The Night of the Rainbow Raid: From Incitement to Action

2023-09-04    |   

The Night of the Rainbow Raid: From Incitement to Action
"Madame Om" after August 4 explosion, with a laughing Umm Kulthum's painting still hanging on the wall

On the night of August 23, members of the self-proclaimed “Soldiers of God” attacked a bar in Mar Mikhael, claiming to be combating the “promotion of homosexuality”, while it was hosting a drag show. The assailants targeted defenseless people in a place that had long been a safe space for them. They blockaded the patrons inside for over an hour, striking terror into their hearts and forcing them to hide like misbehaving children in need of discipline. The gang assaulted people outside in full view of the security forces – which failed to intervene – and then left threatening more to come.


The campaign of vehement incitement against sexual minorities was expected to generate acts of violence against them and their supporters. Who better than a Christian vice squad called “Soldiers of God” to undertake this task? This gang (whose members do not hide their connection to banker Antoun Sehnaoui, even if he rushed to deny it and dodge any responsibility for the bar incident) champions the fight against homosexuality and has conducted previous “rainbow raids”. Last year, it vandalized a billboard of rainbow-colored flowers celebrating pride month in June, and  it attempted to vandalize the Wounded Women visual art exhibit in October, held in support of breast cancer survivors, because some of the pieces bore rainbow colors. Most importantly, the slogans that the gang raises under the banner of religion intersect with those of the campaign of incitement unleashed this past June by the interior minister’s decision to ban gatherings of sexual minorities (the State Council suspended the decision in October, but the minister disobeyed the order) and then stoked by Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last July.


Hence, the bar incident cannot be separated from the ongoing campaign of incitement and the various tools it utilizes. Some – such as speeches, posts, bills, interviews, statements, and web brigades – are familiar. Others – such as calls encouraging individual initiatives to combat homosexuality – are novel.


Consequently, the Soldiers of God rushed to Om Bar Room in Mar Mikhael on that night, vested in the name of “God” himself with defending society from this “phenomenon” threatening it.


Details of the “Raid”


According to testimonies that witnesses shared with the Legal Agenda, the gang attacked Om Bar Room (formerly “Madame Om”) in Mar Mikhael during a drag show and would have managed to storm it had the workers not closed the entrance. The assailants filmed a video of part of their attack and their shouting. One can be heard saying, “This is a place of Iblis [Satan] promoting homosexuality. Promoting homosexuality is forbidden on the Lord’s land”. He then threatens, “We keep telling you. This is just the beginning. We’ve warned you a hundred times”. During the attack, they repeatedly shouted, “The Lord of the soldiers liveth, amen”, which is the gang’s main motto via which it always asserts that it is acting in God’s name.


The incident started when the workers noticed that someone outside had begun filming the bar after he saw the performers wearing women’s clothing, as this art form requires. They asked him to stop filming. He refused and called people, asking them to come immediately. Shortly thereafter, the patrons and workers noticed black-clothed people beginning to gather. Immediately, the show was ended to protect the audience and performers. Moments later, “reinforcements” arrived, and the group attempted to storm the bar. But the workers were too quick for them, closing the entrance. Witnesses say that closing the gate “prevented a massacre” as the attackers were “frenzied”, as described by everyone who saw them.


After the attackers were prevented from entering, they beat several people outside the bar. Four people suffered bruises and contusions, and one of them was taken to hospital. The assailants also filmed the people they assaulted. All the testimonies confirm that the whole incident occurred in the presence of the security forces (the Gendarmerie and State Security), who had been called by one of the patrons and arrived at the same time as the attackers. They acted as bystanders, not attempting to stop anyone from being assaulted or arrest any of the assailants. They also failed to secure the exit of the people inside the bar, according to witness testimonies. The gang blockaded the premises for over an hour, threatening, “acting macho”, and promising more.


The testimonies say that after the attackers left, the Gendarmerie entered the bar and interrogated the people present for over two hours. With their questions, they tried to determine why the gang had attacked the bar. “Instead of arresting the attackers and people who beat us, they entered searching for the reason we provoked the Soldiers of God and evidence that we committed something that warranted the attack”, says one witness.


After the incident, a report was opened in Nahr Police Station at the instruction of the Public Prosecution, according to security sources. However, so far, none of the assailants have been arrested.


The day after the attack, the bar issued a brief statement: “Addressing the unfortunate incident at Om Bar Room last night, we stand united, committed to creating a safe and welcoming space for all”. Condemnations were issued by some MPs, including Mark Daou‎, Ibrahim Mneimneh, Michel Douaihy, Firas Hamdan, and George Okais, who wrote on Facebook that “God doesn’t have soldiers; he has love and peace”.


Terror Inside


Inside the bar, the patrons experienced harrowing moments. “Terror” is the word that they repeat. “I will never forget the terror on their faces in my life”, says one. “People hid in the corners and bathrooms. Had the gateway remained open, a massacre would have occurred.”


