An address given at the Imam Husain Islamic Centre on July 25th, 2014
It is hard to know how to talk about Syria as there are really two entirely different and competing narratives about Syria, and how you understand the different elements in the drama really depends on which of these narratives you adopt.
The popular ‘Western’ narrative – the one that has been propagated by the US and by most of the Gulf States, and the one which has been the dominant media narrative in this country – is one that Speaks of a ‘civil war’ taking place in Syria – one that started with protests against the tyrannical rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. These popular protests, the narrative goes, started out as peaceful but quickly turned violent due to the violent overreaction from the Syrian Army.
Those who adopt this narrative admit, of course, that the initially-secular uprising aimed at replacing the Assad government with one that was more democratic and representative was quickly eclipsed by a Jihadist agenda due to powerful insurgency groups such as ISIS (or ISIL and now just IS) and Jabhat Al Nusra, and it is questionable now whether the original ‘moderate’ rebels who represent the hopes of the broader Syrian population now have any chance of achieving their political goals.
This, as I say, is the first narrative, and the one that viewers of the major TV stations in this country (and across the English-speaking world) will be most familiar with. The alternative narrative suggests that there is no civil war in Syria and that there never was one.
The alternative narrative does not deny that the trouble started with a series of protests in Homs in March 2011, but it does deny that they were ever non-violent. These protests, it is said, were infiltrated from the beginning by foreign agents with an agenda for the destabilisation and destruction of Syria as part of a broader plan to isolate Iran and strengthen Israel and other US-aligned states in the region.
This is the narrative of the government and any number of grass-roots organisations and Syrians on the ground, such as Father Franz of Homs – the wonderful Jesuit priest of Homs who was shot in the head by a rebel assailant only a few days before we arrived in Homs!
According to the alternative narrative, there never was a broad dissatisfaction with the leadership of Bashar Al-Assad, and neither did the so-called ‘rebel government’ ever really speak for most of the people of Syria.
The legitimacy of the ‘rebel government’ indeed should be called into question despite the recognition it received early on from the US and its allies. When Denning and I were first in Damascus in 2013, we met with members of the democratic opposition. They said they didn’t know who these people were! They said that these people had not been a part of the political process in Syria up to that point but were simply opportunists and upstarts.
As to the popularity of Assad, you need only look at the results of the recent elections. He received 88% of the vote – a remarkable majority by anybody’s reckoning.
You have probably picked up that I’m far more sympathetic to the second narrative than the first, though I’m not suggesting that I simply accept whatever I’ve been told by the government.
I don’t doubt that there is corruption in the Assad government. There is corruption in every government. Even so, even those who criticise the terrible corruption of the ‘Assad regime’, seem to acknowledge that Assad himself is not the main culprit. This again makes a mockery of the Western narrative that suggests that removing Assad will somehow cure the country’s ills.
Having said that about the political situation in Syria I don’t want to comment on it further. I am not an expert on political matters and indeed politics is not my focus. Our concern in our trips to Syria has been in dealing with people at the grass-roots, and this is where I hope we can make a contribution.
I remember vividly the first moments of my arrival in Damascus. I was embraced by a Syrian mother who was crying and hysterical – “they killed my son. They blew him up. They put a bomb in his pocket” she was saying. She showed me a crumpled picture of her boy (who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old). “And why did they do it? Because we are Shia!” she said.
This was my first first-hand introduction to the sectarian violence of Syria – Sunni against Shia, Muslims against Christians, etc. – and it’s a key element in the dominant narrative that this sort of sectarian violence has always been lying just under the surface in Syria as it has been across the Middle East. The violent response of Assad’s army (so the narrative goes) lit the fuse that ignited all of these underlying sectarian tensions. I must say that whatever I don’t believe in the dominant narrative, I definitely do NOT believe that.
Having now got to know quite a number of Syrian people, I am convinced that sectarianism has never been a part of Syrian culture. Christians and Muslims, Sunni and Shia, have for many generations lived alongside one another without any great difficulty. Sectarianism is not a part of Syrian culture. Mind you, I’m told that the same was true of Iraq. I’ve heard Iraqis say that before the US-led invasion of 2003 they didn’t know whether their neighbours were Sunnis or Shia!
Indeed, if I can share with you something said to me last year by Dr Chandra Muzaffar – the great Malaysian academic and human-rights activist – he said to me last year “Dave, do you realise that the modern divide between Sunni and Shia only goes back to the Iranian revolution! What does that tell you? It tells you that this division is a creation of the West.” The US lost control of Iran when the Shah was deposed and so the B-plan was to weaken Iran through creating sectional divisions across the region.
This is the old ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that has been used by world empires throughout history in order to maintain control of nations in their dominion. The British used this strategy to control 650 million Indians (as it was at the time) with less than 65,000 British troops, and you’ll find plenty of material from Wikileaks demonstrating how the US has carried out a similar program of sewing dissension between Shia and Sunni across the Levant.
The great irony of this, of course, is that it means that these takfiri militants – so obsessed with killing the dreaded Shia as a part of their holy crusade – are actually doing no more than carrying out the will of their imperialist masters (the very group that they would claim they most despise)!
I said I wasn’t going to say any more about politics and obviously I haven’t kept to that commitment. The problem is that it’s very difficult to understand the suffering of individual men, women and children in Syria (and across the Levant) without having a grasp of the broader forces that are driving the violence. Even so, let me conclude my words today by focusing exclusively on the small contribution I and the Fighting Fathers hope to make in Syria.
When Denning and I travelled to Syria this year we took with us Australian boxing champion Solomon Egberime. Our plan was to see what the options were for running boxing training sessions for young people across Syria. History shows that sport (and boxing in particular) has regularly played a very constructive role in helping bring communities together and heal social divisions – Ireland and South Africa being two outstanding examples.
Even if all violence in Syria stops tomorrow it will be many years before the country is fully recovered. My thought was that during this time we might be able to bring some high-level sports people from Australia into Syria to help with that rebuilding process by bringing some joy to the kids of Syria and by building links of friendship between our countries.
We were very well received in Syria. Our boxing champion, Solomon, turned out to be a terrific hit with the local young people and the Syrian Olympic Committee expressed complete support for our initiative. Having now returned to Australia, my hope is that we can gather together a team of high-profile professionals and return to Syria to run a series of training camps in places such as Homs, Damascus, and even Yarmouk, where there are so many orphaned children and where so many young people need to learn to laugh and play again.
I am having some trouble recruiting the high-profile professionals we need to accomplish this work and this is where I need your help. I don’t really understand why I haven’t been swamped with volunteers thus far. I know that Syria is a risky place to be at the moment but I figured that boxers are used to putting their bodies on the line, and isn’t it better to put your body on the line for the sake of the children of Syria than simply for the sake of a belt or some prize-money?
Perhaps it’s just a communication problem? I hope it is. Perhaps all we need is for our Muslim sisters and brothers to help me spread the word to the boxing community and beyond. That is my request of you today. Denning has put together a wonderful recruitment video and you can see it online at www.boxersforpeace.com…. What I need from you, my sisters and brothers, is help in getting this video and website to those who need to see it.
So … if you happen to be Anthony Mundine’s nephew or Billy Dib’s brother or Mike Tyson’s girlfriend will you please see that your uncle, brother and boyfriend visit www.boxersforpeace.com… and watch our video? I’d then be grateful if you could do this and then follow them up – needling them incessantly until they agree to come to Syria with us (promising, of course, that you will join them).