Ban Telegram? Censorship and disinformation online

Image from Wired.

By BYRON CLARK. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

The new iteration of the far-right, termed the alternative right or alt-right, has in recent years risen to prominence online. It gained wide attention during the 2016 US election, then became more prominent with the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory in 2017. Next came the spate of mass shootings carried out by men radicalised in online spaces – Charlottesville, Christchurch, Poway, El Paso, Buffalo.

Today, the encrypted messaging app Telegram has become the go-to space online for alt-right organising and propaganda dissemination, but it’s not the first space used for this purpose. The online far-right has existed almost as long as there has been an “online”.

After World War II, “no platform for fascists” was not a radical leftist demand, but instead the policy of every respectable publisher and broadcaster. Of course, the defeat of fascism wasn’t the end of systemic white supremacy, which persisted in segregation in the US south, and apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa (and, to some degree, still persists in every European country and white settler colony). After social movements for civil rights successfully ended segregation and apartheid, it became harder for overtly white supremacist ideas to get a platform in wider society.

Barred from mainstream media, white supremacists saw the potential of the internet to spread their beliefs, before most people even knew what the internet was. In 1985 Tim Miller wrote in the Washington Post about a ten year old boy who was able to dial up a computer message board and access articles with titles such as “The Case Against the Holocaust,” “The Jew in Review,” and “How the Scum of the Earth Rule Us.” It was one of about half a dozen bulletin board systems (BBS) operated by ex-Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. Miller quotes Tom Metzger, a former California Ku Klux Klan leader who operated one of these bulletin boards: “We feel the white nationalist movement is 20 years behind in technology and we’re going to catch up whether they like it or not.”[1]

Online utopia vs. Nazis

By the mid-1990s, the World Wide Web was superseding bulletin boards. Stormfront began in 1995 as a discussion forum for white supremacists. During the years it existed (1995-2017) it was linked to almost 100 murders, most of those committed by Anders Breivik.[2] Most Stormfront users were white supremacists before they started using the website. It connected white supremacists with people who shared their views, but for the most part didn’t radicalise people (because why join the discussions on Stormfront if you weren’t already a white supremacist?) Stormfront encouraged its users to spread their beliefs elsewhere on the internet; for example, any forum where they wouldn’t be banned for starting conversations questioning the Holocaust or talking about the supposed link between race and IQ. It was surprising how easy it was for the far-right to spread out across the web, likely because many of the first people on the web believed strongly in the principle of free speech. If your web forum had Nazis on it, that just showed how deep that commitment to free speech was.

Utopian ideas about the internet and its potential for freedom from traditional gatekeepers of information underpinned a kind of techno-libertarianism. John Gilmore, a pioneer of internet technologies and one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit that advocates for online civil liberties, once stated that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”.

The naive utopianism of the early web is best encapsulated in 1996’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” This was, at best, a blind spot on the part of the manifesto’s author, John Perry Barlow, another of the EFF’s founders. There’s no reason to think that the power relations that existed in the ‘offline’ world would somehow not be replicated ‘online’.

Libertarian ideals around free speech were the norm online in the late 90s and 2000s. When 4chan (est. 2004) later established its “politically incorrect” message board, /pol/, for uncensored political discussion, it very quickly became dominated by white supremacists. You could express any political opinion you wanted on /pol/, it wasn’t an inherently far-right space; but why discuss politics in a space full of white supremacists and fascists when you could do so somewhere else, without them?

Far-right politics spread from /pol/ to the wider 4chan community, and then to the subculture around online gaming. In 2014, a coordinated harassment campaign targeting women involved or adjacent to the video game industry began on 4chan, that would later be dubbed ‘Gamergate’. Steve Bannon, at that time chair of Breitbart News (who would later become Donald Trump’s senior counsellor and chief White House strategist) realised the value that the angry young men of Gamergate had for a hard right political movement. ‘You can activate that army,’ he told a biographer. ‘They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.’[3]

Far from the high hopes of mid-90s techno-utopianism, our modern internet has nurtured prejudice and violence. When 4chan founder Christopher Poole reneged on his laissez faire attitude toward moderation and banned Gamergate from the boards, many users fled to 8chan, a message board site with even less content moderation. Poole eventually sold his site, sick of dealing with controversies like Gamergate. 8chan went on to nurture the Qanon conspiracy theory (which began on 4chan) and was the place where the Christchurch shooter chose to disseminate his manifesto.

Algorithmic radicalisation

Alongside spaces like 4chan and 8chan, social media platforms have driven people toward more extreme content via algorithms, designed to keep people’s attention on a site for as long as possible. American sociologist Jessie Daniels has described the rise of the alt-right as being the result of both centuries-old racism, and the new social-media ecosystem powered by algorithms.[4]

The Royal Commission report into the Christchurch shooting found this algorithmic radicalisation at work, noting that while the shooter had participated in forums including 4chan and 8chan, YouTube played a much larger role in his radicalisation than these sites.

In the past, YouTube has been often associated with far right content and radicalisation. There has been much debate about the way YouTube’s recommendation system works. One theory is that this system drove users to ever more extreme material into what is sometimes said to be a “rabbit-hole”. An alternative theory is that the way in which YouTube operates facilitates and has monetised the production of videos that attract viewers and the widespread availability of videos supporting far right ideas reflects the demand for such videos. What is clear, however, is that videos supporting far right ideas have been very common on YouTube. YouTube has made changes in response to these criticisms, in particular to their recommendation system, so it is less likely to continue recommending increasingly extreme content and has also made it more difficult to access extreme content.[5]

YouTube, and other major social media platforms such as Facebook, have made changes to the way their recommendation algorithms work in response to the increased scrutiny on them following the spate of mass shootings and events such as a January 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington DC. In part these changes have been in response to the Christchurch Call, an initiative by governments, online service providers, and civil society organisations to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online that was started following the mass shooting in Christchurch.[6]

When the question of deplatforming comes up, arguments about free speech always ensue. Freedom of speech, in a legal sense, is the principle that the state will not prevent you from speaking, or punish you for speech the state does not want heard. The concept of “no platform for fascists” does clash with this principle. Someone on the political left may believe that the state should not censor or oppress the speech of anyone (including fascists), while advocating for media (including social media) to not provide a platform for fascists to speak. Likewise, advocating for universities and public spaces such as community centres not to provide a venue for these speakers is not abandoning the principle of free speech.

This attitude is often shared by those on the political right, who hold the view that a private entity has the right to decide what views they will give a platform to. Where the concept requires some nuance (wherever one sits on the political spectrum) is in the case of public entities, such as city council-owned buildings, or public universities (a debate beyond the scope of this article).

For those on the political left, in particular on the socialist left, there is a recognition that power in society does not just lie with the state, and there is reason to be concerned about handing the ability to decide what kind of political speech is permissible to private corporations, such as Alphabet (the parent company of Google and YouTube) and Meta (the parent company of Facebook). There is an argument that these corporations, given the power to decide what content can be posted and shared on their platforms, could censor any form of political speech, and that this would be a negative given how much discussion now happens on these platforms. This line of thinking may lead to a kind of free speech absolutism, the idea that social media platforms should not censor any speech, and the platform being given to the far-right is the price we have to pay for the platform now available to the far-left, whose views were also largely excluded from public discussion in the pre-social media era.

This attitude, however, leads to a problematic conclusion – if social media shouldn’t censor any speech, then the workers at these firms must be compelled to build and maintain platforms for fascists. Arguably this is not a political position that any socialist should take, it is at odds with the position of the Alphabet Workers Union who issued the following statement after the events of January 6, 2021.

We, the members of Alphabet Workers Union, part of Communication Workers of America Local 1400, are outraged by this attempted coup.

We know that social media has emboldened the fascist movement growing in the United States and we are particularly cognizant that YouTube, an Alphabet product, has played a key role in this growing threat, which has received an insufficient response by YouTube executives.

Workers at Alphabet have previously organized against the company’s continued refusal to take meaningful action to remove hate, harassment, discrimination, and radicalization from YouTube and other Alphabet-operated platforms, to no avail.

We warned our executives about this danger, only to be ignored or given token concessions, and the results have been suicides, mass murders, violence around the world, and now an attempted coup at the Capitol of the United States.

Once again, YouTube’s response…was lacklustre, demonstrating a continued policy of selective and insufficient enforcement of its guidelines against the use of the platform to spread hatred and extremism…

The battle against fascism will require constant vigilance on many fronts, and AWU stands in solidarity with all workers fighting for justice and liberation, in the workplace and the world. We must begin with our own company.

YouTube must no longer be a tool of fascist recruitment and oppression. Anything less is to countenance deadly violence from Gamergate to Charlottesville, from Christchurch to Washington, D.C., from Jair Bolsonaro to Donald Trump.[7]

Telegram or “Terror-gram”?

With YouTube, Facebook and Twitter not only tweaking their algorithms to reduce radicalisation, but deplatforming individuals and groups who were using those platforms to spread bigotry and misinformation, many of those individuals and groups – and their followers – have migrated to more niche platforms. Numerous platforms have emerged to cater to this audience. Donald Trump, after his ban from Twitter, backed one called Truth Social, while Miles Guo, a business associate of Steve Bannon, founded Gettr, and Andrew Torba, a noted anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist and Christian nationalist, founded Gab.[8]

None of the above platforms have seen the growth that Telegram has. The encrypted messaging app has been popular for some time, in many countries more so than Facebook’s messenger app or WhatsApp. The introduction of ‘channels’ allowing a user to communicate in a more one-to-many style, sharing content with a channel’s followers, has made it a useful tool for those wanting to get a message out to an audience. Notably, Telegram does not use algorithms to promote content to users, in this way it has more in common with the bulletin board services of the 1980s, or Stormfront in the 1990s, you get to the content because you are explicitly looking for it.

