In a country where FM radio stations often play pop music as gun battles or massive protests rage in the streets, it was refreshing to hear a call-in show actually addressing current events on Fame FM this morning. Rather than ignore the army’s ongoing battle with militants in Arsal, Fame FM show “Hawa Beirut” opened its lines to listeners.
Many were angry, pledging absolute support for the army and offering to join a battle to “clean” the area of militants, who were often labeled as “dogs” or “heathens” by callers. In between calls, the host Sana Nasr (above) seemed to encourage this sentiment by playing loud triumphant music touting the army or romantic ballads waxing lyrically about the beauty of Lebanon.
Here are summaries of some caller comments:
“These are terrorists, these people don’t know God!”
“Our army is the strongest in the world, despite the lack of support.”
“Politicians need to start supporting the army now!”
“The army should remember it’s martyrs, their blood should be avenged!”
Most of these callers were young or middle-aged men. The host agrees with much of the praise but also challenges a few by underscoring the need to protect civilians and questioning assumptions that there is a conspiracy against Lebanon, that, according to one caller “people are always doing things to attack Lebanon.”
“I don’t know,” Nasr replied. “I think the Lebanese are doing a lot of things to Lebanon. It’s the Lebanese that are voting (for these leaders).
Another young man chimes in:
“I will tell you who is responsible–the president is commander in chief and he should take a very strong position supporting the army. But there is no president so next in command is the prime minister. The prime minister is a Sunni. No Sunni leader can hold his sect accountable. That’s why we have a Christian president.”
The host seems incredulous: “Really, is that so? Why don’t we wait to hear what the prime minster says before judging him.” (The prime minister actually came out in strong support of the army during a press conference a few hours later.)
Sounding exhausted, Nasr adds. “Can we end the show now? I don’t want to talk anymore. You call me and talk.”
Then an older woman called, sounding distraught.
“Lebanon will never lose! Lebanon is a country of saints. The Virgin Mary and Jesus will guide the army”
Another young man caller says his political party, the FPM, wanted to donate blood but the army didn’t accept donations from political offices. He asked for the host for help to convince them. Later another caller challenged this:
“Why does he have to announce his donations? Why does he have to politicize it. He should help without advertising himself or his party. Enough!” Another caller, an elder man, recites a poem about Cedars as a metaphor for the country’s strength and steadfastness. Nasr enjoys the poem and asks him to repeat it.
Finally a caller challenges some of the previous stereotyping.
“The army is not Sunni or Shia, it is Lebanese. We should not let a few bad guys make us demonize the whole town (of Arsal.)”
Then a caller living abroad weighs in.
“I spent 30 years of my life outside Lebanon. What I have to say is God bless the army. We need military rule in this country!”
At this point I had reached my destination and had to stop listening.
While some of the comments were disturbing, I think it is still important to give citizens a voice. Indeed it is a worrying time for many in Lebanon and many have resorted to panic and paranoia as a way of coping with the frequency of political violence. Instead of looking at the complications of geopolitics, it’s easier to find a boogie man to deposit indignant self righteousness and self gratification. But the reasons for the rise of such groups are many and even opposing parties may have had a role in encouraging their growth.
While Fame FM was right to give listeners a voice, was it right to set a jingoistic tone with battle cry music in between each call? Of course Fame is not alone. Last night, the news anchor at Al Jadeed donned a military uniform in support of the troops:
But do such gestures drive our understanding or just our passions? If the media is to provide a public service, it needs to take a step back and analyze events dispassionately to provide audiences with the most clear and useful information. What do the attackers say they want? What are they capable of? What is being done to stop them–what is not being done? What is the track record of state military actions during previous insurrections? Does bombing a town solve a problem? Can violence wipe away political allegiances and deep seated social grievances?
If support for the army is unconditional, where do citizens’ rights stand? How does a border village like Arsal cope with unprecedented refugees inflows, marginalization, constant violence and poverty? Unfortunately, the challenges facing this troubled town generate far less attention than its demonization, which had already begun over a year ago, as I reported at the time.
Should attacks on the military be taken seriously? Of course. But our reactions to those attacks may be equally informative and should also be taken very seriously.