An Activist’s Email Correspondence with the ABC

This page presents some email correspondence with Alan Sunderland (now ABC Head of Editorial Policy) and the presenter of the Religion and Ethics Report, Andrew West. Included is a draft email to Jon Faine, morning presenter on Melbourne;s ABC radio station 774.

All images taken by Susan Dirgham



from:  Susan Dirgham 
to:  Red Symons
Jon Faine and many others
date:  25 August 2011 19:06
subject:  Media Release: Protesting Jon Faine’s breaching ABC standards in comments about Syria

MEDIA RELEASE  –  A Rally organized by Syrian Australians and friends outside ABC offices in South Bank on Friday 26th August from 12.30 to 2.00pm

The rally is to protest against comments made on two occasions by Jon Faine in The Conversation Hour.

Jon Faine on 774 Melbourne’s “The Conversation Hour”.  On 12 August Jon said in the context of a conversation about Port Arthur and the shootings in Norway, “Look what’s happening in, I don’t know, in Syria, where a government is killing thousands of its own citizens over what should be resolved in our context peacefully at the ballot box, but instead it’s done there with guns.”   Also, on 24 August, Jon said in a conversation about Islamic extremism, (10:39) “Damascus, you’d have to say that that’s a regime that’s lost all its legitimacy and it’s only a matter of time ……(8:10) But a regime that has been as prepared to kill its own people as Syria and Iran have been, they’re not going to just suddenly change their mind and say..they’re not going to say, “oophs sorry didn’t mean it”.  So if they are going to be got rid of it’s going to be through a violent armed struggle surely, no other way? ..” 

Please see the following link attached, in case you have not seen this alternative news option:


from:  Alan Sunderland
to:  Susan Dirgham
date:  7 February 2012 09:35
subject:  RE: Invitation to Prof Evans to speak about Syria and the key “elements”


Dear Ms Dirgham,

Once again, I need to tell you that I find your public attacks on individual ABC journalists, combined with what I consider to be your inappropriate use of the ABC Pool site to run your own one-sided political campaigns, to be intensely disappointing.

Given that, I am not sure why you would consider yourself to be “in communication” with me, and include me regularly in your emails.

The ABC will continue to do its best to cover this and all other issues in a fair and balanced way,  and we are always ready to receive any and all genuine complaints and feedback and respond to concerns raised, but the nature of your own campaigning and your continual slurs to others about the ABC’s motives and integrity do not make you a source I am inclined to pay much attention to.

Since you insist on copying me in on so many of your emails, I thought it only right that you should know how they are received. As a self-described “activist”, your actions are counterproductive if you are genuinely seeking intellectual engagement. If you are not, then I wonder at your attempts at “communication”, which include attacking the ABC in emails to others, and then helpfully copying us in on those attacks without contacting us directly with your concerns.

For the record, I saw the Lateline interview with the Russian Foreign Minister. It was a tough and direct interview, as it should have been, and I thought it was entirely appropriate. I would have responded to your concerns had you been “in communication” with the ABC about them.

Alan Sunderland


From: Susan Dirgham []
Sent: Tuesday, 7 February 2012 9:20 AM
To: Mark Colvin; Alan Sunderland; Jonathan Green; Catherine Taylor;; Annabelle Quince; Keri Phillips; Eleanor Hall
Cc: Gareth Evans

Subject: Invitation to Prof Evans to speak about Syria and the key “elements”


Dear All,

I sent an email to Prof Gareth Evans this morning (see message below) and cc-ed it to a list of  people but as I rushed somewhat with it, I neglected to sent it to you.  As I have been in correspondence with nearly all of you in the past 12 months on the issue of Syria, I thought you might be interested in it.

Kind regards,

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Susan Dirgham
Date: 7 February 2012 08:34
Subject: Meeting to speak about Syria and the key “elements”

Dear Prof Evans,

Well, I continue with my commitment to be available to discuss Syria with you on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11.30am at a table in the main cafeteria in the Union Building, Melbourne University. I respect that you are very busy and you have no commitment to meet me; however, I think that together we can do something quite extraordinary and courageous: debate what we consider the key elements of the Syrian crisis. Therefore, I hope it is possible to catch up one day when you have 30 minutes or an hour to spare.

You have sent me the links to the International Crisis Group’s reports on Syria, and I have read them. The reports astonish and dismay me mainly because of their reliance on rhetoric and even on emotive language (in one sentence: the “hysterical defiance” of regime supporters and the “optimism” of protesters), and because of their avoidance of what many people in Syria would view as the key issues. I will list below what I consider some key elements of the crisis which are generally ignored in the Australian media and by our politicians (I’ll include one or two pieces of evidence which can help guide a discussion).

We have satellite TV on in our home every day and so I am aware of the ongoing lengthy discussions and debates on different channels from Lebanon and Syria; it is shameful that at least once a week similar debates are not being conducted in Australia because we in Australia are helping to determine the destiny of Syria and its people by our silence on the terror and extremism they face and/or by our support for the simplistic narrative which camouflages a much more complex and dangerous truth.