Before Telegram became a haven for the far-right, it was also the app of choice for ISIS terrorists. In 2015, Pavel Durov, one of the platforms founders, responded to questions about this stating “I think that privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.”[9] (A few weeks later, though, Telegram would remove 78 public channels promoting ISIS propaganda).[10]

Telegram’s terms of service prohibit the promotion of violence, and while the platform has removed several dozen far-right channels for violation of this provision,[11] the Anti-Defamation League has noted it is “extremely easy to find content that violates this agreement”, including the live streamed video of the Christchurch shooting. Even if the prohibition on promoting violence were more widely enforced, many groups that stop short of promoting violence would remain. These groups are not harmless just because they don’t directly advocate violence. Spreading misinformation, like the great replacement conspiracy theory that inspired the Christchurch terrorist, can contribute to violence even if violence is not directly called for.

In New Zealand, the anti-vaccine group Voices for Freedom (which is now pivoting to other conspiracy theories) has built a sizable audience on Telegram since being deplatformed from Facebook, and recently encouraged their followers to stand in local body elections- without revealing their affiliation to the group.

Counterspin Media, an online talk show that promotes disinformation about COVID-19 and a number of other topics, also has built an audience on Telegram. It was on their Telegram that links to a ‘documentary’ which claims the Christchurch shooting was a hoax and incorporated footage from the livestream was shared. The hosts of Counterspin were later arrested on an objectionable publications charge.

If New Zealand were to ban Telegram, it’s likely that these groups would continue to reach an audience on other platforms. Voices for Freedom claims an email mailing list of 100,000, and Counterspin Media, which began on the (now bankrupt) Miles Guo owned platform GTV has had a presence on Gettr since its inception. After losing their platform on GTV, they have continued on the video sharing site Rumble and banned.video, one of the sites in a network operated by American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. John Gilmore’s words about the network routing around censorship remain true.

If someone had been done earlier about the kind of algorithmic radicalisation that occurred on mainstream social media sites in the late 2010s, it’s possible we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now when it comes to disinformation and bigotry online. But we’re at a point where banning a particular platform would not help, not to mention that there are still many people using Telegram for perfectly legitimate reasons, such as those with friends and family in countries where it’s the dominant messaging app. The rise of the far-right is a social problem that does not have a quick-fix technical or legal solution.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1985/07/14/the-electronic-fringe/17955294-9c94-4b5d-99e4-9af799b45eae/

[2] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2014/04/17/splc-report-nearly-100-murdered-stormfront-users

[3] Joshua Green, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency [e-book], Penguin Press, 2017.

[4] Jessie Daniels. 2018. ‘The Algorithmic Rise of the “Alt-Right”’, Contexts, 17(1), pp. 60–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536504218766547

[5] Ko tō tātou kāinga tēnei report: ‘Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain on 15 March 2019’, December 2020, www.christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz

[6] www.christchurchcall.com

[7] https://twitter.com/alphabetworkers/status/1347331587315171330

[8] https://www.adl.org/resources/blog/andrew-torba-five-things-know-0

[9] https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/21/telegram-now-seeing-12bn-daily-messages-up-from-1m-in-february/

[10] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/12004892/Encrypted-messaging-app-Telegram-shuts-down-Islamic-State-propaganda-channels.html

[11] https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/13/telegram-channels-banned-violent-threats-capitol/

Fightback issue 48 on ORGANISATION goes to press

The December issue of Fightback on Organisation goes to press this week! Make sure you subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

Contents:

  • Ban Telegram? Censorship and disinformation online, BYRON CLARK
  • Doing the same thing, expecting different results: notes on revolutionaries in electoral politics, DAPHNE LAWLESS
  • Reproductive rights in Aotearoa: Organising in a post‑Roe World, TERRY BELLAMAK
  • Union organising: A referendum on collectivity, EMILY ROSENTHAL
  • For a new internationalism, DAPHNE LAWLESS
  • BOOK REVIEWS: Russia and Belarus, VICTOR OSPREY

Fightback writer interviewed on “Red-Brown zombie plague”

Fightback‘s Daphne Lawless spoke to the “The Right Podcast” on Red-Brownism, conservative leftism, and campism. Is there a future for socialist internationalism?

Yasser Munif (2022): “Looking at the revolution from below is extremely important”

Transcript of an episode originally broadcast by Where’s My Jetpack podcast, on March 15th 2022. From the Fightback magazine issue Syrian Voices – please subscribe here.

Ani White: Kia ora. Welcome, comrades, to Where’s My Jetpack?! a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. This month we’ve got an interview with Yasser Munif on the Syrian revolution, once again on the anniversary of the revolution. So Yasser Munif is a Syrian academic and activist, and associate professor of Sociology at Emerson College. He teaches courses about colonial history, racial identities, social movements, Middle Eastern politics, and feminist theories. He is the co-founder of the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution and his book, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death, which will be mainly discussing here, was published in 2020. So welcome to the show, Yasser.

Yasser Munif: Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for the opportunity.

Ani White: Yeah, thanks for coming on. So first, a general question. What are the key things people need to know about the Syrian revolution?

Yasser Munif: So the Syrian revolution obviously started in 2011 with a number of other revolts in the region and I think the entry point, the most important to understand about the revolution in Syria is that it’s both a simple and complex process. Simple in the sense that there is a long history of violence in Syria that didn’t start in 2011, but rather we could trace back to the rise to power of the Ba’ath Party in the 1960s, in addition to dire economic context, crisis, since the 1980s, but also since 2000. So it was common sense that people would rise up and oppose this dictatorship in 2011. I think that’s an important entry point to understand that there was a lot of resentment, a lot of coercion to the population, marginalization, high unemployment rates, and so on. It was logical for large segments of the population to oppose and to resist the Assad regime.

On the other hand, it’s also a very complex revolution in the sense that many actors were involved at different stages of the revolt with their own interests, with their own logic. So, for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved and in a certain way were fighting each other and using Syria as a proxy to face each other. There is also the opposition between the Kurdish politics and Turkey, and US and Russia and so on and so forth. I mean, there are a number of layers that complexify any understanding of the revolution very quickly. So what I propose usually is that we begin with that simple entry point to understand that people revolted for obvious reasons, like many other populations in the region.

The second thing I would say is that one cannot really understand the Syrian revolution without understanding its connection to the entire region, the Arab region or the Middle East and Northern African region. There was an authoritarian order in that region that was more or less stable in the past several decades, at least since the 1960s. For many of them, dictatorships that were run oftentimes by families, whether that’s Egypt or obviously Saudi Arabia or Jordan and the same thing in Morocco and so on, or a ruling party that became very much once again run by a small clique or even a family, like in Syria or in Iraq up until the US invasion, or Algeria. So it’s important to understand that those revolts are very much interconnected in the same way as the revolt of the socialist camp after 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore we should understand them in their globality as interconnected and the impact of each one of them on the others.

Thirdly, I would say that it’s very important to really focus on the grassroots politics and not reduce those revolts to the geopolitical dimension. And I’m sure we’ll have an opportunity to talk more about that. But oftentimes people have a tendency to jump to the geopolitical aspect of those revolts and ignoring or dismissing the grassroots politics, which is, I think, central in any understanding of the Syrian revolt, but also the Arab revolts in general.

Ani White: Yeah, and for an example of those grassroots politics, you spent a few months in the city of Manbij during the revolution. Can you describe the revolutionary process there?

Yasser Munif: Yes. So Manbij is a city located in Northern Syria, close to the Turkish border and I chose it because it was more accessible for me at some point. I couldn’t go back to Damascus. Initially, I started going to Damascus, but then my name ended up being on some list and it became more risky to go to the areas controlled by the Assad regime.

So Manbij was liberated in July 2012 and was run by a Revolutionary Council and was a very interesting case study to me. I mean, I wanted to go and see for myself what is happening and how the revolution really takes place in the everyday life. And so it was a really important trip in a certain way because there were a number of initiatives happening in the city. People were trying to make the city liveable despite the amount of violence against the city, either through bombardment or through siege. Oftentimes it’s very difficult to even get bread or other type of food, medication and what have you. There was also a large number of refugees in the city. And so all these aspects made the running of the city more challenging. There were almost 200,000 refugees or internally displaced people, which is approximately equal to the population of Manbij. And all these people needed housing, access to medical health care. They needed food, schooling for their children and so on.

So it’s within that kind of context that people were actively trying to recreate many of those institutions that are essential for the survival of the population in those areas. I think oftentimes those examples, those struggles are ignored. They don’t necessarily end up on the front pages of the international media. First, because it’s very difficult to access those areas. Second, it requires spending more time and getting to know the population and who’s doing what and the different groups operating on the ground and so on. So it requires more time and that’s not something that many journalists are able to do.

So my experience there was extremely interesting in the sense that one begins to understand how revolution really operates. It’s oftentimes a very chaotic process. Oftentimes people learn by trial and error. It’s an iterative project of the revolution. Looking at the revolution from below is an extremely important thing for people who want to understand those processes. So I was able to gather a lot of stories from people who were either trying to reopen the school to get the kids to go back to school, despite the challenges, despite the Syrian regime bombarding the school and preventing people from going back there or providing bread and the politics of bread and how all that operates and so on. So it was an important opportunity for me to observe the revolution from below, to see the everyday life of people resisting and trying to rebuild from the destruction that the Syrian regime imposed.

Ani White: Yeah, thanks for that. In your book, you talk about the Syrian revolution representing a micropolitics of life against a macropolitics of death, or necropolitics. Can you explain what that means for our listeners?

