Archive | May, 2013

The Grey Ideology: BBC Paul Danahar on Syria

10 May

Paul Danahar is a good journalist. He is the responsible for the BBC middle east bureau and the BBC is a very good media. He goes on the field, talk to people and check his facts. So why is that he produces some desperate meaningless pessimistic cliché about Syrian Crisis ?

Syria’s protracted conflict shows no sign of abating

The reason is one word : ideology.
The problem is that this word can mean plenty of things and it is also quite impossible to identify what ideology we re speaking about because this ideology never really had any name.

Orientalism (oh please, not again)

The closest we got is Edward Said’s Orientalism. Orientalism plays a great part but it is not the only one. Orientalism allows one to take a fact and make it a generality about the middle east.

This one is a good example :

All across the country, every day, there are brutal events, none of which in itself is big enough to warrant the attention of international or local media, but each of which breaks another strand of this country’s fragile weave of sects and religions.

Orientalism also helps one to loose absolutely every sense of history. Middle-East, Arabs, Islam, they all become unbreakable rocks, intellectual fortress impossible to conquer or to understand. It is there, always have been and it explains things. No history, no evolution, no dates, only a « thing » that has always been there and will ever be and that the « western » mind will never be able to grasp.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia hates Shia Iran, so it is using the war in Syria to try and weaken it.
The Saudi interest in the conflict dates back 1,300 years to the split within Islam. That is where its ambitions over the outcome of the civil war begin and end.

What is more likely ? That Paul Danahar does not know Saudi Arabia was not created 1300 years ago or that his orientalism let him think Sunni-Shia divide always has been and always will be the best possible explanation to understand the Arab mind?

Orientalism creates an Arab mind outside of the “western” mind that we can not understand so why bother? We just have to use the prepared set of orientalist clichés that can explain anything: sectarian war, religion, Islam, terrorism, bad treatment of women, geopolitical game about oil and “imperialism”, shia vs sunnis. It does not make any sense but it looks like it does and this is good enough.

To Danahar’s defence, making sense is not that easy against Orientalism and one has to break Orientalism before even starting to think of making sense. We can not get angry over Danahar for falling into Orientalism as it is a cultural hegemony and it is not Danahar’s job to break this particular monster.

The grey ideology

But there is another ideology that runs deeply in Danahar’s piece and this one is much more dangerous : it is the grey ideology. Danahar thinks that in Syria there is no black and white but « Things are grey » and that explains what’s what. And this is the kind of non sense you get with the grey ideology:

The situation in Syria is complicated. If you are not confused by what is going on there, then you do not understand it.

Get confused so you will understand…

The grey ideology is probably the most subversive we got in our days. It runs deeply in some journalists, not all of them but some. Danahar is not the only one but he pushes it so far that it is possible for us to analyse it (and this is why we chose Danahar’s work to analyse and comment)

Grey is (and can only be) a mix of black and white. There is no good, which helps the pessimists, but there is also no evil which drives the mind to loose sense of everything. Human mind has to understand things with this prism. You can go for Yin and Yang but Yin and Yang is not grey. Grey itself, the very perfect grey mixing the exact same amount of black and white, does not exist.

Human actions and reactions have a meaning. They are ethical and any human being has a sense of right and wrong, even Assad perfectly knows the difference so why is that Danahar’s reader is denied this basic right? Things are never grey because grey does not make any sense.

Arabs fighting Arabs, Shia versus Sunnis, massacres by « both sides », innocent children dying : saying that is not reporting, it is not journalism. Journalism has to make sense, journalism is telling people the facts and the “telling” is maybe even more important than the “facts”. In Danahr’s piece, there is no sense. No story, and, for that reason, no real facts. Who ? When ? Where ? All that disappears in vague and grey sentences.

The climax is reached with the use of the expression MWG or Men With Guns to describe what other calls the « rebels ».

