Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Blanket Thinkers

with 45 comments

Yarmouk camp demonstrates

One of my infantile leftist ex-friends recently referred to the Free Syrian Army as a ‘sectarian gang’. The phrase may well come from Asa’ad Abu Khalil, who seems to have a depressingly large audience, but it could come from any of a large number of blanket thinkers in the ranks of the Western left. I admit that I sometimes indulged in such blanket thinking in the past. For instance, I used to refer to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as ‘US client states’, as if this was all to be said about them. I did so in angry response to the mainstream Western media which referred to pro-Western Arab tyrannies as ‘moderate’; but of course Qatar and Saudi Arabia have their own, competing agendas, and do not always behave as the Americans want them to. This is more true now, in a multipolar world and in the midst of a crippling economic crisis in the West, than it was ten years ago. Chinese workers undertaking oil and engineering projects in the Gulf are one visible sign of this shifting order.

(My talk of ‘infantile leftists’ does not include the entire left of course. Simon Assaf of the Socialist Workers, for instance, understands what’s happening. So does Max Blumenthal. And many others.)

The problem with blanket thinkers is that they are unable to adapt to a rapidly shifting reality. Instead of evidence, principles and analytical tools, they are armed only with ideological blinkers. Many of the current crop became politicised by Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, two cases in which the imperialist baddy is very obviously American. As a result, they read every other situation through the US-imperialist lens.

Qaddafi had opened up Libyan oilfields to Western exploitation, he bought Western weapons, and he tortured rendered suspects for the CIA. Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the Libyans rose against the tyranny with incredible courage. When Britain and France, for their own reasons, helped to hasten the end by degrading Qaddafi’s mercenary forces (important but not decisive help – Qaddafi’s fall was effected by a rising in Tripoli and an influx of fighters from the Jebel Nafusa), blanket thinkers very insultingly painted the popular revolution as a foreign plot. Some even retrospectively raised Qaddafi to the rank of anti-imperialist hero. And since the fall of the old regime they’ve done everything they can to paint Libya as a failed state, a site of genocide, a new Iraq. It’s pretty insulting to Iraq as well as to Libya.

The fact that politics and civil society were effectively banned for decades, and the fact that Qaddafi imposed a civil war on his people, traumatising them and causing thousands of young men to take up arms, means that the new Libya faces imense problems. This is not news. Whenever a dictatorship ends violently, all the problems which have been repressed will burst forth. It’s like taking the lid off a steam cooker: all the good and evil in the society, all the intelligence and stupidity that was previously hidden, will spill out. This is not an argument for keeping the dictatorship. Several hundred have been killed in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi, mainly in battles between rival militias. Sometimes this has had a tribal or revenge aspect, but there has been no Iraq-style ethnic cleansing. There is a small separatist movement in the east. Fringe Islamist extremist groups have made a lot of noise. Many of the armed young men are reluctant to give up their arms. But there has been a very successful election. If the new government is able to absorb the militias into a national army and to resolve tribal, regional and other disputes within an accepted political process, Libya can look forward to a much better future. Opinion polls and conversations with Libyans show that an overwhelmingly large majority are happy that Qaddafi has gone and are optimistic about the future. But what does Libyan opinion matter to blanket thinkers?

After 17 months of slaughter in Syria, there is no no-fly zone. The extent of Western and ‘client’ intervention is this: Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be providing a small amount of light weaponry. The Turks may be helping to coordinate the weapons deliveries. The CIA appears to have a few men on the ground watching where the weapons are going and hoping (vainly) to ensure that they’ll never end up in the hands of anti-Zionist militants. On the other side stands a nakedly sectarian regime which considers its people slaves and murders them and destroys their cities with Russian weapons. Imperialist Russia, which has oppressed Muslims in the Caucuses and central Asia, and which bears half the blame for all the Cold War hot wars in Africa, is resupplying the regime with attack helicopters, tank parts and ammunition as the death toll surpasses seventeen thousand. Russia also protects the regime from condemnation at the UN security council. It plays the same role with regards to Syria that the United States plays with Israel. But how do the blanket thinkers see the situation? For them it’s yet another clear cut case of American imperialist aggression against a noble resistance regime, and once again the people are passive tools.

At best they are passive tools. They are also depicted as wild Muslims, bearded and hijabbed, who do not deserve democracy or rights because they are too backward to use them properly. Give them democracy and they’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, and slaughter the Alawis and drive the Christians to Beirut. The blanket thinkers search for evidence of crimes committed by the popular resistance, and when they find them (usually on very flimsy evidence) they use them to smear the entire movement. They demand the resistance negotiate with a regime which has proved again and again that its only strategy is slaughter. They demand that the people remain peaceful as their children are tortured, their women raped, their neighbourhoods levelled. Leftist blanket thinkers do not apply the same criteria to the popular resistance of the Palestinians. It’s Zionists who do that.