As I have done before, I will refer you to the reference lists on the Australians for Syria blog. I also would like to refer you to the ‘mission statement’ of Australians for Syria:

Some of the key elements to the crisis in Syria:

1. The propaganda war against Syria.

Evidence: the resignation of Ghassan Bin Jeddo, head of the Al-Jazeera Beirut office, in April. He referred to AJ’s “smear campaign” against Syria. Al-Jazeera’s readiness to report any unverified claims against the Syrian government and army, eg the Sari Saoud story.

2. The humanitarian war against Syria.

Evidence: Amnesty International’s political stand on Syria from the early stages of the crisis seems to have determined its unwillingness to condemn the killings of militia and the fatwas of extremist clerics. Australians have presented detailed accounts to Amnesty’s office in Melbourne of the killing of their friends or relatives and have detailed the calls by prominent clerics to kill in order to bring down the government, but Amnesty’s London office has yet to report these.

3. The fatwas of extremist clerics

Evidence: Sheik Qaradawi broadcasts regularly on Al-Jazeera calling on his followers to overthrow the Syrian government. In one message, he stated it wouldn’t matter if one third of the people were killed as long as the government was overthrown. The recent call by the cleric Adnan Arour for people to attack the Arab League monitors; his call could be used as a reason to withdraw them.

4. The sectarian nature of the protests and the rhetoric in Western reports and commentary which encourages this.

Evidence: One of the very first chants heard in March 2011 at the demonstrations in Daraa was “Send Christians to Beirut. Send Alawis to their graves”.  The Gay Girl in Damascus blog was an example of the distorted Western view of the nature of Syrian society and the sectarian divisions there; the writer was a Pauline Hanson on steroids. It illustrated the ease with which Western commentators feel comfortable classifying people’s motives and loyalties according to their religious background. It encourages sectarian divisions.

5. The brutal killings of soldiers, security personnel since almost the beginning of the crisis, and the assassinations of doctors, academics, people from political parties willing to take part in elections etc.

Evidence: The murder of the brother-in-law of my friend and his two young teenage sons and his nephew on 17 April 2011 in Homs. It was a public holiday, they were in their car (it had army number plates) when they were all killed.  The murder of the uncle of a Syrian Australian in April: he and two friends, all farmers on their way to Damascus, were killed on the road by armed men. The ambush in April of soldiers near Baniyas, which led to the deaths of 9 soldiers. The throwing of soldiers’ bodies into the Orontes River.

6. The reforms introduced by the President and government.

Evidence: Political reforms have been introduced and several political parties are preparing to stand in elections. To ensure the maintenance of the secular nature of the society and government, the laws do not allow for the setting up of parties based on religion or tribe. (Reference material to be sourced.) A friend of a friend in Syria was shot down and killed outside his home in Damascus recently presumably because he had stood in the council elections late last year.

7. The wide support the President al-Assad receives

Evidence: A recent meeting of tribal leaders from across Syria as well as some from Iraq (including the General Secretary of the Iraqi tribal leaders) affirmed their support for the president, government and peaceful reform and condemned outside interference in Syrian affairs.  Huge rallies to support the president and peaceful reform. Combined services with church and mosque leaders to show support for unity, peaceful reform, and the president.

8. The smuggling of armed men and weapons into Syria, and the training of armed men by the CIA

Evidence: Reports from Western journalists who have accompanied armed men into Syria across the Lebanese border. Reports from Lebanon in regard to this problem and the increasing radicalization of the north of Lebanon with even the flag of Al-Qaed being seen at rallies. Reports by former CIA agents and FBI whistle-blower, Sibel Edmonds, about the training of fighters by the CIA.

9. The commitment of Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the overthrow the secular Syrian government

Evidence: Neither country has condemned or banned the broadcasts of the extremist clerics who call on followers to kill in order to overthrow the Syrian government.

10. The role of the UN and other bodies in determining that the crisis is on-going

Evidence: The report of the UN on Syria which is quoted regularly by journalists and commentators fails to acknowledge the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and security personnel (well over 2,000 now), and does not make an effort to examine the circumstances in which civilians have been killed. Trust is put in opposition sources only.

This is not a complete list of discussion points, but it is a good start as it does present most of the major elements which are ignored.  The one which is missing is the most important for the Australian public: the impact the spread of the extremist ideology will have on communities in Australia.  Are people who are emboldened by extremist clerics and the silence of the ‘West’ to commit acts of terror in Syria likely to take their ideology and terror beyond Syria one day?

I hope it is possible to have a discussion about these matters very soon in Australia. There are other people better able than I am to present the points above in a discussion, but I am an activist not shy to seek the discussion.