Yasser Munif: Yeah. Again, there was a lot of writing about the Syrian revolution, and oftentimes I felt that what people highlighted really was the geopolitical aspects and international relations and so on. So I wanted to shift the focus and try to highlight other aspects that are not necessarily very visible in the mainstream media, or even among certain academic circles, or even among activists. So I used this, I would say, theoretical tool, micropolitics and macropolitics, or what I would call also the politics of life against the politics of death, which is, I think, a really useful way to think and look at this revolution.

So what I mean by the micropolitics, or the politics of life, are all these micro processes, the everyday resistance and the minutiae of building alternatives that oftentimes are very decentralised. So people began their involvement in the revolution by organizing at the level of their neighbourhood, among family members, because those are the people you trust and their villages. Because Syria was very violent, I mean, the regime was very violent in Syria, the political parties were almost nonexistent. So when the revolution started, there was no structure, no leadership to lead the revolutionary process. So this is why it was a very decentralised process. So what you find in one place, for example, in Manbij, is very different from what you will find in other regions, either because of the demographic composition of the population or the urban texture of the city or the neighbourhood or sometimes because of the large presence of the military. In some areas, the activists were much more prepared and much more democratic and therefore they were able to build a much more solid alternative and so on.

So it’s through that process of politics of life, observing what people are doing on an everyday basis to again rebuild those institutions and the effective networks that people build to communicate among each other, either through social media or other ways or sometimes using art even to resist. And I think that’s another dimension that is oftentimes marginal. People don’t pay much attention to it. But in some of the areas, it was almost impossible to organise a protest. For example, people in the beginning would put red paint in the fountains, to remind everyone that maybe there are no protests because of the security and the military and so on. But there is something like a rebellion brewing, or people sometimes with through ping pong balls, with messages from a hilltop in some of the neighbourhoods that would go to different places downhill. And so people would find those ping pong balls and read the message, and so on and so forth. So there was a lot of creativity. It’s only through those minimalist kind of observations one can begin to understand the revolutionary process.

On the other hand, to understand what the regime was doing. I felt that it was important to look at death as a major entry point, and I think by doing that, we can understand the state logic and how the Syrian regime was regulating its forces, by looking at how it can impose more violence and more death and so on. So the book is really structured around those two processes, the macropolitics or micropolitics, and the politics of life and the politics of death. One can, I think, understand the revolution better by using those frameworks. In a certain way it’s a way to decolonise theory, because I think a lot of the social sciences are oftentimes Eurocentric and inadequate to understand what’s happening in our region and the Arab world. For example, a lot of the social movement theory, the new social movement theory was developed in a European context where social movements can operate, they can formulate demands to the state, and there is a public sphere and so on and so forth. All that doesn’t exist in the Arab region. So using a social movement theory, for example, to understand what’s happening in Syria is not appropriate. This is why I was trying to develop alternative tools, theoretical tools, to understand, on the one hand, the violence of the Syrian regime, but also the creativity of the people who are building alternatives, and fighting for a politics of dignity from below.

Ani White: Thanks for that. You argue that the prison is the central pillar of necropower or the politics of death. Can you explain how that works?

Yasser Munif: Sure. One cannot really understand Syrian history or politics without understanding the rule of prisons in it. Mustafa Khalifa, for example, explained that Syria’s history is the history of prisons, concentration camps, and massacres. And that’s very accurate. If we look at the way that the Syrian regime, the Ba’ath Party and Assad rose to power – it was through a coup. And Syria has also a history of coups. Some historians would argue that they were up to 19 different coups, depending on how you count them and so on. So when Assad took power, he wanted to build a coup-proof regime or state, and one of those central institutions to help him do that was obviously the prison. So the Syrian regime imposed an equation in Syrian society where violence really played a central role. and the Syrian regime imposed that politics of fear where one has to always be on guard and be careful. and you end up in the end self-censoring, and people avoid any kind of talk about politics. I remember even hearing from people that one should not talk about the price of vegetables, tomatoes, and what have you in public transportation because that could be understood or interpreted as a critique of the regime. So that was the level of violence. So obviously only a small portion of the population was incarcerated in prison and was experiencing the violence and the torture of the Syrian prison, which are notorious on a global scale. Only a few places really compare to the Syrian prison where oftentimes people died under torture. The Syrian regime developed the whole carceral knowledge and strategies to better torture prisoners, either to humiliate them or to get information and all that to impose that politics of fear and create this narrative that anyone can end up being there.

So the Syrian regime was not necessarily interested in preventing stories from leaking from the inside to the outside. On the contrary, it wanted the Syrian population to know to a certain extent about what’s happening in places like Tadmor or Sednaya, the massacres that happened and so on, not too much, but enough to scare the population. And so the Syrian prison obviously has its own specificity. It’s very different from the US prison system or other prison systems in – how should I call that? – in highly developed capitalist countries where the prison, like in the US, plays an economic role and is connected to the economic institutions, and in a certain way allows the state to accumulate and to punish any surplus population or unemployed population like in the US with the Black and the Brown population. In Syria, it doesn’t necessarily have that economic incentive. On the contrary, in Syria the prison costs the state money and it’s not necessarily productive in the way that it is in the US. So it fulfils a different role, which is, as I mentioned, producing that politics of fear and making sure that everyone is on their guard and making sure that there is no opposition, because there is always that possibility of ending in prison.

As a result, Riad al-Turk, who is one of the important leftist intellectuals and political leaders called Syria the ‘Kingdom of Silence’, because of the central role that prisons really played. There is a whole literature in Syria called the prison literature. And that’s also true in the region, I should say, because there are some similarities between prison in Syria and, say, in Iraq and in Egypt and so on. So this is why I think it’s very important to put that institution, in any analysis, in a central position to really understand the way that the Syrian regime operates, and the way that it projects this image of force and coercion and violence.

Ani White: I think it’s also perhaps worth noting, as many have noted, that in terms of that carceral logic and the logic of torture and the macropolitics of death, as you put it, that the Assad regime collaborated with the US on essentially rendition of people for torture during the so-called War on Terror, kind of somewhat undermining the idea that Assad is an anti-imperialist.

Yasser Munif: I think that’s an excellent point because, as you noted, not only the Assad regime but also Mubarak and others, oftentimes the European countries and the West in general would outsource that torture because it’s more difficult to execute that level of violence and torture in Western countries. And so, yes, Syria played that role, and coordinated with the US very closely in the war against terrorism, or quote unquote “terrorism”, but in the end implemented its own agenda.

The other thing I think that we should mention in relation to the prison, there are two ways to understand the prison in Syria. Some people have proposed a minimalist kind of definition, which understands the prison as simply the building and the centre where people are incarcerated. Others have proposed a more maximalist definition of prison, which basically includes the entire Syrian territory, because in some ways, all people are victim in some way or another of that system. I think it’s more adequate to find something in the middle where prison is not simply the building and those incarceration centres, but rather it has also annexes. So it’s also sometimes some hospitals, especially during the war, during the revolution, the hospital played a major role.

For example, Hospital 601 in Damascus was more feared than the famous, or infamous SedNaya prison, because people would go there and there would be doctors helping the guard on techniques of torture, and pushing the limits like almost to death, and bringing the prisoners back so that they get more torture. So that coordination between some death doctors and some prison guards is really horrifying. I think we should understand better the collaboration between the prison system and healthcare that has also parallels in the Nazi system, where doctors oftentimes were in some ways helping prison guards and so on.

Ani White: Yeah, I definitely think the carceral logic extending beyond just the prison is a real thing.
What is the state of exception and how does it apply to Syrian political history?

Yasser Munif: So that’s another important dimension of Syrian politics, the state of exception or the state of emergency. It was called the state of emergency in Syria. It’s the idea that the state can suspend the legal system to preserve itself, and preserve its interest. It represents a kind of desire on behalf of the state to, on the one hand, be legalistic and be part of the international community, but also using that powerful weapon that actually many “modern” states between quotation marks, which is the state of exception, that the law can be suspended because the state has an interest in doing that. So the way it was justified in Syria – the state of emergency was imposed in 1963 when the third party took power, and it can also be traced back to periods preceding that in the 1950s, when Abdel Nasser became de facto President through the union between Syria and Egypt. It was also imposed during the French colonization of Syria during the French mandate. So one could also trace back that state of exception or state of emergency.

But it’s been in place in Syria since at least 1963 with the rise to power of the Ba’ath party, and has become a tool that the Syrian regime always utilised against political parties, against any political dissidents and any form of political protest, to say that Syria is at war against Israel and the West in general, the Imperialist West, and therefore, it can use that state of emergency because of that, and can justify the way that it’s running the state. And it became a major demand on behalf of the protesters when the revolution started in 2011, one of the main demands was people wanted the end of the state of emergency. It was finally lifted in 2012, but was quickly replaced by counterterrorism laws which basically played the same role as the state of emergency or the state of exception, but are more acceptable for the international community because many countries

actually, whether in the West or elsewhere, have similar rules compared to laws where law is suspended because the state needs to do certain things that would not be acceptable or permissible in “normal days”.

So Syrians have no political rights. They cannot participate freely in political parties. There are no free elections. And in addition to that, they are completely powerless when it comes to the legal system because of that law. So, again, this is not to say that the state of exception is unique to Syria, but I would argue that in Syria, the state of emergency or the state of exception was implemented on a larger scale, and is much more visible and had lethal consequences, obviously.

Ani White: You describe a process of Assadist urbicide or the killing of cities. Can you explain that?

