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Commentary | On selective grief

Why some don’t receive Principal Fortier’s condolences

Principal Fortier,

November 13, 2015 will unfortunately be remembered as a day of atrocities for years to come. This date marked the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of 129 innocent civilians and injured 368 more. The same day, we, two Lebanese students, were surprised to receive an email personally sent from you to all McGill students and staff, in which you offered your deepest condolences to the people of France and expressed your sincerest sympathies to French students and staff at McGill who might have been affected by these attacks. While we greatly appreciate this kind gesture in support of our fellow French McGillians, and while we also stand in solidarity with these individuals, we were disappointed that you have continuously failed to express the same kind of support for students affected by similar attacks in the Middle East, including two that occurred just hours before the Paris attacks.

The recent surge in xenophobia and Islamophobia around campus and throughout the world following these attack alarms us. Anyone who has been online in recent days can attest to the increase in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments, whether within Quebec, the rest of Canada, or the ‘West’ in general. For instance, a post was recently made on the Facebook page Spotted McGill in which an anonymous student stated that Canada should turn Syrian refugees away. A mosque was set ablaze in Peterborough, Ontario, just a few days after the Paris attacks. Muslim women were harassed in the Toronto subway, and a viral video posted on TVA showed a man threatening to kill Arabs across Quebec. Hence, we felt compelled to address a few points you missed in your email. Not acknowledging that innocent deaths do not only happen within a Western context is a tacit and passive approval of this anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment.

Forty-three people in Beirut had perished at the hands of suicide bombers just the day before, and 26 others had been murdered in Baghdad in a similar attack just a few hours prior to the ones in Paris. All of these attacks have a common perpetrator and a similar aim: to instill terror. Yet, there was no mention in your email of these Lebanese victims who had their lives violently taken away from them, nor were the murdered Iraqis acknowledged. Perhaps you were not aware of the Beirut and Baghdad attacks at the time your email was sent out, but we doubt this was the case when you gave similarly narrow condolences at the November 18 Senate meeting. While brown and Black lives were claimed in the Paris attacks, France is a Western, predominantly white country, which accounts for the severe discrepancy in media coverage; as such, your email simply echoed the message perpetuated by mainstream media that white lives matter infinitely more than brown lives. White lives get to be acknowledged in emails sent on behalf of principals, while brown lives are merely seen as collateral damage, not worthy of mention.

You can imagine our frustration when Facebook came up with a French flag overlay that users could apply to their profile pictures to show solidarity with France. Where were the Lebanese and Iraqi flags? People living in the ‘East’ are dehumanized to such an extent in Western society that their lives are not even seen as deserving of our sympathies. The Facebook “Safety Check” feature, even, was only applied to the French attacks. According to Alex Schultz, Facebook’s Vice President of Growth, “During an ongoing crisis, like [a] war or [an] epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people, because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly ‘safe.’” Lebanon is not, infact, at war or undergoing an epidemic. Clearly, the perception is that in some places, violence is perpetual, and so affording these places the same generosity as that afforded to ‘safer’ places is futile.

This lack of sympathy for brown lives sends the message that Middle Easterners are threats to people in the West, and thus do not deserve to be mourned.

Apologists try to excuse this mode of thinking by saying that these kind of tragedies happen more often in the Middle East. This orientalist presumption perpetuates the idea that this region is inherently violent, and that Middle Easterners are, by extension, dangerous people; the violence inflicted on them is somehow perversely justified. The desensitization to violence in the Middle East, which is widespread throughout the McGill community, is indicative of the racist and dehumanizing ideas that individuals hold regarding our peoples. Furthermore, even if this type of violence has happened around you before, you do not get used to the fear that your family or friends have been harmed, or to the fact that this does not seem to matter to most of the people around you at McGill.

As a university with a considerable number of Lebanese and Iraqi students, both nationals and diaspora members, it’s not too much to ask for a simple sentence acknowledging these deaths that happened within the same 24 hours as the Paris attacks. It is telling that there have been many terrorist attacks in previous years, but not once did we get an email from you, the principal, expressing your condolences for the victims and those affected – except when it came to France, a ‘developed’ Western country, after both the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks.

There are Syrian students at McGill, yet they receive no email when their towns are being shelled every day. There are Iraqi students at McGill, yet they received nothing when their country lost 26 to attacks in Baghdad on the same day as the Paris attacks. There are Turkish students at McGill, yet there was no email when a suicide bomber killed 97 people in Ankara. There were no emails when thousands of Palestinians lost their lives two summers ago in one of the most brutal attacks the Middle East has seen in years. Do we, Lebanese students at McGill, not deserve the same email that you sent out right after the Paris bombings? This lack of sympathy for brown lives sends the message that Middle Easterners are threats to people in the West, and thus do not deserve to be mourned.

As much as our colonial university would have us believe, violence is not essential to the Middle East. We are taught politics and development from a Western viewpoint, a viewpoint that essentializes the differences between the Global North and the Global South: the North as a permanent place of peace and prosperity and economic wealth, the South as a place of constant conflict, oppression, and poverty. The fact of the matter is, these things should not be happening in the first place. Daesh (also known as ISIS) should not be bombing Beirut or funeral processions in Iraq. It should not be killing innocent people in the Levant, or bombing Paris. The difference in perception between the bombings that Daesh took responsibility for in the Middle East and the ones in Paris is that bombings in the Middle East are perceived to happen every day, so when they become frequent it seems to some that it is supposed to be this way. These things are happening because of circumstances that are completely out of our control. That does not mean our lives matter less because the Middle East is a ‘volatile’ area.

We are not Shia, we are not from Burj el-Barajneh – the neighbourhood where the attack took place – and we cannot even begin to imagine how horrible people in south Beirut feel, those who are the most impacted. But we are Lebanese, and when an attack on our country is dehumanized in the mainstream media, and the principal of the university we pay tuition to does not even bother acknowledging that another bombing that claimed the lives of some 43 innocent civilians in Beirut happened only hours before the Paris attacks, we are going to get angry and we are going to be loud.


Ralph Haddad is a U3 Joint Honours Middle East Studies and Women’s Studies student. Nadine Tahan is a U3 Arts student. To contact them, email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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