What’s missing from the Syrian revolutionary discourse? Analysis

Posted: 09/10/2012 by editormary in Counter-terrorism, No thanks!, Europe, Grassroots Activism, Internet and Communication, Iran, Maps, Middle East, Palestine, People's Movements / Struggles, Rant / Musings / Discussion, Resistance, Syria, War

By Wissam Al Jazairy

There are two ways of experiencing a social upheaval of epic proportions: directly or indirectly. Naturally, if one is directly affected by restrictions, uprisings, detention, revolution, attacks, blockades, shortages of utilities, medicine and food, migration and so forth, they are going to be connected to the event in a visceral way and this of course helps to define the nature of the event as being positive or negative.  There is a DIRECT relationship between what is happening and an improvement or a worsening in their lives. It is a relationship that is dependent upon reality and the “timeline” of their narrative is going to be “before” the event and “after” it. There is little abstraction going on, as, for example, you simply know that “before” you lived in your home and “after”, you were marching towards a refugee camp because not only your home, but your entire town no longer exists, and you know who did that to you as well!  No one has to inform you that this is a bad situation. No ideology could ever be more meaningful to you than the fact that your life has been totally changed (for the worse) from what it was before.

It’s obvious that those who live outside areas of upheaval are not going to have these experiences in order to judge the events, and judging them is what we tend to do naturally if we are “activists”. We tend to see them in a bigger picture and part of a greater struggle. Therefore, as indirectly involved, we have a few choices at our disposal. We can view events (and people) in a prism that comforts us or at least fits into what we think we already know (our ideology or beliefs), we can take the road of empathy and identify with the persons directly involved, we can remain indifferent, uninvolved and choose to ignore any information until it DOES directly involve us, if it ever would have that destiny. We can even attempt to tightrope walk in a combination of all of them, depending upon our mood, our social interactions, our interests.

Then there are degrees of indirect involvement. It often relates to the concept of “identity politics”: where a person relates to an event according to a perceived degree of identification with those directly involved in any event. Taking the Syrian uprising into consideration in this paper, it is clear that all Syrians around the world have a connection to Syria and have its interests at heart. I doubt that there is even one Syrian who washes his or her hands of the entire situation, even if they may find themselves on diametrically opposed sides. However, one important matter must be acknowledged: that there are indeed persons who are directly affected and whose lives have been shattered, and that the facts supporting the amount of destruction, the number of deaths and refugees and even the dynamics of the various massacres can in no way be denied. It is beyond ridiculous to imagine that we can turn back the clock to a time when we were not connected in real time, when news of massacres only reached a small public in whispered tones, knowing that the details were too horrible to even be believed. Any town in the world that has some sort of access to communication is fully able to see documents such as photographs and films of the real events happening in Syria at this very minute. They can judge if there are protests, battles, massacres by what they see.

Dealing with cognitive dissonance

There is actually a tricky part of this whole thing though: if we AREN’T directly involved, whatever decision we make will turn out to be an ethical choice. Unless we are completely alienated and detached from the suffering of others, not to mention living in a vacuum, the suffering going on in Syria smacks us in the face day after day and hour after hour. If the sight of torture, destruction and death makes us feel bad, chances are we are normal and we will experience some level of cognitive dissonance. We know that things we are witnessing (or being shown) are “bad” or even “unacceptable” or “evil”, depending on our linguistic habits, but since we are not in the habit of outspokenly endorsing evident ethnic cleansing and carpet bombing of Arab cities and villages, we may find ourselves taking refuge in the cosy world of “punditry” and “analysis”, where the idea and intention (real or imagined) bears more weight than isolated events (even if they are repeated thousands and hundreds of thousands of times). It is clear that punditry is the easiest road for the self-identifying human rights activist, because we all have a body of literature that slips all events into a meta-narrative (in the case of punditry that calls itself “anti-imperialist”, but is actually the sum equivalent of counter-revolutionary thought, where the leader is preferred and supported over the rebelling masses for perceived value he has in an ideological framework) and we can selectively analyse specific events in order to prove our points and especially settle our painful cognitive dissonance.

