From the Editors
As a well disciplined anthropologist I have learned to be weary of the word “culture.” In fact, it is difficult for me to write the word without using scare quotes. But after Lebanese boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activists scored an important victory last month, the word has been everywhere in my online universe.
Following BDS actions that highlighted Lara Fabian's recent Israeli Independence Day (which marks the Palestinian naqba) performance, Fabian cancelled her planned concert at the Casino du Liban. In response to her cancellation, an online group called Stop Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon (SCTL) went into overdrive. Members of the group were convinced that their inability to exercise a “choice” to enjoy Fabian's “art” is a form of terrorism. They claim that censorship of sex in Lebanese films, the banning of “Beirut Hotel” ostensibly for security concerns, and the refusal to allow a Brazilian carnivale troop perform in a conservative city in the south of Lebanon are a threat to a Lebanese way of life. Under SCTL's rubric, anti-Israeli apartheid BDS activities have been collapsed with the recent bombings of restaurants and stores in South Lebanon that sold alcohol. In this logic, BDS activities are a threat to personal freedom and aim to dictate politics to Lebanon's liberal and “diverse” citizenry. These would be freedom fighters reinvigorate a series of questions related to the words “culture” and “terrorism” and their marriage in the "war on terror.: Can one be terrorized by culture? What, exactly, is cultural terrorism?
[Restaurant Bombings and Puss in Boots. Images from Stop Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon.]
One way to approach this question is to highlight the ways that a discourse on “culture” has been mobilized since 2001. We have been told there are cultures of life, cultures of death, cultures of misogyny, cultures of intolerance, and finally, cultural terrorists. In the age of the war on terror, culture is causative. Well, some cultures anyways. After all, culture is never blamed for the fact that every nine seconds a woman in the United states is assaulted and/or beaten. The prevalence of Islamophobia in the Republican primary race is never attributed to American culture, and neither is racism against African-Americans or the continued oppression of the continent's indigenous peoples.
Within the "war on terror," culture is something that other people have and are immersed in. The United States is posited as post-cultural, just as during the cold war it was posited as the post-ideological alternative to the dangerously ideological Soviet Union. For those who have “culture,” in fact culture seems to have them. Everything they do can be explained and/or predicted by culture.
Thus when Guantanamo Bay inmates committed suicide in 2006, a military official explained their actions using these words: "They have no regard for human life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us.” Within this framework, even the suicide of a person who has been detained and tortured seemingly without end is something that is done to the United States. Detainees can not be driven to suicide by US policies, because they were raised within (and programmed by) a culture of death where one does not care about life, even one's own. A culture of death is one that produces people that are so radically other that the only way to beat them in a war is to eradicate them while simultaneously draining the “cultural swamps” that produce their way of life-a life of death.
While the war on terror is strangely absent from public discourse in the United States today, it still colors daily life in the Muslim and Arab worlds, said to be the “target” of that war. This should not be surprising, as the United States has made a habit of starting wars that continue to fester abroad as the American public moves on to the next war soundbite. After all, the war on drugs continues to shape life in South America, as does the war on poverty in parts of the United States that are perhaps not considered as “American” as other, whiter, and more middle class parts.
As the war on terror disappears from newspaper headlines in the United States, Arab authoritarian regimes have rebranded protestors, activists and people who have been resisting oppression for years, “terrorists.” Saudi Arabia is fighting a war on terror, and the terrorists are those that would demand democratic reforms. Syria is locked in a deadly fight with terrorists even as we speak. After all, the prospect of democratic reform must truly be terrifying to the state-business elite alliance that rules both Syria and Saudi Arabia. Even Lebanon fought its own little war on terror, flexing its muscle against a Palestinian refugee camp in 2007 and showing us just how strong and manly the Lebanese armed forces are. Of course, the different receptions that Saudi Arabia's and Syria's wars on terror have had have much to do with the ways that the “international” (read: American) war on terror has redrawn the world into new, but awfully similar, alliances and counter-alliances.