To call the Free Syrian Army a sectarian gang is tantamount to calling the Syrian people a sectarian gang. It betrays a willed ignorance of reality. The FSA was formed in response to the sickening violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime, which at this stage is certainly a sectarian gang. Its Alawi military units work with armed Alawi civilians to slaughter Sunnis. This is a disaster for the Alawis and everyone else; it sows the seeds of a potential war which would destroy the country for generations, and it’s one of the first reasons why the regime must go as soon as possible. But the FSA is in reality hundreds of local militias which sometimes cooperate. It consists of defected soldiers (these people are heroes – they fled the army at huge personal risk because they were unable to stomach murdering their people; most soldiers who try to defect are killed before they leave base) and local men who have taken up arms to defend their neighbourhoods. Because the FSA is made of ordinary men, it covers an enormous range of political opinion. Some fighters are disillusioned Baathists, some are secularists, some leftists, some support the Muslim Brotherhood and some are attracted by extremist Wahhabi rhetoric. Some, I’m sure, are criminals, because some of the Syrian people are criminal. Some will be in it in the hopes of financial or sexual profit, because that’s the way people are.

Most are apolitical people, except for the fact that they want to bring down the tyranny. They fight because they have no choice. Of course, there is a huge danger that apolitical people will be easily manipulated by sectarian rhetoric, especially given that their enemy instrumentalises sectarianism. This is certainly a difficult period for revolutions in the Muslim world and internationally. The collapse of leftist thinking and reach, and the shrinking of public debate by dictatorships and consumerism, has left the way open to retrograde forms of religious or nationalist politics. Some of the battle videos labelled ‘Free Syrian Army’ look and sound depressingly similar to jihadist videos from Iraq. But for now it’s mainly a problem of style and ignorance, and it can easily be misinterpreted by an orientalist eye. Most Syrian people are religious, whether we like it or not. But most Syrian people are also aware that a sectarian war would produce no winners. The Allahu Akbar chant expresses a faith which is necessary to overcome the fear of being shot. It doesn’t autmomatically mean ‘Kill the Kuffar’. (But who am I talking to? The Palestinians use religious rhetoric and talk about ‘the Jews’ rather than ‘the Zionists’, and it doesn’t bother the blanket thinkers for a moment).

The longer the necessary fight goes on the more brutalised the people will become, and the more likely that vengeful sectarian voices will dominate. It is the duty of any right-thinking person, leftist or otherwise, to support the oppressed people in their struggle. Anyone who does so, and who respects the Syrians enough to base their comments on knowledge rather than assumption, will have earned the right to offer political advice to the Syrians.

The FSA is inevitably disorganised and outgunned. But it’s a lot more organised than it was a few months ago, and it is liberating territory. It fights with commitment and incredible resilience. Today the battle is in inner Damascus.

And a few days ago it was in the Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, which brings me finally to the strange fact that blanket thinkers persist in thinking of the Syrian regime as in some way a threat to Israel. It’s true that Syria helped Hizbullah stand firm, and this is not a small thing. It’s also true that the Syrian regime has massacred Palestinians in Tel Zaatar and other Lebanese camps, that since 1973 the border with the occupied Golan has been quieter than borders with states enjoying peace agreements with Israel, and that Syria has never even tried to shoot at the Israeli planes which have bombed its territory since Bashaar inherited power. But things have become clearer since the uprising began. Rami Makhlouf told the New York Times that Israeli security depended on the Syrian regime’s security.

Paul Woodward at War in Context quotes Reuters on the regime’s recent transportation of chemical weapons: An Israeli official said however the movements reflected an attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to make “arrangements to ensure the weapons do not fall into irresponsible hands”.

“That would support the thinking that this matter has been managed responsibly so far.”

Woodward then comments: So, while the word from Damascus is that “terrorists” armed with “Israeli-made machine guns” conducted the massacre in Tremseh yesterday, the word from Tel Aviv is that Syria’s chemical weapons are nothing to worry about so long as they remain in the responsible hands of the government.

There might be a certain amount of truth in that statement. Still, it’s not exactly the rhetoric one might expect from a representative of an alliance that is supposedly gunning for Assad’s downfall. On the contrary, it reflects the fact that Israel would be much happier to see Assad remain in power.

