We grieve–many or most of us–with the citizens of Paris over the recent tragic assaults that have left so many dead and so many wounded. We also–some of us–grieve with the people of Beirut and Baghdad over the recent assaults there. All of these, we are given to understand, are the work of ISIS, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State.”
There have, however, been voices raised in Beirut (I haven’t heard of any from Baghdad) complaining that the deaths in Paris have been getting more attention in western media than the deaths in Beirut. Are Lebanese lives, they ask, of less importance or value or preciousness than French lives? Why are we not hearing from people in the west the way the people of Paris are? Is not Beirut, in fact, as it is sometimes styled, the Paris of the Middle East? Why this discrepancy? Is it in fact a form of racism?
I can sympathize with the people of Beirut who feel this way. However, there is a simple explanation, to my simple mind: and it is epitomized in the old expression “kith and kin.” This expression was used by Ian Smith, then PM of Rhodesia, when he called for British support for his UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence), which was an attempt, unsuccessful in the long run, to forestall African majority rule in what is now Zimbabwe. His appeal was based on his conviction, or hope, that because the white Rhodesians had relatives in the UK, they should be able to count on their support for resistance to the movement for majority rule.
I hope it will be clear that I am not holding up Ian Smith as a moral exemplar: but there is real meaning in the expression he used. Many of us in the west have a “kith and kin” feeling about Paris; few of us have a “kith and kin” feeling about Beirut. Many more of us have been to Paris than have been to Beirut. Many more of us have relatives and friends in France than we do in Lebanon. Lebanon is a multi-communal nation, with about a third of its people being Christian; France is historically a Christian nation (“the eldest daughter of the Church”), although its level of Christian belief and practice is now at a very low level, in the single digits. Even so, the image remains, and it is understandable (if not commendable) how Western Christians identify with post-Christian France in a way that they don’t identify with multi-communal Lebanon.
So it isn’t racism, in my view, as I have heard it called on the radio, that accounts for the difference in western response to Paris and Beirut. It’s familiarity, and acquaintance, and even some kind of family feeling. When Prime Minister Trudeau (what a relief it is to be able to type those words!) expressed the condolences of Canadians to the people of Paris, he used the expression “our French cousins.” Yes, folks: it’s kith and kin.