression is not just an issue for activists today, it has begun to touch upon everyone's freedoms. What's even more dangerous is that it doesn't only come from the authorities, but also rogue groups who act as police over the people
The authorities agree on supporting repression from various parties that are not necessarily politically aligned, while also converging on evading accountability and punishment. The discourse of "protection" against societal ailments is a discourse that fills the incited public with hatred and anger. It is a discourse that is naturally used by world leaders today to bolster their power. However, it's even more dangerous for a country that hasn't seen any reforms for decades.
Now, I return to your fragility, those who feel threatened by a joke, a film, love, or high heels.
I assure you that the encroachment on freedom of expression will eventually reach you one day, even if you continue to walk on eggshells. If you continue to allow the state, and other groups, to censor the speech of others, Lebanon will continue on its path towards becoming a repressive system devoid of any form of societal protection, despite diplomats' repeated mantra that Lebanon will remain a country of freedoms compared to other Arab nations, which we are confirming on a daily basis isn't even true.
I return to the fact that you might feel entitled to vilify every critic or dissenter while violating their freedoms in a violent manner. But there will come a time when someone will feel entitled to suppress your freedoms one day, and you will be alone after the defenders of rights have fallen, and you will have no room for anger at all.