“Your silence is killing us”

In the wake of 9/11, the West demanded that Arab populations embrace democracy. In countries like Syria, they are now risking their lives to do just that, while Europeans stand back as though they were incapable of dealing with problems beyond their borders. The founder of the Community of Saint Egidio sets the record straight.

Published on 2 August 2011 at 14:28

Ever since the tragedy of 9/11, we have been asking Muslims to make a serious effort to adopt democracy and to reject violence. We even cited the fight against terrorism and for democracy to justify the war in Iraq. Now ten years down the line, the Arab world has embarked on a quest for freedom.

In general, the political movement has been inspired by members of the younger generation, before being taken up by other categories of the population. The children of globalisation have succeeded in overcoming the fear, which in the past paralysed entire societies, ousting longstanding despots in both Tunisia and Egypt in the process.

It is not easy to predict the ultimate outcome of Arab spring and its effect on politics. That said, too many commentators in the West seem to be overly preoccupied with the issue of its impact on Islamism — a focus that reveals a range of fears including a lack of confidence in this budding democracy. The Arab dictators derived some of their legitimacy from the fact that they acted as a bulwark against Islamists. But now the term “Islamism” is too generic. We should draw a distinction between the different Islamic political forces, because Islamism is an approach to politics that is espoused by democrats and conservatives as well as extremists and terrorists… Let’s not forget that Turkey, a country that possesses NATO’s second largest army, has an elected Islamist government.

Europe’s lack of interest in the Arab spring is measure of the commitment of our civil society to the cause of democracy in those countries. Recently we were treated tot he sight of a Syrian demonstrator bearing a placard which read: “your silence is killing us.” Make no mistake, this is a message addressed to the West.

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Indifference and realpolitik

Particularly with regard to Syria, the West has demonstrated an almost overwhelming apathy. And this is not only a consequence of the war in Libya and the economic crisis, The West has always adopted a realpolitik approach to the Assad family, in particular with regard to events in Hama. This is the city where, in 1982, Hafez al-Assad massacred 20,000 of his fellow citizens (who were led by the Muslim Brotherhood). The response to the carnage was almost total silence. Confronted by a ‘progressive’ regime with a clever international policy that was under the protection of the Soviet umbrella, the realpolitik held sway.

In the same year, the Lebanese Christian militia (with the complicity of the Israeli army) killed one thousand Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. The reponse from the left, and on a wider level from public opinion was much more trenchant. I remember visiting the camps to observe the horror and destruction with my own eyes. These were two very different reactions.

After 1989, Syria, which was still in the control of the Alawis, made a commitment to oppose Islamism. The regime is not totally isolated within the country, it even benefits from a consensus. As an influential Christian Syrian explained to me, “the Alawis hold power, but they also represent a guarantee for minorities” — and this sentiment is also re-echoed by Kurdish and Druze populations.

This consensus is particularly evident in Aleppo, the minorities homeland, where thousands of Kurds live alongside 300,000 Christians. The city has remained calm while rebellion has erupted elsewhere in the country. Traditionally the Sunni middle class and the Alawis have agreed to compromise, but what will the Sunni middle class do not that the revolt is has been launched by the Sunni majority? At the same time, we cannot underestimate the response of Shia states (Iran, Iraq and Lebanon), for which Syria is an important partner. Tehran runs the risk of losing a close political and religious ally — especially in the context of Syria’s links to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

As it stands, the Alawi regime believes that the only way to sustain its political monopoly and avoid a settling of the account is to maintain a reign of terror. That is why it is shooting at its own citizens, most of whom are Sunnis. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak did not shoot at his own population, and the bloc which supported him nonetheless understood that his era had come to an end.

Proximity implies a measure of responsibility

Is Syria assuming that the West will remain indecisive? Certainly, the response of European civil society to serious problems that arise beyond our national borders appears to be increasingly apathetic. At the same time, the West cannot be expected to continually act as a policeman with a mission to enforce human rights. However, Syria is close to both Europe and Israel, and this proximity also implies a certain measure of responsibility. We should seriously consider exercising some of the wide range of options that exist between military intervention (as in libya) and indifference: among other things, we should be exerting pressure, establishing contacts, seeking solutions, and involving major international powers.

For the moment, it is not clear how to overcome the polarisation in Syria, between a movement of people willing to die for the cause of liberty and a regime with no future that is stricken by fear whose only response is yet more oppression. We should be developing transition scenarios and, at the same time, demonstrating — through the adoption of a number of key decisions — that the logic of terror is unacceptable. In the wake of a decade of international politics dominated by the question of Islamism, new problems have emerged, but these have also been accompanied by new possibilities. We should adopt new criteria in interpreting the realities that we now face, and we should be ready to assume our political responsibilities. And this not only applies to governments, but also to civil society and other political forces. The changes that are afoot in the Arab world and in the Mediterranean basin will play a key role in the geopolitics of the 21st century — a role that will certainly be more significant than the localised issues of national politics.

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