Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"In effect, the Syrian revolution is a monster"

Four years on and the commentary and perceptions surrounding Syria continue to be mired in childish perceptions and hopes. We think, as Syrians living abroad, and supporting the revolution, that we have an historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and all that we saw wrong with Syrian societies. Perhaps, but that is unlikely. The Syria that will emerge from this will be deeply conservative, deeply Islamic, and mired in conspiracy theories and ignorance. Any future government will be paranoid, paralysed, or both, owing to the nature of the divisions that we have been subjected to as a country. In fact, the Syrian state as a project is likely to be dead, and herein lies the strength of the Islamic State's vision, if nothing else, because it so far offers the only other terrifying alternative to Assad. This does not mean the Islamic State must not be resisted, simply that it must be understood, because it is tapping into something that is at the core of what makes Syria.

We think if we sing some songs, write some banners, play some games with children, and blog or intellectualise ourselves into a frenzy, that we have played our part in the revolution, but in truth the honeymoon stage of the Syrian revolution ended less than a year after it started. Yes, many activists kept trying to keep the myth of the Syrian revolution's idealistic phase alive, but they paid the price for this naiveté, most often with their lives. Recently a rumour, as yet unconfirmed, spread that a popular figure of the Syrian revolution, Abdel Baset Sarout (a former football player), had joined the ranks of ISIS (either out of desperation or conviction) and the news sent shockwaves through Syrian activists who had held him up as the best of Syria's revolution. It felt like a trust had been betrayed, but this was because we do not know where Sarout comes from. The Syria he lives and breathes in, that he sees, is alien to us, and even after four years we have only seen glimpses of it.

I once blogged that I believed there were two Syrias: one that was relatively modern, secular and aspired to lifestyles like the West; and another that was Eastern, Other, and Islamic. This other half, more than half in fact, is the Syria where people speak Arabic, think Arabic, and where tradition, religion, and tribal links are far more important than wearing jeans and owning an iPhone. We, and I count myself as one of them, pretended that this other Syria wasn't important, or that we ourselves came from it, but we didn't, not by a long shot. We talked about Palestine, anti-imperialism and national sovereignty as if we knew something, as if we ourselves were Syrian, but what we failed to acknowledge is that we were a thin peel, irrelevant, when push came to shove. In hindsight we were almost comical, but we had money and middle to upper class status so we thought we were all there was to the country.

Silly young Syrians, like myself, studying in foreign universities, talked revolution, Fanon and Malcolm X while fetishising the Palestinian struggle for years but we did not create this revolution, expect it, or want it. The people who created it came from the beating heart of Syria - from it's backbone and 'dark' interior. These were the people who were uncorrupted by city life and proximity to the regime, and whose sense of moral outrage was not diluted by comfortable living. They are Syria's greatest strength but also it's weakness, because the revolutions they unleash, when they come, result in a terrible reckoning that will not be recovered from easily. In effect, the Syrian revolution is a monster, or something akin to a force of nature, that was triggered by the corrupt and inept rule of a brutal dictatorship. One could even say that the Assad regime created the Syrian revolution, and it could not have been anything other than what it was - something many of us can have trouble accepting.

The pro-regime Syrians are rightly terrified of what will come, because they understand this dark heart of the country and tried for over forty years to repress it, and whoever runs ISIS recognises it, and they have tapped into it with startling effect. But pro-revolution Syrians mostly do not. Certainly not the generation of Syrians that have lived in the West most of their lives. They are sometimes allowed to help with aid and foreign advocacy because this dark heart of Syria, this "Avicennan"-style essence, without which there would be no Syria, will tolerate them, and needs all the help it can get, but "foreign" Syrians (again for lack of a better word) with their rubber independence day flag bracelets are spectators. We, as "foreign" Syrians, scratch our heads in puzzlement as to why the West is not coming to help our revolution, why they won't listen to us, and I suspect this is mainly because we ourselves do not know our country, though we claim to come from it.

We're also puzzled as to why our fellow Syrians mock our calls for respecting human rights and international law, and this is fundamentally down to our own failure to articulate, without condescension, an authentically Syrian translation of human rights, one that merges seamlessly with the traditions and religions that we instead deride and view as an inconvenience. If we try to know this Syria and step out of our ivory towers, if we get to know its pulse and it's language then, maybe, we will have a chance at building something and helping when the storm blows over. And we can then listen and understand and try to explain to the world what Syrians have been dying to say.


Unknown said...

Hi Maysaloon

First let me say that I’ve followed and admired your blog for a long time. You’ve created something really worthwhile and important. I usually agree with what you write, but I disagree with the essential point that you’re making here, and I wanted to say why.

Your post argues that there are two Syrias: one Arabic-speaking, conservative, Islamic; the other secular, educated, westernized in its aspirations and outlook. You imply throughout that the first Syria is the real country, the authentic one – the “beating heart,” the “backbone,” the “dark heart.” The secular, urban, westernized Syria is depicted as somehow superficial or inauthentic – represented by “Silly young Syrians” who “blog and intellectualize,” but who in the end turned out to be “a thin peel, irrelevant.”

