… amidst the perceived ‘muddleness’ of (anti) Western-establishment position on the subject, and in the absence of ideological bedfellows on the ground who could act as representatives (for example socialist movements), what was left to convince leftists to take a stand in supporting Arab/Muslim freedom in that sensitive part of the world was an investment in actually what freedom means, when its stripped away from considerations of anti-establishment politics and ideological affiliation …
In the last two years, I have dedicated a specific focus in my writing and ‘activism’ on Syria. While I have always been a supporter of the Syrian revolution, previously issues which had taken my priorities were Palestine and Egypt, the latter is where I’m from. The trigger point which caused me to shift my focus was a conversation two years ago when I realised just how far off I was from other ‘activists’ on the Syria issue, when things I assumed to be a given were anything but. This was in 2013, even before ISIS was preponderant. I also later met many who shared my disillusionment, in many cases I felt for them as they were ‘white’ and hence their opinions were easily discounted amongst their peers (in the sense of ‘what makes your opinion on what’s going on there more accurate than ours’, and by extension, who are you to have the moral authority to criticise us).
I am a Muslim who has been born and raised in the Middle East, and came to the UK to study for my undergraduate degree. As an Egyptian born and raised in ghorba, or ‘estrangement’ in Kuwait, part of a large expat Egyptian community, I tasted from my very early days the daily racism and discrimination that expats experience there and elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf, and which Egyptians are particularly well-versed for (although faring better than those from Asian backgrounds). I do not seek to dwell on those experiences here, suffice to say that I understood from my experiences and that of my family, the meaning of ‘dignity’, having to fight for it, and having it abused.
During my University years, I made a concerted effort not to restrict myself to my natural social group (Muslims), indeed my main social circle (in terms of politics as well as leisure) was composed of Anglo-European leftists (rather than ‘Islamist’ ISOC type circles). I learnt a great deal from them, in terms of organisation, admirable progressive ideals (going into substance and not just perception), inclusivism and generally ways of thinking, and indeed it is many of their principles that I internalised that I tried to later hold as a standard.
However, I have recently arrived at the sad conclusion that we cannot rely on this alliance for all our issues, or perhaps, just our issues in general (for if you can’t rely on them in important issues, how can you rely on them as a permanent standby?). It may perhaps be better to look ‘inwards’ to one’s own community.
In the past few months I have been asking myself the question ‘why the Left has been so bad on Syria’. I came to the increased conclusion that, amidst the perceived ‘muddleness’ of (anti) Western-establishment position on the subject, and in the absence of ideological bedfellows on the ground who could act as representatives (for example socialist movements), what was left to convince leftists to take a stand in supporting Arab/Muslim freedom in that sensitive part of the world was an investment in actually what freedom means, when its stripped away from considerations of anti-establishment politics and ideological affiliation.
Within this reality I have wondered whether focus should be turned towards the Muslim community. For the reality of having overlords is one that is common to Muslims, it is the overlord of statist elites that enslaves its population, holds them to ransom, controls their destinies, insults them in everyday encounters. This context is absent from many of our ‘comrades’. I have become increasingly unsure whether those who have not actually experienced what it is to live without dignity and what it is to live with constant insult could understand why we care about Syria so much, for the word ‘dignity’ is simply an abstraction of sorts, a vacuous cliché so to speak – and when that abstraction happens to line up with (‘surprising’) Western effemations for ‘democracy’ that abstraction becomes even more tainted. In the absence of relatable experience, a strong sense of justice must be present, otherwise other categories must be ticked: ideological affiliation, anti-establishment feeling (another form of ideological affiliation), binary politics, etc.
This feeling of despair is perhaps is an interesting microcosm of why many Muslim communities in general become inverted and ‘look to their own’.
