In his article for NOW Lebanon this week, Hussein Ibish wrote about the growing legitimization of Islamophobia in the United States. One of the persons he mentioned as spreading the message of hatred is a Lebanese-American, Brigitte Gabriel, who has received considerable publicity lately, not least a profile in the New York Times.
Gabriel heads a non-profit organization called ACT! for America, and her pitch has been a rather simple one: The United States faces an existential threat from Islam and must defend itself. But what makes Gabriel different from others plying the same trade is that she claims to have personal familiarity with the issue, thanks to her experiences in wartime Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s.
Here is what Gabriel has posted on her website: “I founded ACT! for America because Islamic militants have declared war on America. I know what this means. For years, I witnessed first-hand how brutally jihadists treat non-Muslims.” While Gabriel says that she is not against Islam as such, her critics observe that in her remarks she has often signified precisely the opposite. Gabriel has asserted, for instance, that “[i]n the Muslim world, extreme is mainstream.”
Gabriel is the author of a bestselling book titled Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America. In it, she recounts her time in unsettled South Lebanon, making her case that it was really all about Muslim extremists killing Christians. However, anyone with even cursory knowledge of events in the South during the period that Gabriel lived there would see that her template is nonsensical.
Gabriel frequently draws a direct link between what she saw on September 11, 2001, and what she encountered in her hometown of Marjayoun, located on a hill overlooking the Lebanese-Israeli border. “Watching the World Trade Center buildings fall in 2001,” she has written, “I was struck by the same fear that I experienced during the war in Lebanon. As I watched, words instinctively came from my mouth as I spoke to the TV screen: ‘Now they are here.’”
According to a source familiar with Gabriel’s past, she was born Hanan Qahwaji, and spent the first years of the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975, in Marjayoun. In those days the South was buffeted by two principal dynamics: clashes between Israel and Palestinian militant groups; and antagonism between the Palestinians and inhabitants of southern Lebanon, Christians and Shia Muslims mainly, who resented the heavy price they were paying for a conflict over which they had no control. The Israelis began arming and overseeing those Lebanese opposed to the Palestinians, among them a Christian Lebanese army officer named Saad Haddad, who formed a pro-Israel militia and became the de facto commander of three enclaves established along the border by the Israelis. In 1978, Israeli forces invaded South Lebanon to dislodge the Palestinians. When they withdrew, the enclaves were joined into an Israeli-protected “security belt” under Haddad’s control.
In her book, Gabriel notes, “[F]or my first ten years I led a charmed and privileged life. All that came to an end when a religious war, declared by the Muslims against the Christians, […] tore my country and my life apart. It was a war that the world did not understand.”
Evidently, it was a war that Gabriel did not understand either. South Lebanon was a complicated place, but it was not characterized by anything resembling an Islamic jihad. Gabriel, in her blanket indictment of Muslims, airbrushes out that Shia also suffered from the cycles of attack and retaliation between the Palestinian factions and Israel. As a consequence many became as hostile to the Palestinians as the Christians, later joining the pro-Israel militia. Moreover, the Palestinian organizations were secular nationalist. Although many combatants were Muslim, not all were. And their fight was with Israel; it was not a religious crusade against Christians.
As for Gabriel’s grave comment “they are here” after the 9/11 attacks, that’s pure theater. She knows very well that there was nothing remotely comparable between what happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and what she confronted in Marjayoun. Her effort to conflate the situations suggests not a flaw in interpretation; it suggests a conscious effort to mislead.
Gabriel’s portrayal of her daily tribulations during the war also appears to be overdone: she lived in a shelter for three years; she was sometimes driven to school in a tank; bombs tended to explode nearby, so that Gabriel had to use schoolbooks to protect herself from shrapnel. Anyone who grew up during the Lebanese conflict probably lived through similar incidents. However, Gabriel has a way of erasing all nuance, implying that her life was a daily serving of Stalingrad. The reality is that everywhere, in Marjayoun as in Beirut, the war was intermittent – with paroxysms of violence punctuating extended lulls. Maybe Gabriel’s accounts are true, or partly so, but she also makes no effort to mitigate them by stressing the normalcy in between.
Why does all this matter? For all its problems, Lebanon is not defined by boundless Muslim loathing for Christians. Sooner or later charlatans are outed, and even Gabriel’s admirers will eventually have to address her fabrications more seriously. But most irking, this particular imposter also happens to be a thief. Gabriel has stolen a part of our collective Lebanese memory in order to forge it and peddle it to unsuspecting audiences, all to advance her career in America.
Surely, it must have occurred to Gabriel that someone from back home might one day notice her con act. Perhaps it did, but she was too conceited to care. Purveyors of bigotry and paranoia eventually burn themselves out. But if that process can be accelerated by putting a match to Gabriel’s mendacity, then all the better.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster).
The original sentence mistakenly said that Gabriel was born Nour Saman. That was her name as an anchorwoman for Middle East Television, not her name at birth. And correctly rendered, her pseudonym as anchorwoman was Nour Semaan, not Saman.