L’Internationale, 16 November 2014
Forty-four years ago, on an autumn day like this one in 1970, Hafez al-Assad seized power in Syria by military coup. The man had been minister of defense during the June 1967 war with Israel, which ended in a disastrous defeat for the Arabs and Syria. Thirty years later, he passed down control over the ‘republic’ to his son Bashar, a move unprecedented on the global stage except in North Korea and Azerbaijan. Forty-four months ago, a revolution erupted against the son’s rule, and he confronted this revolution, from the very beginning, with war. This war has developed into a number of wars, involving numerous sides, now including the participation of the Americans and their allies in opposition to the ‘Islamic State’ that occupies regions in the north east of the country and has spread its control into parts of Iraq. At the same time, the Assad state – along with its Iranian, Lebanese, and Russian allies – continues to wage war against those areas that have gone out of its control over the course of the revolution.
This moment in time – marking simultaneously the passage of forty-four months and forty-four years – should provide an opportunity to examine the Syrian microcosm, as well the global macrocosm that surrounds it.
This sequence of six posts will begin from the fact that this shorter period of forty-four is a continuation of the longer forty-four rather than a break with it, a deepening of the situation and not a rupture with it. The shorter period of forty-four explains the longer forty-four, sheds light on its more hidden dimensions: the longer forty-four provides precedents and beginnings, which we see come to completion only in the shorter forty-four.
This series of posts will constitute a vacillating back-and-forth movement that has three parts: between two periods of time, a long one and a short one; between two worlds, a small Syrian one and a greater international one; and between the lower and higher levels of Syrian society and of the world.
Despite the fact that Syria is not known well, and the fact that it remains unknown after forty-four months of extreme struggle, these texts will not seek merely to produce definitions. Rather, the texts will try to renew the nature of the current approaches and lines of perspective, a step that can then lead to definitions. The reason that Syria remains unknown in the West and the world at large is that the dominant approaches representing the country make the population invisible, indeed nonexistent. A change of approach is necessary in order for us to become visible, for us to exist.
When I was inside the terrible Tadmur (Palmyra) prison in 1996, we, political prisoners, were forced to wear blindfolds at night while sleeping. The motivation for this was to make us completely uncovered and visible, but incapable of seeing. This is an element of a strategy of power that relies on stripping nude, revealing, and surveillance. There is another strategy, which involves covering, obscuring, and marginalizing, so that no voice can be heard and no image can be seen. Thus, there are two forcible blindfolds required, put in place by the ones in power, local and global, so that the banished cannot be seen. Invisibility is a function of these approaches.
The Geopolitical Blindfold
The geopolitical approach holds that there is a country named Syria, situated in the Middle East, south of Turkey and west of Iraq – and, crucially, north of Israel. This country, with its president Bashar al-Assad and its capital in Damascus, has good relations with Iran, fluctuating relations with Arab countries and the West, and hostile relations toward Israel. But it is a country that has enjoyed ‘political stability’ for more than forty years, under the rule of Bashar, and, before him, under his father Hafez.
According to this approach Syria is a country with no interior. It is constantly recalled and evoked in contexts naming other world capitals, starting from Washington, through London, Paris, and Moscow, to Jerusalem, Riyadh, Tehran, Ankara, Cairo, Baghdad, and Beirut. It is named along with presidents and kings, from Obama down to the Secretary General of Hizballah in Lebanon. The stories that relate to Syria are of two basic types: the story of the conflict with Israel, which occupied the Syrian Golan Heights nearly a half-century ago and prevented the return home of nearly six hundred-thousand Palestinian refugees, resident in Syria since 1948 or 1967. Or, the story of struggles and wars over petrol – from 1973 to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s, to the Kuwait war in 1991, to the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, down to the current American war against the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria.
These are stories of war and violence in every case. The hoped-for happy ending to these stories is always ‘stability’: everything stays as it is, with no troubles inside, and no political change. There are two elements to this stability: the heads of states remain in power for the longest possible duration, and the relationships with the great nations – Washington specifically – are good and stable. This approach is entirely centered around the greater powers above.
While the Assad state cuts off those lesser Syrians internally, the approach adopted by the Western and international media sources is based generally on the isolation and infantilizing of the Syrians, and is not concerned with knowing anything behind the wall. On the contrary, they repay the regime for its isolation of its citizens by ignoring them. The Western ‘experts’ on Syria very rarely know anything of value about it, but give prominence to the ‘upper’ discourse of world capitals, great conflicts, and the names of rulers. They know little, and sense even less.
