This was published at the National…
For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.
In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.
In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”
So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.
I am a signatory to this letter published by the Guardian.
As supporters of the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, we are concerned by the British government’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the crisis in Iraq (Shortcuts, G2, Iran, 18 June).
There is a grave danger that the Iranian government will see this as a licence to extend its already substantial intervention in Syria in support of its client – the Assad regime – which could not have survived this long without Iranian support.
Thousands of troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia are actively fighting in Syria on the regime’s side, as are Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias. To ally with Iran in order to combat Isis is deeply ironic, since there is considerable evidence that the Syrian regime has been colluding with Isis: Assad’s air force bombs civilians, schools, markets and hospitals without mercy but declined to attack Isis’s massive headquarters in Raqqa until the Iraq crisis erupted.
The Syrian regime has been playing a game of shadows in which this covert collusion with the growth of Isis has been used to undermine the democratic opposition and strengthen its own claim to be a bulwark against “terrorism”. To accept Iran – and by implication Bashar al-Assad – as allies in the fight against Isis is to fall for this deception.
Now that ISIS has supposedly taken over vast swathes of northern Iraq (in reality, ISIS is a small minority of the Sunni Arab forces that have risen against the Malki government), the newspapers are full of articles telling us that the West should align with Iran to defeat the common foe. Of course, Iran’s sectarian and aggressively expansionist policy in both Iraq and Syria is a major contributor to the rise of ISIS and similar groups. Working with Iran against ISIS is as intelligent as working with Hitler against anti-Semitism. I discussed the issue with Hayder al-Khoi and Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight.
I spent the last eight days on tour with Syria’s greatest novelist Khaled Khalifa, artist Khalil Younis, and writers Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen. We were promoting the Syria Speaks book, a collection of art, cartoons, essays, short stories and novel extracts from revolutionary Syria. It felt useful to approach the subject through human stories rather than banging the head against the tired old political discourses. I’m writing about the tour and book for a piece which should be published next month. In the meantime, here on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Khaled, Malu and I discuss the new culture, Khaled’s experience under bombs, and the ISIS phenomenon.
I and lots of other writers participated in this BBC radio 4 programme on ‘British Muslim writing’. The programme is written and presented by Yasmin Hai. Those interested in this may also be interested in Clare Chambers’s book “British Muslim Fictions“.
Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.
Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.
From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.
The officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces and the security agencies – the real powers running the country – were almost exclusively Alawi. This ‘empowerment’ of the community arguably reversed its growing acceptance by the Sunni majority. Once despised, Alawis were now feared and resented. It was also the reason why the regime found it necessary to reduce Alawi identity to its Ba‘athist, or more properly Assadist, component. Because the regime depended on Alawis for its survival, it was potentially at their mercy. Therefore it needed to ensure that no alternative source of authority existed within the community, so independent Alawi shaikhs were killed, imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated into silence. The president’s brother Jameel, unqualified to say the least, attempted to make himself a spiritual leader in their place. Against the urging of the clerics, Alawi doctrines were not studied in universities. Religious education in schools centred on Sunni tenets and rituals (Christian students had their own classes). The president prayed Sunni-style in public, and Alawis were encouraged to give up their difference and build mosques and to go on Haj.
An edited version of this review was published at the Guardian. I like the Guardian’s books section and its G2 section, not least because they sometimes pay me to write. I also like some of their brave correspondents, such as Martin Chulov. What I don’t like at all is the idiotic, orientalist, conspiratorial, fact-free, and sometimes racist narrative against the revolutions in Syria and Libya which is so common in the Guardian’s comment sections. Blanket-thinking statist leftists like Seamus Milne and Jonathan Steele dominate, alongside talentless and ignorant polemicists like Tariq Ali. The last lines of my review target people like them, who are unfortunately influential in ‘liberal’ Britain. I am not at all surprised that the Guardian cut these lines from the review, although I name no names. These lines: “….the new Islamophobia of sections of the left, the notion that US imperialism and ‘al-Qa’ida’ are in league to destabilise imagined ‘secular’, ‘resistance’ regimes. Those who defended Iraqi Islamists in the Blair years now point to the Allahu Akbar chant as evidence of an agenda far more benighted than that of the genocidal neo-liberal dictatorships.” (I just spoke to the good man who commissioned the piece. He says the issue was space in the print edition. Fair enough. But why cut the lines which apply to Guardianistas?)
Arun Kundnani’s “The Muslims Are Coming”, vastly more intelligent than the usual ‘war on terror’ verbiage, focusses on the war’s domestic edge in Britain and America.
Kundnani’s starting point is this: “Terrorism is not the product of radical politics but a symptom of political impotence.” The antidote therefore seems self-evident: “A strong, active, and confident Muslim community enjoying its civic rights to the full.” Yet policy on both sides of the Atlantic has ended by criminalising Muslim opinion, silencing speech, and increasing social division. These results may make political violence more, not less, likely.
The assumptions and silences of the counter-radicalisation industry end up telling us far more about particular ideological subsections of Anglo-American culture than they do about the Muslims targetted. The two dominant security approaches to Muslim citizens described by Kundnani – ‘culturalist’ and ‘reformist’ –focus on ideology rather than socio-political grievances.
Culturalism’s best-known proponent is Bernard Lewis, Dick Cheney’s favourite historian, who locates the problem as Islam itself, a totalitarian ideology-culture incompatible with democratic modernity. So Mitt Romney explains the vast divergence between Israeli and Palestinian economies thus: “Culture makes all the difference” – and decades of occupation, ethnic cleansing and war make none. Writer Christopher Caldwell believes residents of the Paris Banlieu rioted in 2005 because they were Muslims (although many weren’t), and not because of unemployment, poor housing, and police violence. Perhaps the silliest culturalist intervention was Martin Amis’s “The Second Plane”, where Amis breezily admitted he knew nothing of geopolitics but claimed authority nevertheless from his expertise in ‘masculinity’ – 9/11 was explained by Islamic sexual frustration. Such discourses are part of an influential tradition of silliness. In 1950s colonial Kenya, psychiatrist JC Carothers understood the Mau Mau uprising as “not political but psycho-pathological”.