Morbid Symptoms: A Conversation with Gilbert Achcar

Danny Postel and Gilbert Achcar at After-Words bookstore in Chicago, 10 July 2018

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.

Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002), Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010), The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013), Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013), and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).

Forum on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy

On June 6, I moderated a panel discussion in Chicago on Yassin al-Haj Saleh‘s momentous book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. The event was presented by Haymarket Books, the volume’s North American publisher (it’s published in the UK and worldwide by Hurst). The panelists were Wendy Pearlman, author of We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria; Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation; Firas Aladai, director of the film Winter; Sarah Hunaidi, an activist and co-host of the Hummus for Thought podcast; and Behzad Tehrani with Haymarket Books. The discussion starts a few minutes into the video. Sorry for the uneven audio quality. Turn the volume up!

Arab Revolution: It happened before, it’ll happen again

Palestinian intellectual Iyad el-Baghdadi spoke at the first Oslo Freedom Forum in Johannesburg on why the Arab Spring failed to produce tangible results, but also how Arab youth are the most educated and informed age group in the history of the Middle East, and his hope for future democratic movements in the region.

Are there really “no good guys” in Syria?

A version of this article first appeared in The New Arab

Following the Syrian regime’s recent chemical attack on Douma, US, Britain and France took swift but symbolic action to destroy three chemical weapons facilities. The action was not universally lauded. For Syrians it was too little too late; for isolationists and “anti-imperialists”, the 15,201st US airstrike on Syria since September 2014 was a “dangerous escalation” in a war where there were “no good guys”.

“There are no good guys”—or “everyone is equally bad”—has become a trope used by many otherwise decent people to absolve themselves of moral guilt for being bystanders to injustice. (The indecent on the other hand pronounce Assad the “lesser evil”, if not outright supporting him). The trope relies on a disciplined will to ignorance, unreasonable doubt, and manufactured uncertainty. It has been aided by a post-truth paranoia where cynicism passes for scepticism and all inconvenient facts expire into a haze of competing claims. “We can’t really know”!

But are facts really that elusive? And is it really impossible to tell good from bad?

Syria in fact is the most closely observed conflict in history, every aspect of which has been investigated, researched, filmed, documented, and reported on. The picture that emerges is not equivocal. In the judgment of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria the regime is responsible for “the crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape or other forms of sexual violence; torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts”.

Let us now look at the balance of atrocities.

Continue reading “Are there really “no good guys” in Syria?”

Disagreeing on the Internet: The New McCarthyism?

Originally published at Muftah on December 19, 2016.
What if the United States carried out daily bombing raids in a foreign country for over two years, killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children as part of its ever expanding, never ending War on Terror? And what if those most performatively opposed to U.S. intervention had little or nothing to say about it?

These questions, alas, are not hypothetical: they accurately describe the position of much of the ostensibly anti-imperialist left on Syria today. These leftists present themselves as the most righteously anti-war—their critics are all described as warmongers—while they foolishly run cover for actual imperialism, as typified by writer Fredrik deBoer in his November 2016 piece for Current Affairs.

DeBoer’s article, entitled “1953—2002—2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism,” would have us believe that the new new McCarthyism is defined by social media attacks from an irrationally interventionist left (“do they not remember Iraq?”) on dissident journalists like AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal and Twitter’s Rania Khalek. Their sin, according to deBoer, is not apologism for President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others, but simply opposing “a coming conflict in Syria.”

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You aren’t antiwar if you aren’t anti-Assad’s war

by Anton Mukhamedov

Following the joint US-UK-French strikes at the facilities associated with Syrian government’s chemical weapons programme on April 16, 2018, the international left needs to be in a position to ask tough questions about the steps the global powers are ready to take in order to prevent further civilian suffering in a country devastated by a brutal war, which the West has done nearly nothing to stop.

Unfortunately, deaf to the calls for transnational solidarity with the Syrian civil society, even as Syrian civilians have been fighting against both Assad and Islamist extremists, many figures associated with the anti-war movement have instead been preaching a kind of isolationism reminiscent of the times of the America First Committee.

Against a red-brown alliance

A month ago, a piece published by the Southern Poverty Law Center depicted a political scene ripe for barely hidden collaborations between the far right and a fraction of the Western left, such as the American ANSWER coalition or Party for Socialism and Liberation embracing similar foreign policy talking points as white nationalists. The author described a surprising connection over Syria, mediated by movements such as the Hands Off Syria coalition and think-tanks (inspired by a Russian fascist ideology going by the name of “Eurasianism”), all sharing the same affinity for Russian military intervention in Syria. Soon enough, the piece—written by Portland State University lecturer and fascism expert Alexander Reid Ross—was retracted due to a litigation threat issued by one of the actors mentioned in the article.

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What is next for Syria?

Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar moderates a panel on seven years of the Syrian revolution featuring the great Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Thomas Pierret and Kristin Helberg.

The 18th of March 2011, marked the first sparkle of the Syrian Revolution against one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in the region. But few months after the country entered dark phases of civil and proxy wars. The writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar, and Syrian writer and journalist Yasmine Merei, hosted group of Syrian and European experts and writers to discuss Syria’s complicated present and ambiguous future.

Continue reading “What is next for Syria?”