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.
The relationship of Israel to the United States would be very different but for American Protestantism, the second major pillar of support for Israel. Old Testament roots, millennial concerns, a sense of social justice and the Calvinist work ethos combined in the past to make the Protestant churches allies of American Jewry in a large range of cultural and social struggles. In recent decades, however, there has been a reversal of alliances. The most engaged Protestant partisans of Israel are found in the more fundamentalist sects, which profess biblical literalism and an apocalyptic view of history. Their enthusiasm for Israel lies in their belief that the rebirth of a Jewish state is evidence of the nearing of the Last Judgment, during which Jewry will be converted or destroyed. On many economic and social issues women’s rights, the separation of church and state, the American welfare state, Israel’s most enthusiastic US gentile supporters disagree very sharply with a majority of American Jews. The domestic alliance between the Jewish organizations and the Christian fundamentalists has lasted because Jews were willing to discount the fundamentalists’ wish to see us disappear. A future American social crisis might persuade the fundamentalists that the Last Judgment is imminent and revive the anti-Semitism they openly voiced two generations ago. That is not so difficult to imagine; the Islamophobia they now profess is but a step away from anti-Semitism.
Rarely do I write about my personal feelings and passions. The situation is different this time. I write with pain, nay, I write with anger. While watching with horror the savage assaults against the Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the first and oldest Christian communities in the world, I am shocked. From the beginning of the season of Arab uprisings I kept reminding myself, and others, that when we analyze and assess the rapidly unfolding events we should not lose sight of the fundamentals: the civil and human rights of all the peoples living in theses societies regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds or their gender. By that I meant that we should denounce and resist repression and injustice inherent in transitional times when the old entrenched powers, along with absolutist radical groups, continue to undermine peaceful inclusive change. Both state and “revolutionary” repression and intimidation should be confronted, although state repression is more dangerous because it is systemic and institutional.Events in Syria
I was shocked by, and denounced, the destruction of the great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, a jewel of a structure with its elegant 11th century minaret. This was a beastly act perpetrated by a cruel regime and primitive gangs of fanatic Islamists. Also shocking was the shelling and looting of the historic Jobar synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the world. Now, I am seized with deep anger because the terror of both the Syrian government forces and elements of the radical Islamists Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front have visited the iconic town of Maaloula, a truly unique and special Christian sanctuary nestled in the rugged mountains not far from Damascus where many inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ . Maaloula’s Christian inhabitants, with their family tree going back to the first Christian communities in ancient Syria, fled the town when it was taken and retaken by the marauding gangs of Assad and al-Nusra.
Even when I parted ways with religion and became a secularist, I remained attached to the rituals and aestheticism of Christianity and Islam and their civilizational legacies. When I find myself in a European capital I do my own version of (Gothic) church hopping. On my first visit to Cairo and Istanbul I was intoxicated with their charming mosques and ancient churches. All this is to say that what I am writing here is not emanating from my religious background but from my moral and political convictions.
The Obama administration charged Hezbollah with operating like an international drug cartel and blacklisted two Lebanese money-exchange houses for allegedly moving tens of millions of dollars of drug profit through the U.S. financial system on behalf of the militant group.
The Treasury Department’s action Tuesday marked the latest salvo in a two-year U.S. government campaign against Hezbollah’s alleged drug-trafficking activities.
U.S. officials alleged that Hezbollah is using proceeds from this narcotics trade to fund international terrorist activities and to bolster the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in their fight against a widening political rebellion.
U.S. officials also said Hezbollah is increasingly reverting to illicit trade to offset diminished funding coming from Iran, the organization’s closest ally.
“Hezbollah is operating like a major drug cartel,” said Derek Maltz, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, who is overseeing the U.S. probe into Hezbollah. “These proceeds are funding violence against Americans.”
Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry concluded that Hezbollah operatives conducted last year’s bombing of a tourism bus at a Black Sea resort that killed five Israeli nationals. The European Union is considering imposing broadsanctions on Hezbollah as a result.