Firstly, the FSA – that you have been hearing so much about – does not exist.
A better title would be MWG, or men with guns, because having guns and firing them in the same direction is the only thing that unites them.

The expression is so meaningless that Danahar can even reduce it to an acronym : three letters placed together we do not really know why.

And why would be a good question to ask and a good answer for Danahar’s journalism to find? Why do people unite to fire in the same direction? Is there no meaning here? Love, one say, is when two people look together in the same direction so what is MWG firing in the same direction? Is there no sense? No goal at all? Danahar is getting here exactly what is happening in Syria: people united in a common goal, firing in the same direction: this explains everything and it is one of the most accurate description of what a violent revolution is about. Still, Danahar chooses to render this explanation totally meaningless by using MWG.

When the meaning has been so completely obliterated, the only choice is to ask God for an answer :

When will the Syria crisis end? God knows.
God knows because this crisis is increasingly not about freedom but about religion.

Anyone sees where is the journalism here? please raise your hands.

And who is Danahar to oppose freedom and religion? If you are ready to go back to thousands years ago you can see Jesus destroyed the Roman empire with non-violence, Moses freed his people from slavery, Muhammad rebelled against Mekka aristocracy and his “rebellion” became a civilisation. And the very “sunni/shia” divide that seems so essential today began as a revolution against Ummayyad empire.

Freedom and religion can not be placed on the same level or opposed to one another. Freedom makes sense, religion does not.  It is freedom that can explain why people unite to fire in the same direction, religion can’t and I dare you to tell me you have to read the Kuran to understand Al Quaeda.

Totalitarian propaganda

Danahar is also confused on another thing and this is why he thinks Syrian “crisis” is very complex and why he wants us to understand that we can not understand Syria.

Danahar addresses the regime propaganda thinking in terms of “self fulfilling prophecy” and that “some of what the government says is true”. This is why he can get so confused and ends up thinking like this:

So I think we could have probably said in the beginning most of what the government said wasn’t true and most of what the opposition said was true. And now I think we have to say most of what the government says may not be true but some of it now probably is, and most of what the opposition said in the past was true, but some of it now probably isn’t.

Danahar interviewed by Bob Garfield: The evolving propaganda war in Syria

The key here is that Syrian “government” is a totalitarian regime and what he says is totalitarian propaganda. Here, to understand what totalitarian propaganda is, we have to read Hannah Arendt and we wish Danahar is going to read it again soon.

Totalitarian propaganda is not a simple lie and actually, it is not a lie at all: everything Assad says is true. Not just some, everything. Totalitarianism has the power to change reality according to what its propaganda says. When we listen to Assad’s speeches or read SANA news agency, it is simply wrong to try to see what is true and what is lie. What Assad says, what SANA reads is not reality as we know, it is the reality they plan to create. Arendt uses the image of a potential murderer to explain: it is absurd to ask a potential murderer if his next victim is dead or not. He just have to go there, kill his victim and bring you back the proof that his victim is dead.

Assad propaganda is the same thing. When he says he is fighting terrorism it means he is planning to create terrorism. When he says he is fighting salafis he is planning to release all salafis from his prisons. When he says the insurrection is Al Quaeda it means all the jihadis he helped sending in Iraq will cross back the border helped by the Mukhabarat. When he says this is Sunnis against Shias he plans to send Shia militias to massacre Sunni villages. And when he says he is protecting minorities he plans not sending militias in minority areas and will not fire a single shot against a demonstration in a Christian or Druze area. “Syria crisis could destabilise the whole region” = I am going to destabilise the whole region and shelling on Lebanese and Turkish border. “Syrian crisis is spreading to Lebanon” = I am going to blow up the chief of Lebanese intelligence in the middle of Beirut.

Everything Assad says is true. Read it like that and it become much less complicated to understand.

Very old standards

The second key thing is that, if the rebels are also fighting a propaganda war. And there is a big difference: rebels are not a totalitarian state and they do not have the power to change reality according to the propaganda. This means you can not apply the same rule or fact checking to “both sides”: one is going to always give you absolute proof, the other will not.

