Al-Khatib and Al Jazeera: Listening to Victims in Syria

By Suzanne Ross 5-21-2013
Violence in Syria illustration, Lightspring /
Violence in Syria illustration, Lightspring /

What the heck is going on in Syria? If you are like me, you have a problem keeping all the players straight, and the unfamiliar Arab names don’t help. Thankfully, the Syrian president has a relatively easy name to remember, Bashar al-Assad, but keeping track of who’s who and which side they’re on is a real challenge. Frankly, even when I can keep track, I’m very skeptical that I am getting anything close to the truth from news outlets, the White House, or our State Department. The talk about a “red line,” no-fly zones, arming terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction sounds a lot like the falderal we were being fed going into the Iraq war. So what’s a good citizen of the world to do? If I can’t make sense of the news accounts myself, who can I find to help me out? And if I can’t trust my government to sort out the good guys from the bad guys for me, how can I ever figure out what, if anything, my government should be doing in my name?

Al Jazeera and My Search for Answers on Syria

My search for answers has led me to the English site of Al Jazeera. Headquartered in Doha, Qatar, media outlet Al Jazeera provides a non-Western, Arabic perspective on current events, and as I’ve explored their programs, I have come away impressed by their thoroughness and professionalism. They actually offer in-depth reporting that addresses my questions. Now, that doesn’t mean that I have found easy answers or that I have abandoned my skepticism of media outlets or government rationales. But what I have found is a valuable insight into cultures and conflicts that I know nothing about. Accepting my ignorance is the first step toward understanding.

Mimetic Theory as Key to Violence

But mimetic theory shows us that at their core, violent conflicts never change, even though the names, places, and causes vary widely. As I search for understanding in this particular conflict, I allow those universal truths to guide me. If mimetic theory has taught me anything, it’s that the use of violence is accompanied by a weird schizophrenic split: our belief in our own goodness is the strongest when we are acting our worst. So trying to sort good guys from bad guys in violent situations is a surreal exercise: everyone is committing atrocities while proclaiming their own goodness. Paradoxically, this means that each side believes in the goodness of their violence while condemning the violence of their enemy. It’s as if we can look in a mirror and see our violent reflection but not see that we have become the twin of our enemy.

The Victims of Violence

However, there is a truth about goodness and evil in all the confusion — one I try very hard to listen for. Again, it’s something I learned from mimetic theory: difficult to hear above the din of all the schizophrenic stories are the voices of victims. They are the ones caught in the crossfire who are suffering and dying while politicians, partisans, and armed militias battle it out for victory. I write this only one day after atrocities were reported in a Syrian town in which women and children were slaughtered along with their husband and sons. Why? Of course there are reasons, but the reasons are schizophrenic delusions. If we want sanity, the victims’ voices are the ones we must strain to hear.

Al-Khatib Condemns Religious Scapegoating

Recently, the leader of the coalition of forces rebelling against the regime of Bashar al-Assad resigned. He was only in the post for five months and his resignation does not bode well for peace. His name is Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib. Take the time to learn his name. He is the former imam of the famed Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, widely regarded as a moderate and a long-term critic of the Assad regime. He has been arrested four times, has survived an explosion that hit the security compound where he was being held during his last period of detention, and fled to Cairo in July 2012 after being warned of threats on his life from the security services. Upon his resignation he gave an interview to Al Jazeera. I encourage you to listen to the entire interview, but I quote here from the translation of his comments in the subtitles on the screen. He condemns the cynical use of religion to stir up violence:

“We are tired of politicians who are leading people to slaughter … there are always fake victories and ideologies, and they invoke the name of Allah and religion. Many people are being killed and this is never accepted by Allah and religions … There is falsification of religious conscience … there is manipulation of people’s inborn religious feelings … religion is the finest feeling humans hold … religious feelings are always provoked so people can kill each other … this was a message to all people so the entire region is not dragged into the conflict.”

I am often asked by friends and acquaintances who fear Islamic extremism, for influential Muslim voices that represent moderation. Al-Khatib is one such voice. Seek and you shall find!

The U.S. as the Good Guys?

Today, the U.S. is going through the usual dance to avoid facing the truth of victims on the ground. Our president, secretary of state, and other spokespeople want us to believe that the real issues in Syria are the threat of Islamic terrorists, that weapons of mass destruction might be used, and the risk of sectarian violence. The implication is that evidence of either terrorism or WMDs would prompt us to take military action. If we had such evidence we would know who the bad guys were and then we, the good guys, would be compelled to act. It seems to me that the victims of the current violence, or those created by our future intervention, are not part of this calculus.

Al-Khatib Warns of the Risk of Escalating Violence

Here is one more quote from al-Khatib’s interview that is especially relevant to my quest for guidance in knowing how to be helpful. In this excerpt, al-Khatib gives victims a voice and calls the world to account for its inability to hear and respond to their suffering. Again, this is from the English translation on the video – it’s a bit rough in spots but you can’t miss his point:

“I think the international community does not know what it wants to do. It has its own problems and has not tried to understand the issue from a human standpoint. Each country is busy with its internal problems and that is why Syria is not given enough attention … it’s been left deserted for a long time and then they begin to talk about other problems … now they say that the main problem is terrorism … the main problem is chemical weapons … the main problem is minorities … There have not been any radical person in Syria … there have not been a threat of chemical weapons[,] there have never been a danger imposed by the minorities. They left us for two years, getting killed and now they come to talk. If you keep on sleeping, bigger problems will come to the surface and the whole world will regret it.”

I hope this foray into listening for the victim’s voice in the Syrian conflict encourages you to learn more. Here is an excellent video, also on Al Jazeera, about contemporary Syrian political history. Keep reading and listening to our domestic media but also to Al Jazeera and other international sources, and as you do, be sure to keep in mind the two constant truths in all violent situations: 1) All the parties are schizophrenic and 2) The victims know the truth.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

Image: Violence in Syria illustration, Lightspring /


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