Another says, “The attackers’ voices were terrifying. Their shouting was strange. They were frenzied, as though they had taken drugs before coming”. His friend responds, “Religion is the strongest drug”.


The worst of the terror was experienced by the two performers participating in the show and their assistants in a room external to the bar. According to Jad*, one of the assistants, “There was literally only a fabric curtain separating us from them, but they didn’t know we were there. Had they realized, I don’t know what would have happened. The drag [performers] were still dressed in their show clothes. We all stayed silent and sat on the ground so that they wouldn’t sense our presence. Those were true moments of terror. I felt like I was in a film and everything happening wasn’t real. When my friend’s phone rang, he crawled on the ground to shut it off”.


One of the performers, whose stage name is “Emma Gration”, told the Legal Agenda about those moments: “We put blankets over us so that they wouldn’t see us if they came in. We were trembling with fear. We heard their stomps nearby while just the curtain separated us from them. We understood that if they saw us while we were wearing drag clothes and makeup, things would have escalated further”.


He says that before the show, “There was hesitation and fear due to the prevailing hate campaign. But because the show was to be held in a safe place and in a street we also consider safe, and because in the history of drag there haven’t been any attacks, we didn’t back down”.


He adds, “The ruling class and corrupt ministers are today trying to erase the LGBTQ community via a systematic campaign. But we have existed for a long time and across the ages – we didn’t just appear today – so they can’t erase us. We will not be afraid because fear means that they have won. We will continue expressing ourselves because this is our right and they won’t take it from us”.


And Outside


Outside the bar, on social media, and in interviews the Legal Agenda held with people belonging to sexual minorities, the anxiety level was high. Some people expressed fear for this minority should the incitement and hate campaign continue.


“Today, I feel afraid. I feel that I must lower my voice, wear clothes not my own, and change the way I express myself. I am now more aware that anyone around me could be hostile to me. That thought wasn’t in my mind in this manner before”, says Georgina*.


Ola concurs, saying that the recent campaign makes her extremely afraid that people in Lebanon no longer tolerate differences. The incident strengthened this feeling: “In this country, sexual minorities have some spaces where they feel safe, where they can express themselves without fear. The targeting of one of these places will have a great impact on them. It sets them far back after they came a long way in overcoming their fear of expressing themselves”.


Most people with whom the Legal Agenda spoke while preparing this report mentioned the need for a counter discourse or narrative to reassure sexual minorities, especially in the absence of any accountability for the inciters or the perpetrators of the Mar Mikhael attack. Jad criticized the fact that this discourse is still absent even though the campaign has raged for months: “Where is the counterbalancing force? Who has our back?”. He says that the hate campaign is large and dangerous, it should not be quietly tolerated, and ignoring it is no longer acceptable.


Georgina, too, lambasts the absence of a counternarrative against the hate and incitement currently prevailing. She says that this absence increases this minority’s isolation and makes its members feel like they have been totally abandoned in the confrontation. Ola agrees that the lack of a cohesive and united discourse against the discourse of hate is unacceptable: “This does not appear to be a passing campaign. Clearly, it’s systematic, and ignoring it does not seem to be an effective tool. There must therefore be a counter discourse that makes this minority feel like they have backing”.


Soldiers of God Is an Illegal Phenomenon


Soldiers of God is a group that emerged in 2020 with the goal of “combating deviation from the Christian faith and fighting homosexuality and civil marriage”, as it says in most of the posts on its social media pages. Members wear black shirts bearing a logo composed of a shield with white wings and a red cross above an open Bible. They are believed to be funded and supported by banker Antoun Sehnaoui, despite his denial, as they held a large gathering in front of the SGBL bank and his photo appears in some of their posts.


The group is illegal under several Penal Code articles. Article 317 penalizes “any action, writing, or speech aimed at, or resulting in, the provocation of sectarian or racial tensions or incitement of conflict among the sects and various elements of the nation”. Article 318 metes out punishment to “anyone belonging to an association established for the purpose mentioned in the previous article”. Article 335 punishes “forming an association, or making a written or verbal agreement, with the intent of committing felonies against people or property or undermining the authority or prestige of the state”. Article 336 punishes the formation of an armed gang with the intent of attacking people. Article 329 punishes depriving Lebanese of their civil rights via pressure, intimidation, or any act of coercion.


Nevertheless, the minister of interior has neither taken action to disband this gang nor issued any statement or stance on bar attack. But how could that happen when the current minister was one of the first people to launch the battle against LGBTQ people, which he did via his decisions to ban their gatherings?


The bar under attack was established in 2011 in Hamra Street under the name “Madame Om”, which is what some French called [famous Egyptian singer] Umm Kulthum. The bar then relocated to Pasteur Street in Gemmayzeh where it overlooked the port. After extensive damage from the August 4 explosion made it impossible to restore, the bar relocated to Mar Mikhael under a new name: “Om”. Its owners say that Madame was killed in the blast while Om survived. They hope that she will survive again, this time from the hate campaign sweeping the country.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


*Pseudonym used.

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