This old man has habitually kind eyes
but now he’s in a rage
arms flap cheeks bunch hands wave
If you burn the earth under us
we will not leave
If you kill us all
we will not leave
If you bury us
we will not leave
The victory of a man on the floor of a cell
or hung from the ceiling
who does not count
who no longer feels the blows
The victory of a woman
who knows her rapist’s honour is wrecked
of a child
who draws a picture of a different city
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I was happy to have a chance to adress the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Irish Parliament. I spoke about the crushing of the Syrian revolution and the Russian and Iranian occupation of Syria. You can read my address below.
Before me, the committee was addressed by a delegation of the Syrian regime, headed by the state Mufti, Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun. Hassoun has previously threatened Europe and America with an army of suicide bombers, and has specifically called for the civilians of liberated Aleppo to be bombed. It’s incredible that such a man can get a visa to a European country (unlike millions of desperate Syrians who are not terrorists), let alone address a parliament. Hassoun was also invited to Trinity College, and (most ironic of all) to sign some declaration ‘against extremism’.
Some argue that Hassoun should be heard in the interests of balance and free speech. I say that all Syrian perspectives should be heard, and that I would have no problem with a delegation of pro-Assad civilians making their case. My problem is with this official regime propaganda exercise, at a time when the regime and its backers are slaughtering and expelling civilians en masse. And of course the people who talk about balance and free speech in this case don’t apply the principle in all cases. I don’t see official representatives of ISIS being invited to make their case in these settings. And ISIS, monstrous as it is, has killed, raped, and tortured far, far fewer people than the Assad regime.
Thanks to the work of the wonderful people in the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement, the Irish people were alerted to Hassoun’s nature. This report was on the RTE news. In the Arab media, Asharq Al-Awsat, al-Quds al-Arabi and the New Arab have also covered Hassoun’s visit.
Here is the filmed record of the sessions, first Hassoun’s group, then me. And here is my address:
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.
I came across anarchism too late in life to start calling myself an anarchist. At earlier stages I’d enjoyed attaching labels to myself, like ‘leftist’, or ‘Arab’, or ‘Muslim’. I was never a great believer in any of them, but I tried.
When the Arab revolutions made politics real for me, I became suspicious of adopting any labels, given as they referred to me, and politics wasn’t about me any more, not about my fantasies of myself, my need to see myself as on the right side, or my ‘identity’. When the revolutions broke out, and then the counter-revolutions and wars, I understood that real politics concerns the actual struggles of real people in the real world. (I also understood that all identity politics is ultimately a distraction, and one most often used by those in power – or those who aim to achieve power – to divide and rule their subjects). I became suspicious of all grand narratives and all ideological frameworks which assumed there was a perfect solution to human problems as well as a clear path towards it.
So I’m not going to call myself an anarchist. And even if I wanted to, I probably couldn’t, because I am ultimately undecided on the question of whether people could do better without states and hierarchical authority. I’d like to believe that we could run complex modern societies on a horizontal basis more successfully than we do at present, but then I don’t know if I have that much faith in humanity. Perhaps we do need hierarchy of some sort to organise ourselves and to control our anti-social urges, and the best we can hope to do is reform and restrain the hierarchy. I don’t know. I need to read much more and think much more – and even when I do, if I decide I know for sure one way or the other, please ask me to check my arrogance. I’m not capable of knowing. None of us are.
I’ve written a book about Syria with someone who describes herself as an anarchist, and I agree with her on nearly everything. Plus I’ve found anarchists much less likely than leftists to be snagged by allegiance to some state or other. Their conversation on Syria is therefore likely to be much more interesting. At those book events we’ve done which were liberally salted by anarchists, in Seattle, for instance, or Toronto, the discussion was intelligent, nuanced, informed. Compassionate too. I admired the anarchists I met in Spain for several reasons. Most of them at least.
But then Noam Chomsky has been described as an anarchist. Here’s where I get confused, because Chomsky doesn’t usually (or ever?) adhere to what I think are anarchist principles.