Declining space for freedom of expression among Syrians: what’s behind it?
Enab Baladi – Ninar Khalifa
A closer look at Syrians’ comments and publications on social media or their personal dialogues for one day is enough to realize the extent of division and difference of views that spoils Syrians’ amity, and divides friends and even parents and couples.
A state of acute division and polarization has become the dominant feature among Syrians. Once someone disagrees with another’s opinion, this dispute takes another form and direction, eventually turning it into the exclusion of the other, ridiculing his words and insulting him, and this can even reach the point of hating and accusing him of treason.
Practicing freedom of expression in Syrian society today is like wading into a minefield, as one is at any moment at risk of the explosion of another person having a different point of view, regardless of the cause and issue disputed over.
What are the reasons for the decline of freedom of expression in Syria? Is it really declining, or have we never enjoyed it in the first place?
Enab Baladi conducted a survey with a number of civilian activists to discuss this issue, and the way political and military transformations after 2011 affected Syrians’ debate culture and their acceptance of the other.
From value-based to political and interest-oriented framework
Hamza al-Mustafa believes that in recent years, as the Syrian revolution has turned into an international crisis, public space debates have entered a new phase different from the past. While the principles, programs and political visions were dominant in the public space, and the difference about these visions is limited to intellectual and political aspects, the debate over international interests, balances and conflicts has become the norm, and the Syrian debate has shifted from being value-based to a purely political and interest-based framework.
The overcrowding of international actors and their projects in Syria coincided with the displacement of a large segment of activists and supporters of the revolution to the countries of diaspora. This has turned differences between countries to activists’ new areas of positioning, and each of these activists has turned to supporting a project that he believes it goes in line with the local, if not personal, interest, instead of the national interest. This has been a natural product of the transformation of the nation into moral parts, in which each part is different from the other in terms of the way of life, values and symbols.
Hamza added that the dilemma is manifested in political nihilism by supporting other countries’ projects and orientations within zero-sum game that abolishes the other’s opinion. The spread of accusation of treason and gloating among Syrians have thus become evident, especially during the recent Turkish intervention in Syria and the bias of a large part of Syrians in justifying the attitudes and actions of one side or another.
Hamza considers that as much as this reflects a crisis at the level of elites, this shows the outcomes of the Syrian revolution, in which national concerns have been replaced by international intrigues and great power competitions, where Syrians barely feature.
Have Syrians experienced freedom of expression in first place?
Muhammad Bqaei believes that as Syrians, we have not experienced a state of freedom of expression, neither as a value nor as a practical application as exercised in the developed countries. Even with the start of the Syrian revolution and the opening of doors for practicing this freedom within the rebellious societies, there were public debates restricted by the overarching goal at the time. Actual differences were postponed to a later stage.
In contrast, there is nowadays a difference between Syrians, whether they are in the regime-controlled areas, opposition-controlled areas or in Arab or European countries, depending on the determinants of their perception of the matters and the circumstances they live in. The perspective of each of them is based on solid rules and determinants that vary from one region to another, and with each side’s different determinants, it becomes easy to accuse each of them of treason, as we are not used to the idea of dealing with difference.
Amid the current conflict that we have been experiencing for eight years, radicalization has dramatically increased between all political parties and trends, whether they are secular trends or political Islam trends. With the existence of extremists on both sides, accepting freedom of expression becomes difficult, as it blooms with the spread of the middle spectrum by all political trends, according to Muhammad.
Muhammad believes that the differences between Syrians in issues have currently intensified.
As for the freedom of opinion and expression, as we envision it, we did not enjoy it except in the case of calling for it, but it was not transformed into an actual practice or a value.
Diverse backgrounds and experiences
Souad Khabiya believes that the freedom of opinion and expression is in a very bad situation and is backsliding from previous periods we experienced during the revolution, due to the general political and military situation in which Syrians live.
Souad pointed out that there is a large division between Syrians of different segments, as each segment became associated with a particular entity based on its protection, support or provision of a certain legitimacy. This has made these groups linked to those parties in terms of interests, and found themselves obliged to defend them, creating a state of conflict.
In addition, many are living in a state of fear from expressing their opinions because they will be held accountable by a certain dominant entity, which may be the de facto authority to which they are affiliated, or the authority of the state to which they have sought refuge and against which they are afraid to express an opinion contrary to its political orientation. Each authority is contradictory to the other and there are significant divisions in their positions as a result of differences in viewpoints on the Syrian issue and its main actors. All of this led to the absence of a healthy environment that can ensure that Syrians openly express their opinions and accept other opinions. Things have escalated to the point that one’s words can lead to his demise, and his opinion can lead to his assassination or arrest.
Souad added that we were previously accustomed in Syria to such practices by the regime, but the danger today lies in the fact that the restriction of opinion and expression is being carried out by different visible and hidden groups. Even when individuals express simple opinions on personal pages, they may be subjected to bullying, persecution and threat, making them often very cautious when expressing their opinions.
According to Souad, it has also become recently noticeable that large clashes result from differing views on simple matters, such as a video, film, book or newspaper article, and this may even reach the point of accusing the other side having a different viewpoint with treason.
