BEIRUT: “Refuse to live in fear. Refuse to live a life where you may die a martyr. Refuse to live in violence. Add #notamartyr to ur tweets #Lebanon.”
The short message from a brand new Twitter account, @notamartyr, was probably seen by just a handful of people when it was first tweeted just before 7 p.m. on Dec. 30. A week later, the Lebanese online world was splattered with the hashtag #notamartyr, and the movement’s Facebook group had attracted nearly 5,000 likes.
“We began the initiative when a few of us got together after the Shatah bombing,” said one of the campaign’s co-founders, Muhannad, referring to the Dec. 27 killing of former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah and seven others.
“We were all pretty disturbed by it and wanted to find something to do.”
The result was a social media campaign that called on Lebanese across the world to post a message of what they wanted to change about the countryalong with the hashtag #notamartyr. Sparked by a series of deadly car bombs and tapping into long-standing frustrations with Lebanon’s many irregularities, the movement soon went viral – particularly among the younger generation.
At first, people posted messages decrying the rise in senseless, sectarian violence. But the movement quickly widened to include people speaking about other struggles they face.
“I want the right to take my mom’s nationality,” tweeted one woman.
“I don’t want to constantly feel like leaving,” posted another on the “I am NOT a martyr” Facebook page along with a picture of her Lebanese passport.
In one of the dozens of selfies uploaded to Facebook, Hamed Sinno ofindie-pop band Mashrou’ Leila holds up a note in Arabic saying: “I want to hold my boyfriend’s hand without being afraid of the police.”
But on top of giving people a visible, albeit temporary, outlet to express their frustrations, the idea was also to stop the label “martyr” being applied to people who, rather than willingly dying for a cause they believed in, were simply unwitting victims of violence.
The word is “overused,” said Muhannad, and just covers up the brutal fact that “the [dead] person was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Our problem with the word is not in those cases when someone wishes for themselves to be a martyr,” he explained, “but when an innocent victim is appropriated by larger political forces through that word.
“It’s the appropriation that we don’t like, no one has died for any good reason in any of these bombings,” he added.
The other problem with the word, explains fellow blogger Gino Raidy, is that it can be used to absolve authorities of the responsibility they have to find and punish those behind attacks.
“The word ‘martyr’ used to have a certain respect attached to it,” he told The Daily Star. “But it’s now become an instant reaction to any death ... they are called a martyr so we move on, no investigation needed.”
But even as the campaign was gathering momentum, there were already those questioning whether the outpouring would change anything.
“People who are participating in the #notamartyr campaign are no more than nagging about their problems publicly,” Mohammad Hijazi, editor of Cloud961 magazine, told The Daily Star by email.
“Many times when people interact or engage with a social media campaign relating to social change, they get the ‘good feeling’ that they have done a good deed when in fact their contribution doesn’t really result in a tangible solution.”
Others suggested something good could come of it, so long as the organizers pushed forward with specific goals.
“At some point and sooner [rather] than later, this [online] momentum should be taken offline in a productive way to try and create a change,” said Mohamad Najem, co-founder of SMEX, an organization that trains groups on using social media strategically for social change.
“Aiming to change something small and work toward achieving this goal is more realistic than bigger goals.”
For Muhannad and his fellow organizers, the main aim was to fire up debate and spread the message that people who died in such attacks were victims, not martyrs. They held a candlelit vigil a few days after the Dec. 27 bombing, but are otherwise still considering their next step.
“We are in the midst of discovering how that momentum can be harnessed,” Muhannad said.