Open Letter to a Condescending U.S. Peace Activist – BY MOHJA KAHF
WRITTEN BY MOHJA KAHF
We are going through hell and our friends inside Syria are being torn limb from limb. You come in after three years of it and tell us what our uprising is and isn’t and what it should be and shouldn’t. We all started out together in it, hopeful, finding each other, Syrians, talking to each other again after years of monstrous silence twisted by so many layers of fear, generations of fear handed down by the trauma of families with absent members in prison. Young people began hearing their own voices for the first time, shouting “freedom.” “It was the first time I ever heard my own voice,” young women, young men, street protesters, have told me over and over. Working-class urban neighborhoods and farming- and middle-class rural villagers across the country came out for clearly stated goals of human rights and democratic freedoms and no more being ruled by police state, and it had nothing to do with Islamists but that was before you bothered to notice. Some 920 different locales were protesting nonviolently on a weekly basis by summer 2011, with at least 4 million of Syria’s 23 million people having protested at the height of 2011. Even this first reality, you won’t acknowledge.
Stunning arrogant brutality is how this police state met this uprising. Insane brutality and duplicity. House-to-house raids, tank and machine gun fire, ground troops, snipers, home burnings, the capture and torture of children, the siege of Daraa—all this before the uprising began to arm. The pressure for self-defense was intense. Come live in it for a day. I don’t think you’ve ever been stopped cold by the tears and the anguish in the individual self-defense argument from a real Syrian human being demanding, “if a regime militia is raiding my home, about to kill my children, how dare you tell me not to lift arms to try to save them.” I am stopped cold by it, every day.
My only answer is: “look, I’m really sorry, but look at the facts; after the revolution lifted arms, your children are dead and so is the whole neighborhood. Arms are not working; self-defense is not defending; it is making you a more legible target for the lethal regime. It defended that home for two hours or two weeks, but in the end the entire neighborhood was flattened by the regime, because the regime is hugely more armed. Nor will outside military intervention save you. You can only win if you band together in slow, organized, nonviolent resistance.”
I say this and I staunchly advocate nonviolence over the din of shelling, but my voice breaks saying it to someone whose children are cowering tonight because the home is shaking because the town is being shelled and his parents are already dead. Some far-sighted Syrians got that having the (secular) FSA only drew heavier regime fire. Most Syrians did not get it—gasp, they live in a pro-violence culture like most of the world—and felt the only answer to the inequity in arms only means all their problems would be solved by heavier arms for the (secular) FSA which they see as defending them. I know they’re only harming themselves in believing this romance of armed liberation, but I know it from their pain, and I can only tell them with my voice shaking because I am at a privileged distance from them, and because I haven’t been able to help them in any other way stronger than they see the (secular) FSA helping them, and then the armed Islamists—who did not come in until 2012, able to wedge in because of the regime devastation wreaked on nonviolent uprising Syrians whose screams went unheard by you, able to ride in on the false promise of armed liberation and humanitarian aid not provided by others.
And you hear their cry for arms, and you brand them intransigent militants, and demand why they won’t go to Geneva. I demand that too, but I do it from inside a Syrian anguish, at far higher damage to myself than it costs you. You then turn around and cast aspersions on me and Syrians with similar stands, not even allowing us our embattled path, because of our “associations;” we wake up damned if we do advocate nonviolence, and damned if we don’t.
Our “associations?” We are Syrians. We all started out together. Hopeful. Three years ago, we did not know how things would unfold. We began working together and creating histories and relationships. And now that different paths have been trod in this revolution, you come in and tell us we are not allowed to be associates, to be related to other Syrian people in this revolution who’ve taken other paths? There are people on the pro-FSA side who I think have done no end of damage to this revolution, but for whom I’d give my life as much as for people in civilian resistance. Yeah, those are my associations.
You breeze in and say, in effect, “how dare these Syrians fall for the romance of armed liberation. They offend my anti-imperialist stance as a progressive American. Every leftist revolution has fallen for that romance and every other revolution too, but how despicable and primitive of these Syrians to fall for it.” You demand we apologize for “associating” with each other. You demand we devote our energies to proving we are nonviolent and meet your standards, like a man demanding a feminist prove she is not a man-hater and has never associated with militant separatist feminists. This, while we get derision from fellow Syrians every day for insisting that this brutal regime can be stopped by nonviolence, hisses from starving freezing impoverished people facing its gun barrels in their faces every day, before whose trauma we tremble. Insulated from realities on Syrian ground, you point to one of us and say, in effect, “How dare any of you Syrian activists abroad be tempted, even for a moment, to see an iota of use in bombing assad’s military airports that are bombing your people?” In the din of this shriek of pain that we hear unceasingly, to the edge of our insanity, from Syrians in Syria, how dare we as Syrian peace activists abroad ever register the temptation to sympathize with the primal desire that someone, anyone just come and bomb the fuck out of this monster killing people we know daily. How dare I have a friend like that.
Instead of offering one bit of solidarity, you come in to tell us who we are and who we should be and are suspicious of us if we are not packaged into discrete separate compartments for you. We’re not up to your standards. We are Syrians and yes, we associate with each other, nonviolent proponents and Coalition and FSA-proponents and hard-drinking Syrian atheists and Muslim Brotherhood and gay Syrians and Nusra sympathizers, all fighting the regime together in our different ways; and some of us even have nephews in assad’s army just as much as nephews in assad’s prisons and in the FSA, and regime loyalist aunts, and military officer dads about whom we are terrified they could be killed and horrified they could be torturing someone. Yes, simultaneously. Because that is what it is to be Syrian today. Yes we are all cousins, all in-laws, all related, all family, and we all will have to live with each other for years to come in this Syria boat that is a life and a home and a country for Syrians even if it is an equation on a piece of paper for you, and we in this Revolution hate and love each other and fight with each other all while struggling against a brutal regime for a future Syria that has some ounce of justice, some human dignity and freedom in it, and for us there is green and good in Syrians worth struggling for still, and who on earth are you to drain one drop of our precious few remaining energies.