Archive for November 2016
Two posters juxtaposed.
A man impossibly crammed in a cage. “They struggled for our freedom,” reads the text, “so let’s struggle for theirs.”
Beside a noria, one of the ancient water-wheels of the ancient city of Hama, a child writes on a wall: “It will not happen again.” The phrase combines bitter irony and fierce defiance, for even as we read it we know that it has happened again, it is happening, and ten or a hundred times worse.
In 1982 there was a massacre in Hama. Its memory haunted and silenced Syrians until 2011. The massacre was a success for the regime, and therefore a model for its current policy.
An anti-regime movement began to organise in 1978. It wasn’t a mass movement of the scale and breadth of the 2011 revoution, but it included leftists, nationalists and democrats as well as Islamists. The regime responded with a dual policy of extreme repression and radicalisation of their opponents, murdering, torturing and imprisoning them en masse. By 1982 not much was left of the movement other than the radicalised armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which, mixing stupidity with desperation, took over Hama by force of arms.
The regime welcomed the confrontation as an opportunity to teach the country an unforgettable lesson. Making no distinction between civilians and insurgents, its army levelled the city’s historical districts with tank, artillery and aerial bombardment. With churches, mosques and markets burning, its soldiers went house to house, riddling whole families with bullets. Estimates of the dead range from ten to forty thousand. Many thousands more were killed elsewhere in the country.
Thousands of political prisoners were thrown into the country’s dungeons. Hundreds were hanged, shot, or otherwise murdered inside. The rest languished for decades without sufficient food, medical care, any comfort or hope. Their relatives feared to ask after them.
This review of Shiraz Maher’s book was first published at the National.
Currently under military pressure in Iraq and Syria, and still terrorising civilians far beyond those lands, ISIS has horrified and bewildered Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Its carefully studied barbarism and cinematic savagery seem to owe as much to Hollywood action movies and computer combat games as to classical Islamic jurisprudence. The furiously destructive passions of its adherents often appear insane.
ISIS is certainly immoral, but not entirely irrational. Its actions are rooted in specific political contexts and based on a greatly contested analysis of ancient and contemporary Islamic texts. Shiraz Maher’s magisterial “Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea” provides an “explanatory backstory” to this and other manifestations of what could be called in shorthand the al-Qaida tradition.
Salafists preach “progression through regression”, specifically a return to the practice of the first three generations of Muslims known as the salaf al-salih, or the ‘righteous predecessors’.
Although its antecedents go back at least to the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya, Salafism is a modern phenomenon – a traumatised response to modernity – developed in the last 150 years. There are ‘quietist’ and ‘activist’ strains, but Maher’s book focuses on the ‘violent-rejectionists’ who have risen to prominence even more recently. Their ascent since the early 1990s coincided with a decline in those varieties of political Islam which hoped to achieve power through reformist or democratic means. By this period, the Syrian and Egyptian wings of the Muslim Brotherhood had been crushed, Tunisia’s Ennahda movement suffered a harsh crackdown, the leaders of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa movement were imprisoned, and elections won by Islamists in Algeria were cancelled.
Maher quotes Trotsky’s dictum that “War is the locomotive of history”. The war sparked by the suspension of Algerian democracy, the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the wars in Iraq, and today’s conflict in Syria, constitute stations in the development of Salafi-Jihadism, a movement which is at once revolutionary and deeply reactionary.
Anyone near Exeter should make sure to visit Making Light’s exhibition Stories from Syria (and visit the website). I wrote three small texts to accompany some of the art work. Here’s the first:
Two posters made in early 2011.
One reads: “It’s civil disobedience. No excuse for silence after today.”
A figure grabs lines from a thumb print, and runs. The thumb print evokes ID cards and the whole machinery of state. The figure is fleeing surveillance, therefore, and defining his own identity as he does so. Have those lines transformed into sticks in his arms? Is he about to light a fire?
The figure in the second poster is trapped inside a ‘no entry’ road sign, either dismantling it, and by implication the political prohibitions in Syrian society, or saying ‘no’ himself, refusing orders.
The words in this one read: “Civil disobedience. I don’t obey the law of an illegitimate authority.” The sentence is a response to a regime poster campaign of the period. One of those official slogans read: “I obey the law.”
The revolutionary poster aims to force a dialogue where before there was only monologue. It answers back.
Before 2011, nobody answered back, at least not in public. Back then, veteran dissident (and long-term political prisoner) Riad al-Turk was entirely just when he called Syria a “kingdom of silence”.
Syrians were terrified to speak openly and honestly about domestic politics. Those who did either had to leave the country or were imprisoned for decades in the most brutal conditions. The state had ears and eyes everywhere, spies in every workplace, school and café. It owned all the tongues in the country, every newspaper, every radio and TV station. It decided which books were published and which films were shot. It dominated trades unions and universities and every last inch of the public space, even the graffiti on the walls.
In 2000, Bashaar al-Assad inherited power from his father Hafez. The new president’s neo-liberal (and crony-capitalist) economic reforms impoverished the countryside and city suburbs while excessively enriching a tiny elite. Rami Makhlouf, for instance, the president’s tycoon cousin, was estimated to control 60% of the national economy by 2011.
In the spring of 2011, Syrians refound their voices. Enmired in increasing poverty, rejecting the humiliations of unending dictatorship, lashing out against corruption, and encouraged by the Arab Spring uprisings nearby, they took to the streets.
Leila and I spoke at SOAS in London on the revolution in Aleppo, the committees and councils there, the women’s centres, free newspapers and education projects, the military leaders, as well as the Russian and Iranian occupations and their crimes.
It certainly isn’t the most coherent or time-organised talk we’ve done, but the event went very well (a great, engaged, diverse audience). You can listen to it here.