Here’s a simpler proposition for the blanket thinkers: Hizbullah won victories because it respects its people, because it is of its people. A regime which murders its people and destroys the national infrastructure, which plays with the dynamite of sectarian conflict and puts the whole people’s future in question, would be incapable of winning a victory even if it wanted to.

On Friday tens of thousands protested against regime barbarism in the Palestinian camps of Damascus. Regime forces opened fire, murdering eleven. Many more were dragged from their homes to be tortured in detention. Professional liar and regime spokesman Jihad Maqdisi then described Palestinians as ‘impolite guests,’ outraging Syrians and Palestinians, who are the same people, now more than ever.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Libya, Syria

Tagged with

45 Responses

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  1. An excellent article that gets straight to the heart of how alot of the leftists and may I add islamaphobes perceive the Syrian civil war. Hope this is published in a major newspaper

    Hani

    July 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm

  2. congratulation.it is an excellent article.

    hussein el jisr

    July 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm

  3. [...] Qunfuz [...]

  4. Excellent analysis. You know something is wrong when, on Syria, leftist blanket thinkers find common ground with right wing racists and Islamophobes.

    Rabi Tawil

    July 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm

  5. What did the author mean by “sexual profit” ?

    Tamim

    July 16, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    • You know… some rebels are thinking it will get them laid, impressing women with their bravery.

      Sam

      July 17, 2012 at 12:30 am

  6. Yes, what a treat it would be for the Third Way slayers like Amal Sa’ad-Ghorayeb to write intelligibly on the events in Yabrouk, or to accept a call from a resident witness, and explain the resulting testimony within a Leninist trope of Resistance uber alles.

    Thanks for articulating what may root part of the irrealism of the slayers, the ideologically pure. Even without naming names I think we know who you are talking about, the leaders of this opinion front, and their inhumanity in the face of oppression. When Assad is gone, who and what will they stand with? What weird leftist filter will they apply to the programmes of new leadership in the new Syria?

    Bill Scherk

    July 16, 2012 at 9:34 pm

  7. Very nice article. Its clarity is much appreciated.

    Few in the Arab world will miss Assad. Having learned from hard experience to see through their own leaders’ rhetoric long ago, they seem far more attuned than these so-called leftists as to what is really going on.

    And bravo to Qatar and especially Turkey for offering what help they can.

    eatbees

    July 17, 2012 at 12:27 am

  8. Same conclusion, different route: http://mneumann.tripod.com/devils2.html

    intensional

    July 17, 2012 at 5:08 am

  9. [...] Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, is the latest to join the fray. In a post on his Qunfuz blog (it’s Arabic for “hedgehog”), he decries “blanket thinkers” from [...]

  10. [...] Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, is the latest to join the fray. In a post on his Qunfuz blog (it’s Arabic for “hedgehog”), he decries “blanket thinkers” from [...]

  11. Congratulations on a very good article, and many thanks for not including me as part of the “infantile left”.

    Simon Assaf

    July 17, 2012 at 9:29 am

    • thanks for not being part of it, Simon!

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      July 17, 2012 at 10:32 am

  12. [...] Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, is the latest to join the fray. In a post on his Qunfuz blog (it’s Arabic for “hedgehog”), he decries “blanket thinkers” from [...]

  13. This article is little more than a self-important screed (or a rant, if you’re a little less polite).

    In it, the author does nothing but express a personal narrative.

    It contains no real facts to back up his claims; has no real point other than to criticise others; offers no insight that differentiates it from the “blanket thinkers” the author seems to hate so much.

    It’s just that his thinking is covered by a blanket of slightly different colour.

    billyzand

    July 17, 2012 at 9:49 am

  14. Wonderful piece, thanks Robin.

    Harvey Burgess

    July 17, 2012 at 10:26 am

  15. [...] Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, is the latest to join the fray. In a post on his Qunfuz blog (it’s Arabic for “hedgehog”), he decries “blanket thinkers” from [...]

  16. [...] Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, is the latest to join the fray. In a post on his Qunfuz blog (it’s Arabic for “hedgehog”), he decries “blanket thinkers” from [...]

  17. [...] By Robin Yassin-Kassab. Originally published by Qunfuz. [...]

    Blanket “Thinkers”

    July 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm

  18. I hope you don’t mind that The North Star republished this with some pics and video:
    http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=1223

    I wrote along similar lines against blanket thinking (otherwise known as “knee jerk anti-imperialism”) here:
    http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=1097

    Binh

    July 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm

  19. Excellent article, as a Palestinian leftist one who shares similar ideals to Abu khalil, I think that it would be natural to support the Syrian revolution with some reservation to armed resistance as you don’t want the supply of weapons to create followship. I can understand that these people are trying to worn against a revolution that would put an American base in Syria.like the gulf but forget that the reason why people impose that to begin with is because thats unrepresentative of the people, the regime in this case also does not represent the people. One must not be blind nor by idiogy or the pursuit of freedom.

