Saturday, November 22, 2008

Keeping the Syrian Blogosphere Civil

I started reading blogs for about a year before I started my writing my own. I read many Lebanese blogs and the few Syrian blogs that were out there. The discourse among the Lebanese blogs often degenerated into gratuitous verbal attacks. By contrast, discussions among Syrian bloggers, rarely if ever, got contentious. I smugly attributed this difference to the generally more congenial nature of Syrians. So I was surprised by one of Razan's recent post where she describes the venom with which some self-righteous religious Syrian bloggers have been denigrating others whose points of view they found objectionable to the point that they have suggested these blogs be destroyed by hackers. Razan wrote that the reason she turned off the comments function on her blog is that she was the target of some of this venom. Perhaps I should not be surprised, with the exponential increase in the number of Syrian blogs, it was only a matter of time before some self-appointed thought police took it upon themselves to purge the Syrian blogosphere of ideas that THEY deemed inappropriate.

Both Dania and Abu Fares have posted on this topic following Razan's lead but given the critical importance of this issue, I felt that as many bloggers as possible need to make their voices heard.

That Razan was one of the target of these zealots is not surprising. She is perhaps one the most outspoken and fearless Syrian blogger. She never shies away from saying what's on her mind even if it trespasses into territory that is taboo by Middle Eastern standards. I admire her courage, her energy and her strength even if I don't always agree with her. Razan's passion is matched only by her compassion as exemplified by her work on behalf of the Palestinians of Nahr el-Bared. Zealots may want to silence voices like Razan's, I on the other hand, would like to see more young Syrians in her mold start to speak up.

The proliferation of Syrian blogs with strong religious points of view is a reflection of the changes in Syrian society as a whole. But, I think such blogs likely over represent this societal trend because whereas expressions of deep religious convictions is publicly acceptable, expressions of political (or social) convictions that run against the norm is frowned upon and may come -in the case of politics- at a high price. Nevertheless, blogs with diverse religious points of views is a welcome addition to the Syrian blogosphere. Unfortunately, a few among these, are works of zealots who are not only unwilling to consider other points but want those points of views they consider offensive eliminated.

I have a problem with zealots of all kinds: political, secular or religious. Among religious zealots, Muslim zealots irk me the most precisely because I am Muslim. I find the zealots' narrow and rigid mindset and their intolerance nonsensical. To me, true faith comes out of a conviction reached through a deliberate thought process that considers many alternatives. Zealots would rather have believers as unthinking automatons, like donkeys with blinders following edicts without understanding them. Zealots expose their own deep-seated insecurity when they jump to silence any criticism of their religion as if their faith is a fragile house of cards. It is not; I believe that one should deal with such criticism head on and there is never a need to muzzle dissenting voices. Hearing what others say about you, no matter how unpleasant, often leads to necessary self-examination. Finally, intolerant zealots rightfully extol the various achievements of Islam over the last millennium but forget that Islam flourished most when it was at its most open and tolerant.

So as Abu Fares stated in his post, I welcome and encourage interaction among Syrian blogs. Although several people seem to draw a clear line among secular and religious blogs, I thinks it is more like a continuum. Frank exchanges and debates among blogs of opposing viewpoints is only possible when they are free of personal attacks, condescention and threats.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Coming Home!

Very soon, I will be going home ... for a visit. It has been about three decades since I last set foot on Syrian soil. I am exhilarated and I am anxious; I cannot wait to go and yet there are lingering fears holding me back. What if all my longing and all the pent up emotions acquired during years of separation turn out to be illusory and false emotions? What if I set foot in the city of my birth and felt nothing?

Certainly the Lattakia of my childhood has long since vanished and most of my extended family, that boisterous tribe consisting of my father's aunts, uncles and cousins, is scattered in the four corners of the world. Yet close family members remain. My aunt, my father's only sibling, and my two cousins remain in Lattakia. And if the physical features of Lattakia have changed radically, my grandfather's house where I was born and the house where I grew up as a child remain as touchstones of my past. In the end though, my connection with this land is more a state of mind. This is the land of my birth; it is the land of my ancestors. In no other place on this planet can I make that same claim. In no other place can I claim such deep roots and in doing so, carry within me the historical memory, good and bad, of my place of origin. These facts help orient and anchor me, they provide with a context and a perspective on life and of my place in this world. Calling any other place home somehow rings hollow; I feel like an impostor.

