By: Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
In March 2011, a commentator for al-Jazeera wrote: “Events in Egypt and Tunisia have revealed that Arab unity against internal repression is stronger than that against foreign threat.” While this may have been an over-generalization at the time, events in Syria have borne out this assumption. This is due to the deep polarization between Arabs who place primacy on opposition to the Syria regime’s authoritarianism and Arabs who view such opposition as secondary to Assad’s struggle against imperialism and Zionism.
In this essay, I will outline the main moral and intellectual considerations informing the resistance or anti-imperialist camp’s (known as mumanaists in Arabic) prioritization of confronting imperialism over other forms of domination.
The Violence in Syria is Misrepresented
Although supporters of the Syrian opposition often accuse this camp of being ready to countenance any type of violence, no matter how heinous, in the interests of the resistance priority, this accusation ignores the fact that the seeming consensus on the nature and scope of the violence in Syria is a purely manufactured one. Mumanaists do not view the current violence engulfing Syria as a dictatorial regime’s one-sided brutal suppression of peaceful protesters, as is commonly misrepresented in mainstream media, but rather, as a civil war by proxy that the Syrian army was dragged into as it sought to stamp out a US-NATO-GCC-backed armed insurrection.
While supporters of the Syrian uprising contend that this perception of the conflict is designed to reduce the cognitive dissonance produced by the regime’s brutality, few mumanaists harbor the illusion that the regime is not repressive. What they do believe, however, is that the extent of this repression has been grossly distorted by mainstream media. To bolster their argument, they point to a growing number of mainstream media reports which have admitted to the existence a singular master-narrative that is widely used to frame the conflict.
As acknowledged by the BBC in its recent self-study on its coverage of the “Arab Spring”, “journalism is not an exercise in simply relaying raw and untreated facts to the audience…This cannot be done without some sort of framework – if you will, a “narrative” – and therefore the construction of such a narrative by journalists should not be treated as if it were a sin in itself.”
Writing on Syria in the Sunday Times, Peter McKay contends that “It’s not simply uprisings by ground-down peasants against tyrants who repress them. It’s about a transfer of power to rival clans and/or religious groups. About a continuation of the old US-Russia Cold War stand-off.” In a similar vein, the BBC’s world news editor, Jon Williams, has recently admitted in a blog post on Syria that “stories are never black and white – often shades of grey.”
But such admissions are the exception rather than the norm in a psych-ops campaign that is stage-managed by US-NATO-GCC information warlords to bring about a military victory for proxy forces. At the helm of this campaign are politically embedded journalists, political activists and human rights representatives who work in concert to ensure that all coverage of the Syrian crisis remains confined within a carefully guarded body of self-referential “evidence.”
The effectiveness of this information warfare in enlisting public opinion in support of military intervention is substantiated by the aforementioned BBC report: “No doubt these reports…helped stimulate empathy for the [Libyan] rebel cause among the British public, and thereby to facilitate, if not actually bring about the NATO intervention – as similar reports had done in northern Iraq as long ago as 1991.”
Imperialism Cannot Be Equated with Authoritarianism
The second premise guiding the resistance camp’s position on Syria is that imperialism cannot be equated either morally or politically with authoritarianism, let alone demoted to a secondary rank. By contrast, the liberal democratic impulse driving the “Arab Spring” has led some to declare the obsolescence of anti-imperialism as a unifying force in the region. Al-Jazeera commentator Lamis Andoni epitomizes this view with her assertion that “The old ‘wisdom’ of past revolutionaries that liberation from foreign domination precedes the struggle for democracy has fallen.” In the new Arab Spring vernacular, revolutionary struggle is no longer synonymous with resisting US-NATO interventions and Israeli aggression, but has come to mean confronting internal repression even when that confrontation benefits the Empire and its colonial outpost, Israel.
Furthermore, this new liberal political discourse and the preeminent status accorded to securing internal freedoms has served to effectively remove Palestine from the forefront of Arab concerns. In effect, Palestine has been relegated to just another Arab nation which is responsible for freeing itself from its own domestic, i.e. intra-Palestinian, authoritarian rulers, over and above its Israeli oppressors. The mumanaists’ response to this logic is multi-pronged.
As a matter of principle, neither Palestine nor questions of national self-determination in general are viewed as fashions; justice doesn’t go out of style for truly conscientized and committed intellectuals and activists for whom Palestine remains the cornerstone of Arab political identity. What is more, the resistance camp sees this new trend of reducing Palestine to a national cause that belongs exclusively to the Palestinians as a very dangerous development that requires Arabs to unlearn generations of political socialization in order to expunge Palestine from their political consciousness.
Some supporters of the Syrian opposition have argued that the insistence on maintaining the primacy of the Palestinian cause over the concern with authoritarianism, and the concomitant precedence given to Israeli violence over the Assad regime’s repression, is tantamount to claiming that Syrian blood is cheaper than Palestinian blood. But this charge misunderstands the extent of Israel’s iniquity by locating it solely in Zionist aggression, human rights violations or in the circumstances of the occupation. The resistance camp conceives of Israel as the greatest injustice because of its very existence and the unprecedented nature of its oppression, which renders it not merely a human rights cause, but humanity’s cause.
As detailed by the Never Before Campaign for Palestine: “What happened in Palestine since 1947 has never happened before, in terms of the combination of the elements: brutality and racism of the occupier, the injustice of granting one peoples land to others, duration of this injustice, complicity and apathy of the civilized world as well as Palestinian people’s will to resist all that against all odds.”
