Monday, February 06, 2012

On Massad: The Failure of the Anti-Imperialist Intellectuals

I just read Massad's new post, "Imperialism, despotism, and democracy in Syria and my initial reaction is that it is out of touch with what is happening in the country. There are good ways to overthrow a dictator and there are bad ways, he seems to say. The bad way is to ask for the West for help, the good way is, well, unclear. Massad tells us that a good anti-imperialist would oppose the dictator AND the West, which is pretty straightforward, but he doesn't tell us how that is going to help the people of Syria, or how he proposes that they get rid of Assad.

Where he refers to the "hijacking" of the Syrian revolution, does that mean it is any less deserving of support in light of the repression that it faces? Or are we to chastise the Syrian people for not being good anti-imperialists and insisting that they be massacred without asking for help - from the devil if need be. I do wonder how much of this hijacking of the Syrian revolution took place because of a moral vacuum that the anti-imperialists themselves have allowed to occur. That Massad himself says that the revolution was "hijacked" means that at the start the Syrian people were not calling for external or "imperialist" intervention, and were desperate for help wherever it could be found.

At many anti-regime protests that I have attended, I had argued with sectarian bigots that were keen on turning this into an anti-Shiite crusade, and were also eagerly calling for Western involvement. Where were the anti-imperialists then? At one demonstration in London, the only person who stood by me in such debates was a Marxist Syrian activist, Ghias al Jundi. Not one of my anti-imperialist "acquaintances" bothered showing up for the anti-regime protests. The space was left open for the SNC and it's types to beg for help from the West or wherever else. Furthermore, I don't recall one of the many vocal anti-imperialist voices online ever stating that they attended even the earliest of anti-regime Syrian protests to support the Syrian people. Not one that I know of bothered showing up, or even said that they did so from their hallowed online thrones- and this meant that the ground lay uncontested from the start. But, according to Mr Massad, we must blame the Syrian people, and the Libyan people, and the Iraqi people, for being politically unsophisticated enough to recognise the nuances between imperialism and its opportunistic opposition groups, home-grown tyranny and the unfathomable third way that Massad supports. Like some tragic Chekovian drama, the Syrian people are expected to bare their naked chests to bullets and die in the name of higher principles, rather than sully themselves with asking for help from wherever they can find it.

Where was the intellectual support and leadership that the Syrian - or even Libyan - people needed in their time of need? Why were they abandoned to the West? Was that simply because of Assad's politics? These are all rhetorical questions that I pose to Mr Massad and to all self-professed anti-imperialists.

Finally, Massad wonders why the Yemeni and Bahraini oppositions did not ask for Western intervention. Is Mr Massad unaware that the death toll from Assad's security services lies somewhere in the thousands - or at least is far higher - compared to Yemen and Bahrain? The situation is so atrocious in Syria that Massad himself states Assad is trying hard to reach the same level of brutality with Saddam - for those who don't know, that is really bad considering Saddam's brutality. And what is this about the Palestinians never asking for help from the imperialists? This point specifically highlights my earlier case that a moral vacuum allowed by the anti-imperialists has allowed the West to step in and "hijack" the Syrian revolution. The Palestinian struggle has always had the support of anti-imperialist, or nominally anti-imperialist groups. It also has a long history of [nominal] support from various Arab countries. The Palestinian people were certainly not abandoned to the vagaries of brutal occupation and repression unlike the Syrian people.

The brutal dichotomy that Massad seems to want to avoid - that of imperialism or fascism - is forced on the Syrian people precisely because of the vacuum that was allowed by the anti-imperialists that he speaks of. If these were as vocal and enthusiastic in fighting for the moral and intellectual high ground in spite of the cynical attempts of oil potentates and princes to subvert the revolutions, then the miserable farce we are seeing today would never have happened. If there ever was a true third way for the anti-imperialists to follow regarding Syria, this is what Massad should have called for in his piece.

22 comments:

E. said...

"I do wonder how much of this hijacking of the Syrian revolution took place because of a moral vacuum that the anti-imperialists themselves have allowed to occur."
Yes, I wonder, too. And by extension, wouldn't the best way to prevent the wholesale hijacking of the revolution, the chance of which only grows with more repression and bloodshed, be for so-called anti-imperialists to support the uprising? No. Because as you point out, they were against the uprising before there was any call for foreign intervention.

Crazy Bear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I must say that the deafening silence kept by prominent Palestinian activists in the face of the Assad massacres has been an added sadness.

Abu Kareem said...

"I do wonder how much of this hijacking of the Syrian revolution took place because of a moral vacuum that the anti-imperialists themselves have allowed to occur."
Very well said. The trouble is the Syrian revolution spoiled their neatly constructed world view. Western lacky dictator: bad; Anti-imperialist dictator: good. That is why to them the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution were genuine but the Syrian one was a conspiracy. Anonymous is right about the deafening silence of many Palestinian activists. It is more than sad, of all the Arabs, Syrians as a people (forget the Assad resistance posturing crap)are the most genuine supporters of the Palestinian cause.

