Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 February 2020

Shaming the dead: Saudis forced to defend relatives killed in Istanbul nightclub attack

Across the region, the families of those killed in the Reina nightclub on New Year have had to endure public judgement on the choices of their loved ones. But in Saudi Arabia in particular, the attack sparked a fierce debate .
Men carry the coffins of Saudi victims who were killed in an attack on the Reina night club on New Year's eve in Istanbul, upon their arrival to the Jeddah international airport on late January 2, 2017.  / AFP / Amer Hilabi
Men carry the coffins of Saudi victims who were killed in an attack on the Reina night club on New Year's eve in Istanbul, upon their arrival to the Jeddah international airport on late January 2, 2017. / AFP / Amer Hilabi
ABU DHABI // When Hussam Al Jifri lost his brother in the New Year terrorist attack in Istanbul, he thought the pain of his suffering could not get any worse.

But then came the torrent of judgement, condemnation and abuse over why a Muslim, especially a Saudi, should have been enjoying himself at a nightclub.

"It's as if we have had to mourn his loss twice," said Hussam, whose brother Wissam was killed when the ISIL terrorist opened fire inside the Reina complex.

"Once the day I was hounded by the news as I sat with my mother at the hospital, and a whole other level of sadness and anger the day we started reading people's heartless comments about the way their lives ended and how they don't deserve to be called martyrs because they were at a club."

Wissam, 48, from Jeddah, was one of seven Saudis killed in the massacre which took place in the early hours of the New Year. In total 39 people were killed, with most of the victims coming from Arab countries including Lebanon, Jordan and Morocco.

Across the region, the families of those killed have had to endure public judgement on the choices of their loved ones.

Debates raged on social media and in the comment sections under almost any story on the massacre, whether in Arabic or English.

But in Saudi Arabia the scrutiny and commentary over the deaths of seven nationals in a venue which, like may of Istanbul's nightspots, sold alcohol, reached fever pitch.

Most of the criticism came on social media platforms, but also at Friday sermons at local mosques and under almost every online news story in regional publications.

One comment beneath an Al Arabiya story read: "Why do we call them martyrs? Is it because they were murdered? So we call them martyrs and the people who fight in Palestine and Iraq martyrs. are they the same?

Another comment on the Arabic Sabq newswebsite read: "What a way to go. Lets pray such isn't our ending, partying in Europe."

The bodies of the Saudi victims were flown home on Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to Jeddah and Medina airports. Al Jifri and one other victim, Lubna Ghaznawi, were buried in Mecca.

As soon as their coffins were met by families and officials, which was broadcast live on Saudi television, their deaths were surrounded by commentary.

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Read more:

. Lebanese survivor played dead to survive Istanbul rampage

. The Saudi victims of the Istanbul New Year attack

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Some of the debate focused on whether Reina was a nightclub or restaurant, whether the victims were martyrs or not, and even whether it was appropriate to say "Allah yirhamhom" - Arabic for "may God have mercy on their souls". Other commentators were harsher, saying it was shameful to die at a nightclub where alcohol, free mixing and music prevail, and some even said the victims deserved it.

"While I am against slandering the dead, I think it's a step too far calling them martyrs. They were, after all, at a club," read one comment under an article on the AJ+ news website. It prompted a furious response. "100 alcohol drinkers are better than a murderer," one person replied.

The mourning families were forced to defend their dead relatives.

Hussam took to several mainstream Saudi publications and channels to rebut the criticism and call on people to show respect for the victims' families.

"My brother went to Istanbul to buy a house and finish off business he had there. He was at Reina with his wife and his five-year-old son," he said. "How can it be an X-rated nightclub when there is a play area for children at the restaurant?"

He said Wissam and his family were at one of the four restaurants inside the three-storey Reina complex, which also includes bars and dance floors looking across the Bosphorus.

Wissam's wife had gone to the toilet with their son Hassan and found several people in the bathroom, with "fear and terror written all over their faces" after fleeing the attacker, Hussam said.

She stayed there with her son until Turkish security forces arrived. As she was led from the scene, she saw her husband's body from afar. Later, officials took her to the morgue to identify his body.

"Can you imagine what it will be like for my nephew to Google his father when he's older and find all this written about how he shouldn't have been where they were when he died?" asked Hussam.

The Saudi government and some religious figures stepped in to try to quell the backlash against the victims.

Salman Odah, a cleric with more than 11 million followers on his Twitter account, appeared on several local channels and publications to condemn the tone of the debate.

He told Saudi magazine Sayidaty that Reina was a decent, well-reputed restaurant at a strategic location frequented by Saudis.

"Regardless of whether the attack took place a nightclub, market, hotel or mosque, Muslims are obliged to only mention the merits of the dead in conformity with a Prophet's hadith," he said.

He also said that any conjecture over whom God would or would not forgive would disqualify the deeds of the person judging.

Saleh Al Maghamsi, the imam of the Quba Mosque in Medinah, also objected to the criticism of the victims. He appeared on the kingdom's religion channel, Iqra, watched by millions around the region, to discuss whether prayers of mercy could be sent to the dead and support Sheikh Odah's view that speculating on their status in the afterlife was not permissible in religion.

Ibrahim Al Moaeyqel, a spokesman for Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry, condemned the social media comments at an event about information security. He said those killed were in Istanbul as tourists or businessmen and said it was unethical to label the dead.

Khaled Maeena, a former editor-in-chief of the Saudi English-language newspapers Arab News and Saudi Gazette, railed against other religious figures who promoted the view that the victims were to blame for the deaths.

"While Jeddah was drowned in mourning as the bodies landed at King Abdulaziz International Airport, the usual suspects started spreading their venom, some going as far as to say they deserved what happened to them for going to such a place and imitating the West," he wrote in the Arabic Makkah newspaper after the attack.

"Islam is innocent and has no place for the merciless who engage in slander," he told The National.

Judgement of the victims was not confined to Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, a man was arrested two days after the attack for insulting those killed on Twitter.

Ramzy Al Kadi, who claims on his Twitter page to be have studied archaeology at the American University of Beirut, tweeted that the victims were not martyrs after dying "intoxicated partying with fraud money".

In Jordan, 12 people are to be prosecuted for posting comments against the Jordanian victims of the attack, the state news agency said earlier this month. Turkish officials said they were investigating more than 300 social media accounts for similar comments.

"I don't know why people even talk about such things," said Lebanese survivor Francois Al Asmar, 29, who was shot in the arm and survived by playing dead. "It was a decent place. No one was doing anything wrong."

He said he had actually gone to the Reina expecting to party, only to find a sedate atmosphere.

"There was only music, seating and fancy food. I had actually gone hoping it was a nightclub and found no such ambience. The irony is that they judged us for being at a nightclub that essentially was just an overpriced restaurant."

After Turkish police captured the Reina gunman, Abdulkadir Masharipov, authorities said the Uzbek militant confessed to selecting his target at random after deciding against Taksim Square, illustrating that his victims could have been anyone, anywhere.

As Nicole Hajal, a TV presenter on the Lebanese channel LBCI, put it, "call them what you want - martyrs, victims, deceased - but if you blame them, you are with the perpetrator".

salsayed@thenational.ae?

Updated: January 30, 2017 04:00 AM

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