I have three objections to this.

First, it is a caricature of Syria. You have chosen two contrasting ends of a spectrum and presented them as if the country were split in half along a clear dividing line – Islamic-rural-Arabic-traditional on the one side, secular-urban-modern on the other.

In reality, there are Syrians all the way along this spectrum, and most people are somewhere in the middle. There are millions of Syrians who are religious but not fanatical about it; who have family links to a rural village but who now live or work in a big city; who respect family traditions, but are still tolerant of other ways of doing things; who think and live in Arabic, but also know a few words of English or French. Of course there is a hard-core of deeply conservative people in Syria. But even in the poorest suburb of Hama or the most remote village in Deir ez-Zour province you’ll find plenty of kids who aspire to iPhones and jeans, and plenty of parents who want their children, including their girls, to go to university and to participate in the modern world. Your “two Syrias” model does highlight the fact that there’s an English-speaking, pro-Revo, out-of-touch elite, but beyond that I don’t think it is nuanced enough to cast much light on the situation.

My second objection is your idea that the urban, educated, outward-looking Syria is somehow less “authentic” or “real” than the traditional, tribal, Islamic Syria. As you well know, Syria has the oldest urban traditions in the world. For thousands of years it has had a literate, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, multi-lingual, well-travelled population, especially in Aleppo and Damascus and in the towns along the coast. Syrians have been reading, arguing, travelling, and exchanging ideas for centuries. Nothing could be more authentically Syrian than that! Syria’s educated, urban population is in no sense a “thin peel” or a modern development or a Western import (although naturally this social class has been most influenced by and receptive to European ideas). Of course you are right to argue that there is a traditional, conservative, rural population in Syria. I am not denying that. I am just saying that this demographic has no exclusive claim on “authenticity” or “Syrian-ness.”

> Continued in comment below..

Unknown said...

My third objection is the biggie. You suggest that ISIS is somehow in tune with the “dark heart of Syria,” that they have “tapped into it with startling effect.” The clear implication is that ISIS somehow represents the mass of Syrian people, whereas “pro-Revolution Syrians” are just a narrow, irrelevant, out-of-touch elite who have failed to recognize or understand the essence of their own country.

I could not disagree more. As you acknowledge in the post, the revolution did NOT emerge from an intellectual class of dissidents or political radicals. It came from a group of ordinary, relatively poor families in Deraa whose children returned from state detention traumatized, covered in cigarette burns, and missing their fingernails. Their demand was not for an Islamic state. It was for basic human rights and freedoms, and they articulated it in Arabic, in an absolutely Syrian voice.

And that’s my main point: of course you can identify a narrow elite of highly educated Syrians, the ones who think and tweet in English, the ones who work for NGOs and think-tanks in the US, the ones who have no first-hand understanding of Syria’s rural poor or of its urban, conservative working class; and of course you can accuse them of being unrepresentative or even irrelevant; but you can’t argue that the revolution belonged to them, or imply that it failed because they were out of touch with ordinary Syrians. The revolution always had a broader base than that. It belonged far more to the working people of Deraa or Homs or Latakia than it did to the exiles and intellectuals and Twitterati who jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon once it started to roll.

You’re right that the revolution has become a kind of monster. But that’s not because it was built on foundations that were in any way inauthentic or alien to Syrian society. It’s because Assad created a chaos in which only the most violent, the most ruthlessly certain, the most fanatic could thrive. That was the atmosphere that allowed the jihadist groups to flourish, and that persuaded many ordinary Syrians to go along with them.

Sorry for the length of this reply (it’s probably longer than the post!) but I wanted to end on something more optimistic.

At the end of your first para you say that ISIS “is tapping into something that is at the core of what makes Syria.” Maybe there’s a slice of Syrian society that likes what ISIS has to say, but you’ll never convince me that it’s the core. When I think back to my time in Syria (most of 2006 and many visits before & after that), in which I saw a lot of rural life as well as the cities, what I remember is the humour and quickness and irreverence of the Syrians, the love of languages, the keeness of young people to learn and travel, the way people absolutely loved to hang out talking and laughing and smoking shisha with their friends half the night, the basic tolerance that was extended to people who were different, or who thought differently. I mention all this not because I want to reminisce, like a dumb tourist, about the friendly Syrians I once met; no, I’m saying it because I think that this basic disposition towards life is “the core of what makes Syria.” ISIS is a death cult; it is absolutely antithetical to that Syrian spirit of life, of humour, of humanity. That’s what I think Mazen Darwish meant when he said that the Syrian people are “children of life, capable of constructing a state built of dignity, freedom, and justice.“

I’ll leave it there. Hope you don’t mind me jumping in at such length. Thanks for all you writing – I will continue to read and learn from your blog. And don’t give up just because you’ve been away for a while. Syria is going to need you.