But could it be that, after all these years away, I will feel like an impostor in the land of my birth? I don't think so. I am too old to be a sentimental fool or to be beholden to unrealistic nostalgic dreams. I am ready to take in Syria as it is, not as I think it should be. This trip will be as much an exploration as a return to my roots. I will be introducing Syria to my children and reintroducing it to myself. There is much to see and much to do.

(Photo: From Lattakia online; my grandmother's old house in the foreground; now replaced by a concrete monstrosity)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

October 26 American Raid Into Syria Not the First

According to this New York Times article, Donald Rumsfeld, with approval from the White House, authorized in the spring of 2004, secret incursions by special forces anywhere in the world as part of the American global war on terrorism. According to the article, among the dozen or so previously undisclosed attacks, there have been one or more that occured in Syria other than the recent October 26th cross-border attack into Al-Sukkarieh. Attacks on diffferent countries required different levels of administration approval with attacks on Syria and Pakistan requiring presidential approval.

This information makes the timing and circumstances of the October 26th incursion all the more intriguing. Was it a "secret" operation gone bad with the slaughter of innocent civilians? or was it meant to be a public warning to Syria? Either way, GW Bush personally approved the attack! It also raises questions about the previous American incursions into Syria: where did they occur, what were the targets and who was aware of their occurence?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Making My Case for Obama as President

Before I make my case for Obama, I feel the need to make a disclaimer. Although I am intrigued by the man, I am not starstruck by him as my previous posts will testify (see here, here, here, here).

I first made my case for Obama in a post in December of 2006 at a time when he was an undeclared candidate and most of my arguments in his favor still stand. That Obama, on November 2, 2008, looks more like a conventional American politician of the Democratic party should not come as a surprise. The American presidential campaign process inevitably pushes candidates toward the mainstream, the center of their respective political party. Yes, he made the compulsory visit to AIPAC and trip to Israel, and in an effort to appear tough on foreign policy he made some unsettling remarks about his support for U.S. cross border attacks into Pakistan. And yes, he has treated Arab and Muslim Americans as if they were politically radioactive, not because he thought they were, but because the Republican xenophobes made them so. It took a Republican, Colin Powell, to publicly point out that McCain "No Ma'am, he is a good family man" response to a bigoted supporter's claim that Obama is an Arab, is patently offensive.

Yet despite all of that, I will be voting for Obama because of who he is and not what he is saying in the heat of the campaign. This is unquestionably a defining moment in American and world history. In my twenty two years of living here, I have never seen Americans as angry, as passionate about change and yet at the same time as polarized as they are in these elections. Moreover, the candidate with the only reasonable choice for a new beginning comes in a flavor that Americans have never experienced in an American president: Not white and not with a reassuring Anglo-Saxon name; Christian, at least, but whose middle name is Hussein and who learned to recite the Fatiha in school in Jakarta. And yet, early on, Obama managed to mobilize and ignite the political passions of a group that are typically politically apathetic, the young. This constituency took easily to Obama because unlike older generations of Americans, Obama's exoticism was never an issue. Their classmates and friends were just as likely to be white as South Asian, Oriental, African or Middle Eastern. This a generation that is more globally connected and aware than their more insular parents. It is the constituency that created an unconventional campaign that overcame the well-heeled political machines of some of his opponents.

Obama as president will cause a paradigm shift in the way the United States views itself and the way the rest of the world views the United States. How that translates into real changes in United States foreign policy remains to be seen. Specifically, the foreign policy towards the Middle East, as ingrained as it is, is not likely to change quickly. Obama has promised to close Guantanamo and leave Iraq, all good, but he has said little about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I trust he will bring an intelligent and nuanced understanding of foreign policy that will be a radical change from the idiotic "you are either with us or against us" approach of the current administration. A less combative, arrogant and condescending president may even open up some diplomatic space to allow for contacts and talks with axis of evil veterans such as Syria and Iran.

If this is not a ringing endorsement, it is as close as I can get. For anyone still on the fence, the emergence of Dick Cheney yesterday from his cave in the Rockies to endorse McCain, should have sealed the deal. The world cannot afford another four years of neocon madness.