Fahed S said...

Well said. I would add that because those 'anti-imperialists' tried to fill the role in the Palestinian case and refused to deal with the West is the reason why Palestine today is in such dire state and still under occupation.. Maybe if they didn't see the world as black and white and the West as the epitome of evil then maybe the Palestinians would be in a better state now. These bankrupt academics have no idea how the world is run and their ideals are part of the problem.

Crazy Bear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mehreen Kasana said...

As an observer of Middle Eastern politics among other dynamics, I - an American Pakistani - really am compelled to agree with Maysaloon's take on this. The line is often blurred by self-proclaimed anti-imperialist thinkers between fascism and anti-imperialist stances. Good to see someone highlighting this for a change. Wishing Syria more strength to overcome the current crisis.

Maysaloon said...

""No man can justly censure or condemn another, because indeed no man truly knows another"
Thomas Browne
the future Syria is promising."

Crazy Bear,
I suppose you have said the same thing to people who criticised Israel's bombing of Lebanon, or America's invasion of Iraq? Or is this moral anguish reserved only for dictatorships that you approve of?

Crazy Bear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maysaloon said...

Crazy Bear,
I'm sorry if this revolution has not met all of your expectations. Someone must not have gotten your memo about a progressive, citizen and worker driven series of reforms and activism - probably because Assad was shelling, shooting and torturing everybody from day one.

Crazy Bear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abu Kareem said...

Crazy Bear,
Your dream is every Syrian's dream, but how do you get there with a population that has been brutalized for forty years and never as much as over the last year? The non-violent start of the uprising was great and I wish it would have persisted non-violently; but the overwhelming, sheer brutality of the response made it impossible to sustain. I abhor wanton violence and many of the youtube videos sicken me. Unfortunately, it will ulgier, Assad has guaranteed that.

Anonymous said...

it's clear that the West didn't build democracies with its militar intervention in Afganisthan, Lybia, Irak, Kuwait??, only hundred of thousands of dead innocent people and decades of a social and economic caos. So, is better hundred of thousand of dead citizens or some hundreds of democratic people killed while peacefully fighting the regime? Latinoamerica knows how to fight dictators without arms, and without West intervention.

Nim said...

It's one thing to be anti-hezbollah and anti-Iran, but key voices in the opposition from the beginning were praising gulf arab states.


If they weren't so tied to an anti-Iran, pro-Saudi line from the outset they would actually have meaningful representation from minorities in the opposition and Iran would be far less invested in Assad staying in power.

There's a nasty armed islamist element in the opposition and naturally anti-imperialist are not going to embrace a movement that wants NATO bombing to bring them to power.

Nayereh Tohidi said...

In general I appreciate the good and principled intention of trying to avoid “the stark choice between a fascist or an imperialist course” in cases like Libya and Syria and opt instead “for a third and better course” i.e.,” support a home-grown democratic struggles”. But Prof. Massad pretends not to see or fails to acknowledge that the tyrants such as Gadhafi and Bashar bring the very home-grown strugglers for democracy and human rights to the verge of utter destruction and frustration to the extent that they become compelled to make the stark choice between submitting to their own annihilation (massacre) or appealing for the UN intervention, which under such circumstances may amount to NATO intervention. When military dictators like Bashar and Gadhafi easily resort to using their deadliest arsenals (such as tanks and bombs) against non-violent protestors and turn a genuinely home-grown anti-dictatorial movement into a violent and bloody uprising on the verge of massacre, taking a puritanical position by us from the safe distance of an academic ivory tower is an easy gesture to make. On an abstract level, this may appear politically correct, but it is not a responsible or helpful thing to do, nor is it a serious and feasible option for the real activists on the ground. For concerned scholars, a purist position and a single prescription that all Arabs and non-Arabs “must unequivocally opt for” regardless of each specific situation is an easy road to take. But it is the moral responsibility of the activists/scholars who are engaged in (or at least familiar enough with) the daily struggles and dilemmas of those home-grown strugglers on the ground, to offer specific analysis about each specific situation and make practical or concrete policy recommendations. That is, tactics and policies appropriate for the urgency and dire needs of real people on the ground whose choices are between life and death and not some ideological scoring and labeling among intellectuals. The invasion of Iraq by a US-led Western coalition was an illegal and criminal imperial project designed by the neocons under the pretext of “pre-emptive strike” against the “threat of weapons of mass destruction”. It was not (under any stretch of definition) a “humanitarian intervention” nor was it called for by a home-grown uprising. So, to equate the cases of Bosnia, Libya or Syria so carelessly with the case of Iraq is not expected from a serious or well-respected scholar.

Maysaloon said...

Dear Nayereh,
Thank you for that highly informative and well thought out comment. I appreciate your input.

Faramarz N said...