Kind regards,



Media Bias and Rob-001

from:  Alan Sunderland 
to:  Susan Dirgham
cc:  News Caff
date:  21 October 2011 16:31
Dear Ms Dirgham
Thanks for your feedback. The story you refer to was made by the BBC’s Panorama program. They stand by their report, which was focusing mainly on how the uprising began in one town inside Syria, and using footage obtained from various citizens and activists who oppose the government of Syria, and then corroborating those stories with refugees and people who have now fled the country. This methodology was explained in the report.
The reporting team was not able to get permission to film freely inside Syria. Any journalist who does manage to get a visa for Syria risks being strictly controlled and access to government opponents or dissidents is often prevented or carefully managed.
In the story, the reporter mentioned the Syrian government claims that terrorists, armed criminals and a foreign conspiracy are to blame for the violence.  This is what is being reported on government-controlled state television. However these claims were tested with independent witnesses, who confirmed that in the town of Daraa, where the story was focused, those protesting were ordinary, unarmed civilians.
However, if you would like a more substantive response to your concerns,  Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit separate from ABC program areas can investigate the matters you raise.   The ABC complaint handling procedures require that your complaint should clearly outline the nature of your concerns and specify the content that these relate to.   These details can be provided via either return email or the online complaints form at:  More information on ABC complaint handling is available at:
Copies of the ABC’s Code of Practice and Editorial Policies are available on our website:
Thank you again for writing to the ABC.
Yours sincerely
Alan Sunderland
Head of Policy & Staff Development
ABC News
from:  Susan Dirgham 
to:  Alan Sunderland
cc:  News Caff
date:  24 October 2011 17:01
Dear Alan,Thank you for your response to my email.I hope to have the chance together with Syrian Australian friends to lodge a complaint against the ABC’s presentation of the Jane Corbin film.  The Foreign Correspondent introduction to the film was particularly disturbing.  If you had a chance to watch Dateline on SBS last night you would have seen Mark Davis present much more balanced reporting.  The ABC has a long way to go to catch up with him. And still there is much more to be said about what is happening in Syria, but ‘Dateline’ was a breakthrough of some sort.There are a few general reasons I think the Jane Corbin film is crude propaganda.  Firstly, unlike Mark Davis, she makes no effort to present the other side.  To do that, she would need to interview ordinary Syrians who have a different experience or view of what has been happening. (see attached letter from ‘Christian Businessman’). There is no balance if you present the stories of individuals vs the claims of the ‘regime’.  Secondly, complete trust is put in her sources. There is little to no suggestion that they may be telling a story. She corroborates one story with a similar story.  People with different views should be presented so viewers can draw their own conclusions. If Corbin could not enter Syria, she only had to seek out people in Jordan or Lebanon where there would be many people  with a very different take on the ‘revolution’ in Syria.  Thirdly, my Syrian Australian friends who have been paying close attention to the propaganda war against Syria on the internet and Al-Jazeera etc. have recognized some footage used by Jane Corbin which is either fabricated, not filmed in Syria, or not what she claims it to be.  I’ve attached a list of fabricated videos sent to me by a friend some time ago; it includes the footage of the ambulance driver who was supposedly killed by soldiers. Apparently it is cleverly edited in the Jane Corbin film.  I hope you have a chance to check that.

You refer to ‘ordinary unarmed civilians’ being involved in the protests in Daraa.  Certainly many protesters were, but there were also a significant number who had arms.  Mark Davis refers to the killings and violence that took place there in his report.  As I have written many times, when I was in Damascus in April I saw the funerals of soldiers on television everyday, and heard first hand of the killings of soldiers by ‘armed gangs’ (yes, they had to be armed to kill as they did).

As I have said, I will make an effort to lodge an official complaint.  However, I hold out little hope of it being taken seriously.  I have lodged several complaints in the past and none of them have been given what I consider serious independent scrutiny.  I have concluded that the ABC reporter or presenter is always right. (attached are a few complaints I have lodged.)

I have attached some reading I have done on Syria.  You may find it interesting.  I understand that Jess Hill determines to a very great degree whom ABC reporters interview on Syria.  She has a particular world view, as we all tend to; it is a pity there isn’t another reporter/producer in the same position to determine who is going to be interviewed by The World Today etc but with another world view.  (Attached is reference Ms Hill made in a twitter to an article by Adam Curtis. To me it seems a very simplistic presentation of the American goodies wanting to introduce democracy to the Syrians back in the 1940s and the silly Syrians for not grabbing the opportunity.  Jess Hill’s interview with Brian Conley also, in my mind, displayed a very naive view of ‘independent reporting’.  I have attached a copy of an article by Alastair Crooke because a friend was apparently told by Jess Hill that he was too ‘partisan’ on Syria to be interviewed ie I assume she didn’t agree with his analysis.  Would it therefore, take a very brave and independent reporter to interview him?)

It is most disturbing that the ABC continues to present simple narratives on Syria.  I hope you are able to take the initiative and send a reporter or two to Syria to be challenged by the bigger picture as Mark Davis was.  The story of Syria may be critical to the peace in the ME and so the wider world.  It has to be presented much more seriously and professionally.  It is disturbing when individuals are more inclined to respond in a defensive manner to criticism rather than stand up to the criticism and test both it and themselves.

