Free Word, 19 May 2014

Noted Syrian writer and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh explains how the West reports the news in Syria – and imagines what coverage would emerge if Britain suffered an equivalent crisis

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a noted Syrian writer, public intellectual and former political prisoner born in al-Raqqa, Syria. He was arrested for his political activities in 1980 and spent sixteen years in prison before resuming his medical studies. He lived in hiding in Syria after the 2011 uprising and only recently fled the country. In 2012 he received a Prince Claus Award for his outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development. In Syria Speaks, he discusses the role of the intellectual in the revolution.

In this interview, he tells Malu Halasa about how the West reports the news about Syria.

What do you think about the news coverage of Syria?

There’s an established approach in the Western media towards “the Middle East” in which journalists approach the region from a geopolitical perspective, treating it as an international stage for conflict. As a result, we don’t see the societies involved, and we don’t see ordinary people or their struggle to control their politics and their lives. Another approach looks at regional issues through the lens of religions, sects, and ethnicities, which are taken to be eternal, unchanging entities; to act as unified political blocs in all circumstances; and to be permanently fighting one another as well. There is also an inherent, fixed tendency towards Islamophobia and a false sympathy for “minorities,” who are seen as perpetual victims.

We can add to all this a view that is always confined to a narrow segment of the present, leaving no room for a historical perspective or for knowledge of the phases of history these countries have traversed, their conflicts, or their societies’ struggle for justice and liberation.

What completes this approach is a persistent preference for stability in the region, which means, in practical terms, standing with the powerful, who are capable of providing the goods of this stability.

It’s rare for one of the experts in Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs – an example of whom would be Robert Fisk – to know something important about Syria, precisely because they believe that they already know everything important and worthy of being known. This is because even when they visit Damascus, they stay in five-star hotels as guests of the regime and meet important figures associated with the regime: officers of the security services and “officers” of the media. They never meet with independent intellectuals, political activists, or the general public.

Overall, there’s a kind of dehumanization of Syria and her inhabitants, a removal of their lived experiences from the conversation – as though we’re not discussing human beings like any other human beings. There’s also a sense that the humanistic disciplines we use to study all other societies don’t apply to the study of our societies because they’re unique, different. This, by the way, is also what the Islamists say.

There are notable exceptions, and there is media coverage in the West that focuses more on the human and less on religion and geopolitics. But there’s yet to be a fundamental shift in perspective.

How can the discussion be moved on?

We shouldn’t conflate ISIS and the armed struggle, or imagine a face-off between them and the regime and its criminal violence. Moreover, this isn’t a confrontation between two “baddies” – the regime and ISIS – and the good represented by non-violent activists. To look at it this way is to reduce the struggle of the Syrian people to an overly simplified image. And this is exactly the image being circulated by a Western media that doesn’t know a thing about the Syrian conflict. In order to break the image of the face-off between two evils, we must understand the multiple levels of the Syrian conflict from the peaceful struggle, which has taken numerous forms (demonstrations, media coverage, documentation, relief work, political activities…), to the armed struggle and the Free Army – and all this before the appearance of Islamic groups, then Jihadist organizations, and then ISIS. These latter are parasitic, opportunistic phenomena that emerge in battle-weary, destroyed societies. An entire society has been struggling with all its available means, facing unrelenting devastation, since the beginning in spring 2011, and the abuse and excessive violence it has endured have engendered a dynamic of radicalization and Islamization.

Our situation wasn’t like this since the beginning, nor is it an inevitable expression of the inborn nature of our society, one that couldn’t have manifested itself in any other way. Our current situation is the result of excessive and relentless violence that has taken the lives of more than 150,000 victims. It has also displaced more than 40 percent of Syrians from their homes, fostered a thriving industry of torture and murder, starved hundreds of thousands, destroyed communities all across the country, and perpetrated scores of massacres that are public knowledge.

What’s happening in Syria is not a football tournament that’s reached the final match between Team Assad and Team ISIS. We’re seeing the ongoing destruction of a society, the widespread killing of Syria’s inhabitants, and the wilful manufacturing of extremism.

The point is that to break this image of two baddies, we need to know more details about the Syrian situation and its many facets, on one hand, and to understand the stages of the conflict and its development, on the other hand, as well as wider social and historical knowledge of Syria.

I believe that if what’s happened to us over the past three years happened in Britain, and if Tony Blair had destroyed a quarter of Birmingham, for example, and had already killed 25,000 of its inhabitants in a previous generation, then passed on the rule of the United Kingdom to his son who had studied medicine in Syria, and when a revolution broke out against Blair Jr., he carried out massacres in scores of British towns, and attacked Bradford with chemical weapons, and destroyed Sheffield with war planes, and launched Scud missiles on Manchester, and killed 11,000 Britons with torture and starvation in the prisons of his security forces….if something approaching this happened, the British would behave in a very similar manner to the way Syrians are acting today. We’d see the appearance of narrow-minded extremists, and maybe Blair Jr. would secretly fund some extremist groups so that he could say he’s fighting against terrorism, etc., etc..

And maybe some Syrian journalists who knew a few words of English would attribute, in their media coverage, all of the violence and brutality to the nature of Britain and the religion of her inhabitants, or to a conspiracy by India, Egypt and France against the Blair Jr. government, which opposes Indian imperialism!