BEIRUT (AFP) – Billboards of dead politicians and fighters line Beirut’s streets in a stark reminder that the concept of martyrdom still pervades a Lebanon rife with sectarian loyalties.
Tuesday is Martyrs’ Day, commemorating the hanging of Lebanese nationalists by the Ottomans in Beirut on May 6, 1916. Nearly a century later, many still view dying for their beliefs as a noble sacrifice.
Lebanon, which was ravaged by 15 years of brutal civil war that ended in 1990, is going through a new cycle of violence. The past three years have been marked by the assassinations of several anti-Syrian public figures and a war between Hezbollah and Israel that nearly devastated the country.
Both the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah and the ruling coalition, backed by the West and most Arab states, are keen to bestow the title of martyr on their dead.
Ghina Zalzali’s husband was a Hezbollah fighter killed in the war with Israel. For her, “martyrdom in its Islamic interpretation has a special place with God. There are seven heavens and not every person is at the same level,” implying that martyrs reach the highest level.
The Koran characterizes those who die for God not as slain but rather as living eternally blessed in heaven.
In Islamic tradition, the bodies of the dead are washed before burial but the body of a martyr is considered pure and does not need to be cleaned.
Ghina, 29, said she knew her husband was “in the resistance”. Before getting married, he told her to carefully consider the consequences of that, saying he could “be injured or go blind.”
Yet Ghina married Mustafa, because she wanted to marry “someone with honour and a generous spirit with a goal in life. He was not willing to just sit idly by and watch his land being occupied.”
Mustafa was willing to die for his cause, she says, but he didn’t aspire to it. “One who wants to die does not continue to buy books and read and expand his knowledge and develop himself,” she said.
Ghina says she is filled with pride when people refer to her husband as a martyr and is happy when she sees his picture hanging in the street.
Not all the “martyrs” widows share Ghina’s outlook.
Giselle Khouri lost her husband, anti-Syrian journalist and intellectual Samir Kassir. She does not like the word martyrdom “though its meaning is important even in Christianity.”
She feels it has been hijacked by people who attack targets she believes are off limits, such as schoolchildren. She stresses that her husband died for justice and never used violence.
Khouri has mixed feelings about her husband’s pictures being plastered around the streets
“I went through phases. Of course in the beginning … it was something important, but I think the pictures have become something ridiculous in the country and it no longer means anything to me. It reminds me of the civil war.”
Martyrdom of one Lebanese at the hands of another was a regular occurrence in those times.
Journalist and scholar Nasri al-Sayegh said that “during the war, each side’s martyrs were seen as criminals by the other side. One side’s criminal was the other side’s hero.
“Lebanon is not unified, neither in its national vision nor its political vision,” Sayegh added.
Each political party celebrates its own martyrs’ day to commemorate those who have died.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television regularly repeats the farewell statements of that Shiite group’s martyrs.
Ohe other side of the political divide, Future TV runs snippets of speeches by “martyr premier” Rafiq Hariri, the billionaire businessman and former prime minister assassinated in 2005.
Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon expert at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, said “the issue of martyrdom and death is part of the political and ideological debate in the country.
“You have one view that wants to get out of violence and has a vision of Lebanon as a Riviera where people are decadent and carefree, and another view of Lebanon as more of a bunker and a place of resistance to the United States and Israel.
“Each is fighting for their vision of the country. It’s an existential crisis over Lebanon’s future.”
Paul Tabar, a sociologist from the Lebanese American University, says martyrdom has become an end rather than a means in Lebanese politics today.
“It has become something you can cash in on in terms of local politics … Therefore it becomes a weapon to threaten or intimidate political opponents.
“Martyrdom has been utilised in an inflated manner. And when your currency gets inflated it has a cheaper purchasing power.”
Political parties reward families of martyrs with financial support.
Hezbollah’s Martyrs Organisation differentiates between “resistance martyrs,” who knowingly risk dying, and those simply caught in the crossfire, when doling out its assistance.
Despite having chosen their fate, resistance martyrs are deemed to have made a greater sacrifice. Their widows and children are provided with a home and a monthly allowance, and their parents also receive money.
As a rule, the survivors of civilian martyrs receive cash but their parents do not.
Some families reject the term martyr.
Lea Chikhani and her family were outspoken against politicians who referred to her 28-year-old brother Charles as a martyr. Charles was killed on his way home from work in September when a car bomb exploded, killing lawmaker Antoine Ghanem.
“We never considered Charles a martyr at all. He was victim,” said Lea.
“Usually martyrdom has a cause behind it. Charles didn’t at all have a cause he wanted to die for. On the contrary Charles wanted to live.
“He was abroad and came back because Lebanon is where his friends and family were. Some call that a cause. I call that life.”