Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar for a conversation about the complex situation in the Middle East and various myths about the region that permeate the global leftosphere. The conversation was recorded for the podcast of Chicago DSA, the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
Western leftists would do themselves a favour by listening carefully to the Syrian leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh. In this interview with Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham, first published at the Intercept, Yassin discusses leftist misconceptions as well as Islamism, secularism, intervention, the ‘Palestinization’ of Syrians and the ‘Israelization’ of the Assad regime.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh has lived a life of struggle for his country. Under the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, he was a student activist organizing against the government. In 1980, Saleh and hundreds of others were arrested and accused of membership in a left-wing political group. He was just 19 years old when a closed court found him guilty of crimes against the state. Saleh spent the next 16 years of his life behind bars.
“I have a degree in medicine, but I am a graduate of prison, and I am indebted to this experience,” Saleh said, sitting with us in a restaurant near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Now in his 50s, with white hair and a dignified, somewhat world-weary demeanor, Saleh, called Syria’s “voice of conscience” by many, has the appearance and bearing of a university professor. But he speaks with passionate indignation about what he calls the Assad dynasty’s “enslavement” of the Syrian people.
Saleh was living in Damascus in 2011 when Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.
From painful firsthand experience, Saleh knew the cost of challenging the Assad regime. But when the uprising started, he did not hesitate to join it. He left home and spent the next two years in hiding, helping Syrian activists organize their struggle.
By late 2013, Syria had descended into anarchy. The conflict between the government and a range of opposition forces had become increasingly militarized. Like many other activists for the revolution, Saleh was forced to flee across the border to Turkey. That same year, armed groups in the Damascus suburbs kidnapped his wife, along with three other activists. ISIS kidnapped his brother in 2013. Neither has been heard from since.
Saleh is now among the millions of Syrians living in Turkey as refugees. He travels the country helping to train Syrian writers and activists in exile, while writing and speaking about his country’s plight. As a leftist, he has also been a vociferous critic of a growing international consensus that has come to see the Syrian conflict in Bashar al-Assad’s terms — as a fight against terrorism.
Our interview with Saleh is presented below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Tunisia has been very dear to my heart since I went there in the spring of 2013, just two years after its uprisings, an event that shook the world. Although I’ve not been back in the three years since that memorable visit, I’ve followed Tunisian events with great interest from afar. I was thus thrilled to have the opportunity to interview the Tunisian scholar Nadia Marzouki when she was in Denver last month.
The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.
The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.
First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.
And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.
In the Arab world, the public declaration of religious disbelief is as taboo as the open profession of homosexuality. Publically-declared atheists and agnostics can wave goodbye to social respect, marriage prospects, even legal recognition. Yet a 2012 poll in Saudi Arabia – a state whose legal system equates atheism with terrorism, and which potentially applies the death penalty to apostates – found that 19% described themselves as ‘not religious’ and a further 5% as atheists.
In his new book “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East” (soon to be translated into Arabic as ‘Arab bala Rab’) journalist Brian Whitaker interviews activist and quietist unbelievers from around the region, and investigates the pressures ranged against them. Most usefully, the book provokes a question – how can a revived Arab secularism (freed from the taint of the so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships) provide a future in which the rights of religious majorities as well as unbelieving or sectarian minorities will be respected and strengthened?
Demands to believe and submit go far beyond religion. Whitaker quotes sociologist Haleem Barakat, who noted that, like God, the Arab head of state and the Arab family patriarch require absolute respect and unquestioning compliance. “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.” (This is why ‘rab’ – which means ‘Lord’ rather than only the monotheist God – is as apt a translation as ‘Allah’ for the book’s Arabic title). So intellectual atheism is perceived as an attack on family and state, and on community solidarity. The contemporary politicisation of religious identity makes unbelief akin to treason in some minds; for this reason minority sects, dissenters and atheists are frequently seen as fifth columnists, agents weakening state and nation on behalf of foreign powers.
Identity politics in the region took on its modern forms with the building of centralised nation states. Nationalism itself was an assertion of a politicised cultural identity, first against the Ottomans, then against the European empires. For the new rulers of post-independence states, a fear of disloyal communities turned to a generalised rage for homogeneity – ‘the good citizen’, depending on where they found themselves, was to be an Arab, or a Muslim, (or a Turk, or a Jew) as imagined by the state. Many states standardised dress, dialect and worship.
The state’s top-down approach to culture is infectious. Opposition groups too, whether nationalist, leftist or Islamist, have sought to emulate the rulers by seizing control of the state apparatus and imposing their vision from above.
In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.