Every once in a while, from the desk of our few academic scholars comes a new term that confuses us for a while but make a good debate. In Massad’s article, the term anti-imperialism remained me of nothing but lack of sympathy for true straggle against despots. An invented term created for abstraction of real issues. In fact, who are these anti-imperialists forces? Are they Marxist, socialist, fundamentalist, or many other anti-despot of the world? I did not find the definition of anti-imperialism in his article. Every movement requires info-structure to sustain itself and historical evidence shows that will emerged from slow but persistent involvement of people. Historically, academic have a hard time being part of people’s movement. They always have to invent new terms that confuses the masses and ignores the reality of the society by being abstract. I really felt bad for Fred Holiday who spent all his life to articulate what Arabs and Iranian have to go through-- to get rid of their dictators-- had be to branded as pro- imperialism. By the way, this remains of Iranian opposition over the last 50 years, being anti-everything! Maysaloon and Nayereh also pointed -out some important insights on the problematic discourse of Massad’s article.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid that these "anti-imperialists" do not realize the ramifications of the current situation in Syria or do not care. If anything awful happens to Palestinians in the future, it will be very difficult indeed to generate the kind of outrage that existed after Sabra and Shatila. The Syrian regime's extreme brutality has inured many people to atrocities. Also, it would not be surprising if a great many non-Arab supporters of Palestinian rights leave their organizations for good because of the hypocrisy regarding the horrors committed against Syrians. A great many Palestinians do not hold these so-called anti-imperialist views, as evidenced by the recent demonstrations in support of the Syrian people that took place in Jerusalem.
I believe the anti-imperialist posturing is being done by a few people who, unfortunately, are well-situated in journalism and academia and able to make their voices heard by many, including policy makers. My next question is: How did these people attain to this level in their careers? Is it possible that at least some of them are somehow beholden to the Syrian regime?

نزار الفهد الملكي said...

I read this "article" by Massad and a couple others in the past weeks...

You eloquently say exactly what I have been thinking.

Evan said...

I read Prof. Massad's article and was struck by the same inadequacies you were.

But your solution is no clearer. After correctly lambasting him, you conclude that


The brutal dichotomy that Massad seems to want to avoid - that of imperialism or fascism - is forced on the Syrian people precisely because of the vacuum that was allowed by the anti-imperialists that he speaks of.


If only the anti-imperialists (read: anti-imperialist militants and intellectuals) had not had illusions and spread them! But just as the Syrians cannot afford to be purists, neither could, say, the Palestinians have been purists, and they shunned victims of Soviet neo-Stalinism or the various Arab police states or the Islamic Republic of Iran which gave them shelter, however unreliable it was. And the Palestinian cause was the focal point for the Arab (and Muslim) world. Yes, these narrow-minded anti-imperialists further confused the issue, but they were merely a cog in a vast machine and could have done little to change the course of history, assuming that they were any more prescient than the next guy.

To blame anti-imperialists as if they had any real impact on this dilemma is no more useful than Massad's position.

نزار الفهد الملكي said...

The problem is that the "anti-imperialists" blindly hold up horrid men like Gaddafi, Castro, Assad, Ahmadinejad and Chavez as some sorts of heroes of the "anti-imperialist" movement.... and ignore their tactics and quietly ignore their inequities because of their blind focus on individual issues whether it be "imperialism" and influence... which will always exist in some capacity... or on issues like the Palestinian cause which Assad pays lip service to.

They place suspicions on the motives of the Western powers... while ignoring the motives of other influencers, based on their preconceived cookie cutter political philosophy that they do not allow to be modified with the changing situation, but rather simply find other ways to rationalized their defunct and over simplified solutions. Solutions that cause them to engage in similar hypocrisies to those they accuse from the West: mainly meaning... they see Tunis and Egypt and the fall of Western friendly corrupt dictators as a great day in the fight against Imperialism... but because of their politics... see Syria and Gaddafi as "victims" of Western Imperialism... while the only regrettable thing about what happened to Gaddafi is that it could only happen once... while he did it to so many thousands.

The problem in Syria is simple: Assad is backed by foreign powers who ALSO have imperialist agendas. The Anti-imperialists are only anti-Western European imperialism...

Their failure to see multiple forces acting against Democracy in the Middle East that require counter balance is their downfall...

Bush wished for an Iraqi "Democracy" to spread discord among American enemies and cause Democratic uprisings... he never believed it would hit US allies first, likewise, who were also abusive to their people... the Anti-imperialists spun around... imagining a new "anti-imperialist" block would develop... but their poster child Assad whose "policies were with the hearts of his people" as they so fervently reminded us during the early stages of Egypt and Tunis... was not immune.

Maysaloon offers a solution. Do what everyone does to overthrow Tyranny. Seek help wherever it may be found and stay wary of its price, and guard against corruption in the movement.

Anonymous said...

Massad, by the way, is best friends with As'ad Abu Khalil. Were you expecting anything different from him?
I am afraid too many people on Twitter and other social media feel they are doing something for the Syrian opposition, but at the same time are impressed similar odious characters because they are "big names" or have big credentials and feel flattered that these people address them.
As for the big credentials, I suppose Massad's are genuine and Abu Khalil's as well, but many of the "big names" tell some tall tales on their Storycvs. It might be interesting if someone were to research some of these claims.