(Ms. Lama Al Atassi, a Syrian political activist based in France, involved since 2011 in Syrian opposition activities)
Toward Peace and Reconciliation in Syria
I joined the ranks of what could become a revolution for Syrian society to change, because I deeply believe in each human being’s right to dignity. But today the outcome of this struggle is disastrous.
The Syrian crisis has an internal aspect specific to the evolution of society in Syria, which is a young country. This may be why our peaceful demands for democracy have given way to the current social crisis in Syria. We see violent identity reactions that lead some Syrian people toward radicalization, while others seek their identity elsewhere outside Syria. From every side, we are faced with a deadly definition of governance: Since 1949, Syria is plagued by coups d’état. Each time, a man kicks out another man by violence to settle down with his clan and gain privileges at the expense of national interest and social peace. Therefore, it is not surprising that various Syrian opposition groups cannot imagine change in Syria without force or violence. And it is not surprising that the regime itself only understands challenge or criticism as if it were a coup attempt.
In this senseless war, we meet all kinds of logics: There are fragile individuals with weapons who dream to carry out projects beyond Syrian borders in defiance of international law and the UN framework. But mainly we have people locally who, with the same disregard for human rights, want to keep at any cost their personal privileges at the expense of Syrian identity and national unity. These people have been responsible for the crisis, by imposing the law of the strongest even to the State, refusing to share the country's wealth with the people. They are the ones who denied Syrian people their citizenship and dignity. In the end, each belligerent is selfishly engaged in a deadly logic without caring for his Syrian siblings, or for Syria itself.
International negotiations for peace in Syria have had to integrate these irrational data. The international community is compelled to bring around the table a weak and unpopular regime in front of Islamist militia and separatist leaders, together with businessmen representing the private interests of mafia clans. Peace negotiations have lasted for years and failed. We should be looking inside, towards multicultural Syria, and stop accusing the international community and the big powers. It may be by engaging responsibly as Syrians that we can try to solve conflicts among ourselves and work for reconciliation.
The Syrian tragedy has highlighted a social crisis. We have seen all kind of hatred and extremism among people. Complex strategies to defend their identity are carried out by individuals and groups who feel threatened in their unique cultural identity. Each community feels that they are not recognized or respected by other communities, causing violent and irrational attitudes toward each other. And the victims of this lack of trust are mainly the young people who carry weapons on every front.
All the prejudices and barbaric acts are signs of this omnipresent crisis in Syria, where everyone is afraid to lose their identity and accuses others to want to deny their cultural roots. Indeed, throughout Syrian history, many cultures have been violated, for instance Assyrian, Kurdish, Turkmen, Ismaili or Yazidi cultures, and others.
Miraculously, we have today more than 18 ancient cultures surviving side by side and forming modern Syria and Syrian national culture. All of them compose one Syrian identity which is only 70 years old. To form such a rich Syrian identity in only 70 years has been the challenge taken up by our great-grandparents, the first Syrian patriots, who united against the project to divide Syria. You will ask me: "How to live together in peace and openness toward one another?” This is exactly the question we face today in Syria.
Back in the 70s the intercultural concept began to emerge in social science, in response to new societal issues linked with the evolution of Western societies and their diversity. Intercultural success means equality between cultures and respect for cultural specificity. It may be from this angle that we should consider a possible solution that would be more in tune with the evolution of modern human societies.
The term "intercultural" was first used in 1976 at the UNESCO General Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. They declared that "Beside the principle of cultural authenticity, we should put forward the concept of dialogue between cultures. To discourage national isolation and sectarianism, it is important to open each culture to others in a broad international perspective.... ". In order to find answers, I researched this topic in social science and I observed and interviewed my countrymen. I found out that the first obstacle to overcome in Syria is self-ignorance and ignorance of others. Indeed, behind the ignorance and demonization of others, there is ignorance of one's own culture.
In my six years of activism, I have met thousands of Syrians from all Syrian regions. I've been close to them, and realized that everyone lived isolated in their region, neighborhood or village, in total ignorance of their neighbors' culture. School textbooks do not refer to these local cultures and do not value them. The national education system ignores local history, and Syrian people do not know their own history. Most of them denigrate whatever remains of their traditions and folklore.
In Syria, centralization is not only administrative but also cultural. However, we should value equally people’s claims for identity and cultural recognition, whatever the size of each community. A project for reconciliation and peace may be to let each ethnic group discover one another's differences and common points in a positive light, while highlighting otherness and value equality.
We could now begin to form in the Syrian collective memory an image that is different from the image of war. Restoring and preserving the Syrian cultural heritage can help overcome divisions and differences, and bring moments of peace through culture, the arts and more. People's minds could be appeased, and people could realize that their priority is to reaffirm Syrian identity and specificity, and that it is still possible to do it.
There is today a real crisis of trust, everyone is hurt and wounded, we have all lost our loved ones, but now is time to think differently about Syria.
(This paper was presented at the Vienna International Centre - United Nations on January 27th 2017 in a conference commemorating the World Interfaith Harmony Week on the theme of "Toward Peace and Reconciliation in Conflict Zones - The Role of Religions" organized by the Universal Peace Federation Austria).