Either an open homeland or mourning tent that obscures knowledge? Riad Ismat is an example
LLM in Transitional Justice
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, of the dead nothing but good; having mercy on the dead and mentioning their merits is a positive concept that reflects a sensitive choice which takes into account the feelings of others, especially the relatives and loved ones of the deceased. But if the deceased was a public figure and played a role that negatively affected the lives of many people, talking about this role becomes a right to those who fell under his governance, and necessary duty, especially of those who knew him, to evaluate the deceased’s actions and influence whether negative or positive.
Giving praise to a deceased official may lead to a cover-up and concealment of certain facts and can deceive Syrians and prevent them from the necessary knowledge about the deceased actions and roles. We need to build a new homeland without repeating the mistakes of the past. As for giving praise to criminals, this is shameful and violates the sanctity of the victims and their families. The least that is said is that it is a lack of taste, especially when criminals were not legally held accountable before their death.
It is self-evident that we should not use double standards. When adopting a principle to analyze an incident or take a position on it, the same principle must be adopted to analyze similar incidents. Many Syrians did not speak good of Abdel-Halim Khaddam, Mustafa Tlass, Hafiz al-Assad, and others after their death, but they cursed this gang that pillaged the country and destroyed its entire people. They talked about their crime and thefts. But we must be aware that these individuals did not oppress a population of 20 million by themselves, and they were not the only ones. Even they might not have killed a single person with their own hands. But, they established and presided over institutional repression and control agencies, including security agencies and other “soft” media, cultural, judicial, and legislative agencies.
The degree of direct violation and judicial accountability varies between the chief of the intelligence branch, the minister of culture, and the director of television. Whoever has personally arrested, tortured, and killed people, must receive the maximum penalty in courts. However, whoever led cultural and media platforms, may not be held criminally accountable, but they must be held accountable at a moral and human level unless some of their acts are punishable by law.
Ignoring the responsibility that the heads of these “soft” institutions have demonstrates a deep ignorance of these platforms’ impact on people. Every day, we talk about the great importance of culture, art, and media in society and how their impact influences public opinion or even spark revolutions. We launch campaigns against a dramatic film or theatre piece when it infringes the memory of the pain of Syrians and mocks them, or when it spreads Assad propaganda, and at the same time, we show praise to someone who was one of the key persons in this very same artistic and cultural power structure in the country!
The importance of talking, analyzing, and not concealing the facts does not lie only in providing knowledge to Syrians, but also it contributes to the public opinion presented by the Syrians that provide an image to the national or international media and to others such as researchers, academics, and those who assess Syrians’ attitudes towards an event or a person.
Riad Ismat is one example. The Chicago Tribune published an article entitled: “Evanston scholar Riad Ismat dies from COVID-19 — mourned by the Arab world as the brave former culture minister of Syria.”, in which he was called “a symbol of political freedom, and the intellectual, artistic and humanistic potential of a nation long in crisis.” Western academics also spoke of him as “one of the kindest people on this planet.” The role of some Syrians in conveying a distorted image of the truth, or at least incomplete, is clear here.
Riad Ismat was neither “a symbol of political freedom” nor “one of the kindest people on this planet.” Rather, he was the head of one of the most important media and culture institutions for Assad’s artistic and cultural control, such as the Public Authority for Television, the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts and the Ministry of Culture. He did not leave his position as Minister of Culture until he lost it in a new cabinet shuffle on 23 June 2012. Ismat began searching for opportunities elsewhere and received a grant and political asylum in the United States.
Ismat was awarded a US grant by Scholars at Risk, which the Chicago Tribune described as an international group dedicated to human rights and academic freedoms and known for finding homes for people speaking out against oppression.
But when did Ismat speak against oppression? He who lived a life of prosperity and official positions being a prominent tool in the apparatus of suppressing millions of Syrians and their academic freedoms and human rights? Whereas, the truly brave symbols of political freedoms, academics, and scholars disappeared away in Assad’s prisons and marginalized in Syria and exiled around the world.
Riad Esmat did not only hold the most important official positions in the regime’s apparatus for media, cultural and artistic control. Rather, when he left Syria and worked as a teacher in the United States of America, he was not active in talking about Assad crimes and took a silent attitude towards the disaster that engulfed his people. He deprived Syrians of important knowledge by not speaking to them about the Assad regime’s mechanisms in controlling the cultural, media, and artistic scene in Syria. The Ministry of Culture of the regime, upon his death, called him “the brilliant writer, critic, and playwright.”
Government officials should be kind and serve the citizens; this is the criterion for evaluating the performance of government officials. It is their duty to serve the people and be kind to them. Those are the presumed and expected qualities of government officials. Whenever those officials make a mistake, then we shed light on that. But in Syria, the criterion is upside down. Government officials are despicable, tyrannical, and despises the citizens, and when an official provides help or treats a citizen kindly, he is described as a kind and good official! Criticism, accountability, and fair opinions should be directed at mistakes. Shedding light on exceptional good cases or actions that do not represent the truth of the permanent attitude is misleading.
Syrians did not sacrifice everything to build a mourning tent for the deceased officials they revolted against, but they revolted against the regime that Ismat and others participated in drafting and maintaining for decades.
We must understand the role of these people in detail in order to learn and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. To better understand each person’s role, we must open the door to talk about these senior officials in the Syrian regime, at various levels, whether they are dead or alive.
The weak role of intellectuals is often criticized by Syrians, their isolation, or their distance from their revolution. Was not Riad Ismat one of these intellectuals, too? he was not only one of them, but he was also part of the ruling authority, and he was the silky scarf that wrapped the iron decisions of the ruling regime.
Prominent Syrian journalist Mohamed Mansour spoke of Ismat in a Facebook post. He said that Ismat oscillated between the “open” cultural project and the authoritarian intelligence project, in which he practiced snitching on others, defamation, and dancing with authority and its security. Mansour added: “He preferred to follow official positions than troubles … he then drowned in unnoble silence, when he immigrated to America, after assuming the position of Minister of Culture for a short while at the beginning of the outbreak of the revolution … and he did not write a single word about the Syrians’ right to freedom and dignity.”
This intelligence role played by Ismat was also criticized by Yara Badr, a prominent human rights lawyer who previously studied at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, in a Facebook post: “Riad Ismat, who used Syrian intelligence to storm the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus.”
Alma Salem posted on her Facebook page about her meeting with Ismat at a meeting to inform the Ministry of Culture of the closure of Western cultural centers in Syria in 2011, at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. She said that Ismat asked not to close the centers, and he looked sad. Salem added: “On the table where we sat, a large collection of his books was piled up. Those books, published by the Ministry [of Culture] recently in that year, I picked one of them browsed it and jokingly told him: “There is no need for sadness because you have implemented the eleventh five-year plan for the whole cultural sector!”. He smiled with his well-known gentleness and said to me: “You are cunning.”
We must not lose sight of the role of authoritarian art, culture, and media platforms in harming Syrian people or other peoples. Their role is no less harmful than intelligence services’ roles, which cannot work and distort peoples’ minds and cultures without the support and cover of these “soft” platforms.
Translated into English by
Senior Lecturer, School of Arts and Communication
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