The Syrian historian and journalist Karam Nachar is a co-founder of the Al-Jumhuriya newspaper. He writes about women’s and LGBT rights, among other socio-political debates. Interviewed by Hannah El-Hitami, he talks about the specific challenges for minorities in Syria, and the state of Syrian civil society after more than 10 years of war.
Hannah El-Hitami: If we want to talk about the rights of minorities in Syria, what are some specific challenges that arise in a country that has been in turmoil for over 10 years?
Karam Nachar: The biggest threat to women, LGBT and disabled people, or any other minority is the war. If you ask today, what the biggest challenges are for women in Damascus or Aleppo, then it is the fact that people have no water, no electricity, no fuel. People are starving. The UN security council recently described the situation in Syria as one of the most complicated human catastrophes of recent history. And even if you go back in time to before the war started, the biggest threat that people faced was the fact that they were being persecuted by the Syrian regime based on their political views. They were arrested, tortured, forcibly disappeared and executed on an industrial scale. Of course, there are people who are more vulnerable than others, but it is important to think intersectionally. When an entire country is being decimated as a result of a huge, historically bloody conflict, then we have to say that the challenge of minority groups is the same challenge that the entire country is facing.
Dictators like to use minorities as an argument to strengthen their own position. Assad, for example, used the Islamist threat to present his regime as the only alternative.
Due to the sectarian and ethnic diversity in countries like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine, these governments like to present themselves as the protectors of minorities. Unlike Erdogan, al-Sisi or Hitler, who want or wanted to channel the voice of the majority, Assad presents himself as the protector of liberal freedoms — as a protector from the majority. He basically suggests: if it’s not us, it’s the Islamists. And yet, his regime is equally fascist and violent. Of course, Islamists can be a threat to women, LGBT and others. But can you use that argument as an excuse to deprive people of their rights, and to inflict unspeakable horrors on society? No. That is an instrumentalization of personal freedoms in exchange for democratic participation.
States in the Global North have used personal freedoms as a justification to intervene in the region. Women’s rights, especially, have even been used to legitimize wars. How can feminists in the Middle East fight their important battles without reproducing the West’s racist stereotypes?
What I think was beautiful about the revolution in 2011, was that for a minute it destabilised the West as a reference for both good and bad. As long as we are speaking in English and imagining the West as our main audience, we will be very worried that criticizing our own societies might confirm Orientalist or racist stereotypes in the West. But that in itself presupposes that we are worried what the West thinks all the time. In 2011, we were talking to each other for once. Our struggle is in the region first and foremost. We need to stop obsessing about the question of representation and focus on the question of emancipation in our region.
Feminist and LGBT activists from West Asia and North Africa like to remind the world that many discriminatory laws and practices were implemented in their countries by the former colonial rulers. What is your view on that as a historian?
I think it is a very powerful tool to excavate Arab and Middle Eastern history, and show how a lot of the racism, misogyny and homophobia is not an old relic, but a product of the recent past. In pre-colonial times, the positions on sexuality were extremely fluid and diverse. How terribly illiberal the region is now is not a result of a fixed Arab essence or cultural identity. It is a result of a very modern nationalist ideology. Even modern Islamism is really just religious nationalism. It has so much more in common with the exclusionary far-right nationalist ideology than it does, for example, with Islam in Bagdad in the 11th century. Whether in the racial, cultural or religious sense, the idea of nationalism focuses on cultural conformity and unity. It is suspicious of people who are different from within, and hostile towards people from outside. It is obsessed with the idea of power and masculinity. These ideas always put women, queer people, disabled groups and any other minorities at risk.
You are a co-founder of the online newspaper Al-Jumhuriya, a platform for Syrians to report on socio-political developments since the revolution from their own perspective — instead of just being the object of reporting. How did this project come to life?
Before 2011, our region was a wasteland, where either the West intervened or corrupt dictators ruled. Then the revolution happened, and we felt that history resumed, that there was a sense of political agency and cultural creativity. The idea of Al-Jumhuriya developed out of this feeling. We were observing what was happening in our country, but we also needed to process it all and turn it into ideas of how we wanted things to be. We wanted people to write about what they were seeing, what they were thinking and what they had gone through, to liberate the past from silence and oppression and bring it forward into a shared arena of discussion.
Al-Jumhuriya has an office in Berlin. Numerous other Syrian organisations have been established in the diaspora. Does a civil society still exist in the country itself?
There is a civil society still present in Syria despite everything, but its primary focus is on humanitarian issues. Organisations are involved in providing food, shelter, medication, education and support for internally displaced people on the borders. Some of them are political activists, who decided to focus on humanitarian issues; others come from a pro-regime background. But the human rights organisations are all outside of the country. They cooperate with people inside the country, who have very rigorous security protocols and work at great risk to their own personal safety. Apart from that, the areas not under regime control have a vibrant civil society scene. Thanks to the digital age, we are all connected. But there is also a challenge of communities growing apart. For instance, when the Caesar Act was promulgated at the American Congress in 2019, the exiled puritans who just want the Assad regime gone were extremely pro, while the people inside the country, even those opposed to the regime, were terrified about what that law might mean to their own livelihood. In Al-Jumhuriya, we publish both opinions and try to create a space for debate.
Are there still hopes and dreams that all Syrians share?
Syria is not only materially devastated, but also extremely polarised and divided. But is there a community both in and outside the country that believes Syria can be a prosperous and democratic country? Yes, there is, and those people are definitely unified in that dream. In 2011 and 2012, we were so focused on getting rid of Assad that anyone who opposed us seemed like a mortal enemy. Now, that division is still there. Germans, of all people, know what it means for a horrible political system to be there not just as a result of oppression, but also of popular support. How do you deal with that? But at the same time, there is a new notion of Syrian identity. Even after so much has been fragmented and destroyed, there is a cultural heritage that brings us together as people. It is very important to safeguard that, because otherwise there is nothing left. Then we would just be Syrians waiting to become full Germans or full Turks. Over the last years, people have decided to take a step away from what strictly divides us, and towards the bigger cultural questions of what brings us together. We have noticed a lot of initiatives emerging to protect Syrian collective memory. There are certain things that we are very proud of and that give people a sense of hope.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.
This article first appeared here: eu.boell.org