What Does NY's Lebanese Community Think About the 'Compassion Gap' After Beirut and Paris?

Arlene Yammine, a New York native living in Texas, has added a Lebanese-flag filter to her Facebook profile.
Arlene Yammine, a New York native living in Texas, has added a Lebanese-flag filter to her Facebook profile.
Via Facebook

Antoine Mourad lived in France for seven years, so the recent Paris attacks hit close to home. Mourad, who manages an Upper West Side eatery that specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine, is originally from Lebanon. He followed the November 13 attacks in Paris on television and the internet. He also had heard about the events of the previous day, when his hometown of Beirut was attacked by a pair of suicide bombers. A total of 43 were killed and more than 200 were injured, making it the deadliest such attack in Mourad's native country in 25 years. But while most well-intentioned Americans were scrambling to incorporate the French-flag filter to their Facebook profiles, Mourad was still trying to figure out what was happening back home.

“No one talked about Beirut,” Mourad says, sitting behind the bar folding napkins early in the afternoon. “I heard about it on Arabic news and from my family. That’s it.”

Mourad says he doesn’t know whether to feel sad or angry at the short shrift Beirut’s bombing has thus far received in the news and on social media. Mostly, he’s resigned himself to the country of his heritage being an afterthought.

“Nobody cares, and that’s just how it is,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t think that will change.”

Amid the worldwide solidarity for Paris, and American news organizations’ expansive coverage of the ISIS attacks that left more than 120 people dead there, the related act of terror just the day before in Beirut has received comparatively less attention — from the American public and media outlets alike.

Many in the press have already begun defending the coverage. A recent story on Vox contended that the media “has, in fact, covered the Beirut bombings extensively,” and others have echoed this claim: It’s been in the news — it’s just that Americans didn’t care to read about it.

But while the pundits continue to weigh in with criticism — or defense — of this overlooked story, we've heard very little from Lebanese people living in the U.S. on how they feel the attack on their homeland has been received by the American news and social media.

“Many Lebanese people living here weren’t immediately informed of the attack [in Beirut] by American media, about what exactly happened and why,” says Lina Beydoun, executive director of the Lebanese American University’s New York Academic Center. “Three Lebanese Americans from Michigan were killed in the bombing, but no one mentioned it except for local news outlets in the area. Media coverage raced to identify the American victims of the Paris attack. How come they didn’t report on the American victims of the bombings in Lebanon? That, in itself, is sad.”

Aside from a few Arabic-language news outlets, only the Detroit News and a handful of other local southeastern Michigan news outlets covered the deaths of the three Dearborn residents in Lebanon. Two were a married couple who left behind an injured three-year-old.

Beydoun believes class and religion are factors in the lack of coverage — an unfortunate reality that she says too often affects Western perceptions of the Middle East. The Beirut bombing was in an economically challenged, predominantly Shiite area of the Bourj el-Barajneh region of southern Beirut, while the Paris attacks were carried out in high-profile neighborhoods of a largely secular "global city." 

“I know people in Lebanon came together and mourned, responding in a very unified way,” says Beydoun. “Schools were closed, as well as other institutions. I also know the Lebanese living here emotionally reacted to it, but there’s a sense of isolation rather than community.”

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She adds: "The attack on Paris was seen as an attack on the West, as opposed to what happened in Beirut — seen mainly as a crime carried out by terrorists in a place where there’s always war."

One major factor behind this so-called "compassion gap" may not be racism or religion, says Delia Baldassarri, professor of sociology at NYU. Instead, she suggests, Americans and many Western nations simply have more obvious social and cultural connections to France. She explains that the sympathy lavished upon Paris in the aftermath of the attacks is partly attributable to an emotional involvement with that area of the world.

“There appears to be less widespread of a connection with the Middle East, and I think both horrific attacks should be shared equally on social media, but the reality is media as a whole doesn't lend equal importance to them,” Baldassarri says. “It's very apparent that the reaction and the coverage of Beirut has been incomparable to Paris — even though both tragedies are very comparable.”

Lately, the Lebanese community is finding its own way to bond, while bringing attention to the senseless violence, by joining in what’s become a ubiquitous display of solidarity — a Facebook filter that superimposes the Lebanese flag onto profile pictures.

“I Googled to find a Lebanese filter, and it came up,” says Arlene Yammine, who grew up in upstate New York before moving to Texas a year ago. “There shouldn’t be selective visibility for victims of these attacks. Where’s the [filter] option for Lebanon? Kenya? The other countries targeted by terrorism?”

Standing behind the bar at the restaurant, Mourad says that he’s not active on social media and that there aren’t many Lebanese around to talk with him about the tragedy. He longs for a tighter community — and for the summer, when he plans to take his annual trip to visit family in Lebanon. But for now, he’s left to think about it on his own.

“I feel down sometimes,” he says. “Even if terrorist attacks happen more in the Middle East than anywhere else, we all see innocent people dying, we all feel the same pain.”


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