Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Open Letter to Michael Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society

Mr. Weiss,

I am writing to you about your recent piece in Slate, “Meet the Syrian Opposition.” I recently returned from nine months of living and teaching in Syria, and while I completely share your sympathy with Syria’s liberal opposition, I fear the picture you’ve received of Syria from its opposition leaders is dangerously inaccurate.

You make much of the oppositionists’ claim that there is no sectarian divide in the opposition to Assad. I can tell you for a fact that there is. I lived and worked among the Christian community in Damascus, and never once met a Christian who did not support Assad. The Patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church praised him in his Easter Day homily. The Greek Catholic Church also hung a massive banner bearing the president’s face above the street leading to their patriarchate. Syrian Christians, in my experience, are terrified at the prospect of majority rule in Syria, and I cannot blame them for their fear, especially considering the Christian experience in Muslim-ruled Arab states. You write that, “The oppositionist in Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city, assured us that Christians had joined in Friday prayers at the Great Mosque in that city.” To me, this is simply inconceivable, under any circumstances. I am 90% sure this is not true, and 100% sure that it does not reflect the attitude of most Syrian Christians.

In one paragraph of your article, you try to diminish the fear of an Islamist takeover of Syria by noting that the Muslim Brotherhood was “largely destroyed” in Hama in 1982, that it has been banned for decades, and that the opposition leaders disavow the Brotherhood. You finish with this sentence, “Notably, one slogan heard as early as the second week of protests was: ‘No to Iran, No to Hezbollah. We want Muslims that fear Allah.’” Why is this notable? Iran is a Shia-ruled state, and Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim organization. Syria is a majority Sunni country, and its Islamists are Sunni Islamists. This chant is exactly what we would expect to hear from Syrian Islamists: anti-Shia rhetoric. Despite the suppression of the Brotherhood, we must face up to the fact that for forty years, the mosque has been the only legal gathering place in Syria. We should not be surprised if the uprising has Islamist overtones.

Like you, I am aghast at the crimes of the Assad regime, I am terrified at what crimes it may yet commit in its craven fight for survival, and I am praying for its quick demise. But simplifying the story of the Syrian revolution to one of a righteous, united people struggling against the evil dictator is extremely harmful, especially when it comes to policy-making. The Syrian people are NOT united. Assad won’t allow them to be. He and his father have spent the last forty years asphyxiating any kind of social organization that didn’t depend on their favor for its survival, and when he goes, he will leave a gaping void. There is a very real risk of sectarian civil war in Syria. If we don’t face up to that, we only make that war more likely.

Thank you for working to bring these events into the public consciousness. May we celebrate the liberation of Syria soon.

Joel Veldkamp

PS: Did you choose the photo that ran with your piece in Slate? The protesters in the photo are clearly demonstrating in support of Assad. I thought it was a curious choice.

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