Kind regards,


from:  Susan Dirgham 
to:  Red Symons
Jon Faine and many others
date:  28 August 2011 18:11
subject:  Is the ABC Juggernaut (re Syria) unstoppable? And is it powered by tweats?
Dear ABC,ABC‘s Jess Hill, who is roaming the Middle East and North Africa, has apparently sent a tweat to a ‘revolutionary’ that supports the ‘uprising’ against the Syrian government, someone Ms Hill clearly has an established connection with. In her message, Jess Hill assures the ‘revolutionary’ that she will not take up the invitation of another tweeter who wants to show her the ‘other side’.The question raised by Jess Hill’s refusal to consider ‘another side’ (a side I believe is supported by a large majority of Syrian Australians) is whether it breaches not only ABC codes of practice but also the UN General Assembly 1950 Resolution 381 (V) “Condemnation of propaganda against peace.For a link to Jess Hill’s tweats go to!/syriancommando/status/105911795214057472!/jessradio/status/105913833788416001

Like other concerned members of the community, I have written to the Head of the Audience and Consumer Affairs at the ABC to complain of bias in regard to ABC reporting on the crisis in Syria.  On Friday, I received a standard reply from Ms Ann Lee, thanking me for my letter and assuring me that my complaint will be dealt with but it may take some time.  Meanwhile, the crisis in Syria deepens. People a long way from the troubles consider their response to an on-line poll asking if they support NATO intervention in Syria.

I believe some of you have seen the letter delivered by Syrian Australians to the ABC SouthBank offices last Friday (26/8/11).  However, I will include it below. People in Syria are still getting killed. Civilians are being kidnapped; soldiers ambushed and killed.  The threat of a decades’ long civil war and the destabilization of the region will not go away as long as there is no dialogue and people who have influence and power do not have many, many Socratic, Gandhi or Mandela moments very soon. (That would be something to live for, to tell your grandchildren about, perhaps.)

Kind regards,

Susan Dirgham

Managing Director of the ABC

Dear Mr Scott,

We the undersigned would like to register our official complaint in regard to statements made by Jon Faine on 774 Melbourne’s “The Conversation Hour”.

On 12 August Jon said in the context of a conversation about Port Arthur and the shootings in Norway, “Look what’s happening in, I don’t know, in Syria, where a government is killing thousands of its own citizens over what should be resolved in our context peacefully at the ballot box, but instead it’s done there with guns.”   Also, on 24 August, Jon said in a conversation about Islamic extremism, (10:39) “Damascus, you’d have to say that that’s a regime that’s lost all its legitimacy and it’s only a matter of time ……(8:10) But a regime that has been as prepared to kill its own people as Syria and Iran have been, they’re not going to just suddenly change their mind and say..they’re not going to say, “oophs sorry didn’t mean it”.  So if they are going to be got rid of it’s going to be through a violent armed struggle surely, no other way? ..”

We believe that Jon Faine’s statements in regard to Syria breach the ABC editorial standards.  His comments show that he unduly favours one perspective over another, and that he is knowingly excluding a significant strand of thought or belief.  (Our concern also is that such statements incite hatred and divisions within the Arabic Australian and wider communities.) On several occasions, people who have a completely different view of events in Syria to those expressed by Mr Faine have either expressed those views to him directly or provided him with material which details another view of what is happening in Syria.  There was a rally held outside the ABC Southbank offices on Friday 2 July, attended by representatives from the Syrian community.  One of the participants gave Jon Faine material they were handing out as he left the office building.  Hence, he should be well aware of another strand of thought.

We ask you to take our concerns seriously and to give them immediate attention.  This is a matter that is critical to the future stability of the Middle East in general and as a consequence the world.  We have been aware of shocking violence being committed by people wanting to provoke civil strife in Syria.  We believe it is imperative that the Australian public is given a much fuller, more honest and less partisan picture of what is happening in Syria.  We support the reform process initiated by the president of Syria. It should be noted that already Australia has accepted an asylum seeker from Syria on the basis of the attacks by Islamic extremists on people in his community.  Events in Syria will impact on Australia.

Yours sincerely,

For evidence of the lack of balance in ABC reporting, please compare the following accounts of recent fighting in Latakia.

