A young, modern, married couple sits calmly on a sofa with their baby between them. The father is holding up a piece of paper that reads “I am Shia” while the mother holds up one that reads “I am Sunni.” The child, sitting between his parents, is holding up a piece of paper of his own. It reads: “I am Sushi.”
Many people in Lebanon have sought to promote this photo in the wake of the twin suicide bombings that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. This attack has launched an era of bloodshed and violence in Lebanon that brings Al-Qaeda to mind. Sectarian hatred surfaced in the country following the explosions, with the ugliest sectarian emotions and views being expressed. Many cheered the attack via social networking websites and many others engaged in virtual confrontations and arguments. Sectarianism appeared at its worst during this period; the same period that “I am Sushi” went viral.
Many people circulated the photo but there was ultimately more concern over the sectarian insults and threats that were issued following the twin Beirut bombings. Some sadly commented saying that while the photo is beautiful it does not reflect the Arab world today.
However the couple and their child’s situation is not unique; this is certainly not the first child of mixed Sunni-Shi’ite background. Last month Lebanon celebrated the birth of the first child who will carry an identity card that does not denote his sect. This child was the fruit of the first civil marriage in Lebanon. However there is a challenge at the heart of this “I am Sushi” principle today, even if some consider the term a shallow cliché. It’s a challenge because as identity crises deepen, discussing or promoting openness towards others becomes more and more difficult.
The first time that I heard the term “Sushi” in this context was two years ago in the US when I met with some nieces and relatives who described themselves as being “Sushi,” that is to say the product of a Sunni-Shi’ite marriage. I realized that the term was popular among Muslim youths in America and the West. At the time, one of my nieces smiled at me and said: “We are a new sect and the future is ours.”
However when I saw the photo of the couple and their “Sushi” child, I remembered my niece’s statement and felt dispirited. The future she had hoped for appeared to be nothing more than a mirage.
We’ve heard several Islamic Sharia court judges claim that the number of mixed marriages between Sunnis and Shi’ites have decreased, while the divorce rate is on the rise. This reflects the deep sectarian division that has struck the heart of our lives in Lebanon, whether as individuals, families, or society as a whole. While this lethal division is now being played out on social media, with the internet being used to reproduce and incite sectarianism. This shows that modern technology, if misused, can become a tool of death, not progress. Indeed, isn’t this precisely what happened when terrorists used civilian aircraft to kill innocent people?
While the “I am Sushi” photo ultimately won’t change the reality of the situation in Lebanon, it certainly is a breath of fresh air amid all this sectarian hatred.