Michael Young

Wasted martyr

Michael Young reflects on Samir Kassir’s aspirations for the Arab world

The plaster saint

Few words are more detestable than “martyr,” and nothing brought that home as well as the assassination of Samir Kassir. This week we commemorate the ninth anniversary of his murder. Has his status as martyr taught us anything?


Perhaps naively, some people, present company included, once thought that Samir’s death would not go unpunished. Almost a decade later, that hope has evaporated, and the only sentiment left is that even the most heroic death in the end is largely meaningless. Beat the drums and play the pipes, but nothing will come of it, certainly not in Lebanon.


Shortly after Samir’s killing, already the calculations on all sides began to change. The Aounists, with whom Samir had engaged in a sustained dialogue, abandoned his memory as they built up their alliances with Hezbollah and Syria. By 2009, even senior figures in March 14 were compelled to normalize their relations with Bashar al-Assad, albeit reluctantly, welcoming him to Beirut. Walid Jumblatt, surveying the changes all around him, decided to effect his own reconciliation with Assad, reversing course only when the uprising in Syria began.


This was all par for the course in a country where the political class is either unwilling or unable to behave autonomously. In such shifting sands, what chance did Samir Kassir’s fate have to leave an enduring mark on justice in Lebanon, and to change the way the country functioned politically? None at all.  


Kassir understood well the interconnectedness of Arab dissatisfaction and solidarity. Only six years after his death, this would be demonstrated in a succession of Arab uprisings feeding off each other. These were dynamics which Kassir would well have understood, given his tendency to consider the Arab world as an integrated whole. For him, there was something intimately linking the Lebanese desire for freedom from Syria to the Syrian people’s longing for liberty at home. And the Palestinians’ yearning for a state seemed no different in his mind from the Iraqis’ pursuit of political self-determination after 2003. Kassir was no defender of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, but he was also not as willing as many of his contemporaries to dismiss the advantages to Iraqis of finally being freed from a pathological, homicidal regime.


Had Kassir been alive, what would he have told us about the situation in Syria? Some 160,000 people have been killed there, yet the individual most responsible for this butchery is still in power and has just organized his own fraudulent re-election. Kassir would have surely been one of the most biting commentators on this outrage and a vocal defender of the opposition, but also one of its most lucid critics.


Kassir would have been pitiless in condemning the West’s pathetic response in Syria. Though he always warned of the dangers of Western intervention in the Middle East, Kassir also grasped its liberalizing potential. That’s why he told me in an interview a year almost to the day before his murder, “[T]he West must accept that the strategic importance of the Middle East must not justify denying its peoples the right to self-determination, and that means, particularly, the Palestinians.”


One can imagine the disdain he would have felt for Western countries, above all the United States, who have behaved with almost surrealistic indifference and incompetence in Syria. Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, with Western officials regretting their inaction at the time, another killing field is in place, its horrors multiplying daily, unabated. Is that the way it has to be? Permitting a slaughter to continue, only to regret it two decades hence, when guilt matters not at all? 


Kassir’s last book Considerations sur le Malheur Arabe (with the far less evocative English title of Being Arab) received many plaudits after his assassination. Its main theme is that the Arabs can plot a path toward national revival through a reconsideration of their own rich history, one that could help them do away with the “perennial powerlessness” [that] “annulled the possibility of a new reawakening.”


There was much of the author’s optimism and exuberance in the book. Its tragedy was that this singular intellectual’s effort to try to see through the region’s miasma toward the possibility of a sunnier future was cut short by the reality of the Arab world’s violent present. That present is still with us, more offensive and vicious than ever. And the hope that Kassir’s senseless murder would somehow alter this situation proved illusory.


Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, all that is left of Samir is his grin. It appears to be a grin both humorous and provocative. March 14, perhaps understandably, made a plaster saint of him, when he never had the slightest intention of being something so dull. Instead, he was all life, and it is that which defined his outlook on his country and the Middle East.


Nine years later the grin is still there, but we’re not sure if it is an expression of satisfaction or a grimace of displeasure for what he has been turned into. All we can say with every passing year is that Samir Kassir becomes more relevant, his absence more oppressive. His writings brought order to the chaos of a region that eats its children. What a waste his death has been.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

The plaster saint

Perhaps naively, some people, present company included, once thought that Samir’s death would not go unpunished.

  • Zvi

    Few words are more detestable than “martyr,” - my thoughts exactly!

    June 8, 2014