It’s a bit of a disaster though, because it assumes that the indirect experience, nay, the ANALYSIS is actually more relevant than the direct experience. It puts us in the even MORE uncomfortable position of being the “great white hope”, the one who “knows better than “the other” what’s Best for the Other”, though we attempt to not let that fact bother us, as we are cognisant that most of us are unwilling and unable to leave the comfort of the West and its trappings such as banks, iPads and all the pluggable things we adore more than humans. We have the opportunity of justifying what we normally would not be able to justify by means of adopting a “more important” ideological stance, and we assume others will be able to understand that we are not any kind of privileged person, but instead we benefit of our years of activism and awareness and just plain “intelligence”, seeing things ordinary folk can’t see!

A few anti-interventionists in London are selective about what intervention they reject

In addition to our ability to be physically far from war, we are even lucky enough to have the assistance of critical distance, the only thing that allows analysis and lets us paint over the grey areas (we can decide even which meta-narrative we can focus on, tailoring our interventions to our public. If the consumers of punditry are Westerners like us, (as 90% of them are) we can assume they do not want to be involved in interventionist wars (Western intervention, that is) and they will respond to a group of code words, they will take on and utilise in discourse new ones such as “sectarian” without requiring mental strain of figuring out if this is truly the case in point. We can vary the theme a bit by going for the generic pacifism/no war framework if the complexities of historical events in mass movements in the Arab world is beyond our grasp. And there is a beauty to all of this: we can still consider ourselves as superior ethical beings, because we are not ignoring (and we would never admit we are facilitating something negative!) the situation, but instead we can remain great humanitarian activists who are looking out for the best interests in those populations who do not have the dialectical positions we have. We resolve our painful cognitive dissonance and at the same time give ourselves hefty pats on the backs for being so very clever and anti-imperialist.

I believe I am like most of the others reading this: not directly involved, but not able to avoid the empathic response of shock and disgust at the violence, yet also deeply entrenched in my “activist identity” that seeks to analyse what is seen within a larger framework. This means that I am a consumer of punditry, and for better or worse, the vast majority of it is done by those who might move onto the next “hot spot”, and that means that whatever the outcome, it’s not going to affect them personally, because it’s someone else’s lives, someone else’s country. So, the logical assumption is that if you are not personally involved, your stakes in the situation are completely different than those who are involved, and your “personal” stakes may not at all be lofty ideals such as “saving the Arab people from the evil empire”, since the evidence that imperial interests are the driving force in the uprising of the Syrian people is nil. The personal stakes may quite simply be learning to live with yourself after seeing what is objectively “unacceptable” violence committed by the regime with very little excuse for this except that they CAN.

How is that done? Simple! Claim that the justification of the violence is a greater cause or that “both sides” commit unacceptable deeds. The fact that you will always find a bit of evidence to justify that thesis comes in handy, and it avoids the need to actually ANALYSE, but to stick selected evidence into a pre-conceived analysis. You can use even contradict yourself, no one is keeping score! If in January there was NO such thing as Al Qaeda, in August they can be the driving force of the “rebels”.  If you spent years stressing the absolute right of the Palestinians to select for themselves parties that are overtly Islamic, no one will spend too much effort to point out the hypocrisy of determining that Assad “needs” to stay in power to guarantee a Secular Syria. No one will point out the vaguely Islamophobic comments that you might make as you lump all the freedom fighters into the “Salafist” bag. And do not worry that people are going to argue that the concept of a wider “homeland” has always been a part of uprisings in the Arab world, that the Umma should at least theoretically participate in the struggles and armed conflicts where called upon.

The kitsch aesthetic reigns supreme in self-styled pundits

If you are like me, you have read dozens of articles that bear lots of information but almost no factual data. Much of this information is by self-styled pundits, quite kitschy most of the time, who have no direct access to information, and what they actually do is pass off regime dispatches as being their independent analysis. RT, Press TV and Global Research are going to tell you about hundreds (and at times thousands) of troops of Libyan soldiers fighting in Syria, but that is pretty much all you will ever find out about them, though meaningless and fact-deprived mega titles like this will float from article to article:

The “Free Syrian Army” is Al Qaeda, led, armed, funded by Western-backed LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) terrorists.

No need to prove any of that! Just saying it is enough, and throw in the word “terrorist” referred to Arab fighters and you can actually take almost any analysis by the Neocon Think Tanks and arrange it to suit your needs.

