Robert Fisk: From Beirut to Damascus
by Romy Haber
Robert Fisk (71), a veteran Middle East reporter and author, died on 30 October 2020 in Dublin after a suspected stroke. Fisk was considered an expert on the troubled and dangerous region of the Middle East. He was famous, notably, for his work on Lebanon’s wars encapsulated in his famous book Pity the Nation (1990) and interviews with Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. His works served the anti-war movements and he won accolades for his fierce critic of US foreign affairs in the Middle East. For many in the media sector a journalist-hero has been lost. However, many in the Middle East remember him differently.
Fisk, having been brought in by Edward Said’s Orientalism had, similarly, the tendency to elevate pan-Arabist and pan-Islamist concerns above those of the Middle East’s many minority communities. His book, Pity the Nation — much praised by Western journalists — especially in the pre-internet era, does not impress Lebanese readers. It stands accused of whitewashing the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), while taking a tougher stand on Lebanese Maronites:
‘The Maronites brought the war down on their own heads. The first event of the civil war was a massacre of Palestinians by a group of phalangists trying to win power.’
This statement shifts the blame to Maronites, who did not want their country to turn into a playground for foreign militias and guerrilla warfare and who were tired of being harassed at checkpoints by Palestinian militiamen in their own country. A few hours before the massacre Fisk was referring to, the PLO tried to kill Christian leader, Pierre Gemayel, but failed and instead they killed two civilians and two Kataeb members.
Fisk’s historical accounting was often accompanied by derogatory remarks and he had no problem calling an ethno-religious group ‘stupid’ or even justify their killing. In one remark, Fisk said ‘Is it any wonder that the Hezbollah headbangers now want to kill them all?’ In reference to the Maronite Christian minority in Lebanon. Defending and downplaying the killing of a minority (Maronite in this case) by a terrorist organisation is never ethical, even if it was meant to be sarcastic.
After 2011, Fisk stood accused of concealing the Assad regime’s war crimes in Syria and downplayed his close ties to the Assad family. Reporting on the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s, Fisk called Hafez Al-Assad — the Syrian dictator who nurtured a cult of personality and mercilessly repressed dissent — as a ‘taciturn, mild man.’ Despite his bias, Fisk’s writings have been influential and helped shape perception of the region within the Western media and diplomatic communities. According to Roger Scruton, who also wrote a book on Lebanon, Fisk’s reporting at that time did much to ‘persuade the Western powers that Lebanon had to be relinquished to the “taciturn, mild man” who had ordered the death of its leading politicians and the massacre of its more inconvenient minorities.’
And, while many praised Fisk for his courage to work in dangerous zones, Scruton raises different questions:
‘…suppose Robert Fisk had written the truth about the Islamic militancy? which is now at work in Lebanon: would he have been able to reside comfortably in the Iranian capital? Suppose he had, over the years, writing the truth about the Syrian occupation: would he have been able to claim that special expertise which attaches – he hastens to inform us – to those who can travel freely ‘North of Baalbek’ (i.e. into the zone occupied for the past ten years by Syria)? Or suppose he had written the truth about the Palestinians, whose lawless cohorts roamed the countryside of Lebanon, tormenting Shi’ite and Christian alike, and driving thousands from their homes, long before the Israeli invasion: would he have been able to enjoy the comfort, along with so many other Western correspondents, of a West Beirut hotel owned by Palestinians?’
What Fisk called ‘getting close to the truth’ usually meant getting close to authoritarian regimes and their intelligence services. However, whitewashing the Syrian government’s massacres in Darayya, Eastern Ghouta, Douma and Khan Sheikhoun was the match to the powder keg and he denied some of the most heinous war crimes of the 21st century.
Of course, speaking ill of the dead is not the right path. Fisk made some very important contributions to unpacking some of the more pressing issues that grip the Middle East. He worked hard and acted as a source of inspiration for many people in the region—not least the Palestinians. So, despite the controversies, Fisk was an influential correspondent and it is a shame that his track-record is speckled and his legacy is tainted. While it is better to remember people for their positive achievements, since journalists write the first draft of history, it is history itself that judges them and on this Fisk’s work needs to be understood.