Yasser Munif: Yeah, so I use this concept of urbicide developed by a number of intellectuals – the idea of killing cities or the urban texture during conflict. One could also think about this concept outside conflict and outside war. But I use it in the context of Aleppo during the revolution, to understand the spacial aspect of the revolution. So urbicide was basically used by the regime to take control of certain areas in Aleppo. Obviously, it can be utilised in other cities but the focus in my book is on Aleppo, and I identified several strategies that the Syrian regime used. They include, for example, horizontal power and flows. We’re thinking about the spatial aspect of the revolution. And so the ways that the regime, for example, segmented the city of Aleppo in small areas that it can control better by putting checkpoints, and by making sure that there is no communication or coordination between neighbourhoods that are perceived as threatening. At the same time, again, if we look at this horizontal operation or flows, there were pro regime militias that were moving quickly from one neighbourhood to another. They’re called the Shabīḥa and they’re infamous. Everyone has seen them during the revolution, but they were also present before the revolution, again to make sure that they remind the Syrians that they are watched, that the state is present. So whenever there was any rebellion or any kind of protest in the early days of the revolution, they know the city very well. They know the families very well. They know the streets of the city of Aleppo, oftentimes narrow streets where tanks cannot enter and so on. So they would be sent there and they would crush any form of protest.

So it’s important to think about the city on that horizontal level, but also on what I call the vertical power. It’s not obviously a concept that I developed, it was developed by others. But trying to understand how the Syrian regime positioned its snipers in the city by using high-rises, including luxury hotels or administrative buildings or minarets. When you look at those different buildings where the snipers were positioned, what you find is the different forms of powers or the different groups that were allied to the Syrian regime. So the luxury hotels represented the neoliberal or traditional economic power. So those hotels were given to the regime, and the regime occupied the roofs where it positioned snipers. Then the second power is obviously the massive bureaucracy of the state and so those buildings represented that bureaucracy. There are very important buildings in Aleppo where dozens of snipers were positioned, and they were able to really kill many people in different areas, because those tall buildings had views over a number of different neighbourhoods.

Thirdly, the religious power symbolised by the minarets and the mosques where also some snipers were positioned. In addition to that, the snipers obviously, there are the helicopters dropping the barrel bombs and what have you. You could understand the geography of death by looking at the areas that were targeted by the Syrian regime, where those barrel bombs were dropped, there were almost 100,000 explosive barrels were dropped in Syria. By mapping those, one could begin to understand the state logic, and why is it that they were focusing on certain areas and not others, and dig further and understand the military logic through that spatial mapping.

I think that the Syrian regime has a really very deep understanding of space, and it was able to instrumentalise it and use it during the revolution, by positioning its military. It’s an old logic. It didn’t start with the Syrian revolution, because the Syrian regime always felt that there is a threat of rebellion. and faced actually a rebellion in the 1980s – an urban rebellion – and therefore, one can trace back that urban logic, at least to that period of the 1980s. So if you look at Aleppo, many of the military compounds and military centres, intelligence, security centres, they’re surrounding the city in a very strategic way. Additionally, there is also the topography of the city, again, a spatial dimension that can also help us understand the military logic of the Syrian regime. So, for example, the river was utilised in a certain way by the regime. The hilltops were utilised, to position its military to control the lower areas in the city. The green areas and the parks were utilised, and so on, to execute people and then drop them in the river. The river would bring those dead people to the areas controlled by the revolutionaries and so on.

So I mean, that’s what I meant by urbicide, trying to understand the lethal power of the state and the regime through space, which is oftentimes a neglected dimension in any conflict, but especially in the Syrian conflict. And we need much more, I think, studies and analysis of different areas, not only the urban but also the countryside, because it has its own different logic to really understand an important aspect of the revolution and the counter revolution.

Ani White: You mentioned the targeting of certain areas over others and I think it’s a related question: how did the regime weaponize demographics?

Yasser Munif: So that’s another important question for the Syrian regime – which is gathering information about its population. As a reminder, sociology as a field, the social sciences as a field were initially created to help the state better understand its population in order to better control it. I mean, that’s the history of sociology, which is different from anthropology. Anthropology was initially developed to further the colonial enterprise, and help the colonial power understand the population that are outside Europe, or the West. So in that sense, sociology and information or knowledge about the population is not specific to the Syrian regime. But the Syrian regime obviously had gathered a lot of information about the population, whether that’s the different religious sects, the sectarian dimension of the population, where the wealthy and the poor people live, a lot of information about the informal settlements and so on and so forth.

So I tried to look at, again, Aleppo, I used Aleppo as an example to see the ways that the Syrian regime took all these parameters of the population, whether they are young or old, whether they are living in the countryside or in the city, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are Arab or Kurds, Christian or Muslim, and so on and so forth, Palestinian or non Palestinian, and utilise all these different properties or different characteristics of the population to weaponize them and making sure that, for example, that there is tension between Christians and Muslims, if it’s local, making sure that it becomes national, if it doesn’t exist, try to provoke it and so on. For example, the Syrian regime oftentimes would send undercover militias dressed in Islamic uniform to Christian areas and massacre the population, so that people think those people were massacred by Islamists and vice versa. And same thing with the Palestinians. I mean, there were Palestinian militias, but there was also a rebellion in the Palestinian camp, so the Syrian regime took – and you could look that up, it’s been documented and it’s not even controversial, I mean, there were pictures taken and footage and so on – it took a bus of Palestinian fighters who are pro regime and killed them, and then made the Palestinian camp believe that they were killed by the opposition. So it really instrumentalised the population in different ways, to make sure that it’s fragmented in ways that will serve the interest of the state, the interest of the regime, as opposed to the interest of the rebellion.

So instead of people really working together along class lines or in their own interests, they were segmented in all these different ways at different phases of the revolution, to prevent the consolidation of a big oppositional revolutionary bloc. Some of it predates the revolution. It didn’t start with the revolution, it was intensified by the revolution. One example for that is the Kurdish population was displaced because, again, the Syrian regime had this hatred for the Kurds because it’s Arab nationalist in a very chauvinistic way. So the Kurds were displaced from the North, and the Syrian regime built an Arab belt around the border between Syria and Turkey to prevent the potential formation of a Kurdish state between Turkey and Syria. And obviously, it was coordinating with Iraq and Iran and Turkey in different ways, making sure that the Kurds don’t have autonomy or self rule. So very early on, the Arab and the Kurdish populations, there were a lot of tensions between some of the tribes that are in those areas and we saw how they were, again, instrumentalised during the revolution. Those are some of the ways that the regime weaponised the demographics. I mean, we can go much more in depth, but I think the logic is clear.

Ani White: Yes. And how did the economic policies of the Assads back to the 70s factor into the emergence of resistance? And how have the politics of bread, or agrarian policy, played out in modern Syrian history?

Yasser Munif: Obviously, the economy played a major role in the immiseration of the Syrian population, its marginalization, the high unemployment rate, and so on, and was one of the main reason for the revolt. And again, it’s not unique to Syria, many Arab countries were facing the same kind of situation. So there was an important agrarian reform implemented in the 1960s, and when the Ba’ath took power – and especially Assad – because the Ba’ath took power and a number of other leaders, but he was able to put them in prison or exile them.

By 1970, he was controlling monopolizing power. So he started reversing the agrarian reform in the 1970s, and undoing some of the gains of that reform. But despite that, the agrarian reform was important, despite the limitations. As a result, the economy in Syria, industrialization was really import substitution industrialization, and was based on agricultural production for its survival. So it was really small and ineffective and dependent on agriculture, and oftentimes that was not predictable, and therefore oftentimes depending on the seasons the industry suffered. It’s not like the kind of industry that you can plan and predict, and so on. It was depending on the season when there were droughts, obviously, that the industry suffered a lot. So, in other words, the regime was really dependent on oil revenues and aid from Gulf countries and others, and also on the remittance from the Syrian diaspora, mostly in the Gulf countries and all that was declining. In addition, the Syrian population was growing, and that was compounding and complexifying the problems of the economy.

Finally, I would say that the liberalization of the economy which begun in the 1980s but amplified in 2000, when Bashar al-Assad took power after his father, with the neoliberal turn, and that had major dire consequences on the population, which was growing at a fast pace. Many people, many young men and women with university degrees, would not find jobs. The unemployment rate among the young population was extremely high. All these factors really were instrumental in the revolt. Many people joined the revolt because of that economic situation. Not only – the political humiliation of the Syrian population is obviously very important, but one cannot really understand the Syrian revolt and the Syrian revolution without understanding that economic background that Syria was undergoing.

Ani White: And you argued that the Syrian revolutionaries developed a new form of nationalism opposed to official state nationalism. So what distinguished this new form of nationalism and what practices were associated with it?

Yasser Munif: Yeah, I think it’s important to differentiate between different forms of nationalism. Again, sometimes people have a tendency to conflate those and to talk about nationalism in general. Sometimes people think that nationalism in Europe is similar to nationalism in the Global South. So I think it’s important to differentiate between all these different forms of nationalism. Obviously, European nationalism is chauvinistic. It’s white supremacist, it’s expansionist. It’s about furthering Imperial or colonial logic. Nationalism in the Global South, not always, I mean, it can be also very chauvinistic and very racist, and there are countless examples of that in the Arab region and beyond. India is a good example of how nationalism can be deployed against minorities, or against certain populations. But it can also be emancipatory. Popular nationalism often played that role of becoming the dominant ideology, when there was colonization against, for example, the French or against the British, it was a way to bring the population together, and build a block against that Imperial or colonial power. That was the case in Syria. The early nationalism in Syria emerged in the 1920s, and it was a very popular form of nationalism. It wasn’t some intellectuals writing about the way it should be done, and so on. So it was a nationalism that was taking, and shaping, in the midst of trouble.