And this is the problem: Those who are closer to the revolution / uprising because they identify with the persons actually undergoing these events are reacting empathically, humanely and emotionally. They believe that it is sufficient to show the world what is going on and human decency will do the rest, will stop saying “this is unacceptable” and will MAKE it unaccepted. Those who are farthest away, whose involvement with it is fickle, transitory and laden with the cognitive dissonance that forces them to justify atrocities are the ones analysing the situation. They are not presenting all that is seen, but are clipping out those things that support the effort they are making in order to continue to back a regime that is objectively engaged in violence against a civilian population that is obscene. They will point to the Palestinian cause, repeating the regime’s slogans that have no support in truth! It is clear that if the regime has shelled the Palestinian refugee camps (bringing about destruction and also the death of over 400 Palestinians) because these places are considered as supportive of the revolution, there is something in that argument that is enormously flawed!

Russian Veto serves Assad

If they are using the “no intervention” argument, they simply ignore the fact that there is heavy intervention and actual material support of the regime from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. It is not a theory, it is actual fact. If they claim that the UN veto serves the interest of imperialism and the West and has been a grotesque miscarriage of Justice regarding Palestine, the veto of Russia and China to sanctions is seen in a completely different light. If the No Fly Zone was slammed for Libya, is labelled as a NATO device when applied to Syria we have to simply ignore that, “I Support a No Fly Zone Over Palestine” was a campaign that was adhered to particularly by these same pundits. Or, could it be that there are some humans who are more human than others and whose rights are worth stopping at nothing to protect?

The range of arguments that these people use is often contradictory, almost always lacks research and most of the time is detached from the will and reality of the persons who are directly involved. Even the idea borrowed from the pro-Assad people outside Syria who do not see the pro-regime intervention but are obsessed with that of the uprising, whether that intervention is real or imagined which states: “let Syrians settle it among themselves”. This is a way to avoid the internal conflict of being an “activist” in someone else’s struggle and urging that all issues are resolved without others butting in. Non-intervention is selective, and it follows the trends.

I would like to close this paper by making two points. The first is that since we have shifted much of this war into the “social sphere” where communication happens, we are aware of the weight of conformance to social conventions in our interactions. We are horrified at the prospect of clashing with those who in the past have had such accurate insights or at least who along general lines followed the same ideas we did, those of the revolutionary struggle for freedom from oppression and a people’s rights to self-determination. This means that many of us, accepting these paradigms of justification of human rights violations have removed our critical abilities in a lazy manner. We simply fail to recognise the hypocrisy that exists where Pro-Palestine activists are posting up hateful pictures of icons of the resistance, Shiehk Raed Salah, Azmi Bishara, or journalists and writers such as Khalid Amayreh or Elias Khoury only because they have insisted that the Syrian liberation struggle is a struggle of an oppressed people against a tyrant and that this tyrant has continually put the “rights” of Israel before the rights of the Palestinians and Syrians.

One of the more intricate “proxy war” maps, though it ignores Israel, unlike some of the simpler ones circulating

It is ironic that these pundits specialised in revolutionary slogans are busy labelling the uprising and revolution, brought ahead heroically by the brave Syrian people almost single-handedly, as a “Proxy War against Iran”, which is not only a meaningless phrase but it takes away any agency that the Arab and Syrian people have in determining their own fate and making their own history. They will also tie into this concept all the regional and international powers, as if they are the point and Syria is not an issue. And it’s not only the anti-imperialists who have a problem, there is something really wrong in pacifists who are busy equating the massacre of almost 700 people in a day to the throwing off the roof of two snipers who had been killed in combat. It simply defies a sense of measure, a sense of perspective and reality!

The second point I want to make is that while the pro-revolution faction outside Syria is very busy in the noble task of disseminating the information that leaks out of Syria, at times with enormous difficulty, informing the entire world of the situation there, and honouring the martyrs with the testimony of their suffering, it is missing out on the “analysis” aspect. It is a shame that of the thousands of analytical items to read, half of them are reprints of the same 3 or 4 articles by faraway pundits (often without experience or credentials) in London, Chicago, Naples or Florida. If some of them are nearer, they have a specific dog in the fight, and they themselves are “obsessed” about sectarianism, so they see it in everyone else, whether it is there or not. I believe that we activists who are both empathic and who support the people of Syria in their struggle for freedom have to make an extra effort to fight the propaganda, to debunk the fallacy of the information presented as argument (lacking the evidence, the big words such as Imperialist fly!) The truth is on our side, but the Assad-supporting activists are beating us in the information game only because they are required to play it so that they can look at their faces in the mirror and not hate who they see.

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