    Sami khalidi

    July 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  20. Thanks for a consistently clear, admirably subjective and well-argued take. I feel like this blog has helped me pick through the thicket of confusion and despair surrounding Syria with a bit more ease. If I can add one more argument against blanket thinking – especially as a relative newcomer to the politics of the Middle East – it might be humility. Not always the crowning virtue of the blogosphere, no doubt. But if you cannot with honesty come within miles of putting yourself in the shoes of any of the participants in the current turmoil, you are probably better off not filling them with stereotypes instead.

    rhodriwilliams

    July 17, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    • beautifully put, rhodri.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      July 18, 2012 at 2:31 am

  21. Hi Robin, I only got to the place where you yourself begin the blanket thinking, i.e. generalising hugely, in what you write about Russia, and decided I will give the rest of your article a try later.

    Would like to state that civil wars and dictatorships are two different phenomena. I come from Finland, which never had dictatorship but did have one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern Europe. It was a tragedy and you should never wish for it, nor see it as a positive ‘letting off the steam’ kind of thingy.

    Comparing Iraq and Libya is not justified. There was no active internal conflict in Iraq when it was occupied in 2003 and all the chaos was the result of that occupation (and the weakness of the authoritarian regime when faced with an invasion).

    delfipi

    July 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    • if you read carefully you’ll see that instead of comparing iraq and libya, i complain about blanket thinkers doing so, although the 2003 invasion was an invasion followed by an occupation and did not come in the context of a popular revolution. a closer reading will also help you to understand that my analysis is that the regime is provoking a civil war. that’s why i hope the regime falls as soon as possible. My image was of steam escaaping from a pressure cooker. that’s different from the ‘letting off steam’ image, which means something like recreation.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      July 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm

  22. To carry your political physics lesson further, pressure cookers have valves that relieve the internal pressure, otherwise it would explode. Authoritarian regimes know this well and offer crumbs of reforms disguised as benevolence, or nationalist rhetoric to divide the populace, thus easing the popular political pressure below the exploding point. Syrian farmers faced problems with a four-year drought and demonstrated for government support, but Assad’s “benevolence” well had run dry. He chose to over-react and created his own self-destructive cauldron.

    Thanks, Robin, for a very well done piece filled with analytical morsels to chew on. There is no room for blanket-thinking from right or left, as those approaches are neither instructive nor constructive in resolving the different issues–and nuances within each issue–apparent in the multi-dimensional make-up of the Syrian revolt. Please keep your thoughts coming.

    Eldon M.

    July 18, 2012 at 5:54 pm

  23. “Imperialist Russia, which has oppressed Muslims in the Caucuses (sic) and central Asia, and which bears half the blame for all the Cold War hot wars in Africa, is resupplying the regime with attack helicopters, tank parts and ammunition as the death toll surpasses seventeen thousand. Russia also protects the regime from condemnation at the UN security council….”

    This is an interesting piece. The way in which you elide Czarist, Soviet and the current Russian regimes can be explained, I suspect, but here it isn’t. This smacks of demagogy.

    The “neither Washington nor Moscow” tone of your claim that Russia, (the USSR of course, you mean) was equally culpable for all “the Cold War hot wars” is straight out of the imperialist apologia for colonial repression book. It is not close to being true. Worse, it is very unlikely: the USSR had no colonies and very little to lose in Africa, during the cold war, whilst the French, British, Belgians and Portuguese and the various colon regimes fought ruthlessly to preserve their plunder. Ask an African.

    Yes, Russia is resupplying the Syrian regime. Just as other countries are supplying the various insurgencies. You dramatise the one and minimise the importance of the other.

    This is an apology for imperialism, not the Czar’s or the potential imperialism of an aggressive Russia or a n emboldened China, but the actually existing imperialism which has Iraq and Afghanistan in its maw and is drooling over the prospect of devouring Iran, next.

    And how do you anticipate legitimising that?

    bevin

    July 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm

  24. [...] Yassin-Kassab has written an article on what he describes as the ‘infantile leftists’ and their blanket judgements on the Syria [...]

  25. [...] Blanket Thinkers www.qunfuz.com [...]

  26. If it is “blanket thinking” to recognize that United Snakes-centered imperialism and the international capitalist class it is the policeman for are overwhelmingly the main enemy of humanity and the planetary ecosystem, then we need to distribute more of those ‘blankets’ around the world.