In order to understand what happened in 2011, I think it’s important to go back to that period of the early nationalism of the 1920s, where people were organizing in very similar ways, organizing and forming different councils and groups, in order to fight and to resist the French. As they were doing that, they were developing this nationalist identity. So I think the same thing started happening in Syria in 2011, as people started working together, opposing the sectarian logic, understanding that was imposed from above by the Syrian regime, that the Syrian people have so much in common, whether they are Christian or Muslim or they are Kurdish or non Kurdish Arabs, whether they are coming from different backgrounds. There is a sizeable Palestinian population, and so on. So there was a lot of that popular nationalism emerging in the beginning, and anyone shouting or screaming sectarian slogans in the early days of the revolution would be removed from the protests or marginalised, or people would really exclude them from the revolutionary process. It wasn’t acceptable to be sectarian. So it was playing that role of building nationalism from below, of experimenting and discovering how to be Syrian differently or otherwise, because for many decades Syrians grew up with that Ba’ath Party nationalism. The Ba’ath Party is obviously an Arab nationalist party and whether it’s Arab nationalism or Syrian nationalism, it played a major role in the curriculum in schools. But it was very archaic, and people understood that it was deployed by the state to preserve and further the state’s interests, and to preserve the interests of the Assad regime. That popular nationalism was oppositional to that. It was reacting against that state centric nationalism, oftentimes scripted. It came from a few books that the Syrian regime considered like Bibles, that almost everyone had to read, and slowly but surely Assad the father became the main theoretician of nationalism, and people had to learn the slogans and so on, as part of that state-centric official nationalism.

This is what I tried to look at, the differences and the ways that the popular nationalism was extremely important to build an identity, a glue to all these different groups to come together and to oppose authoritarian rule. So that is a nationalism that one cannot really understand by reading articles. It’s not scripted in a certain way, unlike the official nationalism. One has to go to the protest and look at the practices or praxes of the people, what they are doing on the ground, and what they’re going to find is a very messy process, very heterogeneous. It’s a very decentralised form of nationalism. It’s multiple in that sense, unlike the very centralised and singular kind of nationalism of the state or the official nationalism. So that’s what I tried to do, opposing those two nationalisms to better understand popular nationalism and its creative and innovative aspects.

Ani White: Yeah. I think one good prominent example of this was the chants and slogans of “Sunnis and Alawis are One!” and “Syrians are One”, which sort of undermined the sectarianism that the regime was deliberately stoking at the time.

Yasser Munif: You’re exactly right. Those slogans were extremely important and people were very creative in amplifying those important ideas, that we have so much in common as Christians and Muslims and Kurds and Arabs. Sometimes the Assad regime would send undercover security to actually try to scream or impose other slogans. And as I said, in the beginning, they were marginal. But again, they would try to videotape this one person who oftentimes would be like a security agent and so on, shouting very disturbing slogans that no one has ever heard and then putting it on the internet and saying, “oh, look what they’re shouting and what they’re saying”. That was part of the Syrian regimes strategy, which is trying to fragment the population and try to impose the sectarian logic which was very detrimental, and at some point it became actually very dominant, unfortunately.

Ani White: How did revolutionaries respond to the encroachment of ISIS at the extreme, and other sectarians as well?

Yasser Munif: So I think it’s important to differentiate between two forms of political Islam. One is to a certain extent nationalist and it can be democratic or undemocratic, oftentimes undemocratic. But what’s important is that it’s nationalist, and was mostly interested in mobilizing the Syrian population against the Assad regime. So I think it’s important to differentiate that form of political Islam from the internationalist Islam of ISIS or Al Qaeda, who are very much opposed to nationalism, to Syrianness. When I was in Manbij and ISIS started taking over the city, oftentimes they would remove from the walls any nationalist slogans. I mean nationalism in the sense of popular nationalism that I described, slogans like, for example, “the real Syrians are revolutionaries”, or “to be Syrians means to serve one city and one’s population, not the Assad regime”, and so on. So ISIS came and they started removing all those slogans and saying those are blasphemous, and the only language we should speak is the language of Islam and so on. There was an important moment, that I think shocked many people in the world when ISIS removed the border between Syria and Iraq, to remind everyone that they are fighting for a post-national ummah, that they don’t recognise those nation-states, that those nation-states were imposed by the west – which is true. Those are the by-products of Sykes–Picot and the Western European dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. But one, obviously is opposed to that kind of internationalism of ISIS and so on. I support, for example, a socialist Arab nationalism or an open Arab nationalism to a certain extent, that is inclusive and not exclusive of the Kurdish and other minorities, that sees a lot of common interest between different Arab countries, and therefore a little bit like the kind of internationalism or Latin Americanism of Che Guevara and others, who thought that it was important to unify, to oppose imperialist power and so on.

But obviously ISIS was not dismantling the borders for that reason. What they wanted to do is destroy the nationalist Arab state and impose an Islamic logic instead. Unfortunately, there was no powerful left to propose a different alternative to that, so we were left with that kind of post-nationalism brought by ISIS and Al Qaeda. But I think it’s important to understand that the Syrian regime was always interested in empowering Islamists again, to fight and to undermine the unions and progressive parties and the communists who were very powerful in Syria and in Iraq, to a certain extent – much more powerful in Iraq than in Syria but they had some presence in Syria – and they were completely destroyed.

The Syrian regime oftentimes was allied directly or indirectly with Islamists, despite that moment of tension with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. But then later on, it allowed the Saudi to play a major role in funding jihadists in the 1980s and to fund a certain form of Wahhabi Islam, very sectarian, in order to undermine the left. I can give at least one example of that kind of collaboration, de facto collaboration between jihadists and Al Assad. I’m not suggesting that there was a big conspiracy. Some Syrians did believe that there was a big conspiracy, that ISIS was created by security agents and so on. I think there is some truth to that, but it’s not as simple. But in 2012, the Syrian regime released thousands of jihadists, many of whom became major leaders in some of the most important jihadist groups in Syria. There is even footage of them in Sednaya up until 2012 and then they were released. Some of them were international figures that were on the wanted list of the US because of their role with Al Qaeda. So they were released in 2012, again for the Syrian regime to undermine the popular aspect of the revolt, the progressive and leftist dimension of the revolution, and the liberal dimension, and to empower the Islamists. By doing that, in a certain way, there was almost like a de facto alliance between the Syrian regime and ISIS and Al Qaeda, because the Syrian regime wanted to crush the popular revolt, and in a certain way empowered the jihadists and ISIS, and therefore almost like de facto become allied with the international community by telling them, “Look, there is no real opposition in Syria. They’re not secular, they’re all Islamists, they are terrorists. They are bombing your cities, whether that’s Paris or what have you”. And therefore there was this de facto alliance between the West and the Syrian regime.

And the same thing is true with ISIS in many areas. If you go back and look at where they were operating, and what their priorities were, they were really oftentimes behind the frontline and they were attacking the revolutionaries from behind, as the revolutionaries were on the front attacking the Syrian regime, ISIS would come to a city almost peacefully, they would enter their military forces, and sometimes they were welcomed by the population, who oftentimes didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. Then they would take those cities very easily because many of the fighters were on the front and ISIS was in the back, fighting sometimes minor battles with the opposition, to undermine the opposition, and make it clear that the only way to oppose the regime is through ISIS or Al Qaeda, by undermining any other group.

This is why I think it’s important to understand the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime, without reducing it to a conspiracy. I think they have common interest in undermining the revolt on both sides. Oftentimes there was a number of places where the opposition was fighting towards one against ISIS, another one against the Syrian regime. In those areas, oftentimes ISIS and the Syrian regime would not fight each other until much later in the process, when it became too obvious and Assad had to start fighting them, and the Russians started supporting and helping them. But for a very long time, Assad was avoiding depleting his forces in any wars against ISIS or Al Qaeda, letting them grow, knowing that the West, generally speaking, would much prefer a “secular” Assad regime than those sectarian jihadist groups.

Ani White: Yeah, I think it’s very true that it benefits the Assad regime for the international community to perceive any resistance as sectarian, and that’s been a very deliberate strategy. But what’s next for those of us who uphold the Middle Eastern and North African revolutions?

Yasser Munif: So as I mentioned before, I think it’s very important to understand the Syrian revolution as part of much bigger process, that this is not simply about Syria, or about Egypt, or about Sudan. I mean, obviously, those processes are very much interrelated. I think one of the challenges in the past ten years has been that the amount of violence in Syria was monumental and so I don’t blame people when they are hyper focused on their own struggles, because every day there is more death and more destruction and more violence and people are very focused on that level. But I think there is need to understand the interconnectedness of those Arab revolts, and understand that we have so much in common between the Syrians opposing the Syrian regime and the Sudanese, the revolutionaries, and the Egyptian protesters and so on, with the Tunisians and so on, and learn from each other. I think that the Sudanese are doing that. I was in touch with Sudanese, who are contacting activists and organisers in the entire Arab world, to better understand some of the ways that people were organizing against state violence, and against the different weapons, and asking specific questions about specific weapons and what to do against them and so on. And I think we need to expand those kind of networks, building very grassroots network among activists and organisers and understand the commonalities among those different struggles, and also the differences and specificities, I don’t think we should oversimplify those dimensions. But obviously there is a lot in common and build strategies to oppose, for example, the prison system in the entire Arab world, or the security system in the entire world, or the violent neoliberal policies in the entire Arab world, and so on and so forth. So I think we gain a lot by building those networks.

Now it’s been ten years: the revolution started in 2010-2011. I think it’s time to learn from our mistakes and learn and share knowledge between those different revolts and processes. Learn from the myriad ways that people have been struggling and building alternatives from the ground up, whether that’s in their own neighbourhood, how to defend them, how to provide bread and how to build strategies and communicate with each other and so on, despite the violence of the Arab regime.

