Culture & Conversation

Oh Syria My Syria

I wish to enter paradise only once,” said the 7th century prophet Muhammad upon gazing at the Damascus mountainside. According to legend, he refused to step foot in the ancient city as it might undermine his one chance to enter heaven. At the crossroads of the Orient and Occident, Asia and Africa, Syria is home to some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

The stamp left by succeeding civilizations –Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic — created a marvel of diversity. Traditional Syria was perhaps best described by the Greek Orthodox patriarch Yaziji: “Syria has been a place of peace and fraternal coexistence, given the high consciousness of its people.” Montreal based Afra Jalabi — journalist, peace advocate, member of the Syrian National Council opposition movement — is fearlessly committed to bringing Syria back to its natural disposition. I was curious about her take on the current conflict, which to date has resulted in over 70,000 civilian deaths.

What do you think is going on in Basher al-Assad’s head?
I don’t think Bashar is into self-awareness much less repentance. He grew up in his youth during a dark period of his father’s reign and brutality. Many Syrians believe he’s of moderate intelligence and the old guard of his father and the rest of the family, including mother side, are running the show. It’s become a family business and he’s the poster-boy.

Does an Islamic democracy have any place in post-Assad Syria?
Though Islam and Arabic define the majority of Syrians, the presence and diversity of the numerous ethnic, linguistic, religious groups, etc. Jews, Christians, Assyrians, Armenians, Alawites, Ismailis, Druze, Yazidis, Kurds, defies any dwarfing and makes a secular state the only viable solution. Post-colonial dictatorships use of Arabism, secularism to create legitimacy while holding their nations in the grip of terror has left a bad taste in peoples mouths. This explains the rising of strong Islamic sentiments and even of ethnic identities. Islamism will be part of this new debate, in both its moderate and more radical forms, but also in its reform and secular forms as well.

What can the opposition do to prevent post-Assad Syria from being under the influence of self-interested international powers?
The Assads were able to wager and leverage their existence by being able to navigate an intricate web of regional balances.

Isn’t it amazing when even traditional enemies like Israel and Hezbollah didn’t want to see the brutal regime go, albeit for different reasons? This has been the power and yet ugliness of the Assad regime. They were able to broker many alliances, all at the expense of the Syrian peoples basic human rights.

Now that Syrian people are finally registering back on history’s radar, the world is suddenly perplexed, why we see such complacency and silence towards Syria. Not many powers are interested in empowering people, let alone a so called Third World Country, much less a Middle Eastern country. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, the Arab Spring is sweeping the entire region; democracy, equality and the sharing of power seem to be inevitable, the directive of history. The more flexible we are, including the West, the less suffering we all have to endure.

Former opposition leader Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib’s decision to negotiate with the regime created controversy inside the opposition. Do you agree or disagree?
With all the bloodshed, there is tremendous tension as to the best strategy to resolve the issue, creating diverse attitudes.

The Assad regime is bent on a war of either crushing the “Other,” completely as Bashar’s father did, Hafez al Assad, or the “scorched land” strategy. One sees this attitude in the graffiti the thugs leave behind, “Assad or burn down the entire country.” And on the ground you have desperate people who will bring the regime down at any cost. Sadly the world is watching the way the ancients watched gladiators kill each other in the Coliseum.

The Syrian Islamic clergy have always been an integral part of Syrian society with a great deal of influence. What kind of role would you like to see them play in post-Assad Syria?
The recent assassination of Bouti along with 30 others at the mosque shows the volatile position of the traditional class of clergy who aligned themselves with the regime. We either have Bouti or the Muslim Brotherhood, either submission or confrontation to tyranny. This is the malaise of modern political Islam. This is where nonviolent movements or thinkers like Jawdat Said wanted to take a third alternative, disobedience to tyranny. Amazingly, the Syrian revolution was mostly nonviolent for its first 6 months, till the regimes crackdown on its people.  The Syrian peoples willingness to sacrifice so much to regain their dignity is enduring, a revolution unlike many and will only be understood in hindsight.

The literal Salafi Islamic interpretations have gained great momentum, in contrast to more humanist interpretations of your uncle Jawdat Said etc. What can be done for an impetus of ideology towards the latter?
Violence in the name of religion is universal. The West, in itself has a great deal to repent. Having recently cleaned up their act, they’ve created a supremacist discourse, yet again, on a moral high. Salafism, cloaked in indigenous slogans to feel authentic is a “modern” response part of a spectrum of violence, force and macho attitudes, more in common with the ideals of the French revolution, then teachings of Muhammad. Spiritual traditions are all based on nonviolence and compassion, hence Islam’s basic teachings can easily lend to the nonviolent interpretations of Jawdat Said, Abdul Ghaffar Khan or through direct action on the ground like that of the Daraya youth movement. Injustices and inequalities manifest in many different ways from our new globalized feudal system to consumerism in its extreme implications and destructions of the environment. We are all a threat to world peace and security. It’s the human mind with its fears and projections of ugliness unto every “otherness” including our environment.

The lack of rule of law at the international level is the reason a dwarf dictator like Assad can take a nation hostage and start slaughtering them while the Security Council’s five big powers block justice and human rights. It’s a sad world but the Arab spring is just the beginning in a tide that would shift many balances. We must adapt to the directive of history and align to justice, compassion and the ethos of equality, the law that governs the universe. For me this is what it means to be Muslim, to come willingly and with awareness to a state of peacefulness.


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