This is explained by the prevailing state of “recklessness” among Syrians, which is not the real Syrian character, but is created and supported by a state of despair, frustration, and insecurity about everything that happens. According to Souad, this makes the person unable to accept the other because he feels that he is threatening his existence.
Miran Ahmad believes that the lack of freedom of opinion and expression among Syrians is due to unilateral education based on ideological curricula. That’s why ignorance is widespread in our societies. Despite the advancement of science, we are witnessing a lack of awareness and are confined to “canned consciousness.” There is no critical application of the information a person acquires in his life, which makes him think that he is a “great person” and that he possesses the “ultimate truth.” The reason for this is the lack of openness to the cultures of other countries.
Miran adds that travelling to other countries would open ones’ mind to several cultures. So, he will find out that his opinion is not the only one that stands, and would recognize that there is dialogue and platform for dialogue with the other. He will also discover that Syria is a small part in the entire planet.
On the other hand, according to Miran, the differences and clashes between Syrians were due to the feelings they experienced and the pain they have suffered as a result of loss during the war years. Each one of us has lost a lot in trying to find a justification. So, he blames the other, who is considered as a culprit and does not want to hear him trying to evade his responsibilities.
Who fuels divisions among Syrians?
Meanwhile, Wael Moussa insists that everyone would naturally be biased to his own point of view. However, what exacerbates this bias is the amount of harm he is subjected to from the other side, as consciousness at this situation is not enough to accept the different point of view of a harmful side.
Wael added that in the Syrian case, everyone has aspirations and hopes based on the way he understands what is going on. These aspirations play a big role in taking positions and bias of opinion.
Wael pointed out that the biggest problem is due to the fueling of these divisions by a large number of people who consider themselves as intellectuals or politicians. They are working to charge public opinion by disseminating false information about the opponent in order to achieve a greater support for their positions. For example, some people publish inaccurate racial or ethnic statistics, in the absence of real statistics from neutral sources, with the aim of gaining greater support for their opinions against the other without paying attention to the consequences of what is happening.
Weapons over dialogue
Aghiad Sheikho thinks that the younger generation is tired of repeating attempts to convince them of certain ideas by some parties for years. This has led them to reach an automatic state of rejection of those who disagree with their view that they began to form based on a stereotypical view of past experiences. This is the case for older people because of their long life experiences, as it is difficult to convince them of new ideas that we already know they will not accept.
In addition, he considered that the belief in the power of arms and its superiority over dialogue played a role in the immaturity of the culture of freedom of opinion and expression among Syrians. Also the affiliation groups, which were formed automatically in both countries of and in the Syrian regions, which have become separated and isolated from each other, is making it difficult to exchange ideas and views between the various spectrums. And each of them only knows what the side that he supports does. Sheikho added that “sticking to winning the conflict has become more important than peace.”
Freedom of expression not legally protected in Syria
Mira Hanna, Lawyer and feminist (pseudonym used for security reasons)
Mira Hanna believes that freedom of expression is severely limited in our societies, even among people whom we expected to have overcome their fears. Syrians are convinced of the futility of speech or dialogue, and the rejection of the other in an emotional and non-analytical manner, which led to the spread of insults among some. Whereas others chose to express their ideas in an open manner as the spirit of revenge exists more than ever, but is deep and hidden, according to her. As a result, treason accusations have become a natural thing because we are politically deprived and we have multiple loyalties. We have a desire to arrive at the expense of others and not with them.
She added that if we monitor the supporters of the regime inside Syria, we will find that they are really angry, because they have not received compensation for everything they have paid for in the past years. And they sense that all their sacrifices had been lost. We will also note that their mockery of corruption scandals among officials is a restrictive irony that does not inspire confidence that the government has deterrent power or a punishable law.
According to Mira, the opposition has followed the regime’s path in the absence of freedom of opinion, because its officials do not allow anyone to analyze their experience or blame them, nor do they listen to people’s opinions and needs, in addition to the notorious scandals spreading around them.
Mira points out that freedom of expression is neither protected by Syrian laws, nor by clear regulations. It needs a detailed and declared law to be adopted, an association law, a party law and others.
Three social reasons rob us of freedom of expression
Samah Salama points out that freedom of expression is a social, political and religious right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, we believe that this right is not politically guaranteed in our societies by evidence of the violence suffered by people and that erupted in many countries. In addition, it is not socially guaranteed, as evidenced by many social manifestations that rob others of the freedom to express their opinions.
Samah explains that this is due to socialization. A family whose children are not taught to exercise this right makes it difficult for them to produce a generation in a society that accepts the ideas and opinions of the other. This applies to educational institutions that are partners in education.
According to Samah, although they are a space for expression of opinion, the spread of social media contributed to the reduction of freedom of expression, because of the exploitation of exclusionary people. These networks have limited personal privacy, which exposed every detail to the public who are now promoting interference in the affairs of others.
The third reason is that the prevalence of violence suffered by Syrians throughout the war is what makes some of them violent against the weakest and in suppressing their views, which is a form of symbolic violence, she explained.
Samah asserts that freedom of opinion and acceptance of the other is a community culture created by the family environment, and the educational institutions, media and political community contribute to its development.
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