As an old Arab saying goes, “If the quail bird were left alone, it would have remained asleep.” It is a useful indicator of the current antagonisms and turmoil that currently exists in Arab politics and societies. This upheaval is irrational and intolerant, because the ropes of sectarianism and tribalism tie it. It comes into force for their sake only.
The quail, Hassan Nasrallah is rebelling in Lebanon, creating havoc and unleashing slogans, because the Sayyid was derided by a joke that become an insult against an entire sect. The Sayyid believes he is above ridicule, even if he himself mocks his adversaries, as was the case in the rallies and protests following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. At the time, Sayyid Nasrallah boasted in front of the crowds and smiled, with derision, as he instructed photographers to zoom in on his followers. On the other hand, the other camp also mocked the Sayyid and his supporters… and so we have the situation where one camp opposes the other and politicians, not gentlemen, oppose their peers.
As the onslaught continued, every weapon and arsenal was used, including the concepts of “religious infallibility” and “the sanctity of the individual”, according to one of the guardians of this sanctity, Abbas Hashim, an MP and member of the “Change and Reform” parliamentary bloc.
It is important to remember that, according to the pre-Islamic maxim, the quail was an omen. If ruffled and awoken from its sleep, it would serve as a warning of bad things to come.
One needs to admit that we are currently witnessing a state of extreme susceptibility regarding anything to do with sectarian, religious or social identity. Why this happening Can a politician really demand the immunity reserved for religious symbols?
As for the first question, we live in deluded societies that wrongfully believe they have created a new national identity and that they have shed their sectarian and tribal allegiances for those of the nation. The Lebanon of Riyad al Solh, Bechara al Khoury, and Sabri Hamadeh has degenerated into a sectarian quagmire; every time we are told it has dried out, we notice it returning to life. The sectarian violence committed by supporters of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, against Christian targets in Beirut, occurred after the comedy program “Basmat Watan”, broadcast on the Maronite Christian channel LBC, derided the Hezbollah leader. This was symptomatic of a weak national identity. The Shiaa are not the only group suffering from this. Most groups have reacted in a similar vein. Perhaps, one ought to mention in this regard the violent unrest perpetrated by Sunni individuals against Christian targets in eastern Beirut, following the Danish cartoons controversy in February. In turn, the Lebanese Christian sects also contributed to sectarian violence, especially during the civil war. All this has taken place and continues to do so in a country once regarded as the beacon of pluralism in the Middle East.
During his press conference last week, Nasrallah claimed that his party curtailed the people on the streets and restrained their feelings, adding that his supporters rioted not to protect his personal sanctity but to safeguard the symbolic importance of the resistance, which he represents. However, the distinction between the two cases is merely a play on words. If Hassan Nasrallah symbolized the resistance and the resistance was symbolized by him, which do you criticize? Is there even an agreement amongst the Lebanese on this symbolism?
We also heard members of Hezbollah claim they are not against freedom of expression but are opposed to infringements on personal dignity. However, a fine line exists between ridiculing someone, which is acceptable, and the defamation of character.
Those of you who have seen the film The People vs. Larry Flynt might remember how the pornographer and publisher of Hustler magazine became embroiled in a constitutional battle that reached the Supreme Court, in order to defend an article in which Reverend Jerry Falwell was mocked. I use this example to illustrate the difference between personal dignity and the sanctity of individuals, especially as the Supreme Court ruled in Flynt’s favor.
To return to the second question raised above, does a man have the right to practice politics, with all its conditions, while at the same time demanding immunity for religious symbols?
Of course, the answer is not. As long as there is a political program and a disagreement between the interests of certain forces, so long as there are television screens and newspapers expressing divergent views, so long as there are neutral powers observing everything and expressing the public’s opinions, no one can enjoy immunity. The only exception would be when an opponent violated the law and commits slander. In this case, the courts should intervene.
This is why it was understandable to see Dr. Mohammed al Tabtabai, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic studies and Shariaa in Kuwait, being harshly criticized in the local press, after allegedly issuing a fatwa that respects women’s right to elect who they want, irrespective of their husbands.
If the quail were left undisturbed, he would have fallen asleep. If the religious leader (whether it be a Sayyid, sheikh or reverend) had not entered politics, no one would have targeted his position. In contrast, if the factional quail had rid itself of hatred and been not provoked by a caricature or a television program, it would have slept undisturbed.
I don’t know if it is better for us to leave matters as they are or to rid ourselves of illusions. No one should be immune from criticism unless all society considers him to be so!