Finally, I would say that I think some of us were a bit idealistic in the beginning. Obviously, we knew that those regime were extremely violent, but I don’t think we understood the level of violence that they were willing to deploy and utilise against their own population. So now that question has to be central, knowing what the Syrian regime and other Arab authoritarian rulers are capable of and think about the ways that we can counter that. It’s not simply violence against violence. I think it’s a much more complex question, or equation. And so we need to develop new, innovative strategies to address that question, that central question of violence. And finally, I would say that we have to think about the long term because some of those processes are changing; those tectonic plates beneath are moving and colliding and so on and producing different processes on the surface. But those are slow, and oftentimes they take time to become visible and appear on the surface, because they are oftentimes beneath the surface.

I’m talking about social structures and social classes that are changing and developing, and people are understanding different interests, maybe in different ways. That requires a different understanding of the left, a less sectarian kind of left that is very important to rebuild, a left that is able to understand and learn from past mistakes, but also connect with other struggles in the surrounding countries in the region, but also beyond, because many of those crises are systemic. They are global. Whether they are environmental, or economic, or even crises of democracy or the nation state. We are facing all these different crises, and the crisis of fascism that takes a different form in our region. But I believe that those struggles are very much interconnected, and the challenge for us is to understand the specificity and the anatomy of those demons, and develop strategies to counter them, and develop strategies of communication and networking among all these different groups, to be ready for the second round and the third round, because I think it’s going to be a very long process.

Ani White: Yeah. Thanks for that and thanks for coming on the show. Where can listeners find your work?

Yasser Munif: Thank you. Unfortunately, I don’t have a website, but I often-times write articles and organise through the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. We organise different events, including a year ago we organised a Summer University about the Syrian revolution. So trying to understand the Syrian revolution from below and we had many, many different panels in addition to global protests. Because I think that now there is a large number of Syrians in the diaspora and their allies. I believe that those should be understood as outposts of the Syrian revolution and the Arab revolts, and we should develop better alliances with groups that are in the West, where those people are, and to better communicate and learn from each other.

Ani White: Yeah, I think that’s a very important point. The Syrian community is global. But again, thanks for coming on the show, and thanks for listening all. If you like what we do, please contribute to our Patreon at Patreon.com/jetpack1917. Solidarity comrades. Goodnight, and good luck.

Yasser Munif: Thank you and thank you for all the work you do. Thank you very much.

Ani White: Cheers.

Razan Ghazzawi (2021): “Revolutionary moments”

Transcript of an episode originally broadcast by Where’s My Jetpack podcast, on March 15th 2021. From the Fightback magazine issue Syrian Voices – please subscribe here.

Ani White: Kia ora, hello comrades, and welcome to Where’s My Jetpack, I’m Ani White.

Derek Johnson: And I’m Derek Johnson. Hola, comrades.

This month is widely recognised as the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, so we’re interviewing Syrian-American activist Razan Ghazzawi on women’s liberation and the revolution. But first, some recs. Ani..

Ani White: We’ve recommended [these] before but the books Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Leila al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, and also, The Impossible Revolution by Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Both well worth reading…

Derek Johnson: …I also want to link to CounterVortex by Bill Weinberg, it has some pretty good articles over there and republishings. For instance this one, ‘Russiagate, Syria and the Left’ by Terry Burke with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS) in Minneapolis and the website for that organisation is http://www.cispos.org.

Also, I want to recommend the Bellingcat website. They do a lot of very good content and they’re constantly being attacked by tankies and Nazbols as working for the State Department or the CIA, which is a crock of shit. I especially want to recommend their piece, ‘Pro-Assad Lobby Group Rewards Bloggers On Both The Left And The Right’ that exposes Red-Brown propagandists for Assad monetarily rewarding them with the Serena Shim Award. There’s winners like Jimmy Dore, the comedian turned toxic political commentator, who has been calling for a left-right populist alliance, like with the Boogaloo Boys. He won the award and was paid $250,000. You can check his IRS statements, if anybody thinks that’s a lie, as well as any of these other people. Visiting guests of the regime included Tulsi Gabbard and Dennis Kucinich who once ran for president of the United States.

Ani White: Yeah, and I recommend the documentary Women of Syria: Unheard No More by Amnesty International.

Derek Johnson: I want to also recommend a reprint that CounterVortex did of a piece by Leila al-Shami on ‘Omar Aziz: Syrian Anarchist’, which is an excellent history of an actual Syrian anarchist and the movement building he helped start with western leftists, ignoring unfortunately the Syrian local councils.

“Omar Aziz was born in Damascus, he returned to Syria, from exile in Saudi Arabia and the United States, in the early days of the Syrian revolution. An intellectual, economist, anarchist, husband and father. At the age of 63 he committed himself to the revolutionary struggle. He worked together with local activists to collect humanitarian aid and distribute it to suburbs of Damascus that were under attack by the regime. Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organisation, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus. The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self-organisation to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring. In her tribute to Omar Aziz, Budour Hassan says, he “did not wear a Vendetta mask, nor did he form black blocs”.”

Ani White: …Before we move on to the interview, just a note. As well as being the official Tenth Anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, this is also the second anniversary of the Christchurch shooting in Aotearoa New Zealand when a far-right terrorist targeted two mosques and took out fifty people. Some of those attacked were themselves Syrian refugees. We remember the dead and fight for the living.

We also have another bonus episode released today with video essayist Byron Clark on the far-right in Aotearoa/New Zealand.1

…We’re interviewing Razan Ghazzawi on the Syrian Revolution. Razan is an award winning human rights defender, blogger, exiled Palestinian Syrian U.S. based scholar activist and a doctoral researcher in gender studies at the University of Sussex. Her thesis looks at different forms of mobilisation of queerness in the context of the War on Terror in the Syrian war. Ghazzawi was detained twice by the Syrian state and was exiled by Al-Qaeda and ISIS groups in Northern Syria. She is the founder of the Feminist ArQives and a co-founder of the Karama Bus project in Idlib.

Welcome to the show and thanks for coming on.

Razan Ghazzawi: Thank you for having me!

Ani White: So, can you tell us about the early days of the revolution, which is sort of widely talked about as beginning ten years ago today?

Razan Ghazzawi: Thanks for that. Well, a lot to be said about those moments. I like to talk about them as moments because it’s really a very different form of protest. When it started in Tunisia and Egypt a lot of people in Syria, at least where I was in Damascus and the people around me – I’m talking about some bloggers, because there was blogging at that time, some film makers, some artists – so me and the community around me really wanted to protest and really wanted to be on the streets. We did start a solidarity protest – and this is a very important idea; how the protest started in Syria. We started in solidarity, in Damascus at least, with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Then throughout these protests and throughout these, let’s not say protests but these solidarity sit-ins really, it kind of shifted towards more of a protest demanding the state itself to condemn what happened in Dara’a, for example, on the 18th of March (2011) when children were tortured and some of them were tortured to death. Like Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb and others because they were drawing graffiti on their school. The idea of advocating for children’s rights is an essential ideal when we’re thinking about the protests in Syria and also when we’re thinking about the protesting in Syria in those earlier days we also need to be thinking about solidarity as a notion not just within the Syrian state or geography but also across North Africa and the West Asia region.

I wanted to quickly talk about the debate that’s been happening, like: ‘when did the revolution start in Syria?’ There’s a big debate which is referred to as a kind of a city-centred debate or a city-centred side or one is more of a suburb-centred side in the sense. That some people would say, “oh no, the protests started in February in Damascus” and others would say, “no, actually the protest started in Dara’a.” which is the periphery, outside the centre. I’m finding the either / or narratives or either / or solutions… it doesn’t have to be either / or. We can say, “protests developed in different ways in Damascus” then how would they develop in Dara’a. We can just easily embrace the protests that happened in Damascus as well as Dara’a and this is kind of my approach, that we really cannot say that the protests, the sit-ins, the movement that happened in Damascus we should erase them just because it’s the centre, because it has a different kind of symbolism against the state. Which it’s more difficult to protest in Damascus, the capital, than it was in Dara’a. So in that sense this is how I personally view the earlier days of the uprising.

Ani White: You were imprisoned twice, triggering an international solidarity campaign. Can you talk about that?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah. I mean, I was in detention in prison at the time and I remember in prison and detention, as was the case in a lot of authoritarian military states, you’re in prison or detention, you’re cut out of outside information. You don’t know what’s happening outside, so I had no idea there was an international solidarity campaign until I was released. When I was released I remember I logged in to my Facebook and I saw a lot of people adding me as a friend request and I was a bit overwhelmed with the solidarity campaign. I’m very thankful from my readers and my friends, bloggers, because I’ve been blogging since 2005 in Damascus. I also started in Arabic but then I shifted into English because there was a lot of bullying from how I was talking a lot about sexual harassment and LGBTQ content. So I was not able to write in Arabic and I shifted into English and I think that shift made me more accessible to a wider readership and I think that affected why there was a huge campaign, I guess. I’m very thankful and at the same time I have used that access to talk about other detainees.

Derek Johnson: Thank you for sharing that.

Your research concerns the role of the LGBT struggle in the Syrian revolution. Can you talk about this?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah, so This is an ongoing process. I am personally more looking into the idea of surveillance. How do we think about surveillance and how do we think about security in Syria? When we think more about those issues from a perspective of an LGBTQ positionalities and subjectivities. So how do people who actually have different or non-normative gender or sexual identities and expressions, how do they experience check points? In my thesis I focus on check points because they were an emergent form of surveillance that appeared and occurred in the uprising. They were used by the state to hunt down protesters and they wanted to close the connections, the bridges between certain neighbourhoods. They were collaborative in terms of aid, in terms of smuggling activists who were wanted.