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

from:  Alan Sunderland 
to: Susan Dirgham, Shane Mcleod
Jess Hill
cc:  Red Symons,
Jon Faine, and many others
date:  1 September 2011 11:14
Dear Ms Dirgham,
I was surprised and disappointed that you saw fit to circulate an inaccurate and damaging email about one of my respected colleagues to such a wide audience.
Your assertions are ill-founded and wrong, and I am sorry that you did not provide the ABC with a proper opportunity to answer your concerns before taking this action.
Your complaint has been passed on to me and you will get a response today.
In the meantime, since you have raised these issues so widely, I need to reassure all those on your distribution list that the ABC stands by its comprehensive, accurate and in-depth coverage of events in Syria. The journalism produced by our Radio Current Affairs team, and by Jess Hill in particular, has been of the highest possible standard.
Alan Sunderland
Head of Policy & Staff Development
ABC News
from:  Susan Dirgham 
to:  Alan Sunderland
cc:  Shane Mcleod
Jess Hill
Red Symons
Jon Faine, and many others
date:  1 September 2011 13:23
subject:  Re: ABC JUGGERNAUT
Dear Alan,Thank you very much for your message.  I am extremely sorry if the information passed to me by Syrian community members about Jess deleting the tweet she received from someone wanting to give a pro-Syrian government point of view was unfounded.  I also understand and respect the points you make here, and will wait for your response.I would just like to make clear that I sent the email because of the grave concern I share with most people within the Syrian community in regard to the situation in Syria.  The fear is that the current crisis will descend into a very bloody civil war, which will affect the whole of the Middle East, and the rest of the world.  It is extremely frustrating for people in the community to read reports about Syria which do not tackle the issue in any depth from many angles and with real knowledge of the history of Syria, of the players involved.I understand that people in the ME who are in a position to speak out are being intimidated.  For example, George Kordahi, a Lebanese Christian journalist who is very highly regarded and who was “the Eddie McGuire of the ME”, was fired from his job with MBC satellite TV because he had shown support for the position of the Syrian government in this crisis.  This is what the Syrian community are hearing and passing to me. It is very difficult for me not to respond to their concerns and those of my friends in Syria when it seems there are forces wanting to stir up a very bloody and long-lasting civil war through the manipulation of the media.  They tell me the civil war will affect the whole region for decades, if it does not lead to a world war.  (Views I hear repeated by people in the community.)

I hope this helps to provide a context for my email.

I am very sorry for any personal hurt I have caused because of the email.  I respect the hard work and professionalism of ABC journalists.  I would appreciate the opportunity to apologize to Jess personally.

Can I explain that except for the Syrian and Lebanese Australians I cced the others do not necessarily endorse my views.  I added their names as recipients to my message because I believed it was a message that should be heard in a public space. Some of the people on that list are not actually known to me, but I thought the issue would interest them.

Kind regards,



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from:  Susan Dirgham 
to:  Andrew West
date:  2 December 2013 12:32
subject:  Comment in response to “A doctor’s testimony from Syria”
Dear Andrew,
This is just to draw your attention to the comment I have just posted on the “Religion and Ethics Report” page.
Kind regards,
Dear Andrew,
For a number of reasons, I was greatly disturbed to hear this report on RN’s ‘Religion and Ethics Report’.
Firstly, there has been serious questioning about the authenticity of this report of a Syrian government attack on a school on 29 August. Even Craig Murray, a former UK ambassador, has suggested the original BBC report which featured Dr Ahsan’s UK colleague was not reliable. Secondly, we are not informed by RN that Dr Ahsan was a captain in the UK army before she studied medicine and she has experience of war zones. Dr Ahsan is also very media savvy, having presented many programs on television; she even has an agent as she is a presenter for hire. Thirdly, we are not informed that Dr Ahsan must have crossed into Syria illegally to enter ‘rebel’ territory in the north and that the UK colleague she accompanied is purported to have family links to the militarized opposition. In crossing into Syria via the Turkish border, Dr Ahsan would have surely seen evidence of at least some of the thousands of foreign jihadists going into Syria to fight the regular army. Some go to fight for an Islamic caliphate, with Damascus as its capital, while others go because they hear dubious media reports such as this which make them believe Muslims are under attack and they need to be ‘saved’.
In October, Rachel Kohn wrote on the ‘Religion and Ethics Report’ blog: “The assault on religious freedom is one of the most important trends in the world today, yet it remains under-reported and even ignored by most secular media outlets.”  This assault on religious freedom is occurring in Syria. In recent weeks, it has become even more evident that Christians have been particularly targeted by extremist fighters in Syria. Schools and school buses have been attacked, children and teachers killed. Ancient Christian towns, such as Maaloula where Aramaic is still spoken, have been attacked by ‘rebels’. Many churches have been targeted, priests and bishops kidnapped and killed, yet instead of an accurate in-depth analysis of all this, “Religion and Ethics Report” presents what could be fairly described as very crude war propaganda.
Ms Susan Dirgham
National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria”
from:  Andrew West 
to:  Susan Dirgham
date:  2 December 2013 12:55
subject:  RE: Comment in response to “A doctor’s testimony from Syria”

I have posted your comment but the interview quoted UN reports.

I’m simply not going to enter into a long debate about these matters, Susan.

On previous programs, we have pointed out the role of foreign jihadis and Saudi backed extremists.

But it is increasingly clear to me that you are unwilling to countenance any criticism of the Assad regime at all. There are no good guys in this fight.