In Lebanon, an entire war on terror lexicon has flourished. Beginning in 2005, Lebanese politicians have paraphrased that fountain of intellectual thought, Thomas Friedman, and named the political landscape in their country a war between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” The country was divided into those that “love life” and those that ostensibly don't. A discourse of “tolerance” was also reinvigorated in an attempt to divide the country between those that are moderate and radical, modern and traditional, and those that are secular and those that are religious. This division fits neatly into a war on terror vision of the world, where religion (read: Islam) is inherently dangerous and must be “tamed” by secular modernity.
Thus, in Lebanon political leaders such as Saad al-Hariri fell over themselves trying be on the right side of what Mahmood Mamdani has cynically termed the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” binary. Arab Christians, it seems, are immune from having to pander to this binary. There is, after all, no international discourse that divides them into “good christian/bad christian.” In this logic, Sinan Antoon reminds us, they can only be victims of militant fundamentalism, and never its agents.
Stop Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon's Facebook page includes an explanation of their philosophy:
“Even though Lebanon has always been considered as one of the most democratic and free countries in the region, attempts to undermine freedom of expression have always plagued the Lebanese society, under various political or religious pretexts. Since the creation of Lebanon, censorship has always been a practice used by all political factions and religious entities with NO EXCEPTION… We cannot allow Lebanon, which has always stood as a regional beacon for freedom and human rights to regress into a nation where thought-repression and mind-control are allowed. The concept of tolerance and acceptances of our differences that are supposed to characterize a country such as Lebanon all emanate from this basic right.”
[More victims of cultural terrorism in Lebanon. Images from Stop Terrorism in Lebanon.]
Apart from a rather strange reading of historical and contemporary Lebanon that emphasizes how “tolerant” of difference and how respectful of human rights this perpetually in between civil wars country is, it seems that SCTL's main point is that censorship is equal to terrorism of the “cultural” variety. Such censorship threatens to make Lebanese less freedom loving. It may—by implication of SCTL's nationalist belief in Lebanese exceptionalism—make Lebanon more like its neighbors, where cultural terrorism apparently abounds.
In fact, the association of “cultural terrorism” with BDS actions has an Israeli origin. It gained popularity as more and more musical acts refused to perform in an apartheid state, citing their solidarity with BDS publicly. The state of Israel, in a natural extension of their attempt to brand any critique of its policies an exercise in either anti-Semitism or terrorism or anti-Semitic terrorism, called the international BDS campaign an exercise in “cultural terrorism.” In fact, to understand the logic of SCTL, one has to take into account the fact that many people in Lebanon do not adhere to the BDS campaign either because they do not know about it or because they do not agree with it.
After all, Lebanon is a country where political leaders can openly admit past alliances with Israel and receive applause from their supporters. Lebanon is also a country where entrepreneurship and a desire to make money are considered quintessential lebanese qualities, therefore economic boycotts are understood by many to be the antithesis of “Lebanese-ness.” Moreover, the word “terrorism” itself has become an adjective, an add on that one can use to instantly add urgency to any cause. Thus activists and states have alike popularized terms such as “sexual terrorism,” “economic terrorism,” “racial terrorism,” and “cultural terrorism.”
While anti-authoritarian uprisings continue to sweep through the Arab world, many Lebanese persist in their desire to occupy a hermitically sealed beacon of “freedom and human rights” in the Arab world. As Bashar al-Assad claims he is fighting a war on terror against those that would topple his regime, some of his Lebanese neighbors are fighting their own version against what they call “cultural terrorism.” The use of this term to describe BDS activities and/or censorship of sex, nudity, or political critique must be understood within a framework of the international war on terror. Within this framework, culturalist discourses have become new ways to talk about supposedly immutable differences. Economic and political struggles are transformed into attacks on identity and “ways of life.” Liberty and the freedom of choice are always at risk from those that would sacrifice these tenets of liberalism and modernity at the altar of political intransigence and fundamentalism. And as the war on terror disappears from American press coverage, it proliferates, both discursively and militarily, at the edges of American empire.
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