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February 10, 2021 11:07 am

Remembering Lokman Slim and Honoring His Struggle

avatar by Alberto M. Fernandez

Opinion

Lokman Slim, an activist and publisher who ran a research centre, speaks during an interview, in a still image taken from Reuters TV footage shot on February 2, 2009, in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Reuters TV/via REUTERS

In the wake of his murder last week, some apologists for the terrorist group Hezbollah have sought to downplay Lokman Slim as some sort of nobody. He was actually a bigger man than most of the big names that make headlines from Lebanon because he combined three extremely powerful, rare — and for Hezbollah — dangerous personal attributes: He was a man who could not be bought, he was a man without fear, and he was a man with something to say.

I first met Lokman 20 years ago when, as a mid-level US diplomat based in Amman, I visited Beirut book publishing houses. My purview at the US Embassy in Jordan included the State Department’s Arabic Book Program, which had once been based in Beirut, before the Lebanese Civil War. Lokman and his sister Rasha, a dynamic figure in her own right, ran a wonderful Arabic publishing house, Dar al-Jadeed. The beautifully designed books selected by Lokman and Rasha reflected their discerning tastes and wide interests: political and religious reform, art, literature, free inquiry. Lokman, his friends and family had other projects and initiatives during the years, all of them connected to his primary concerns, which were always human dignity, justice, and freedom, both inside Lebanon and in the region.

Another early effort was research and a documentary film on the 1984 Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp massacre, interviewing six Lebanese Forces fighters involved in that horrible episode of the Lebanese Civil War. A parallel effort, also from 2005, was UMAM Documentation and Research, which served as an umbrella organization for a variety of initiatives, from preserving the heritage and memory of Lebanon’s recent conflict to a rare cultural and artistic space in Beirut’s heavily populated southern suburbs, to the MENA Prison Forum.

A later (2016) documentary by the documentary filmmaker Monika Bergmann, Lokman’s wife, and Slim focused on Syria’s notorious Tadmor prison. Hayya Bina, still another initiative, focused on providing opportunities and alternatives for Lebanon’s impoverished southern Shia population until precipitously cut off from US government funding in 2015 by an Obama administration eager to reconcile with the Iranian regime. Lokman was passionate about the community from which he came and among whom he still lived. Indeed, he could have easily gone and lived in Paris if he wished but he preferred to stay and work in Haret Hreik.

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Given the often-defamatory attacks by Hezbollah’s propaganda network on Lokman and others — Lokman was accused of being a puppet “Shia of the (US) Embassy” on the payroll of American imperialism — it is worth exploring a bit how the whole subculture of US government funding of civil society overseas actually works. Actual amounts are small and closely monitored, nothing like the cash windfalls Iran and others give their regional proxies. And the bitter reality is that such NGO funding was always far smaller and more attenuated than what the Americans regularly give to regimes. Hezbollah’s puppets in the Lebanese government are recipients of more largesse and tangible support from Uncle Sam than all of Lebanese civil society put together could ever dream of.

But Lokman wasn’t killed because of his NGO activity per se, but more likely because his high-profile advocacy against Hezbollah had crossed some sort of internal red line known only to the group. Lokman had been marked for death for years and he knew it, but none of us knew when or if that moment would finally arrive. There is plenty of criticism of Hezbollah in Lebanon every day, but it is only when advocacy can lead to change or it touches some core priority that the group feels the need to strike. The group is also much more concerned about criticism coming from within the Lebanese Shia community that it seeks to control than from Sunnis and Christians (although Hezbollah has killed plenty of those too). In that sense, the targeting of Lokman reminds us of the 2020 assassination of Iraqi researcher Hisham al-Hashemi: both had either already learned or might learn too much about the internal workings of Iranian-funded militia/death squads in their respective countries.