So there’s a lot of forms of solidarity, also forms of activism that happened across neighbourhoods, across cities and suburbs, and the check points were really there to cut and rupture those connections. So this is what I’m trying to do in my thesis. Through the life histories, interviews and ethnographic research, I’m trying to capture those kind of nuances. What happens when we think about check points from the perspective of a trans woman or someone who’s a femme gay or a butch or any person who’s just for the first time in a direct, well, not the first time really but let’s say there’s different interactions depending where you are with the state

Some of my interlocutors tell me that in Latakia no one would talk to you if you look gay, whatever that means. People in Damascus would have different stories to tell about that. There’s more security, there’s more surveillance. So I’m trying to look at all of those connections and debates, and seeing how they connect together. I’m still in a writing up process so I’m all over the place with my topic and my thesis. It takes some time to make sense of everything.

Ani White: And it’s not something that I’ve seen a lot of writing on or discussion of, is the role of LGBT struggle in the revolution. So, I understand that. I’m in the middle of my PhD myself so it can be hard to talk about it mid-stream, but it’s good to get an impression of where you’re at with that research. Very interested to see how that turns out.

But can you talk about the phases of militarisation and how that has affected women in the revolution?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah. This is also a debate about the phases of the militarisation and I would say there’s a mainstream debate, a mainstream perspective, a general idea that people had to carry arms and to protect themselves. I do think this is correctly part of the narrative, this is essentially very important, yes. People did. The Syrian state have used, monopolised, and weaponised every single element of the state – the state infrastructure, the state hospitals. There was no safe space to go to. The campus was not safe. I have colleagues who have been tortured to death on campus. I have friends who have been disappeared on universities… Students were beaten on campus. There was really no sense of safety in any state institution during the uprising and this is early on. People were protesting; students, workers, and the state increasingly started to use weapons, thugs and also escalated. This is what pushed some communities to defend themselves and I think this is a very important acknowledgement to say that communities did want to protect their communities from the Syrian state army.

But also at the same time I’m really worried about just talking about this narrative because even though it is true it is not the full story. I think the reason why we need to talk about how communities defend themselves [is that] we need talk about what do other players in the region and worldwide benefit from putting arms in, let’s just say, some of the communities who are eager to defend themselves.

So I think this is why I think it’s very important to be critical from the early on to the role of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and also Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood specifically did want to try to gain political grounds by militarisation and by putting arms in the hands of some of the revolutionaries on the ground. This kind of narrative when we’re talking about the state violence and how communities were trying to protect themselves I think it’s very important to remember the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the role of the Gulf, the role of Erdoğan also trying to push for militarisation to co-opt the uprising. I think this is where I disagree with some of the experts and some of the diaspora-based experts on Syria, who see only one narrative and are trying to romanticise the struggle as if we were just pushed toward militarisation. It’s not exactly the full truth; people were also trying to resist militarisation and trying to stick to non-violence because they knew and they understood this is not the strength of the movement. But, you know, things get complicated and this is why they were bullied – non-violent, anti-violent – and also some of them like [unknown], for example, who’s really a visionary. Also Razan Zaitouneh and others who’ve been really visionary feminists and visionary human rights advocates and writers who would see that while we need to defend ourselves, at the same time we need to be careful of how militarisation would effect, not only women, but also communities in the long-run. This is true, as you said with your question, a lot of the people – I don’t identify as a woman, I identify as nonbinary femme – but we can say that a lot of the people who are non-normative, they are not cis men, they are not macho. Also, masculinities, even femme masculinities were also not welcomed to be part of the uprising. So it is something that a lot of challenges that social movements go through and it’s only the nuances and the people from within the movement who are wary about these conflicts that need to really be advocating how to get out of them and how to address them rather than to just sugar-coat them and romanticise them.

So yeah, I think that we have a lot of work to do on that front, of how to really trace how the militarisation of the movement did affect communities in the long-run and farmers and workers and nonconforming people. Not just politically but also in gender, racially and class-wise. So this is a debate that is very important to think about when we think about militarisation. 

Derek Johnson: How did the revolution become sectarianised?

Razan Ghazzawi: It’s a big question. I definitely cannot answer that fully but I personally would say when we’re thinking about social movements, new spaces emerge and new spaces open and that made a lot of people want to co-opt that space. I think this is what happened. What happened is a lot of people, like for example, Adnan Al-Aroor. Al-Aroor is a personality, a character. He’s a public figure who used really his money and his connections to disseminate really sectarian discourse early in the uprising. That’s what made a lot of people actually withdraw, critical and scared to join. Specifically people who are also scared of movements in Syria. At the time there was a lot of people who wanted to talk about the danger and harm of this discourse and there were a lot of efforts to combat this hatred but again with the militarisation things got really out of control. This is the curse of militarisation, that you have little space, you don’t have as powerful tools to convince or rather to combat this extremist, takfiri that I’d like to call them, movement.

I think that sectarianism is something that we need to – and I would say racism, patriarchy and classism – they all need to be thought about specifically as anti-revolutionary, as counter-revolutionary culture and that we really need to think about challenging.

Ani White: Yeah, I think there’s a case to be made that there’s two forms of counter-revolution that have occurred. Obviously the brutal counter-revolution from the Assad regime but then the issue of the internal counter-revolution and that’s maybe a more difficult question in a way.

Can you talk about the Kurdish struggle?

Razan Ghazzawi: So, I am personally someone who – I mean, this is a very important thing to say – I am learning. I am learning, I am someone who has been living under military dictatorship all my life. I was isolated from the Kurdish struggle. We were brought up to believe we were all Arabists and we were all Arabs, so the idea is very new to me personally as someone who is learning about my communities and different communities that are living in Syria. I do not see myself as an expert but what I can say is that what I’ve learned from the Kurdish struggle in Syria.

From early on in 2012 when the F.S.A. [Free Syrian Army] had started to gain control, there was a case, I don’t remember when, but in 2012 when the F.S.A. wanted to get into Kurdish areas and Kurdish dominated villages I remember a lot of people I respect on Facebook, they shared posts saying that this is very dangerous. When the Arab-backed revolutionaries would go into Kurdish dominated areas under the pretext of liberating it, that that would create a lot of tension in the long run. I think this is a very important sensitivity that a lot of the Arab revolutionaries do not reflect on. There’s a lot of hatred, a lot of racism.

I’m talking as someone within the movement. I’m not talking about, you know, a lot of diasporic conversation and debate about the Kurdish struggles is very much ethno-Orientalist, I would say. This is something I talked about in my article and Al Jazeera English, is how to be critical of social movements but at the same time but also careful of how this could lead into hatred towards the Kurds. For example, in an Arabist culture that the Assad regime had been advocating and the anti-Kurdish and anti-Indigenous practices that had been happening in Syria against the Kurds and against the Indigenous communities.

We’re talking also about Assyrians, we’re talking about a lot of Indigenous communities. This is an historical oppression of Kurds; not to use their language, not to use their culture, not to have their children to be named their Kurdish names. They had to be named Arabic names. They cannot own, they cannot work. All of these struggles that the Syrian Kurdish people have suffered long before Hafez [al-Assad] came. This is also important to say, it’s something that Arab opposition, Arab revolutionaries, don’t think about as much and I think we have a lot more work to learn about each other. This is revolutionary work when you dismantle a dictatorship and a military in a way that you would reflect on your own privileges as someone who is an Arab in Syria. Let’s just say that privilege is not really the right word here but more access than the Kurdish citizens or stateless, actually, people. That is very important revolutionary thinking that we don’t do as much.

Ani White: And what role have the various international states played in Syria?

Razan Ghazzawi: I call it the War on Syrians. It’s just a war on the people in Syria. In the partition, the conflict, the proxy-war – it’s a co-optation of the movement. It is how a popular movement, how a just movement, has turned into a war and how people who have been protesting with so much agency and so much energy to think about the future and to build a future, and how it is today facing the consequences of the war methods that Assad and their allies have started and chose.

Ani White: There are obviously so many states that have played various roles.

Razan Ghazzawi: That’s a big question really.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, that’s been the big problem and I think that’s played into a lot of the reactionary propaganda of writing off the revolution as just proxy wars and the U.S. or somebody just doing a regime change and that kind of talk.

What remains of the democratic revolution either in Syria or the diaspora?

Razan Ghazzawi: This is where I like to talk about revolutionary moments, not a revolution that has a time-frame of when it began and when it ended. I’m not really in favour of thinking about revolutions like that, I’m thinking about revolutions as a constant movement. It happens. Protesting in Damascus in 2011 in March or February, this is how protest was but now ten years later it could be something else, it does not mean it ended. People have changed forever. I have the very strong belief that people who protested once in front of scary powers, military and states, I do believe that people who have done that are always protesters.

As a PhD student I protested against my first supervisory team. I know a lot of students in my school did not do that. So when I hear the stories of students who are scared to change their supervisory teams because this is how academic work happens – you just have to accept, you just have to deal with it. But I did not. And because I protested once I will always protest, whether in academia or any other place or space. This is why I don’t think the revolution ended, I feel that people are creative. They have different forms of protest. This is true. I feel that today a lot of communities care about their children, they care about their relatives, they care about sending support and solidarity, caring about ‘let’s just help my friend to get to Europe’. All these forms are forms of protest.

This is why my PhD looks at nonbinary ways of protest. How can we think about protest away from the mainstream idea that a revolution only happens inside the country or only happens when there’s people marching in the street. I’m not saying that I am positive about the future, I’m definitely ten years older than I was before. I’m also very tired and I’m very burned out. I’m still healing from the past ten years. A lot of people are like that. I just feel like I’m a different person and I’m only talking about myself. And I am a stubborn person and I feel like a lot of people are like that. I do feel like people who are healing and they’re taking a break, they will make other revolutions in the next ten years.

Ani White: Yeah, it’s been good to see the recurrence of some of these uprisings, in Lebanon as well.

You’ve worked with Raed Fares of Radio Fresh in Idlib and he was assassinated by Al-Qaeda, and you had your own troubles with Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Northern Syria. Can you tell us about this?