Everything’s burning from Libya to Iran. I’m working on fiction, so not responding except in Facebook bursts. Here are a few status updates, starting with today’s:
A year ago Assad’s fascist regime sprayed sarin gas over the Damascus suburbs, killing over 1400 men, women and children in five hours. Hundreds more died from the effects in the following weeks. Obama had given Assad effective permission to use tanks, artillery, missiles and war planes against the Syrian people (and had ensured that the people remained unarmed), but made large-scale chemical attacks a ‘red line’. We soon saw that the red line meant nothing. An alliance of the British Labour Party, Tory back benchers, UKIP, the BNP, the US Congress and the Tea Party helped Obama step away, and to hand the Syria file to Putin’s Russia – the same power arming the criminal. So the genocide continued, and continues, to the mood-music accompaniment (in the liberal-left press) of absurd conspiracy theories, racist slanders, and willed deafness to the voices of those suffering.
(On absurd conspiracy theories, read this. And here is one of the best accounts of the Syrian revolution and counter-revolutions I’ve read.) It would be great if the US were really ‘withdrawing’ from the region, as some claim Obama is doing, leaving the people there to solve their problems independently. But Washington is not withdrawing – it continues to back the murderous coup junta in Egypt, and the Israelis as they pummel the refugees in the Gaza ghetto yet again for no more than psycho-symbolic reasons. Washington actively prevented states which wanted to aid the Syrian resistance from providing serious weapons. The result is the Islamic State (or ISIS) phenomenon – also provoked by Malki’s Iran-backed sectarianism in Iraq, and the US occupation and sanctions beforehand, and Saddam Hussain before that – and now American bombing runs in northern Iraq. Obama’s ‘withdrawal’ is as illusory as the Stop the War Coalition’s Putinesque ‘pacifism’.
In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.
Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.
Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.) Continue reading “Something Worse?”
I make some brief contributions to this Channel 4 News film on the apocalyptic resonances for both Muslims and Christians (some at least) of watching Damascus burn. I wish there’d been time to make the more important point: religion and myth add resonance to fighting and dying, but as in Northern Ireland or Palestine-Israel, the religious vocabulary is only a glittering sideshow to the real power dynamic. Al-Qa’ida franchises would be in Syria whether or not the Messiah were due to descend on a minaret of the Umawi mosque: because they turn up wherever there’s an opportunity, and Syria’s geographical and political centrality to the Arab-Muslim world is enough. In any case, such militias compose less than twenty percent of anti-Assad forces. Their influence has been vastly overblown, both by the right and by a left which embraces the very War on Terror discourse (terrorists, al-Qa’ida conspiracies) it resisted so loudly when used by Blair and Bush. The West doesn’t see a genocide, still less a living, breathing revolution, but only an even-matched war between Alawi-secularists and radical Salafists. It seems too late to change this fantastic illusion. The story seems set in the western mind. Just as Assad wants it.
This film was great fun to make, and it provides an interesting look at an interesting subject. But I worry about its context in the news bulletin. It necessarily highlighted the mad jihadist aspect, and it was followed by an interview with a neo-conservative on the dangers of radical Islamism. The problem as framed by the broadcast was clear: apocalyptic-minded Muslims were the problem. But the clear and present danger in Syria is the regime, the regime which is generating the trauma and extremism, the regime which is committing genocide. Once again that was lost. And we in general are lost, paddling about in superstructure, paying no attention to the base.
Like ‘armed gangs’, armed Islamists are one of the Syrian regime’s self-fulfilling prophecies. Most grassroots organisers and fighters are secularists or moderate Islamists, but the numbers, organisational power and ideological fervor of more extreme and sectarian Islamists are steadily rising. So why is the revolution taking on an increasingly Islamist hue? Here are some points in order of importance.
First, the brute fact of extreme violence. As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Not only is faith intensified by death and the threat of death, and by the pain and humiliation of torture, but tribal and sectarian identities are reinforced. We want to feel like we when in death’s presence, not like I, because I is small and easily erased. So in Syria at the moment many Sunnis are identifying more strongly as Sunnis, Alawis as Alawis, Kurds as Kurds, and so on. This is very sad and it immeasurably complicates the future task of building a civil state for all, but it is inevitable in the circumstances. The violence was started by the regime, and the regime is still by far the greatest perpetrator of violence, including aerial bombardment of villages and cities, and now the liberal use of child-killing cluster bombs.
Second, beyond patriotic feelings for Palestine and Iraq and an unarticulated sense that their government was corrupt, two years ago most men in the armed resistance were apolitical. Finding themselves having to fight, and suddenly entered onto the political stage, they search for an ideology within which to frame their exciting and terrifying new experience. At present, the most immediately available and simplest ideology on offer is Salafism. As well as for their stark message, Salafists are winning recruits because of their organisational and warfaring skills honed in Iraq and elsewhere, and because of their access to private funds from the Gulf. If this were the sixties, the revolutionaries growing beards would have had Che Guevara in mind (and if much of the ‘left’ in the world were not writing off the revolution as a NATO/Saudi/Zionist conspiracy, the left might have more traction). At present, Salafism is in the air. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the historical moment. And why were all these young men apolitical before the revolution? Why hadn’t they learned more of debate and compromise? Simply put: because politics was banned in Asad’s Syria.