    And I find “infantile” leftism far preferable to “grown-up” conciliation with imperialism. This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m going to agree with everything that this author attributes to an “infantile leftist”. In particular, I wouldn’t refer to the ‘Free Syrian Army’ as a ‘sectarian gang’ because I don’t have enough information to make that judgement. But I’ve seen even less information that would convince me that they are ‘revolutionaries’.

    Aaron Aarons

    July 22, 2012 at 9:31 am

  27. Thanks Robin for your searing indictment of Western leftists who scab on the people’s revolution in Syria. As an editor of kiaoragaza.net I have posted your article on our website, the voice of the New Zealand network Kia Ora Gaza which delivers humanitarian aid to Gaza that breaks the Israeli siege. It’s posted here: http://kiaoragaza.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/wests-left-damning-syrian-revolt-are-blanket-thinkers/

    kiaoragaza

    July 23, 2012 at 8:31 am

    • What is a “people’s revolution”? Aren’t all revolutions, regardless of their political or class character, made by ‘people’? What is the political and/or class character of the Syrian uprising?

      IMO, people who cheer for a putative revolution without asking such questions are “blanket thinkers” with a very fuzzy blanket.

      Note that I am NOT characterizing the forces involved in Syria. I’d like to know who and what they are before I start cheering them. And, unless I can discover a genuinely left force there that I and other leftists can materially help, my main activity in regard to Syria will be to oppose any intervention by Western imperialism and its reactionary regional junior partners, in particular the Saudis and the other Gulf monarchies. If those local powers are acting somewhat independently of the main imperialists, it is a matter of their being “more Catholic than the Pope”.

      Aaron Aarons

      July 26, 2012 at 8:04 am

  28. [...] P.S. If you’re interested in what has been happening in Syria over the past few days, you could do worse than to read this overview, followed by this analysis, followed by this context, followed by this appraisal. [...]

  29. [...] the terrain on which the regime is the strongest. Nonetheless, there is in some of this a type of ‘blanket thinking’ that one commonly encounters, in which a signposted quality of one organisation, or faction within [...]

  30. In response to Aaron Aarons: You must be a great leftist! I’m untruly impressed. Karl Marx talked about “people’s revolutions” and you, in effect, have put him right! Great stuff Aaron! You’re more Catholic than the Pope, okay!? Right on, sister!

    kiaoragaza

    July 26, 2012 at 8:22 am

  31. [...] the analysis is mistaken. There is a tendency which Robin Yassin-Kassab has identified as “blanket-thinking“, which is to take a quality of an element within a given organisation and treat it as [...]

  32. [...] 3- Blanket Thinkers by Robin Yassin Qassab: To call the Free Syrian Army a sectarian gang is tantamount to calling the Syrian people a sectarian gang. It betrays a willed ignorance of reality. The FSA was formed in response to the sickening violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime, which at this stage is certainly a sectarian gang. Its Alawi military units work with armed Alawi civilians to slaughter Sunnis. This is a disaster for the Alawis and everyone else; it sows the seeds of a potential war which would destroy the country for generations, and it’s one of the first reasons why the regime must go as soon as possible. But the FSA is in reality hundreds of local militias which sometimes cooperate. It consists of defected soldiers (these people are heroes – they fled the army at huge personal risk because they were unable to stomach murdering their people; most soldiers who try to defect are killed before they leave base) and local men who have taken up arms to defend their neighbourhoods. Because the FSA is made of ordinary men, it covers an enormous range of political opinion. Some fighters are disillusioned Baathists, some are secularists, some leftists, some support the Muslim Brotherhood and some are attracted by extremist Wahhabi rhetoric. Some, I’m sure, are criminals, because some of the Syrian people are criminal. Some will be in it in the hopes of financial or sexual profit, because that’s the way people are. [...]

  33. [...] http://qunfuz.com/2012/07/16/blanket-thinkers/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Published: August 7, 2012 Filed Under: Uncategorized [...]

  34. [...] Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, is the latest to join the fray. In a post on his Qunfuz blog (it’s Arabic for “hedgehog”), he decries “blanket thinkers” from [...]

  35. [...] the analysis is mistaken. There is a tendency which Robin Yassin-Kassab has identified as “blanket-thinking“, which is to take a quality of an element within a given organisation and treat it as [...]

  36. [...] support the Bahraini revolution but not the Syrian, or vice versa, for sectarian reasons or out of blanket thinking (of course, sectarianism is a form of blanket thinking). And many of those who are quite correctly [...]

  37. […] issue. He blogs at http://qunfuz.com/. I particularly urge people to look at his article titled “Blanket Thinkers” that […]


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