We Do Not Want Martyrs of Freedom Expression

Ammar Mamoun

Multiple apologies for jokes and domestic violence carry the shades of defeat and push us towards defending the obvious. Theaters, known for their playful qualities, have become dangerous for performers and goers. Is there no place for a joke about the all-knowing God who does not know who knocked his door? Or a space to sway to the words of Maha Abdel Wahab’s “ ‘A Shfafi Marmagh Shanabatak (I Can Taste Your Mustache on My Lips)? ”

Lebanese comedian Nour Hajjar was detained in Beirut for an old joke he made, accused of “insulting religious sentiments.” The streets of Lebanon ignited with chants of protest, and demonstrators gathered in front of the military police headquarters, chanting: “Oh soldiers, who are you guarding? Oh soldiers, here you are policing the poor crowds!”

Nour Hajjar was released at night after having been arrested in the morning. Suddenly, the next day, everyone was shocked to find Hajjar issuing an apology, after he and his family had been sent death threats. In the statement, he affirms his “respect for all religious beliefs.”

The way this apology was written shows that it is clearly a product of intimidation and fear. In other words, it implies, “do not joke, or else you will be threatened. If you make a joke (or “insult” as it has been called for years), you must apologize.” We are facing a terrifying situation when it comes to freedom of expression, one that requires us to be radical in discussing it. Unfortunately, the “apology series” doesn’t stop here.

A video recently surfaced of a husband shooting his wife in Tripoli’s Tabbaneh area. This entire ordeal was caught on surveillance camera, and the video shows her jumping to avoid the bullets that could have killed her son. The story spread, sparking controversy and anger about domestic violence. Afterward, the husband and his wife appeared in a video, where she apologized for “leaving the house without his permission.”

Similarly, a video recently emerged of Solwan Momeka’s brother apologizing to Muslims and dissociating himself from his brother, who had burned the Quran in Copenhagen. The Danish government was forced to issue an apology and attempt to enact a law to criminalize “inappropriate use of religious symbols.” This is in addition to the dozens of videos in which residents of southern Dahieh apologize to Hassan Nasrallah after insulting him in moments of anger.

Defeat and coerced apologies

The format of these apologies, which come directly after threats have been made, resemble forced confessions or confessions made under duress, extending to those who express their opinions, whether satirical, critical, or mocking. Regardless of our stance on what they say or do, whether it’s a bad joke or the burning of a book, it seems that these are “sins” that are equal in the face of anger and fear over religious sensitivities, whether they concern sacred beliefs or a household authority.

This form of apology suggests that freedom of expression or even complaints against domestic violence can be let go to protect the feelings of those who are angry and ready to “act.” Among these angry people are also those who uphold public morals. For example, the manager of the Lebanese singer Sarah Zakaria apologized for the phrase “son of sixty dogs” that she used to open her famous song “Ta’i Netjawaz bel Ser (Let’s Get Married in Secret)” during a concert in Egypt, and her singing license was subsequently revoked.

There is something that provokes anger in what is happening. We can also discern the signs of broken hearts and fear on the faces of those who apologize. It is similar to the faces of those who were forced by the Syrian regime to “confess” on public channels to charges of dealing with terrorist groups. Such confessions are merely for the sake of survival, and as for the apologies, they are simply said to fend off danger and threats. In other words, what we witness in these situations is not an apology as much as it is a triumph of the power of authority, religion, and angry masses that claim morals and religion. [They] are ready to threaten anyone who disagrees with them, even with a joke.

An apology is supposed to be an acknowledgment of guilt by those who apologize and an affirmation of the end of anger or sorrow of people who were harmed by these actions. It should create a balance of power between the two parties, especially since we are not dealing with crimes against humanity but rather with jokes and foolishness. However, those who apologize in these situations are weak. They confess to save themselves, not to defend their position or resolve the issue but to avoid it. Those who apologize in these contexts face digital and real crowds that defend and protect what they can simply ignore. 

These apologies make an unfair confession of “guilt” that was not originally guilt, but rather a perspective that turned into guilt as a result of the excessive sensitivities of the powerful, the religious, the patriarchy, and those who fear for their morals.

This unjust confession soothes the anger of the accusers and the mockers. It makes us wonder: Can a joke really shake someone’s faith? Hasn’t their faith been shaken by corruption and theft?

The radical defense of freedom of expression

Taking the conversation on apologies and looking towards the current political arena, sabwe find ourselves facing anger and threats targeting freedoms. We, who have the “luxury” of distance from the grip of the regimes we fled, are preoccupied with trivial matters and the violation of basic rights. Meanwhile, killings and corruption persist. We are compelled to defend our right to express ourselves through clothing, play, and speech, while political prisoners in Egypt die, Riad Salameh remains unchallenged, and Hezbollah threatens Lebanon’s security in the buffer zone with Israel. However, none of this seems to matter, and it doesn’t provoke anyone’s anger. Yet for some reason, none of this matters. On the contrary, a simple joke sparks outrage, and the burning of a Quran by a militiaman affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces is seen as more dangerous than anything else.

There is no room here for boasting by those who have apologized. Entering a battle that could cost one’s life is intensely personal, and in the equation of apology or death, the right to apologize and live is not up for debate. No one wants martyrs of freedom of expression. However, at the same time, there is an incessant need for radicalism in defending this right, as spaces for words, complaints, mockery, and humor are gradually narrowing. Take the case of the woman who apologized after being shot; she has no place to direct blame or accusations. Should we reconcile and apologize to the point of erasing our right to say what we want or what offends us?

It is clear that the judicial institution in Lebanon is ignoring death threats, instead focusing its accusations on jokes. In Iraq, the anger of “Muslims” is poured onto a Quran to protect it from being burned. Unions for the arts in Egypt rush to stop anything that threatens “morality.” The situation is tragic, or rather not: a tragedy assumes an ending. We are in the midst of a war with no clear fronts, better yet, its fronts are expanding. This campaign against rights is akin to undermining the last remnants of the Arab Spring, the right to shout, mock, and speak freely.

The crisis of apologies and the judiciary

The multiple apologies in their various forms carry shades of defeat, especially since defending freedoms is a threat to life. At the same time, no one can be pushed towards death for the sake of a word. So, what do we do? Should we republish all the jokes that insult divine figures or all the songs that touch upon ethics? There is no definitive answer, but what can be said with a heavy heart is that we are victims twice—victims of threats and victims of the “apology.” Apology turns anyone who “angers” religious and cultural authorities into a lesson: stay silent, or the judiciary and mobs will come after you.

Icons and “martyrs” of freedom of expression have not changed anything. Prisons remain crowded, comedians are afraid, satirists are threatened, and those who provoke religious sensitivities remain the same. But all of them have the right to speak and be foolish. Here, the choice is left to us: do we apologize and remain silent, or do we confront the threats?

They want us to hide our faces and names, and even play spaces, represented by the theater stage, have become dangerous. Is there no place for a joke about the all-knowing God who doesn’t recognize those who knock on His door? Or a space to sway to the words of Maha Abdel Wahab’s “ ‘A Shfafi Marmagh Shanabatak (I Can Taste Your Mustache on My Lips)?”

لتصلكم نشرة درج الى بريدكم الالكتروني