(Note: The potential irony of me arriving at this point now is that as increased coordination between the Syrian regime and Western governments comes out in the open, I might have actually arrived at this point at the very time when noises start to emerge against this coordination, being now a (re)fashionable topic and another ‘opportunity’ for partisan interests (using it as a tool to ’embarass’ Western establishments, rather than actually caring about the ‘others’ dying over there – there was still Western complicity all throughout this time of course screamed by everyone in that country and their supporters abroad, but unfortunately there was still the all-important bluff of being ‘pro’ these people which made it unfashionable).
In opposing the Iraq war, there was a common cause between British Muslims and the British Left, but it appears that’s all it was, a political alliance of convenience (Richard Phillips highlighted this alliance in detail in his ‘Standing together: The Muslim Association of Britain and the anti-war Movement’ – in the wake of Syria, perhaps a new title should be explored: ‘Breaking apart? British Muslims and the anti-war movement in the wake of Syria’). It was about Western involvement, not Iraqi persecution. If it was a non-Western force that had occupied Iraq and done all the crimes there, then there would not be concern about it (even if it were the primary conflict of our day, as Syria today is).
Yet this is not internationalism, this is Western-centricism of a perverse (reactionary – literally) nature. For causes that go beyond those with commonalities (Iraq, Israel-Palestine), I increasingly see why people of a certain background rely on the support of their own, as we can tell from the amount of ‘backing up’ that we got from the left against the establishment barrage of hate against our brothers (and by extension the Muslim community that ‘allowed them’) who have gone to fight for Syria against the government (i.e. not ideologically for ISIS). The trouncing of George Galloway (see his ‘Rigby moment‘ here) in Bradford West is merely one reaction to this.
Yet on the other hand, is it not perhaps understandable how concern in a region (albeit one so traditionally interesting) to the Western left is not a constant where ‘the parties it is concerned with’ (Western establishments) are not involved? After all, am I to deny that as a Muslim I have natural affinity to the causes of Muslim/Arabs?
There are two points to make here:
Firstly, regarding the latter point; whilst it is true that I might indeed not devote the same attention to causes further outside my ‘orbit’, I nonetheless do try and stay on the correct side of the oppressed in ‘external’ conflicts, regardless of ideological affiliation. I have no issue with supporting socialist self-determination, so why is it the case that so many Leftists find it so easy to state gross statements such as ‘both sides are the same’, or generally have an issue with supporting ‘Islamist’ (today’s reinvigorated, exotically-politicised word-turned-pc-weapon to target ‘politically-active Muslims’) self-determination?
More importantly however, regarding the first point; the important problem here lies in the fact that these actors cited are involved, even if that involvement is different in nature from a brazen Iraq-style invasion. The reality is not as if the Western forces have departed the arena never to return, as you act it to be the case. They are literally in the arena right now. They are in the arena as they refuse to give civil defence forces radar warning of incoming airstrikes, allowing massive casualties in lives. They are in the arena whilst they control the funding and weaponry that is allowed to Syrian revolutionaries, through pressure on domestic allies, allowing the situation of mutual destruction to drag on. The difference between me and you, therefore, is my appraisal of that reality: I accept that the West is playing a role, currently, in that arena. You meanwhile, for all intents and purposes try to deny the role it is playing (by ostensibly making it appear that the only role it can play is by full-scale invasions), and try and pretend that as long as its not invading, it is – for all practical implications – not ‘intervening’.
Nor is it as if it were the case that the West had left the arena for good, never to return – if this was the case then perhaps this would be a different discussion. Seeing however that we do not live in that parallel reality, what possible guarantee can you give me that your ‘refraining’ from manipulating your governments (which you of course do when it comes to domestic politics, that is to say you do try and get socio-economic concessions from your governments through pressure in domestic politics – you don’t pretend it doesn’t exist), because you are trying to ‘get it out of the arena’, will set a precedent of ‘non-intervention’ in the future? What (forgive my bluntness) ‘silly’ guarantee will you give me that your policy of ‘isolating us’ at this moment in time, costly as it may be ‘right now’, will set a precedent for welcome ‘isolation’ in the future? Was the resounding success of failing to stop an intervention in 2014 a year after ‘succeeding’ in 2013 evidence of that?
