Here’s a snapshot from an article published this week in Salon.

You see the headline above, but they might as well have titled the article “Shiite-nappers” because the religion of the kidnappers seems to play a big role in the story as the assailants hail from “mostly” Shia areas, according to the reporter.

The 800 word piece is based largely on two interviews with two anonymous sources, ‘Hassan’ and his cousin ‘Ibrahim’ and hinges largely upon a Lebanese Army report covering the phenomenon:

A new report compiled by the Lebanese army and security forces claims to know of at least 37 active kidnappers, citing members of the country’s most notorious crime families.

The writer continues in the next line, adding a bit of context at the end: 

” The report says they operate out of “private lairs in their hometowns,” mostly in the Shiite areas of the country.”

It seems a logical conclusion from the above two consecutive passages that culprits have two factors in common. They are one: “members of the country’s most notorious crime families,” and two: operate from lairs located “mostly in the Shiite areas of the country.”

Are we then to conclude that Shiite villages house ‘the country’s most notorious crime families?’

The reporter’s investigation leads him to “one such lair” in a working class neighborhood in Beirut’s (predominantly Shia) southern suburbs, which he describes as:

“a dense warren of shacks, auto mechanic shops and cellphone stores.”

Interestingly, the terms “lair” and “warren” both have nefarious connotations and can also be defined as habitats for wild animals. I’m not suggesting the reporter was conscious of this, but he does seem to make some more blatant comparisons between the current government, which is dominated by a Hezbollah-allied coalition, and the work of kidnapping with the state appearing to be “reluctant” to launch a crackdown:

“For those with political cover, kidnapping — like other forms of criminality — has become a way of life. “

The piece is peppered with quotes from Hassan and his cousin, who say they engage in kidnapping only to make ends meet in a depressed economic environment. If the interviews are accurate, this could be an interesting insight into those involved in kidnapping activity.  

But the problem with anonymous interviews is they can never be challenged precisely because no one is mentioned by name. They are usually only accepted sparingly, in the context of named sources, in this case perhaps interviews with local officials, area organizations, experts, academics etc. But in dispatches from Lebanon, major publications often seem very willing to accept stories based entirely on un-named sources. 

But what if Hassan’s story checks out and why not mention that he is Shiite, and that Shiite villages are a source of this problem? It’s only accurate that the reporter “explain” this context to an international audience, a fellow blogger suggested when I voiced my concern over the description. 

Yet if a dire economic situation is blamed as a leading reason for the kidnapping, why is religion of any concern?

The reporter’s decision to mention religion reminds me of a period in American journalism in the early twentieth century when major newspapers felt compelled to mention race in reporting of African Americans activities as revealed in Pamela Newkirk’s book “Behind the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media

So for example instead of “John Smith was arrested today” early American papers would publish lines like “John Smith (black) was arrested today.” 

Just as race was not a necessary descriptor of events back then, I would argue that religion is not a necessary or even an accurate descriptor of criminal activity in contemporary Lebanon. 

However not only does this week’s Salon piece stereotype Shiites, it also makes some rather brash generalization about the Lebanese economy in general.

The author writes:

“Kidnapping for ransom is one of the few forms of economic activity to flourish here as the civil war in neighboring Syria cripples the tourism industry and erodes the authority of the state….”

I wonder what Lebanon’s many entrepreneurs and those involved in the surge in new start-up companies would have to say about that.

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