The Meaning of Gebran Tueni


In The Wall Street Journal, Claudia Rosett recalls her meeting with Gebran Tueni, the Lebanese journalist and member of parliament who was murdered the other day:

You had to meet Gebran Tueni. He was a cross between the hard-hitting journalists of legend and the courageous democratic politicians who do in fact stand up in today's Middle East only to end up jailed, exiled or killed for their beliefs. He played one of the leading roles in the democratic Cedar Revolution that swept Lebanon this spring, and was elected this year to the Lebanese Parliament.

I met Tueni twice. The first time was in 2002, when Syria's generation-long chokehold still imposed on many Lebanese a terrified silence. I had gone to Lebanon trying to judge the strength of the democratic movement beneath the Syrian gloom. Tueni had been speaking up for years, and I paid him a call at his newspaper. It was then headquartered in the bustling Hamra section of Beirut, not far from the seaside compound that housed Syria's secret police.

A brisk, trim man with a neat mustache, Tueni welcomed me to an office filled with figurines of roosters, small and large, dignified and whimsical. He collected them, he said–a rooster being the logo of his newspaper, An-Nahar, an Arabic name which he translated for me as "The Morning." Founded by Tueni's grandfather in the 1930s, and passed from father to son for three generations, An-Nahar was for Gebran Tueni not only a family business, but a vital trust. Seated behind his grandfather's desk, speaking in fluent English, he explained that his aim was to cover the full spectrum of Lebanese news and debate, to give voice to "Muslims, Christians, leftists, rightists." As a Lebanese patriot, he refused to be cowed by Syrian censorship. In 2000 he had broken his country's long silence by publishing an explicit call for Syria to get its troops out of Lebanon. He had no patience with the press self-censorship that tends to become the rule under jackboot regimes. "If you accept to enter the game of blackmailing, it's your fault," he said. "We try to have an independent paper."

Asked about the dangers of such a stance, he catalogued quickly that he had been shot twice, in 1976 and 1989; kidnapped briefly, in 1976; and exiled in 1990 for three years.

Tueni's defiance of despotic rule extended not only to Syrian occupation but to the presence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. He described Hezbollah as "an imported product from Iran. It has nothing to do with Lebanese identity." He went on to explain that Hezbollah is "a direct threat, acting in Lebanon like a state within a state," with "weapons everywhere." Hezbollah, he said, has its enticing side, building hospitals and schools, and providing free education to children of poor families–"but what are they teaching?" Hezbollah's strategy, he said, "Is to transform us into an Islamic republic." Tueni described Iran as providing Hezbollah's weapons and the funding, and Syria as providing "the cover."

Whole article here.

These comments are just about the same thing Gebran said to me a couple years ago, and you can get a sense of what made him a polarizing figure in his responses to my followup question: Nobody knows how many Shi'ites there are in Lebanon (because there hasn't been a census since 1940; CIA demographic estimates don't break out the Muslim sects), but it's reasonable to assume they are the largest single religious group, and Hizbollah is the most important party representing them—more prominent than Amal, the other major Shi'a party. So how can you keep Hizbollah out of the political process? His response was that the Shi'ites could have whatever representatives they chose, but only for the limited number of parliamentary seats that were designated for Shi'ites decades ago, and that that number shouldn't be increased to reflect population changes.

"Let's say you and I start a business," he said, "and we split the shares 50-50. If I have four children and you have one, that doesn't mean my children should get 80 percent of the shares."

That didn't, and doesn't, strike me as a compelling description of a representative government, but I have sympathy for Gebran's position. Politics is a zero-sum game everywhere, but especially so in Lebanon. The Christian population may or may not be shrinking, but it's certainly shrinking as a percentage of the total population. For reasons that are completely non-religious—economic, cultural, and (because Christians tend to be lax in religious observance) secular—that's an enormous loss. But the argument against that loss is completely untenable; it amounts to saying Christians should get special treatment because they're better or more civilized or something.

Gebran's phrasing of the problem of the Christian community in the most stark possible terms made him a problematic figure even for his allies in the general anti-occupation, pro-democracy movement. Here is how Charlie Sennott put it in his book The Body and the Blood: The Middle East's Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace:

His brash demeanor, his directness, and his frank advocacy of a continued Christian role in Lebanon prompted some to view him as sectarian and divisive. An Nahar published a special issue in January 1998, headlined "Halt the Exodus of the Christians of the Orient." Some members of Beirut's academic elite dismissed Gebran as a reactionary against the previous, well-reasoned generations of his family—a kind of postraodern, tribal Christian.

Ordinarily I'd spot that some observers indicated x setup as the worst kind of journalistic ventriloquism, but in this case I know it to be true: Gebran was too loose a cannon for many people, and in fact one of his friends and supporters once told me, "His problem is that he's mentally sick." Given his personal history, I don't know that I'd hold his eccentricities against him, however, and he put a sharp point on a touchy subject—that the danger to Lebanon's future as a free country overlaps in important ways with the uncertain future of its Christian plurality. His murder and the gloating of his enemies demonstrate that the danger is deadly serious.

I wrote about the pressures on Iraq's Christians a few years back.