The notorious Assad regime propagandist Vanessa Beeley has been recently on a speaking tour of the UK. She has been showing up at small venues in Bristol, Birmingham, and London to give a presentation entitled “Aleppo: Fall or Liberation”. These talks have been hosted by the Communist Party of Great Britain Marxist-Leninist (CPGB-ML), which openly supports and glorifies Josef Stalin. In Bristol, her talk was held at the Palestine Museum and attended by about 70 people.
The general gist of Beeley’s talk is similar to her published work on websites such as 21st Century Wire and Mint Press News. The rebels are non-Syrian terrorists from Al-Qaeda who commit atrocities against the population in the areas they hold; what is happening in Syria is part of a regime change conspiracy that has been in place since the 1980s involving the media, human rights organizations, and Western governments; Bashar Al-Assad’s army is the main humanitarian agent, providing Syrians in East Aleppo and other rebel-held areas it captured with relief and medical care.
Members of Syria Solidarity UK who attended Beeley’s presentation (two and a half hours ong) have provided a more detailed account of the meeting here. This article will only look at a few minutes of her talk, which encapsulate the maliciousness of her propaganda and how it is designed to make the targeting and murder of Syrian civilians acceptable to people who consider themselves “progressive” and “anti-imperialist”.
My colleague Nader Hashemi and I have a new edited book out examining what we call the sectarianization of Middle East politics. It is published by Hurst in the UK (and worldwide) and by OUP in North America. This nifty video trailer for the book was produced by the talented Simeon Tennant.
The recent death of the Bulgarian-French cultural theorist and historian of ideas Tzvetan Todorov at the age of 77 flew largely under the radar of the digital commons. Precious few obituaries have appeared in English. The New York Times ran a good one. The literary scholar Françoise Meltzer of the University of Chicago wrote a nice tribute for the blog of the journal Critical Inquiry. That’s about it as far as I can tell, at least as of yet. This is surprising, given Todorov’s enormous influence and voluminous output across a wide swath of fields and themes.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Todorov a decade ago for Critical Inquiry. I had wanted to interview him for some time. I pitched the idea to the journal’s editor, W. J. T. Mitchell, over dinner at the Ethiopian Diamond in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood after an event for his book What Do Pictures Want?Mitchell (who would later have his own exchange with Todorov) immediately gave me the green light, for which I remain deeply grateful. Todorov and I covered a range of questions, beginning with his intellectual biography and style, onto a series of political issues — ones that remain strikingly relevant today.
Every once in a while, this space christened the Left—of whose foundational texts and core values I largely hold in regard—feels like a foreign place. The paradox is that occupying a place on the Left, a priori, is “supposed” to feel like refuge.
A curious phenomenon I’ve come across on the Left is a politics of pro-Muslim islamophobia. Take for instance Angela Merkel’s proposition to ban the Niqab, or the face-veil. Of course, a ban would be an affront to egalitarian ideals. And a ban should be very much be opposed. But one noticeable knee-jerk reaction—even cliche—that many progressives have produced is that such an initiative would alienate German—and by extension all—Muslims, if not impel them to active opposition or radicalization. This is profoundly mistaken. There is no data that supports such a conclusion.
But it’s worth noting, first, the problematic nature of the underlying presumption: that Muslims define themselves by loyalty to tribe and religion first. Nation—and the liberal democratic values it embodies—coming last. Second, much of these discussions have the familiar feel of a “gotcha” game between a strand of Euro-American feminism that is supportive of such measures and a strand which is critical of them.What’s not accounted for is an ongoing and long-tradition of intra-Islamic debates on women’s rights—led by Muslim feminists—and secularism.
If Islamophobia is in fact a form of irrational fear, then perhaps we can presume that there’s a fear of Muslims when one is unwilling or incurious to engage with these discussions in their own terms. They speak of Muslims, but not with Muslims, or rather they’d only speak with those best tokenized. The subaltern can in fact speak, but they must say what fulfills the our constant desire for self-problematization. When the Other is invoked, he or she is held up as mirror to ourselves. Tell us about our qualities.