Being a propagandist for Assad will have the same impact on me as being a propagandist for the jihadi “resistance”. That is, none.

Please do not bombard me with material, as you did before or I will simply block your emails.


Andrew West
Presenter, The Religion & Ethics Report, Radio National


from:  Susan Dirgham 
to:  Andrew West
date:  2 December 2013 14:11
subject:  Re: Comment in response to “A doctor’s testimony from Syria”

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for posting the comment.  I appreciate it.

However, I am saddened that you are not open to discussing the Syrian crisis in greater depth with me and that you rely on labels to dismiss and devalue my concerns.
Your email suggests that the report, “A doctor’s testimony from the war in Syria” does not warrant any criticism because the presenter references UN reports on Syria.  Unfortunately, we are not told which UN reports are being quoted, so it is not easy to challenge them. However, for your reference, there have been some well-researched critiques of UN reports on Syria. I would like to draw your attention to a few of them.

“Questions Plague UN Report on Syria” by Sharmine Narwani:
Interview of a UN Commissioner of Inquiry into Syria, “Is war biggest crime being committed in Syria against Syrians” ns
“Critical Flaws in UN Report on Syria”  by S. Dirgham
Please note, rather than being an Assad ‘propagandist’, I work hard to present the voices of millions of Syrians who are normally not given a voice in Australia, for example, church leaders from Syria and Lebanon and the communities they represent. Views of church leaders can be found on this page  and on this blog:
I understand you personally do not want to continue this discussion, and I will respect that.
Kind regards,

From: Susan Dirgham []
Sent: Friday, 4 October 2013 12:14 PM
To: Andrew West
Cc: Agnès-Mariam Soeur; Mairead Maguire
Subject: Thank you. Reasons I support peace and reconciliation in Syria

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for your message and for being comfortable about putting my comment onto the page (the comment I submitted could always be better, but there was no room for an essay 😦  ).

I understand how difficult it is to present events in Syria from the perspective of the people who just want peaceful reform and the army to win the battle.  The war in Syria has been presented by many as a sort of football game; it is “Assad, the monster” against the “opposition”, the good guys who ‘we’ support.  Once it is presented in those terms, there is little room for analysis or questioning.  And you certainly don’t give any credence to anyone who doesn’t support your ‘team’ because you believe passionately that their team is all all bad!

For my Syrian friends, all the people I see on Syrian TV everyday (they could be people walking down Bourke St Melbourne – they are so ‘normal’), and I am sure the hundreds of (‘normal’) adult students I taught at the British Council, “Assad” is not the question.  He is just one person; they are thinking beyond him and about their family’s and their own safety, the maintenance of the secular society, the survival of their country! But not only friends and students, the political dissidents I met last May in Damascus also supported peaceful reform and the army. (see my interview with the people from the ‘Third Current” at the bottom of this page: )

What puzzles me is that we (in the West) greatly admire the non-violent stand of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, but we support an armed ‘revolution’ in Syria so much that even if you have the best credentials of a political dissident, if you don’t support the killing of Syrian soldiers, we do not trust you: you must be an ‘Assad apologist’!

People have a responsibility to protect their country.  It is not about the president.  He is a distraction.  Dr Jeremy Salt wrote a great article on that: As you’ve been to Syria, you know it is a very different society to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Few Syrians want their country to be destroyed and then ‘bought’ by monarchies with oil money and rigid and oppressive ideologies keeping them in power. Syrians I know are strong, proud people with a lot of dignity and common sense.  They are not fanatics; the vast majority are not ideologues. But their images and voices are ignored in the west. Why?

Syrians are proud of the love and links that exist between Syrians of different faiths, and they speak openly about this – you witness a common understanding of this even in conversations between strangers.  But of course religion is being used to destroy this community love.  I often think back to the blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise, the experiment by Jane Elliott  which showed how easy it is to create hatred towards the ‘other’ in the hearts of even the young and innocent. Who would use religion to do this?  Would it be the secular government which is dominated by Sunni Muslims despite what Wikipedia says.  Or would it be the people who are prepared to kill Syrian soldiers and others for a ’cause’, either a utopian dream or a religious nightmare? (BTW. In my mind, some impressive Syrian politicians, all Sunnis I believe, include the foreign minister, the vice-foreign minister, the defense minister, the information minister, the finance minister, the prime minister, the president of the parliament, and the minister for community services.. They are the ones I know about and I’ve met several of them. They all risk their lives everyday and the lives of family members because they take on these positions.  So you can talk about the terrible Syrian regime, of course, but there are some brave intelligent people trying to turn that ‘regime’ around, somehow, and against great odds.)