In all this, the West is a rational actor. However it is not an infallible actor, for like any constructed human system the narratives used to construct that system are not single-edged. No politically proscriptive narratives exist that have only one edge to them. Change is very often made based on what you take from those (sharp) double edges of the narratives/rhetoric that system uses to legitimise itself (e.g. change to get universal suffrage: claimed from rhetoric of UK being a democracy). That narrative is used very often to legitimise unjust systems and commit evil, but like any narrative it is impossible – even for the powerful – to construct narratives with no double edges, with no room for potential downfalls (if they are seized upon).
Everything, in short, has a cost-benefit ratio. And this is where *forced mistakes* can be made, and this is what we try and seize upon. The US or UK launching strikes against Assad would have potentially been a long-term strategic mistake in terms of its interests (short-term might have offered some perks). The Western establishments, though the notion of military action and intervention is very much in their DNA and a massive temptation by its very nature (particularly in nostalgic post-empires such as Britain and France), ultimately knew this and were able to reign that temptation in. In this case however, there was no one to force that mistake (there was more faith in them ‘fucking us over’ in the future then us saying that actually, ‘they are fucking us over now’, and trust our ability that we might be the ones who will ‘fuck them over’ in the future if we actually succeed in proving people wrong and effectively achieve self-government). They have continued to reign it in since with dozens of certified chemical attacks – confirmed as having been committed by an airforce (and hence only one possible party) – providing them with ‘unquestioned justification’.
Now your role as an internationalist, is – similarly to how you keep that cost-benefit analysis in mind when you engage (unhappily as it may be) with the political system domestically, you should do the same in those other spheres where the political system acts. That, is what is true internationalism.
(Note: Interestingly enough, some might confuse the debate here about being surrounding the question of Western intervention, yet that question is literally completely irrelevant. I am (merely one) from amongst the many who ‘conspiratorially’ said from day one, who said when the chemical attacks at Ghouta took place, and who says today that the West will not intervene against the Syrian government. The point of this is the wider (mis)conceptions that have been at play by wide swathes of the confused left and the often complete misunderstandings of what anti-imperialism and internationalism mean)
Digging everyone a hole: The absence of a counter-narrative when it matters
In the aftermath of the rise of ISIS Muslim communities have faced an onslaught from Western media and state establishments. Yet in the absence of a counter-narrative to the what is in essence ‘Oh see the Muslims never really wanted democracy, this is the democracy they want finally showing its true colours’, and the rise of a series of draconian ‘anti-extremism’ measures that target the Muslim community, the left is impotent to challenge the second phase of the War on Terror; for its not presented any narratives to explain the ‘radicalisation’ of Muslim youth, the reasons many have gone to Syria (and the distinctions between those who went out of good intentions and not), the rise of ISIS or the context from which it emerged. More importantly, it has been reluctant to stop its ideological rival (‘Islamism’) getting its beating.
And while in many situations the Left certainly has reason to feel aggrieved from ‘Islamist’ betrayal (in Egypt historically for example), the term ‘Islamist’ is currently used to essentially denote in wide and disparate contexts Muslims who are ‘political’ in their sphere; whilst the usage of the term ‘Islamist’ in this way goes back to the early 90s and neoconservatives such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, its ‘mainstreamising’ today is a dangerous trend that essentially seeks to depoliticise young Muslims, taking ISIS (which was allowed to rise, prophesised, and fought without help whilst in a weaker stage) as the golden opportunity to achieve this identity crackdown. ‘Islamists’ has thus replaced ‘Muslims’ as a ‘politically correct’ tool to attacking politically minded self-identifying Muslims (with the advantage of having the escape clause from being blamed for Islamophobia, since you’re now not criticising ‘Muslims’ per se; indeed, I even recently came across a Freudian slip where the term was used ‘mistakenly’ to say that Europe is facing an impending demographic ‘Islamist’ problem (rather than a Muslim one), although most of this trend will likely be more subtle), and its not unlikely that we see its usage in politicised ways to be expanded even further in scope.