Razan Ghazzawi: After my release and second detention I decided to leave Damascus because I was burned out from detention and I could not do it again. I was told that I was wanted for a third detention because of, as I was explaining to you, the work we were doing with Leila and Ana Uday in between in Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, specifically around medicine and aid. So after I decided to go to Kafr Nabl, in Idlib, Raed told me, ‘you can stay, you can do your work’, I decided to co-found the Karama Bus project, which is a psychosocial support project. It provides alternative education to IDP children – Internally Displaced children. In Idlib in the area at the time, we’re talking about – I went there in December 2012 – and I stayed there until the end of 2013. So we’re talking pretty much in the whole of the 2013 year. So the area at the time it was newly liberated, a lot of families had left their villages and they went to take shelter in schools. So there was a large number of families living in schools and a large number of children who did not go to schools and also they did not have access to play. So what we did is that we were a bus of four people and we used to go to six villages in Idlib. We had a projector, we screened cartoons, songs, we also played sport with the kids. We used to go there around sunset, so there was a little bit of sun there, we played sport and then we’d start preparing to screen some cartoons. We’d stay there like for like couple of hours and we’d go back home.

So that kind of movement everyday, everyday, everyday for a week. It kind of brought some headache from ISIS, which was towards the middle and the end of 2013. I started to get people coming over to say – I was not veiled at the time, I refused to wear the veil. And I used to get people coming to me, to my office, telling me that, ‘Sister, you need to put your veil on. It’s provoking people.’ And of course, when I say provoking people, we’re not talking about communities. People working with me, families and their mothers and their kids are all accepting. It’s just that ISIS and Al-Nusra, and also, I have to say, F.S.A. were not accepting of me at the time, of me being like a non-conforming female assigned at birth and who’s non-veiled. So, that was on the one hand, and the second hand, also Raed, he was very much vocal against extremists. He was very much an advocate of secularism. He used to talk about that and used to draw Kafr Nabl banners. So there was a lot of tension in the air – what we wanted and, at the same time, what was the power on the ground and how it’s changing due to militarisation.

What happened afterwards is really me and Raed were on a tour. Towards the end of 2013 in the US we’re trying to speak about Syria, speaking about Kafr Nabl, we’re talking about our work and then we hear that our colleagues in Kafr Nabl were raided by ISIS; were raided and they were kidnapped. Our toys, our tools were confiscated. Our laptops, our projector, that I was just telling you about, it was all confiscated by ISIS. Even the toys were smashed and broken, our offices were broken. This is why it wasn’t I’m able to go back to Kafr Nabl after this raid. This happened after several times of people coming to Raed and coming to my office to kind of warn us about our discourse. So that’s when Raed told me, ‘Razan, you should not come back unless you are veiled’. That’s what he said and that’s when I decided I’m not going to be coming back veiled. Raed survived the first assassination attempt. That was in early 2014. He remained underground, not even going to his place, not even seeing his kids and his wife. He remained underground for two years, escaping ever since that assassination attempt until he was killed with Hammoud in 2018 while I was doing my PhD fieldwork in Beirut, Lebanon, at the time.

Raed is someone who, I call him an intellectual and a community organiser. There’s so much to be written about Raed and people like Raed. I don’t think, even though a lot has been said about Raed I don’t think he’s been appreciated enough; what he did and what he done. He was a mayor, in my view. He was a Kafr Nabl mayor, he was an excellent mayor. He knew how to internationalise Kafr Nabl in a way to talk about the solidarity of the revolution. Kafr Nabl was one of the earliest villages to be in solidarity with the Kurdish struggle. I do not endorse all of their banners. Some of their banners, I think I disagree with. We want to we don’t want to romanticise each other’s work as well. I mean, I’m very critical of romanticisation and making people look perfect. We’re not perfect. We have a lot of issues we need to talk about. But for the most part, we did our best and Raed, he was a mentor that I still reflect on his leadership and his wisdom.

Ani White: Thanks for sharing that.

Are there strong connections between women’s groups in the Middle East and North Africa and are there any kind of internal tensions?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah, I like to think about women’s groups that they’re not homogenous groups. Definitely not every woman is a progressive woman, not every woman is a feminist. So, for example, I’m right now reading a book by Bouthaina Shaaban and she talks about Damascus diaries. She only talks about Assad and the peace process. So a state feminist, like Bouthaina Shaaban, or like, a right wing feminist, you know, this is also part of the women’s movement in the region. You have a lot of, also, right wing feminists in the uprising, of course. Woman groups are like huge groups, there are a lot of groups. In Syria, they are over, I don’t know, I cannot really count any more. I mean, the last time I checked, there was over 150 groups. So one of the groups I remember, their goal was to combat homosexuals in Idlib. So you see what I’m saying? There’s different movements or different dimensions or different struggles or different discourses really. I would say NGOisation of the movement is pretty much part of that. Definitely there are different not just internal conflicts. I would say it’s more political conflicts, more political, different positionalities. What kind of feminist or women’s movement that is going to advocate for the rights of the stateless, the rights of refugees, the rights of single moms, of IDPs, of sex workers? What kind of women’s movement or feminist movement is working on also talking about Palestine as an essential kind of struggle?

Derek Johnson: Yeah, it seems to seems to be that kind of complication everywhere.

Can you talk about the relationship between the Syrian revolution and other international struggles such as the Palestinian struggle?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah. For some reason, there’s a contested relationship between the Palestinian struggle and the Syrian revolution. I think the Syrian opposition make it difficult because they’re reactionary. A lot of the Syrian opposition and I would say some of the mainstream revolutionaries are a bit reactionary when it comes to Palestinian struggle because they see it as, ‘How has Assad co-opted anti imperialist struggle?’ He wanted to say that ‘I am the person who would support Palestine. So you have to be okay with everything I do so that we continue supporting Palestine, or be anti Zionism or anti imperialist’. And in doing so there’s no human rights whatsoever. Now the Syrian opposition, they came and said, ‘Okay, we don’t want to talk about Palestine anymore. We don’t want to talk about the centrality of Palestine. We don’t care about Palestine, we care about us. Syria first.’ Even some of them would want to talk to Israel. Actually some of them went to Israel. I will say some of the Syrian gays even went to Israel and some of the Syrian gays in Berlin they’re also practising normalisation with Israeli artists and performers.

So it’s really interesting that what Hafez al-Assad and Bashar did, they created a reactionary movement within the social movement towards Palestinian struggle. A lot of Syrians I feel are reactionary, kind of like really fed up with Palestinian struggle and I think this is what’s alarming. This is the work of intellectuals that we need to be very aware of what states push us to because of the way they co-opt struggles they push us to think about struggles the way that they do. That actually made a lot of, unfortunately, some of the Palestinians, let’s just say, [unknown] for example, in Chicago where I am right now. His discourse, for example, is very problematic towards the Syrian revolution. So because he very much believed the discourse of the Assad regime, he believed the state’s discourse. He does not want to listen to people’s discourse. So you have all of these kind of public figures in the Palestinian movement, unfortunately, who would believe what Assad is saying.

You have at the same time the Syrian opposition. They would be reactionary to what Assad has done and is doing. You would have these two not trying to push more of a collaborative solidarity discourse between the two struggles or trying to really obstruct that solidarity. So this is why the work of grass-roots was important here and the work of intellectuals, artists and activists is to kind of remember how our struggle is different. Well, it is different, because, you know, settler colonialism is different from Assad, right? I mean, we’re not to say we’re the same. But at the same time, because we live different struggles, because we have different oppressions it is important that we have this solidarity. I think that also this is something to work on, hopefully, in the future.

Derek Johnson: So what is to be done?

Razan Ghazzawi: Personally speaking I’m looking at being a teacher. I feel like I have gained so much insight and I have had been through experiences and met so many amazing people the past ten years. I’ve learned so much and I’ve made so many mistakes that I’m reflecting on. I’m learning so much about self-care and learning so much about burnout, and my limitations and my capabilities, and also self-love. I have to thank a lot of the Black feminists who have been writing about these issues a long, long time ago. So personally I would say, reading about other people’s struggle, other people’s work so that we learn how to communicate our struggle. That’s a lot of work and we need to be more creative, I feel, not just to continue to produce the same old.

I feel like there’s a lot of repetition happening, especially now with the Ten Years Anniversary. We’re going to keep on continuing romanticisation, continuing celebrating the heroics of our uprising and I’m really at the point of, that’s really nice but let’s just talk mistakes now. Let’s just talk what can be done. How can we think about the kids who have not experienced anything but camps so far? We have so much youth that are really struggling with paperwork they’re not even able to settle down, they’re not able to continue their studies. I’m really worried about the children and the youth of the region in Syria, in Yemen, in Palestine, in Lebanon.

I think about them a lot. I think this is one of the reasons why I want to be a teacher and why I’m doing my PhD is because I wanted to bring all of this insight to the academy. Academy has been learning, slowly, about the struggle but they’re a bit stuck with their buzz words. You know, ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘counter-insurgency’. I’m just thinking about how to create different curriculums, how to create different knowledge production that is very much closer to communities. To also give them tools to communicate their own struggles and how to support their work, if that makes sense?

Ani White: Yeah, absolutely – building those connections.

Thanks for coming on the show and sharing where you’re at with everything.

Razan Ghazzawi: Thank you so much for having me. I hope I made sense! I felt like some of the stuff I said maybe did not make sense.

Derek Johnson: No, it made a lot of sense. Thank you.

Ani White: Yeah, I understand we’re in the process of figuring things out and it was good to hear where you’re at with that.

Razan Ghazzawi: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Ani White: Thanks.

As always, listeners, if you found this useful please donate to our Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/jetpack1917 also please drop a review at Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening.

Derek Johnson: Solidarity! And we’ll see you, in the future.

1 All the above recommended resources are linked at tinyurl.com/syria-blog