It is extraordinary that ‘foreign intervention in Syria’ is starting to be discussed in our media as if it is the only option for dealing with the crisis in that country. This is despite the fact that such an intervention will inevitably mean taking a war into Syria, a secular nation of 22 million people who enjoy social freedoms that must be the envy of many in the wider region, particularly women.
A virtual tsunami of reports which present the view that it is time for foreign intervention will soon be washing across people’s computer screens. If action is not taken soon by powerful people with wiser brains than most, it may not be long before people forget that once a Syrian war was inconceivable.
I would like to present critiques of a few of these reports, beginning with –
Part 1: ABC Radio’s The World Today, “Syrian Oppn warns violence could engulf the region”, 22 December 2011.
Eleanor Hall, the presenter of The World Today, begins by declaring that “Iraqi religious leaders are warning that the deadly political crackdown in Syria is threatening the stability of their country and the region”. In the program, one Iraqi ‘religious’ leader, “Sunni Sheikh Ali Sleiman al-Dumeni” is referred to.
My analysis of this interview includes a few key questions, starting with an obvious one.
Who is Sheikh al-Dumeni? When I googled the sheikh, it seemed the only reference to him on the internet related to his recent comments regarding Syria. But after digging deeper, I found mention of him in an article in The Guardian, “Sunni leaders warn of sectarian chaos in Iraq”, 20 December 2011.
As Eleanor Hall explains, the sheikh comes from Anbar province in Iraq. The Guardian gives readers a little background to Anbar province:
Anbar’s power base was rooted in Saddam’s regime and the loss of such access to power was a key driver of a potent al-Qa’ida-led insurgency that bogged down the US military and accounted for around one third of its casualties.
Now the province seems to again be on a war footing, with jihad websites making a call to arms in recent weeks, which has alarmed Baghdad – and neighbouring Damascus, where a Sunni-led insurgency against the Allawite regime of the Assad family is taking shape.
A second sheikh, the elder and leader of the Duleimi tribe, Sheikh Majid Sleiman, said the deteriorating situation in Syria and the increasingly sect-based feuds in Iraq were combining to imperil the region.
“But if our brothers [in Syria] seek our help we cannot abandon them. The people here are energised to go there to help. If the people want to seek shelter here we will not be late in helping them.”
Sheikh al-Dumeni quoted by The World Today may in fact not be a ‘religious’ leader. Sheikh Ali Hatem Sleiman al-Duleimi (assuming he is the same man) is presented as a tribal leader in The Guardian article. According to Wikipedia, sheikh “is commonly used to designate the front man of a tribe who got this title after his father, or an Islamic scholar who got this title after graduating from the basic Islamic school.”
It shouldn’t matter too much whether Sheikh al-Dumeni is a religious leader or not so long as what he has said is worth quoting.
However, if presenting the views of religious leaders helps an argument, then there are prominent legitimate religious figures who have spoken out about Syria in recent months. The ones I would interview – if I could – support peaceful reform in Syria. Despite their presenting their opinions publicly, a google search suggests they have not been interviewed or quoted on “The World Today”. Does that mean listeners to this program, therefore, are missing out on the proverbial ABC ‘balance’?
Patriarch of the Maronite Church, Beshara al-Rai, is very well-known in the Lebanese Australian community. At a meeting with President Nicholas Sarkozy in Paris, he expressed his fears for Christians in Syria and his fear that extremism will take hold of the country.
In September, the Patriarch was quoted as saying that Assad was “open-minded” and should be given more chances to implement the reforms he already launched. He also said that “there were fears over a transitional phase in Syria that might threaten the Christians of the Middle East.” Why hasn’t the Patriarch been interviewed by The World Today or at least his views referred to?
A relatively prominent Australian religious figure, Father Paul Stenhouse, wrote a hard-hitting article about Syria after a visit there two or three months ago. Father Stenhouse is based in Sydney and a quick google search can confirm he is known to the ABC, but not apparently for his opinions about the situation in Syria.
http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1338057.htm (A Mark Colvin interview with Father Stenhouse in 2005)
In “For Democracy to thrive, Bashar al-Assad needs a chance”, The Australian, 13 October 2011, Stenhouse concludes, “..if many in the Western and Arabic media and global community have their way, mob rule will prevail, Assad will be driven into exile or worse, and the fear Syrians and their region will go “blindly into the future” may be realised”.
Such views are hard-hitting and would be shared by nearly everyone I know in the Syrian and Lebanese Australian communities, yet he is another religious leader The World Today appears to have chosen not to interview. Why not? Is it because they are views which challenge the orthodoxy the program has promoted for most of 2011: the Syrian government is a tyrannical government ruled by a brutal dictator who is intent on crushing peaceful democracy demonstrators who have been forced to take up arms and who desperately need the world to both protect them and save the country?
One extremely prominent religious leader who supports foreign intervention in Syria is Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a leading cleric in the Middle East who is based in Qatar and who broadcasts regularly on Al-Jazeera. He supports foreign intervention in Syria so much that he has issued a fatwa calling on people to demand it. ABC listeners surely deserve an interview with Qaradawi? However, he may be someone you would not like to be associated with. A Youtube video (see link below) in which he praises Hitler’s antisemitism would certainly suggest as much.
A cynic might say that the Syrian Opposition Council and The World Today have had to look hard to find someone to quote who may or may not be a religious leader, but who can be presented as one because he supports ‘the line’. The fact that he may also support the line of al-Qaeda is not, it seems, important. Other sheikhs, such as Qaradawi, who are indeed religious leaders are not at all palatable to a Western audience, so it is best to pretend they do not exist.