An Interview with Activist and Intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is often called the conscience of the Syrian revolution. Born in Raqqa in 1961, he was arrested in 1980, while a medical student in Aleppo, and imprisoned for his membership in a left-wing organization. He remained a political prisoner until 1996, spending the last of his sixteen years behind bars in the notorious desert-prison of Tadmur (Palmyra).
Saleh has emerged as one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, which began three years ago this week. In 2012 he was given the Prince Claus Award (supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but was unable to collect it, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. Now living in exile in Turkey, Salehwrites for a variety of international Arabic-language publications. Along with a group of Syrians and Turks, he recently established a Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul called Hamish (“margin” or “fringe”). Saleh has published several Arabic-language books, most recently Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014).
For many in the West, the situation in Syria looks very confusing. On August 31, 2013, for example, President Obama said the “underlying conflict in Syria” was due to “ancient sectarian differences.” It is often heard – both in official foreign policy circles and among leftists and antiwar activists – that there are “no good guys” in the Syrian conflict, that all sides are equally bad, and therefore there is no one to support. What do you think of this stance? How would you respond to those who say there is no one to support in Syria?
Actually I find it confusing that many people in the West find our situation in Syria confusing. Is it a matter of information and knowledge? I tend to think that it is a matter of politics. Confusion could be a function of a certain position toward our struggle: inaction, which in my opinion is the worst kind of action, not from our perspective as Syrians but also from a regional and international perspective, not to mention humanity and human solidarity with the oppressed.
Sectarian differences? What a subtle analysis! When an armed structure uses the supposedly national army, media organs, and resources to kill its own people when they oppose its tyrannical rule—this can hardly be considered a sectarian conflict. We’re not talking about just any structure—we’re talking about the repressive state apparatus of the Assad regime. It thus becomes absurd to explain the Syrian struggle in sectarian terms. To the best of my best knowledge, states are not sects, are they?
I am by no means turning a blind eye toward sectarian tensions and conflicts in Syrian society. Many writers, myself included, have written about sectarianism in Syria. My main conclusion is that sects are politically manufactured entities, and sectarianism is a political tool for controlling people, a strategy for political domination. It certainly is not a matter of social “differences” but rather a method for guarding social privileges and transforming a struggle against tyranny and manipulation into sectarian strife, a fitna. The word fitna has religious echoes about it, and it is remarkable that the ‘secular’ Bashar Assad used it sixteen times in his first speech after the beginning of the revolution on March 30, 2011.
Even now, after more than a thousand days of the Syrian struggle, it is still a tremendous political and ethical mistake to say that all we have are bad guys. The regime is essentially criminal and has no solution whatsoever to Syria’s many problems. I think those who says Syria’s sides are equally bad are the same people who believe in that despicable slogan of realpolitik: a devil you know is better than a devil you don’t know. Meaning the devil you know isn’t really a devil after all. It’s only the devil you don’t know who is the bad guy. This is bad politics, devoid of knowledge, devoid of human values.
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