Frederic Jameson once wondered if capitalism can’t survive without the fantasy of a socialist utopia on the horizon. In the same breath, we can ask if imperialism and racism can’t survive without the fantasy of a non-imperialist, non-racist utopia. Not that those utopias are beyond the possible, as there’s no way to prove that. The point is that a certain dominant strand of anti-capitalist or anti-racist or anti-imperialist ideology ultimately ends up reproducing its object of negation precisely those ideologies place themselves mainly in negation, rather than in offering a way out and a positive vision. In other words, anti-islamophobia defines itself against a Big Other and eschews challenging the legitimacy of key Islamophobic premises. In form, such a politics challenges Islamophobic discourse but in substance it keeps in place and reduces the dominant signs and symbols, opting to only invert them. In practise, what contemporary anti-Islmaophobia does is to adapt better to the ever-widening goalposts determined by the Right. “Trump is a hypocrite because he didn’t ban Saudis and Egyptians in his executive order,” as somehave argued. Ergo, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that any political activity will ultimately mimic what it defines itself against.
To gnaw at identifying the sources of the issue, one must carefully probe the singularity of the Muslim Question.
Anne Norton, author of The Muslim Question, has argued that she sees the “Muslim question as the Jewish question of our time: standing at the site where politics and ethics, philosophy and theology meet. This is the knot where the politics of class, sex, and sexuality, of culture, race, and ethnicity are entangled; the site where structures of hierarchy and subordination are anchored. It is here, on this terrain, that the question of the democratic — its resurgence or further repression — is being fought out.”
This aspect is fairly well-known and correct. But the risk of reducing the rights of the Muslim into a touchstone of progress or fraudulence of liberal democracy inevitably comes with the risk of solipsism about a question that is by no means limited to the geographic confines of the West. It is precisely failing to note the global aspect of the Muslim Question that leads to the supposedly paradoxical nature of anti-Islamophobic islamophobia.
“si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu.” (If you are trapped in the dream of the other, you are screwed)—Gilles Deleuze
Some on the Left attempt to speak of the global dimension—often only by obligation when an Islamist terror attack in the West takes place—but their failure to go beyond superficial gyrations indicates why the discussions of Muslims in the West is flawed.
Ranging from the bien-pensant liberal to the generic Marxist, the figure of the Muslim is akin to a transistor on a circuit board. They’re there receive and amplify the force of current exerted upon them. Accordingly, such current take form in racist exclusion, legal inequity, (neo)colonialism, or crude bombs made in the West—never indigenous oppression. If we wish to turn off violence perpetrated by the Muslim, we shall stick to the mechanistic laws of physics: just switch off the current! The active role is Western racism and imperialism, the passive role is occupied by the Muslim. We are the reason they exist in the way they exist. They have no history before we show up. We ultimately pay the price for what our governments do abroad. Sometimes it is admitted that there is a mediating ideological factor, such as Wahabist and Salafi-Jihadist ideology. But it is only “forced” upon Muslims against their will by the Saudi authorities worldwide. Of course, this too presumes that Muslims are passive actors readily vulnerable to be imbued by radicalizing influences.
After this has been established, any discussion of the radicalization of Muslims assumes the familiar feel of it approaching the end. This depoliticized framework results in the disarmament in the face of the the Islamophobic Right. As Hannah Arendt noted, “It has been one of the most unfortunate facts in the history of the Jewish people that only its enemies, and almost never its friends, understood that the Jewish question was a political one.”
If the constant rise of Islamophobia is any indicator or the fact that the fall of anti-Muslim prejudice has not been coeval with the fall in other forms of prejudice, it’s that the Islamophobic Right has been winning this battle precisely because it has politicized the Muslim Question. The Left doesn’t politicize the Muslim Question, whereas the Right does just that —though in a deliberately malevolent fashion. The Left, by definition the active agent of history, has decided that its role is to provide the Right with the driving seat on this question, opting for the role of simply opposing its every action.
Consider the dilemma: how is it that the Left is more or less opposed to the bigotry led by theRight against Syrian and Muslim refugees, but some sections of the Left are in agreement with the Right that all, or most, of the opposition to supposedly anti-Western regimes like Bashar Al-Assad’s or Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime is led by proxy groups and/or fanatical jihadists? Why is it that it’s ubiquitous to see Leftists warn of instability if Assad is deposed, but no warnings are ever pronounced of a withdrawal of Israel occupation from the West Bank?