What is missing from this vision? Almost everything: the conditions of life, education, health, culture, art, structures of rule, distribution of wealth, the stories of men and women, their lives, faces and names. And issues of justice, freedom, human dignity, and the rule of law also remain outside this narrative.
The Culturalist Blindfold
There is a second approach, which sees one thing within Syrian society and the societies of the ‘Middle East’: religion. The story that is told here constantly refers to Islam and its sects or schools of thought, to Christians in the region, and to political, militant or Jihadi Islam. There is a strong tendency to explain everything through religion itself, or through a mentality determined by religion, and to explain all political factors through reference to religious groups or ‘sects,’ which are considered automatically as political actors.
Functioning alongside this narrative are the assumptions that this is simply how matters are in this region, that its inhabitants are different from ‘us’ in the West.
This culturalist approach has become very prominent since the end of the Cold War – the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis of Samuel Huntington stands as its broadest summing-up.
Both approaches have their roots in the classical Orientalism that flourished during the period of the rise of Western colonisation, and which tended to reduce ‘Eastern’ societies to their specific religions. Orientalism has declined since it was anatomized by Edward Said, but its methods have remained dominant in the realization and representation of the region.
How have these two approaches been received in Syria?
The Assad state prefers the geopolitical approach, which reduces the country to its rulers, keeping the general population invisible. The approach that centers around the powerful of the West easily serves the purposes of the domestic powerful. The narrative goes this way: the world is in constant conspiracy against us, and thus it is necessary to strengthen our ‘national unity,’ to allow no break in our ranks so that the enemies do not infiltrate our ‘internal front’. This theory leaves no space for internal political life, no space for public conversation or for any type of independent political organization. Indeed, it was impossible for groups of Syrians to gather even in private homes to discuss public matters. The Syrian people lived in absolute political poverty, forbidden for more than forty years the right to assembly and the right to speech. There is a fixed bond between political poverty and economic poverty, as the works of the Indian Amartya Sen show.
As for the culturalist approach, this is favoured by the Islamists. They tend unwaveringly toward the definition of societies through culture as dictated by religion. Political Islam sees the West as Christian or, in the case of the Jihadis, they describe it as ‘Jewish and Crusaders.’ They consider every criticism of Islam in the West to be an expression of Islamophobia, and seek to extend this judgment also to include any criticism of Islam and Islamists within our societies. But while the critique of Islamophobic discourse in the West is progressive and libertarian, it becomes in the Muslim societies a repressive tool, used to impose uniformity.
There is also a secular-minded replica of this culturalist approach. This version explains our situation also through religion and mentalities, while ignoring issues of economics, politics, society, and international relations. Two characteristics distinguish the supporters of this theory: their secularism is Huntingtonian and ‘civilizational,’ rather than Marxist or liberationist; and they find themselves regularly closer to the current ruling regimes, tacitly opposing the uprisings of the people.
The Visible and the Invisible
What is common between these two predominant approaches is that they both permit no view toward the daily life of the general population. They do not approach the ways in which life is actually produced, through the construction of roles and identities, and through the efforts of the people to posses their own politics and religion in the face of those who would monopolize them. These are the invisible men and women.
Our visible heroes are Bashar al-Assad according to the geopolitical narrative, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi according to the culturalist one. Meanwhile, the Western media embraces ‘local informers’ like the Somali Iyaan Hirsi Ali or Iranian Azar Nafisi, whom they assume to be heroes of liberalism, secularism, or democracy. They are not.
That one of us should strongly oppose Bashar’s regime, as well as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, without being a ‘local informer’ dreaming of nothing but life in the West, seems impossible.
Yet it is by no means impossible. We do exist, and we are visible to whoever wants to see. We are many, both women and men, joined in a fight on multiple fronts, on behalf of justice and freedom in our country and in the world. We confront hegemony on the global level without reactionary gestures rooted in identity, and we confront the isolating positions of identity without abandoning our positions in the struggle, here and now, on behalf of freedom, justice, and dignity.
In the hope that we will now be seen and heard, I will tell here a different story. Like our grandmother Shahrazad before us, whose stories were much more joyous than ours, preserving life is the aim of this story telling.