The problem that we’ve got is in the beginning, because we saw the conflict completely in black and white, good guy/bad guy terms. We’re having to do a bit of a hand brake turn and say, hang on, we, we tend to be a little bit more – sophisticated and maybe cynical when it comes to information that we get from people that are not people that we know. And we’re just reapplying the old standard we should have always applied on all the information we get out of Syria now.

Danahar interviewed by Bob Garfield: The evolving propaganda war in Syria

Go on and apply the “old standards” on the information you got from the rebels it will always be half lie at best. Then, apply the exact same old standards on the information you get from the regime it will always be complete and absolute truth, verified and with ground proofs.

The very idea of applying the “old standard” is completely wrong. Revolution will not be televised (sorry BBC, sorry Al Jazeera), Twitter, bloggers and Google and Youtube have learned how to bypass the old standard as for any totalitarian propaganda who knows exactly what to do and how to manipulate the “old standard”.

Reality in Syria is what you want to see. If you want to see a Revolution, there is a revolution, if you want to see terrorism, there is terrorism, if you want to see black and white there is black and white, if you want to see a big geopolitical game that supersedes human being then you got it. And if you want to see grey, then it will be grey. This is what revolution is about: shaping the reality according to a dream and this is why it opposes totalitarianism that is shaping reality according to propaganda.

In Syria, things are that simple. And this is where Paul Danahar is lost and thinks grey will help him. But grey is not journalism. Things are black or white and objectivity has to pick a side. This is not a European election campaign where you give 5 minutes to the left and five minutes to the right. Revolution will not let you in the grey because it will force you to think and to make sense. Now more than ever, the very job of journalism in Syria is to make sense of what is happening.


A couple of things that do not change in the Middle East

7 May

Because these last couple of days we heard a lot of big brilliant generalities about the Middle East, we wanted to add some of our own.

  • There is no « regional war »

Politicians and leaders in the Middle East are extremely brave in their speeches but really not in their actions. When there is a conflict or a tension or a war, everyone wants to take advantage of it but no one wants to be hit. So what happens is that : leaders and powers agree to fix their problems or tensions on a specific location. They will help this country to become the putrid point and will fill it with every shit they got so the problem don’t backfire. You can try them and spread two world wars in the Middle East, it will still hardly become regional.

Palestinian « problem » never spilled over the whole region. It was “fixed” in Jordan then in Lebanon. Lebanese civil war never spilled out to the whole region, rather the whole region spilled in the Lebanese civil war. Syria and Israel carefully fed the Lebanese civil war for a decade. Iran Islamic revolution never spilled out neither. It was carefully fixed on the Iran-Iraq border and also carefully nourished by everyone for eight years. When the US invaded Iraq, they were not met with Arabic hordes but rather by a civil war everyone around was happy to help. When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006 to destroy Hezbollah, Iran or Syria (the indestructible and holly “shia axis”) barely blinked. Currently, all the « problems » of the Middle East are being fixed in Syria. Every neighboring country will fill Syria with its own shit and power game. But the key here is that Syria « crisis » will never become regional “crisis”. It is the regional crisis that wants to overthrow the revolution in Syria. Everyone will do whatever they can so Syria becomes a horrible nightmare for the next decade but this nightmare will stay located in Syria and killing only Syrians. Did you ever wonder why civil wars are called civil wars? Basically it is because they stay in one country. No one wants to fight a regional war but the whole region is dying to use Syria as a battlefield.

This rule is to help journalists dealing with the myth “Syrian crisis could extend to Lebanon”. It will not. What happens is that Lebanon shitty sectarian politics is extending to Syria. Syria “crisis” will not harm the “fragile sectarian balance” of Lebanon because this balance does not exist. What exists in Lebanon is the rule of the rich against the poor, the mafia against the people and never-dying nepotistic leaders hiding their interests behind sectarian rhetoric.
The number of Syrian refugees is a problem not because the country is small but because the society is deeply racist and eager to blame refugees or “foreign influence” for all problems. Crime is rising but this may be related to the lack of government and security (or any basic social service) in the country.