Examples abound. Stephen Kinzer thanks Russia for its bombing campaign, Robert Fisk, Vijay Prashad and Ajamu Baraka argue that there are “no good guys” in the opposition—despite Assad bearing the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties. Tariq Ali has called for a joint Russian-US campaign to destroy the opposition and ISIS. Jill Stein has even went as far to say that the goal of the US government is to help “restore all of Syria to control by the government.” United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) staged a demonstration where they carried the regime’s flag. Veterans For Peace has sent a delegation to meet Assad in his palace in Damascus. Stop The War Coalition in the U.K. has went as far as to refuse a platform for anti-Assad Syrian and even call on the police to arrest them. Examples abound.
A close inspection of the mainstream armed Syrian opposition would demonstrate that they are more or less just as fundamentalist as Hamas and Hezbollah. Leaving the fact that there are democratic and anti-sectarian elements opposed to Assad, it appears that the Syrian opposition’s curse is that they aren’t fighting Western imperialism, but Russian imperialism. Which at any rate hardly qualifies as imperialism at all in certain Left quarters. Of course, it’s hard to find an example of a Leftist voicing concern about the populations that are living under the boot fundamentalist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah. Let alone those groups’ exploitation of workers. But once the fairytale of a fanatical Syrian opposition controlled by the West has been established, the victims of those groups are recognized because they are “our victims.” Their goal is not to challenge those who are committing and justifying the largest perpetrators of crimes—of which there are plenty of on both Left and Right—but to challenge the “Western” narrative.
Minimalism for anti-Western groups and regimes, maximalism for those whose direct target is anti-Western regimes. Remaining trapped in the dreams of the Left.
Such is the false and deadly dualism that sees Muslims as either victims or suspects, leaving no room for complexity. Such is the politics of score-settling that invokes the Other as a tool to hammer home a point, at home. Ensconced in a solipsistic ontology, they see the victims not because they recognize them in themselves, but only when they can recognize the perpetrators, who often look and speak like them. It’s the perpetrators that are relatable, not the victims. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the most creative anti-war slogan that one can hear in London, New York and Paris is “not in our name.” Just not in our name, we are better than this. Speaking to Israeli journalist Judith Lerner, Mahmoud Darwish noted that “Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interest in us stems from the interest in the Jewish issue. The interest is in you, not in me.”
After all, how many on the Left could talk about Syria without succumbing to yelling “What about U.S. atrocities?” At this point, such a cliche should sound like “What about me?” The outside exists only as a motif to speak of the cordoned inside. Wallowing in self-problematization, one can even feel exonerated.Navel gazing and guilt, it turns out, have a tendency to centre the Self.
More, how many on the Left staged a defence of Syrian refugees’ demands of the European Union by pointing out that Syrian refugees’ radical demands of the European Union have a direct genealogy to the chants of the Syrian uprising: “Bread, Freedom and social justice.” But the defence of Syrian refugees’ right to shelter we’ve heard from radical quarters has relied on sediments of liberal bromides such as the virtue of diversity, inclusivity and tolerance for its own sake. Difference doesn’t exist in a free floating abstract world, it resides in politics, always. In fact, Leftists who have argued that the regime of Assad is legitimate have directly contributed to the toxic environment of Islamophobia by way of opening the space for the far-right to freely argue that Syrian refugees are traitors for refusing join the supposedly secular Syrian Arab Army. To borrow Brecht’s line about the difference between robbing a bank and founding one, we could ask what is robbing Syrians’ agency to founding an anti-refugee and islamophobic politics?
In this sense, one can be simultaneously espouse an imperialist and anti-imperialist mindset. The largest radicalizing factor today in the world is the carnage in Syria and the biggest perpetrators are not Western. That fact is inescapable.
As Edward Said noted of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo:
All Conrad can see is a world totally dominated by the Atlantic West, in which every opposition to the West only confirms the West’s wicked power. What Conrad cannot seeis an alternative to this cruel tautology. He could neither understand that India, Africa, and South America also had lives and cultures with integrities not totally controlled by the gringo imperialists and reformers of this·· world, nor allow himself to believe that anti-imperialist independence movements were not all corrupt and in the pay of the puppet masters in London or Washington.
