Syria: A clash of utopias
Between 1903 and 1908, Gibran Khalil Gibran, the great Lebanese poet, wrote Tears and Laughter. In this collection of essays and poems, Gibran was aware of the political and economic plight facing Greater Syria at the end of the Ottoman era. The Ottomans had already gone brutal in suppressing Arabs’ aspirations for independence. However, Gibran diluted the political problem by using a utopian trope of “love”, Mahaba in Arabic.
Gibran tells the story of a disheartened and sad shepherdess called Syria. Many of her sheep died because of drought. The fields where her sheep used to find plenty of grass became barren and grassless. Syria hurls curses on fate. An old man – called Fate - with a white beard and scythe, suddenly visits her in the field. “Syria: peace be upon you,” he starts the conversation. Syria looked aslant at him. She told him she wanted the drought to end sooner rather than later. She wanted food and security for her sheep. Fate wanted her to wait. “What you call present backwardness, I call slumber followed by action and work,” he told her. “A flower does not go back to life unless it first dies. Love grows intense after separation,” he added.
This parable sums up the problem which Syria, the political and geographical entity, has been facing since its map was drawn after World War II. It is this problem of adopting grand, escapist, utopian views in politics at a time of chilling crises. Like Gibran’s notion of Mahaba, the still-ongoing rendezvous of war in Syria is a route for the escapists, the believers in utopian views about complex issues like the nation, nation-state and Islam. Their different utopias hide behind them ugly scenes of war, suffering and dispossession.
Whilst we are now talking about political swamps and humanitarian disasters in the country, ideas about defending Palestine and Arab nationalism against Islamist terrorism and Western imperialism are still circulating in the Syrian national press. These ideas are also popular among the supporters of the Syrian regime. When I look at the official media landscape in Syria, I start wondering whether those who put up this material are actually living on this planet. But words, slogans and rhetorical gestures from the era of Arab nationalism would not stop many of us to think about them as rhetorical shields hiding the brutality of a civil war. Here the performance of utopia is deceptive, but it is also destructive.
The regime’s rhetoric about Arab nationalism is absolutely utopian. Not only has it revealed a perfect polity that only exists in Thomas More’s Utopia or al-Farabi’s Al-Madina al-Fadila. It also disguises a violent, exclusionary mentality by describing every Syrian who opposes the regime as a traitor and also a terrorist, a number nominated for the prize of barrel bombs. Utopia is therefore political, exclusionary and also destructive. It is myopic. The regime insists on practising it as the only way for holding the seat of power.
The warring parties in Syria which fight under the banner of the Islamic State (IS) offer themselves as the political forces in the region which hold the keys to an Islamic paradise. Hundreds of people from Muslim majority countries and also from the West have joined IS. They responded to IS’s call for a utopian idea. For IS supporters, the new Islamic state will be one of justice, one where Muslims, regardless of their nationality and colour, will be united in one Umma. For foreign fighters, IS is determined to bring back the ancient glory of Islam. But like the Syrian regime’s utopia, the narrative of religious utopia by IS displays a bloody scene of destruction, slavery and slaughter. Fitting these practices within a utopian frame like jihad is an exclusionary and violent act of conducting politics. It does not accommodate different ideas, beliefs and ways of life. It presents itself as the only solution for all problems and always blames others for its failings.
The Economist recently told us that US airstrikes are weakening IS fighters. IS is a myth and is now “dwindling”, the newspaper argued. The Economist’s views on IS reflect the US administration’s utopian vision. The US administration tells us that the US-led coalition is determined to defeat IS. But as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent has recently reported, IS is not dwindling; rather it is getting more state-like, pursuing brutal murder and enslavement on an industrial scale.
The US does not want to defeat IS. The interests of the West in the region demand that there should be a balance of power in the area. First, Israel’s security is perhaps more guaranteed than any time before as the parties next door continue to fight each other. Second, the fact that local, cost-free forces - the Syrian regime and Iran, also enemies of the US - are fighting IS eliminates the danger of putting US boots on the ground. Third, the US does not want to finish the Syrian regime at a time when the nuclear deal with Iran is entering a critical phase.
The Americans keep using utopian rhetoric as a practical strategy to end the war in Syria. They tell us they want to train moderate Syrian forces and also continue to strike IS. But facts on the ground show that IS is still powerful in the areas it captures. It continues to practise its brutal policy of slaughtering people, enslaving women and destroying historical monuments. The Syrian regime is still barrel-bombing people, killing prisoners and also pushing civilians to leave their homes into refugee camps.
The American utopia is therefore deceptive. It hides behind a scene of brutal, endless war.
- Dr Mohammad Sakhnini is a writer and journalist based in London. He lived in Damascus before moving to the UK to do his MA and PhD in English literature at the University of Exeter. His articles have appeared in several academic journals and media outlets.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Islamic State fighters (AFP)