Maysaloon said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks so much for your taking the time to respond, it's been so long since I've had anybody comment on my posts with a criticisms and I accept your arguments as valid, but on your three points I believe there is a simple explanation for why I made the arguments that I did. As you will have guessed by reading the post, it is mostly rhetorical and I did expect it to divide opinions.

Firstly I'm not saying that Syria is composed mainly of absolutes, and yes the reality is always greyer and more convoluted. But, would you agree that with the war and the revolution it is precisely these extremes that have come to the fore? That it has squeezed out that very middle ground you speak of and forced a lot of people to choose between the two extremes? I think that to be the case, and that's what makes my "two-Syrias" argument a valid inference.

Secondly with regards to the urban classes or "foreign Syrians" I speak of, I do agree I am being a bit harsh in my assessment and it might have come across that I am denying them their own claim to "authenticity" as Syrians, but I would submit that the criticism still holds in terms of how out of touch they are with the revolt, and their failure to understand the "Other" Syria.

Thirdly with regards to ISIS, yes, I agree fully that they are antithetical to everything we all know about Syria, but they have, in these difficult times, tapped into the more conservative and traditional element of Syrian society and played on their fears and aspirations. They are not the majority, but, left to their own devices, they could potentially entice a larger portion of the population to their way of thinking. The regime's bombs have a way of making extremist thinking appear less extreme and this, coupled with an alienation from the "Westernized" urban Syria could lead to further divisions.

I hope I've managed to at least clarify and maybe answer some of your criticisms, and thanks again for stopping by.

Unknown said...

It would probably make a more entertaining thread if we could fight about it, but basically I agree with all your points.

You're right: it is the situation that has amplified the voices of the extremists, and all but silenced the voices of life-loving, ordinary Syrians. The war, the unimaginable horror of it, has pushed people towards the edges.

This makes it more important than ever to remember all the heroic ppl who have been drowned out by the brutality of the regime and the barbarity of ISIS – the grassroots activists still battling to keep 2011 ideals alive, the exiled and the disappeared, the volunteers providing humanitarian support to the displaced, the young media activists still doing their best to document atrocities, the educators struggling to keep schools open in places where the state has collapsed.

I don't think this is pointless naive idealism. Far from it. Syria’s civil society activists, and especially the grassroots leaders, are the only hope for building a functioning country out of the ruins over the next generation or two. If these people leave the field, then it really is just Assad or some variation of ISIS. And if they get forgotten or ignored, it becomes easier and easier for racists and assholes to argue “the Syrians / Arabs aren’t ready for democracy, they need dictators to hold off the extremists etc.”

Maysaloon said...

We need to continue this conversation over a coffee Daniel!

Unknown said...

Hi Maysaloon
It's my first time reading your blog. I did enjoy your articulation indeed but disagree with the content. I believe Daniel's early comment voiced many of my thoughts to your article. What you’re missing in your argument is dimension which is essential to put it in context and give much needed depth to the highly debatable Syrian crisis. This analysis is a mere black and white and, sorry to say, superficial approach that missed the truth in many instances. Daniel pretty much said it all. What I would add here is the political element in the Syrian revolution. The revolution has become the beast it’s become because it has been cunningly and destructively deployed to serve political interests of parties we all know.
What you may not know, Maysaloon, is that many of the people who joined the various parties did not have the freedom of choice you and I have over choosing a dish from the menu. Where the armed Islamic battalions settled in Ghotta, I don’t think anyone could have said: “I don’t believe in your ideology, Nusra Front, so I’ll form a representative office of ISIS in Duma”, for example. What you might not know too is that these parties, in fact all fighting parties in Syria, except probably for the very few remaining genuine revolutionists who are fighting for the mere goal of freedom, are well funded, and they pay handsomely for their recruits. So do you see Syrian people living in the hot conflict areas having much of a choice? With no work, no money, no means to survive and the fear of death if you’re ever even suspected to be from the “other party”.
You did portray Syrians on either ends of the spectrum and that’s not true. The grey areas though are always the widest in all aspects of life. And even though it’s true that wars pull people to either ends, but Syrians got polarised NOT because they’re prone to it by nature, but because they simply didn’t have much of a choice. It’s true that we had extremists and salafees who lived among us prior to war but they don’t form the percentage you spoke of, definitely not 50%! Otherwise you would’ve seen massive migrations to ISIS or Nusra Front territories, which has never happened.
We do have many ethical and social problems, I’m not saying Syrians are perfect in any way. And I do hold them liable, to an extent, for where things are now, I just wished you were more objective.
Thank you and keep on writing

Maysaloon said...

Thanks for stopping by Lara,

I think if you re-read my post and my replies to Daniel you'll find that it's precisely this lack of choice that Syrians have had since day one which has guaranteed the outcome we see today.

I've mentioned in an earlier comment that the war has polarized things to the point were many Syrians simply don't have that choice anymore, and this is something that Assad cultivated and promoted from day one.

I know this post has stirred some passions for people, but I think if you re-read it with an open mind you will see that we're agreeing with each other violently.

All the best and thanks for your thoughtful comment.