A summer of extremism: from Lebanon

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This summer may not have been the ideal time to do an internship in a Western embassy in the Middle East. Since ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ appeared on the internet, the whole region has erupted in anger, and the brunt of this has been levelled at symbols of the West – most notably embassies.  

The tragic death of the US Ambassador to Libya, along with 3 other US officials, signalled the beginning of a deadly wave of fury that has spanned the entire Islamic world from Indonesia to Morocco, resulting in the deaths of dozens and hundreds of injuries.

In Lebanon, where I have lived for a year, the elusive leader of the Shia militant group Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, called for protests up and down the country against what he called the ‘greatest insult’ to Islam the world has ever seen. The largest saw tens of thousands of angry Hezbollah sympathisers taking to the streets in the capital, Beirut, calling for ‘Death to America’ (the country where the offending film was produced), ‘Death to Israel’ (of course) and, somewhat more puzzlingly, ‘Death to Germany’.

Sadly, Lebanon was not spared the deadly violence and in the northern city of Tripoli, fatal clashes broke out around government buildings after a branch of KFC was set on fire and vandalised.

Given the circumstances, I should probably have been worrying for my life, and yet paradoxically, the local press heralded a new period of religious tolerance in the country.

Quite unrelated to the protests against the film, this ‘new era’ of improved Muslim-Christian relations was proclaimed after the Pope’s ‘Peace Mission’ to the Middle East. The mood in Beirut was electric as hundreds of thousands of worshippers swarmed to the sea front in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Pope-mobile. Some entered into what can only be described as a religious frenzy, laughing and swaying about and whilst muttering hymns.

But what made this visit so significant for Lebanon was not the effect it had on the Christian minority, but rather the Muslim population.

‘I’m so happy he’s here!’ shouted Ibrahim, a Muslim grocer who had travelled down from his small village above Beirut for the occasion. ‘Look how happy everyone is  – it has proved what Lebanon is about.’

And he was exactly right. Somehow the German octogenarian had brought people together, regardless of their religion or sect, proving the incredible coexistence that Lebanon has been famous for.

Whilst the rest of the region was burning, Hezbollah remained silent. Realising the significance of the Pope’s visit, and the danger of anti-West protests turning into anti-Christian ones, Nasrallah judged the situation perfectly and released a statement welcoming the Pope to Lebanon.

Then, a week later, after the Pope was safely back in the Vatican, he knew that a formal reaction to the film was expected of him, and so he gave a fiery speech calling for protests across the country. As is often the case with Hezbollah protests, they proved to be well-controlled and peaceful. Indeed, the only injuries recorded were the result of celebratory gunfire.

Lebanon has had a tough summer. With war waging across the border in Syria, the country was beset by a spate of kidnappings, dozens were killed in clashes in the North, and angry protesters caused havoc by continuously blocking roads with burning tyres.

But, contrary to what the media may make out, it is not inevitable that Lebanon will succumb to the violence that has shaken the rest of the Muslim world, and that which is devastating Syria. The tiny country has shown an incredible resilience and is still basking in the honey-moon of optimism that followed the Pope’s visit.

I never felt remotely unsafe being in the British Embassy in Beirut, or in the city more generally. Instead, whilst protests may have been staged across the country, I trusted that the authorities had the power to contain the anger, and channel it away from the sectarian lines that marble Lebanese society. Whilst these leaders agree that peace is better than war, Lebanon will hold on and weather the storm.

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