Even on the level of violence alone, Israel’s violence by far exceeds any domestic repression in so far as it is systematic and genocidal violence that is deeply embedded in its military ethos and strategic culture. Indeed, the celebration of violence is part of its collective consciousness as illustrated by a number of recent examples on social media where many Israelis celebrated the killing of Palestinian children. More importantly for mumanaists, any parallels drawn with Israel are Zionist-enabling in so far as comparing Israel’s violence with that practiced by repressive Arab regimes, legitimizes Israel’s existence as just another authoritarian regime in the region.
Not only are such comparisons with Israel morally and ideologically indefensible, but the very equivalence between imperialism and authoritarianism is an intellectually flawed one that is rooted in a liberal-leftist tradition that conceives of all deployments of power as being equally coercive and oppressive, irrespective of the global hierarchy of power.
In the mumanaists’ conceptual hierarchy of oppression, imperialism and authoritarianism are situated in two entirely different levels of domination. This rank-ordering is not based on an ideological abstraction that is divorced from political reality or on the rhetorical value of anti-imperialist sentiment, but on immediate, practical concerns. Imperialism is not evil because it is practiced by the West, but because it harms people’s lives and interests. Empire kills; it kills vast amounts of people, whether it occupies countries directly or intervenes militarily, economically or politically, it is responsible for innumerable deaths, destruction and impoverishment of all those in its wake.
Thus, viewed from a purely utilitarian perspective, or according to a basic cost-benefit calculus, there is no comparison between the type of violence autocratic regimes exercise when they repress dissent and the death and devastation wreaked by Empire. This moral logic would still hold even if we were to set aside the Assad regime’s anti-imperialist and resistance credentials and assume it was neutral on Palestine; when faced with a choice between the Assad regime’s repression on the one hand and the threat of NATO invasion, coupled with the externally-instigated sectarian civil war and terrorism on the other, anti-imperialists and the majority of Syrians alike will choose the former, especially when they don’t have the luxury of rejecting both.
Resisting Regimes Safeguard Collective Rights and Freedom
If anti-imperialists place far greater political and moral value on resisting the Empire than on unseating autocratic regimes, then surely that is even more so the case when those regimes themselves resist imperialism. As in the case of Syria, anti-imperialist leaders are identified with a set of rights and a concept of freedom that is considered far more conducive to democracy, justice and dignity than the western liberal discourse of “human rights” which is informed by the “negative freedom” from authority.
While not rejecting liberal freedoms outright, anti-imperialists view liberal freedoms that stress the individual’s right to be free from government interference and coercion as being secondary to positive and liberationist conceptions of freedom which affirm human agency and self-determination. As critiqued by political theorist, Anthony Bogues, “when freedom morphs only into rights, then the very question of freedom itself is delinked from other forms of domination other than political authority.” Indeed, it could be argued that the universalization of the Euro-American-centric human rights doctrine that has come to dominate the Arab Spring freedom discourses, serves to obscure imperialism and foreign domination.
The great anti-colonialist thinker, Franz Fanon, anticipated this intellectual colonization by liberal rights discourses when he wrote: “History teaches us clearly that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism. For a very long time the native devotes his energies to ending certain definite abuses: forced labour, corporal punishment, inequality of salaries, limitation of political rights, etc. This fight for democracy against the oppression of mankind will slowly leave the confusion of neo-liberal universalism to emerge, sometimes laboriously, as a claim to nationhood. It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.”
Clearly cognizant of their deviation from the anti-imperialist struggle, Arab Spring intellectuals attempt to reconcile this disconnect between liberal freedoms and liberationist freedom by arguing that liberation from western hegemony and Israeli occupation can only be achieved once freedom from internal tyranny is won. Andoni contends that “combating internal injustice – whether practiced by Fatah or Hamas – is a prerequisite for the struggle to end Israeli occupation and not something to be endured for the sake of that struggle.”
But this logic operates in a geo-political intellectual void which elides any kind of world systems analysis’ recognition of the hegemony exercised by core nations over peripheral ones. In a world order characterized by an uneven division of labour, the notion of achieving any kind of comprehensive and far-reaching internal change without a commensurate change in the global balance of power, is futile.
If there cannot be genuine revolutionary change from within, given prevailing power disparities on the international level, then the expectation that domestic change will inevitably balance out global power asymmetries is nothing short of liberal self-delusion. It is precisely this reasoning which undergirds mumanaists’ claim that liberation from foreign domination is a prerequisite to genuine democratic change.
Furthermore, resistance intellectuals and activists maintain that there can be no progress or democracy in the Arab world so long as a colonial implant like Israel continues to exist in our midst, perpetually threatening our security. Viewed from this lens, liberating Palestine is the prerequisite for the democratization of the region.
As such, mumanaists prioritize a collectivist notion of rights that emphasizes people’s rights as opposed to human rights. In this collectivist understanding of the term, freedom is conceived as liberation from foreign domination and oppression and the pursuit of self-determination. In effect, to be free is not to be left alone, unencumbered by external constraints and hindrances, but to struggle for justice. Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah provides the clearest definition of what this freedom entails: “[it is] not just the blood of a man, the fate of a woman, the crushed bones of a child, or a piece of bread stolen from the mouth of a poor or hungry person. It is the issue of a people, a nation, a fate, holy places, history, and the future.”
In other words, the ultimate purpose of freedom for Arab mumanaists is not merely the protection of various civil and political rights of the individual, but the trans-historical collective right of the umma in its past, present and future manifestations. In this dispensation, freedom and democracy are not reduced to procedural aspects like elections and political reforms as they are in western liberal thought, but more substantially, the ability of peoples enjoying popular sovereignty to shape their own political identity, control their national resources and participate in determining their national destiny.
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion”, and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.