This ontological and epistemological weakness results in a foreclosure of any possibility for a politics. This approach fails at home precisely because it fails abroad, and vice versa. As we have seen with the near-absent knowledge of the Syrian uprising, the Left has betrayed its core historical provenance—Revolution. To try to account for the lacuna of solidarity with Syrians on the Left, some have offered despair as an entrée: “What do you propose we do? How do you know it’s going to work?” Of course none of these questions were posed to those who marched in the streets of Washington, London and Paris during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Something is malfunctioning and the contradictions will eventually have to explode. To paraphrase Benjamin, the Left’s progress is but a document of barbarism.
It has now been widely reported that Tulsi Gabbard, a member of the US House of Representatives from Hawaii, recently met with Bashar al-Assad during a ‘fact-finding’ mission to Syria. As The Daily Beastreported:
Gabbard initially declined to say who financed her trip to Syria. However, in a press release Wednesday Gabbard revealed her delegation (which also included former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich) had been “led and sponsored by” an outfit called the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS—Ohio). Her statement added she and the rest of the delegation had been accompanied by two men, Elie and Bassam Khawam.
The Khawam brothers, it turns out, are officials in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a fascist organization that actively supports the Assad regime and indeed “has dispatched its members to fight on [its] behalf,” reportsThe Guardian. Who exactly are the SSNP? The Daily Beast goes into some of the group’s history.
Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?
“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.
Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.
Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.
“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”
As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.
Explicit representations of “brute physicality and raw emotion”, from mobile phone footage to Samar Yazbek’s literary reportage, soon gave way to formal experimentation. Notable examples include “Death is Hard Work”, Khaled Khalifa’s Faulknerian novel of a deferred burial, the ‘bullet films’ of the Abounaddara Collective, and Azza Hamwi’s ironic short “Art of Surviving”, about a man who turns spent ordinance into heaters, telephones, even a toilet. “We didn’t paint it,” he tells the camera, “so it stays as it arrived from Russia especially for the Syrian people.”
This section also covers full-length films such as “Return to Homs”, which follows the transformation of Abdul-Basit Sarut from star goalkeeper to protest leader to resistance fighter.
Cooke’s consideration of the role of social media is better informed than the somewhat superficial journalistic takes on the cyber aspects of the Arab Spring which filled commentary in 2011. The internet provides activists anonymity and therefore relative safety. It also offers a space in which to display and preserve art, even while Syria’s physical heritage, from Aleppo’s mosques to Palmyra’s temples, is demolished by regime bombs and jihadist vandalism. Online gallery sites archive the uprising’s creative breadth and complexity. One such is the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, whose multimedia approach sometimes “connects specific elements within each genre to produce a film about the process of painting that responds to music.”
Certain digital images ‘aestheticise’ sites of destruction in order to both lament and humanise the war. The best known are works by Tammam Azzam which superimpose Klimt’s “The Kiss” on a crumbling residential block, Matisse’s circle dancers against a rubble-strewn street, and Gaugin’s Tahitian women on a refugee camp.
A section on arts produced in exile examines refugee theatre created in the youth centres of camps and urban slums. Via Skype, a cross-border Shakespeare production played by Syrian children cast Romeo in Jordan and Juliette in Homs. The performance was completed despite bombs, snipers and frequent communication cuts. The play’s conclusion was optimistically adapted. The doomed lovers threw away their poison and declared, “Enough blood! Why are you killing us? We want to live like the rest of the world!”
Through ‘applied theatre’ techniques women performed Euripides’ “Trojan Women” and so found a way to talk about the regime’s mass rape campaign. Director Yasmin Fedda incorporated the rehearsals into her prize-winning documentary “Queens of Syria”.
Of course, “Dancing in Damascus” doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s nothing on hip hop or several other important genres. The book tends to concentrate on ‘high art’ rather than the arguably more significant bottom-up production. Yet, with admirable concision and fluency, it assists what journalist Ammar al-Mamoun calls “an alternative revolutionary narrative to contest the media stories of Syrian refugees and victims”. It shows how, despite everything thrown at it, the revolution has democratised moral authority, turning artist-activists into the Arab world’s new “organic intellectuals”. As such it is an indispensable corrective to accounts which erase the Syrian people’s agency in favour of grand and often inaccurate geo-political representations. Beyond Syrian specifics, it is a testament to the essential role of culture anywhere in times of crisis.