The war in Syria depends on ongoing sectarian hatred being stirred up.  So when the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nisrallah talks about Takfiris, not Sunnis, he is deliberately and correctly (I believe) differentiating between those who justify the killings of anyone that doesn’t support their form of jihad, or their faith, etc and the vast majority of Muslims, whether they are Sunni or Shia etc, who see Islam as a religion of peace and love.  The war in Syria is very much a war between moderate Islam (as it was presented by Sheik al-Buti) and militant Islam (presented by those who slaughter anyone that doesn’t join them).
Government workers of every faith (as Professor Yasmeen explained) are targeted by Islamic militants. Colleagues of friends have been assassinated in the street because of whom they worked for and in another case because they participated in the council elections. Jeremy Salt is connected to people in Syria and he wrote about the murders of a professor, her three children and her parents in their home because it was perceived that the professor supported the government.  The terror is widespread.  However, unless you know Syrian people in Syria it is difficult to empathize with them, and easy to get distracted by the rhetoric which is part of the information war Alastair Crooke has written about, and it is a war many of us participate in, in one way or another, without having any understanding of the power we have in determining it, in encouraging or disencouraging young men to think they have to go on a jihad to save Sunni Muslims in Syria and thus kill Sunni Muslims who don’t welcome them.

I was with Mother Agnes when she met Malcolm Fraser here in Melbourne.  When we spoke about the crimes of radical Islam in Syria, Mr Fraser referred to what the Nazis used to have on their belts, “God With Us” because the terror occurring in Syria  is being promoted in the name of God, too – as Professor Yasmeen well understands.  What is ironic is that one of the most prominent clerics Sheik Qaradawi – the father figure for the Muslim Brotherhood, who said it is OK to kill 1/3 of the population of Syria if it leads to the toppling of the heretical regime’ – has spoken in support of Hitler’s attempts to exterminate the Jewish people, yet despite the terror of the Nazis the west is mostly silent when it comes to terror in Syria.  There are bizarre and disturbing connections.

If the war in Syria is like a game of football and you can only barrack for one side, then it is so easy to claim Mother Agnes is ‘an apologist for Assad’ and leave it at that. Stop thinking, stop analyzing.  But what is the corollary of this; someone who supports the armed opposition is “an apologist for Qaradawi”, “an apologist for Saudi Arabia”, “an apologist for the west’s geopolitical plans for the ME”, “an apologist for Al-Qaeda”, “an apologist for terror”, “an apologist for the oppression of women” etc.  And when will it be the right time for reconciliation and truth if a conversation is denied. How many people have to die before that right time?

As for Hezbollah, I have to listen to what Nasrallah says to understand why George Galloway respects him so much.  I remember visiting a Syrian Australian friend years ago, a highly intelligent woman who is not religious at all, and she was listening to one of his speeches with great respect, and I then thought I should pay attention to him. There is a lot to be learned from contrasting him with Sheik Qaradawi, the cleric who inspires the Muslim Brotherhood.  As for Salafis, I’m not sure who inspires them. The Mufti of Saudi Arabia who wants to destroy all the churches in the Arab Peninsular?  Maybe?


Thank you again for your patience.


By the way, did you know that Mary MacKillop was accused of being a drunk?  I expect Mother Agnes will be accused of that one day. 🙂 But I am puzzled as to why someone would wonder how she can come and go so easily into Syria. She lived there for nearly 20 years in the monastery she set up. But not only that, she works for reconciliation and has a bible in her hand and love in her heart; she doesn’t carry a gun or hatred, so she should be welcome!

I have attached an image I took of a woman in Damascus whose husband, an ambulance driver, had recently been killed. She got up to present her story to the peace delegation in May.  I had been sitting with her at a table before she rose to speak. She had support from her brother.  Her grief was so deeply felt, she was enveloped in it, but she was so calm and quiet. I still carry her presence with me, but I don’t want to go and kill anyone because of it, create a wasteland while I search for a world without ‘enemies’, with only like-minded people.  Like Mother Agnes, I support the work of peace and reconciliation now in Syria.


Kind regards,



CC Mother Agnes and Mairead Maguire, who led the peace delegation in May.

It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to

represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.


Albert Camus, The Plague


Doubtless to-day many of our fellow-citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exaggerating the services they rendered. But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing over-importance to praiseworthy actions, one may, by implication, be paying in-direct but potent homage to the worst side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.  On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point.  But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims itself the right to kill.  The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness or true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.


On 03/10/2013, at 4:45 PM, “Susan Dirgham” <> wrote:

Dear Andrew,

It was kind of you to be so patient with me yesterday when I rang. I could tell you were under some pressure, so thank you.

I had a chance to listen to the interview with Professor Yasmeen (she impressed), and then Phillip Smyth.  I’ve submitted a comment, but it says so little. There’s so much that needs to be said!  I have a very different perspective to Jess Hill’s.  I responded to one of her tweets yesterday (not realizing she was your new producer).  But Jess is very unlikely to want a conversation with me or with Mother Agnes, which is more than just a pity.

Anyway, below is the comment I sent.  I would value the chance to have a longer conversation with you when you have time.

