February 11, 2016

Robin Yassin-Kassab

The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by politicians and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general, poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and Orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.

The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.

First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbors first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees.

Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe Russian president Vladimir Putin is funding far-right, anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the “Schengen” free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since the Second World War.

With 11 million homeless, traumatized people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.

And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organizing themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts more than 400 local councils, most democratically-elected, as well as many free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centers, and an explosion in artistic production.

We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.

These factors spurred me, a British-Syrian novelist, and Leila Al Shami, a British-Syrian activist, to write our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.

In place of inaccurate grand narratives we have amplified the voices of Syrian revolutionaries. Instead of sensationalism we have tried to provide context (for without context all we are left with is ideology and assumptions). This means that we also seek to explain the perspectives of those we disagree with – the different varieties of extremists, for instance, or pro-regime Alawites, who are often reluctantly driven to loyalty by fear and a lack of alternative leadership.

The following extract is taken from our chapter entitled ‘Scorched Earth: The Rise of the Islamisms’:

“We used to laugh at the regime propaganda about Salafist gangs and Islamic emirates. Then the regime created the conditions to make it happen.” – Monzer Al Sallal

Tormented, bereaved and dispossessed, the Syrian people turned more intensely to religion. This doesn’t mean they became advocates of public beheadings and compulsory veiling; almost all were horrified by the appearance of these phenomena and most still expressed the desire for a civil rather than an Islamic state. A minority, disgusted by the uses to which religion had been put, questioned it more intensely than before. But in general religious emotions were inflamed, religious references were reinforced.

The first cause was the same one which powered militarisation – the brute fact of extreme violence. In most cultures the proximity of death will focus minds on the transcendent – there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes – and more so in an already religious society like Syria’s. Faith is intensified by death and the threat of death, and by the pain and humiliation of torture. And when the nation is splintering, sub-national identities are reinforced. In death’s presence, people want to feel like we, not like I, because I is small and easily erased.

Source: The National.

Link: http://www.thenational.ae/arts-life/the-review/the-long-read-what-does-the-future-hold-for-syrias-people.

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