In Syria death, torture, destruction, devastation and militarism are what the media presents to us. A revolution that began in 2011 as a peaceful, grass roots, nonviolent protest of the undeniably oppressive Assad regime evolved into something that many Americans such as this writer simply declare as beyond understanding.
Making the Syrian Revolution comprehensible is something that Mohja Kahf, UA professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies, intends to do at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Omni Peace Center, 3274 Lee Avenue, Fayetteville.
Syrian born Kahf also aims to answer a question that many, especially peace activists, are asking about the Syrian revolution: is nonviolence a viable course in the brutal landscape of Syria?
Phases of the Syrian Revolution and Values to Recall
According to Kahf, the Syrian Revolution has unfolded in four stages. Phase one began with three distinctive values that are necessary to remember. They are the principles of nonviolence, nonsectarianism, and nonintervention. She goes on to explain that sectarianism in the Middle East is a term that is somewhat parallel to racism here.
The second phase saw three changes: One, the emergence of armed resistance. Two, the formation of political bodies outside of Syria vying for stewardship of the revolution. Three, the entry of political Islamists into the revolution. Kahf said that these political bodies have co-opted the grassroots revolution.
The third phase saw Assad escalate violence and draw support from Iran and Russia, thus fostering the extremists rising to the fore of the armed resistance.
The fourth phase found the entry of Sunni armed Islamist extremists entering Syria from Iraq, taking over the Syrian city of Raqqa, repressing (with violence) those who had won the fight against the Assad regime.
Says Kahf, “ We are now in a multi-sided armed conflict in Syria. So why does it matter that the revolution started out nonviolent?
“Because, there are still Syrian people and groups who work through nonviolent means. They are quietly working for the kind of Syria they want whether the regime falls now or in years. They began it from consciousness change independent of military outcomes.”
Kahf tells about two Syrian nonviolent activists, as examples who dispel the kind of thinking which says that nonviolent activism cannot be where there is death and torture in your own backyard. These activists, highlighted in her talk, have suffered imprisonment, destruction of their towns, family members being tortured and incarcerated. Still they continue nonviolent resistance.
As another example, Kahf discusses the civilian activist-built Public Commission for Civil Defense in Dara. They are collecting garbage, restoring electricity and water all while dealing with daily military assaults.
“They are creating the conditions for an alternative economy not dependent on any authoritarian power,” Kahf said. “That is what those who choose nonviolence do. They matter and deserve the solidarity of nonpolitical, nonmilitary civil society groups worldwide.”
Kahf believes that the passing of the UN Security Council’s cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria is a light in the dark night of Syria. “Those convoys” she said, “mean pockets of cease-fire on all sides.”
Once inside, she asserts that the UN convoys will rely on the relief activists’ networks that are operating, thus strengthening the on-going non-sectarian work already being done. It is vital this work be nonsectarian. Otherwise, use of provision of goods and services becomes a brokering for power among the various authorities competing for control.
“Advocates for nonviolence are learning a lot about how nonviolence and violence interact in this situation,” said Gladys Tiffany, president of the Omni Center for Peace, Justice, and Ecology. “Much of it is sobering. The courage of Syrian activists amid the carnage is stunning, and the lessons for us are overwhelming.
“If there is hope of a future for human kind, Syria has many lessons to teach us. OMNI friends will be very interested to hear what Mohja Kahf herself is taking from the devastation in her family’s home country. She and others like her have not given up. Their dedication to nonviolence is radiantly undeterred.”
The Non-Violent Struggle in Syria: Why it Still Matters
Who: Mohja Kahf, UA professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies
When: Saturday Feb. 28, at 6 p.m.
Where: Omni Peace Center, 3274 Lee Avenue, Fayetteville