23 May 2009

Understand contemporary Syria

By Juliette Harkin

The prominent Syrian activist and journalist Michel Kilo was released from prison last week. Nearly 70 years old now, he had served a full three-year sentence for 'undermining national sentiment'. Kilo's 'crime' was to have spoken out about a need for a radical change in the relations between the Syrian and Lebanese states. He, and other Syrian intellectuals, had signed a declaration calling for Syria and Lebanon to exchange ambassadors and for Syria to recognise Lebanon's independence. Whilst he was in prison his demands became a reality. It seems timing is everything.

Kilo's calls coincided with international pressures on Syria as a result of the assassination in Beirut of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The US and France pointed the finger at Syria and the long reach of its military and intelligence arm into Lebanon. To date there has been no conclusive evidence to support these accusations and we may never know.

During my visits to Lebanon I had heard heavy criticisms of Hariri and the downside to what had been his policies of indebting the country to build a new Lebanon that mainly benefited the elites. Nevertheless his murder deeply affected the national psyche and resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

I had the pleasure to meet and to work with Michel and with Lebanese journalist and writer Samir Kassir during my work for the BBC in Lebanon and Syria in 2003 and 2004. Kassir was a vehement critic of the Syrian regime and wrote, as did Kilo, in a leading newspaper in Lebanon known for its anti-Syria stance. Samir was blown up by a car bomb outside his home in Beirut on June 2, 2005, shortly after he was visited by intelligence figures in Lebanon and after the publication of another critical article, his last, this time about the Syrian ruling party. I still remember receiving the news of his death by phone and the shock I felt about something as utterly senseless as his murder was.

Kassir's political views are reflected in his book, Being Arab, which has now been published in English translation from Arabic and French. In it, he rejects western double standards in the Arab world, in reference to the injustice of the war on Iraq and of the West's approach to Israeli colonialism in historic Palestine. He discusses the Arab malaise that has set in across the region and harks back to the cultural Nahda (renaissance) that got under way in the region in the 19th century as the world was caught in the grip of modernisation.

Kassir's book is an angry and critical appraisal of the arrest of this historical Nahda and the political and cultural stagnation that he feels has set in within the Arab world. It is a view shared by other intellectuals who draw on western political thought and concepts of nation-state to call for a new Nahda that is allowed to emerge free from the political constraints of authoritarian regimes.

But despite Samir's tragic death at the hands of murderers and for Michel's cruel incarceration, I do not doubt that change is happening in Syria. As I feel relief for the release of Michel, I also wonder how we can really seek to understand contemporary Syria. In some ways our focus on one intellectual and his or her views can actually blinker us to other shifts that may be occurring within a society.

Whilst western commentators hope for an unlikely regime change in Syria and president Obama fails to make a break from the confines of America's neo-conservative policies on Syria, we miss a chance to deepen our knowledge of Syrian politics and society. As I finish my research into the Syrian media at Oxford University, I am still seeking a path that allows us to condemn the imprisonment of journalists and bloggers whilst still seeing value in the examination of the social and political changes that are happening within Syria today.

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