Lokman’s was a life lived well and passionately. After the January 2015 Paris massacre by Salafi jihadists at Charlie Hebdo he wrote me: “On this sad day, it’s good to remember that Hassan Nasrallah, in the wake of the Danish cartoons frenzy, stated on February 1, 2006: ‘If a Muslim had enforced the fatwa of Imam Khomeini and killed this renegade of Salman Rushdie, those bastards wouldn’t have dared to attack the prophet neither in Denmark, nor in Norway nor in France…'”

When I took over Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) in 2017 and started an op-ed page, Lokman was one of the first people I thought of as a columnist. But he didn’t accept; he didn’t want to be tied down. He did occasionally send us some opinion pieces but he refused payment for them. When I visited Lebanon in 2017 for the first time as a private citizen and was a bit concerned about being allowed in, he wrote back, “sadly, I know a little about this… As I’m ‘greylisted,’ each time I leave the country or come back, I have to spend some extra hours waiting to be cleared…” I was able to get both Lokman and al-Hashemi to a 2018 conference we held in Tunis on the ongoing struggle for human dignity in the Arab world. I had hoped to do a follow up conference with him in Lebanon but that opportunity never came. “Lebanon deserves to be offered such an opportunity… We’re getting so much provincial that we need a wakeup call even in the shape of a conference or so!”

Productive and focused in all the good ways that the world approves of — NGO work, conferences, publishing, research, advocacy — Lokman knew that this kind of incremental work was both essential and insufficient. He was an idealist but also a man who understood how power, real and ruthless power, is wielded for ill in the real world. He never despaired but understood the tragedy of Lebanon and the deadly correlation of forces strangling it all too well.

Later that year, he described “a true episode about which I didn’t stop thinking at over the last days, we were three Lebanese around the dining table of the German ambassador who organized this function at the occasion of the visit of a Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag. Upset by my remarks regarding the European ‘gold rush’ to Tehran, he turned to me and asked undiplomatically: ‘But why don’t you want to see the positive impacts of the Pax Iranica?'”

As Lebanon descended in 2019 into more or less permanent political and economic crisis and many took to the streets to demonstrate against intolerable conditions, Lokman was there and some of us were concerned with his exposure. He answered me, “thank you very much for your message and advice. As you can imagine, with everything that is happening, it has been very difficult remaining cautious while still keeping a clear conscience and being true to one’s commitments and values.” In typical fashion, instead of thinking how to hide, he offered up half a dozen great to wild ideas on how to help the “thawra” flourish and grow. But there was no real appetite in Washington for such activities. These were ideas that a West that was as committed to its supposed ideals as much as Iran and the Salafi jihadists are to theirs would have embraced. But that world seems to have passed, if it ever really existed.

Less than a year ago, as Al-Hurra Television attempted, in our own small and pitiful way, to shine additional light on the Iranian- Hezbollah connection to corruption in the region, he was encouraging: “I’m happy that the corruption nexus between Iraq and Lebanon caught your attention. I believe that exposing these networks will really help illuminate the financial/political/clerical schemes that are sustaining the ‘axis of resistance.’ Of course, this will not spare revealing the multi-confessional enablers that make up the political elite of these countries.”

Those who see Lokman as some sort of Western proxy are completely mistaken. His was a singular struggle with much more consistency, principle, and honesty than that shown by a West seemingly distracted and full of doubt about itself and its place in the world, a West tired of striving and eager to embrace any sort of regional hegemon that will relieve us of working and trying too hard.

In a better world, the “international community” would be rushing to embrace Lokman’s struggle and that of his colleagues in the days ahead. I don’t see either Europe or Biden’s America having that sort of moral clarity. The statement by Secretary of State Blinken condemning Lokman’s assassination couldn’t even mention Hezbollah by name. Instead, it called on Lebanon’s judiciary and political leaders — almost all in the pocket of Hezbollah — to take action against the perpetrators. A charitable interpretation of this statement would be that this is the product of a new administration’s foreign policy team that is just getting started. Others will see it as an act of deep cynicism.

I am angry for the death of my friend for selfish reasons, because he was a man I respected and admired. But both his life and his death demonstrate with startling clarity a bitter and enlightening truth, that the Middle East will find its way forward largely alone. It will find a better way and change through the sacrifice and struggle of its best and bravest or fall into even greater despair and dysfunction than we have heretofore seen. The West must and should help in creative and smart material ways. But we lack the moral capacity, subtlety, and seriousness to lead. If the region does have a future it will be because of living and future generations willing to fight without ceasing, as Lokman did no matter the cost.

 Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI, where this article first appeared.

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