Kind regards,


(Note: As he said he would, Andrew West added the comment I sent him below to the Religion and Ethics Report. However, there are no longer any comments on that page. )

It’s a pity there wasn’t a direct follow up here to Professor Yasmeen’s discussion on Islamic militancy. Takfiri terror (which Phillip mentioned) is a real threat in ME. Has the program dealt with this before? And the extremist clerics who incite Takfiris to kill? Nightmarish terror attacks are happening on a regular basis to people in Syria but we show so little care as we talk around this in our media.  The focus on ‘Shia jihadists’ is puzzling in this context.
Just a few questions:
1. Phillip mentioned the bombing of US Marine barracks in 1983, ie in middle of war in Lebanon. Hezbollah apparently didn’t claim responsibility; but it occurred when US was a military player in the war. Can that context be explored further? Ref: Anti War.Com “This time avoid the Lebanese Quagmire”.
2. Hezbollah has wide political support from different faith communities(eg Michel Anoun’s group in Lebanon +Syrian govt which is dominated by Sunni Muslims.) Even George Galloway supports them. How can they receive such support if as suggested they have a focus on a Shia religious ‘jihad’, around Shia religious symbols +they are so dependent on Iranian religiosity?
3. Mention was made of Iraqi Shias supporting Syria. How many of these come from the 1.4 million Iraq refugees who sought refuge in Syria? Reuters article,”Shi’ite fighters rally to defend Damascus shrine” refers to the need to defend shrines because they and churches have come under attack from Islamic militants. (On Youtube, there is a story of a Christian being killed defending the mosque in Aleppo.) When does the protection of mosques or shrines become a ‘Shia jihad’? Can Christians defending churches be termed a Christian crusade? Too many questions… Too much at stake.
5. Can you explore what happened to Christian community in Qusayr? Ref:Spectator,Aug ’13.

 *******On 3 October 2013 17:18, Andrew West <> wrote:Susan,I will post your comment when I get back to the office. I can’t post things from outside. Also, Jess is the producer – and doing a fine job – but I decide what’s on the show.

I will think again about Mother Agnes.

Andrew West


from:  Andrew West 
to:  Susan Dirgham
date:  20 June 2013 20:11
subject:  Re: Interview at ABC Sydney on Friday 21 at 2pm (Radio National, Religion and Ethics Report)
I’m sorry but I am going to have to cancel tomorrow’s interview with Mother Agnes.
Unfortunately, a family matter has come up at the last minute that requires my attention.
My apologies.
from:  Susan Dirgham 
to:  Andrew West
date:  20 June 2013 23:15
subject:  Re: Interview at ABC Sydney on Friday 21 at 2pm (Radio National, Religion and Ethics Report)
Dear Andrew,

Thanks for your message.  I am sorry to hear that the interview with Mother Agnes is cancelled, but I hope your family are all OK.

Please let us know if you are in a position to meet Mother Agnes next week.

I hope all is well with you and family.  Take care.

Kind regards,



This slideshow requires JavaScript.


From: Susan Dirgham

To:  Jon Faine

Subject:  Still shocked by your throw away comments on Syria


Dear Jon,

I wonder if you have had a chance to read the pamphlets about Syria I have given you.  When I spoke to you on 23 May after your interview with Dr  Izzeldin Abuelaish, I handed you a pamphlet which had an account of my ‘fact-finding’ trip to Damascus over Easter.  You were very gracious and gave me your email address, and I passed on my phone number. Then at a rally outside the ABC offices in Southbank, I was again able to hand to you another pamphlet with a list of  20 research questions for anyone interested in knowing the fuller picture of what is happening in Syria.  I didn’t have a chance to talk to you then, but you did take the pamphlet.  I did however have a chance to speak to you on air on 2 June, when you also spoke on air to a man in Aleppo and another local from the Syrian Australian community, I think.  The three of us told you we supported the president of Syria and the reforms he has introduced.

The reason I am writing is that I am continually shocked still by your one-liners on Syria.  You haven’t shifted on those since I first heard you speak to the Wheeler Centre audience in May. There are still no qualifications and no recognition that the story in Syria is a lot more complicated than you suggest.

For example, on the Conversation Hour last week, you said

(42:18)  The issue really is the capacity, and there’s any number of instances that have happened in recent times where people have run amok, but not with such expressed intent, such murderous intent, and such a clearly articulated manifesto, the likes of which we saw there, but .. I don’t know, we have the instruments of destruction, I mean as you saw with 9/11, coming up to a 10th anniversary there.  We have the instruments of havoc readily available to us.   Look what’s happening in, I don’t know, in Syria, where a government is killing thousands of its own citizens over what should be resolved in our context peacefully at the ballot box, but instead it’s done there with guns.  Look what’s happening in Libya. ..

On the same day as you said this, I received an email from Damascus. I’ll copy it below.  I hope you have a chance to consider the points of the writer.  The writer presents a picture that most people in the local Syrian and Lebanese communities would be aware of, but which is rarely given any attention by commentators in Australia.

Kind regards,



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