Truth is, when there is indeed a regional movement like the Arab Revolution, everyone agrees it has to be stopped, countered, killed, butchered, and divided into shia-sunni.

  • Israel leaders have no strategic thinking

Israel leaders have no strategic thinking and never really had any. At first, they were thinking that they were a foreign corpse in a hostile Arab region and, because Arabs only understand the stick, they would have to use the stick. So every time they are afraid, they hit an Arab something with a big stick, just so the other Arabs learn the lesson : Israel does not like to be afraid. After the time, the use of the stick extended. It was not when leaders were afraid anymore but also when they were lost, bothered, bored, running an election campaign or did not know what else to do.

Syria is Israel neighboring country. Syria experiences a revolution and a counter-revolution at a scale no one predicted. Israel leaders are incapable of picturing themselves with the very concept of freedom in an Arab country. All they can think of is Assad dictator (bad) or Islamic theocracy (worse) and they have no idea what to do. But they know they have to do something. If they do not hit an Arab agitation with a big stick, Israeli citizens are going to ask for their own right: housing, education, health and public services, complain about corruption. They may even ask for peace… If Israeli leaders stop feeding the people with existential threats and “right to security” they may face the horrible prospect of actually building a country. A dire prospect indeed. And this is why they hit. Why they draw red lines that where not there before, why they prepare for war and why they keep themselves and their people afraid.

What they think now is hard to tell for that reason. Do not be surprise if the next air strike happens to be against the rebellion so the stick has some sort of balance. When two kids are fighting you punish them both…

  • Assad does not retaliate against Israel

Assad (father or son) never has and Assad probably never will. He will do a lot of barking though. Information minister immediately said that Israeli attack “opens up to all possibilities”, including of course, the possibility of not doing anything at all.
Truth is, Assad is currently too busy with his ethnic cleansing to retaliate against an enemy he never dared to attack before. Assad does not care about Israel, he wants to wipe Syria out of the globe because he knows he is lost and he would not tolerate that Syria survives after him. Assad will massacre some children, call them terrorist and explain these terrorists are supported by Israel so here was the retaliation.

  • No matter how hard they tried, no one ever managed to create a sectarian state in the Middle East

And God knows they tried. They all got somehow convinced that harmonious sectarian zones had to be the best for the Middle East. So the French tried (and failed) to create an Alawi state. They also tried and failed to create a Druze state. They tried (and succeeded) in creating Lebanon, a Maronite state that later became the most multisectarian state in the middle east. That of course, after the inevitable civil war. British thought it would be a good idea to allow a Jewish state in Palestine. This is now called Israel and people there start to realise a “Jewish state” means apartheid with barbed-wires, nukes, and homophobic ultra-orthodox zealots demanding theocracy. And this is not to mention the Kurdistan, French and British always promised but were never able to deliver.

So the rule in the middle east is that no sectarian state has ever been or will ever be possible. But the other rule pertaining to the first one is that no matter how obvious is the predicted failure, analysts will always keep thinking harmonious sectarian zones are the best solution for the Middle East. When the US invaded Iraq they created three sectarian zones. It ended up in a bloody sectarian civil war. It was a proof that these people can’t live together and Middle East needs more harmonious sectarian zones.

Now analysts and commentators are pretty sure Assad is planning to (re)create an Alawi state on Syrian coast in case he looses his capital city. The recent massacre in Banyas indicates Assad is following this idea with a good head-start on the ethnic cleansing. Thank you all experts and analyst who helped fill Assad’s head with the idea that an Alawi state might work. What that proves is also that Assad is the rightful heir of colonialism.