Setting the example to boycott boycotting

45758-resized-un-racism-conferenceLast year, on March 14, The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Isesco) called on all 50 of its member states to boycott the Paris book fair. Why? Because the French had dared to choose Israel as its guest of honor. In the ultimate act of shooting itself in the foot, the organization not only denied authors and publishers the chance at international review and recognition, it also failed to provide a counterpoint to the Israeli perspective highlighted at the fair. Whatever your stand on Israel is, the fact that no Muslim country was there offered them a free pass to promote their own ideas unchallenged.

Similarly, the international community was outraged when Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer was denied a visa to Dubai this past February. The UAE’s reasoning was that denying this player passage to the Dubai Championship would be an effective method to protest the Israeli agression against Gaza at the turn of the new year. Instead, the country was fined, faced incredible censure, and was forced to take in Andy Ram if it wished to continue holding their international competition.

Boycotts and denial of access are simply ineffective ways of protest. They limit communication, and therefore understanding and agreement. While they occasionally have some short-term success, the resentment it creates in the side that was bullied into submission lasts for so long, it will pounce on whatever chance it can take later on to gain retribution, often in the most destructive manner possible.

Why should Muslim countries act any different, however, when the US, Israel, Canada, and the EU, supposedly the paragons of “liberal” and “democratic” countries in the world, don’t provide a better example? Today, April 19, 2009, the US has confirmed that it will not be attending the UN forum on racism in Geneva next week, because of disagreements on how the guiding document views Zionism. This follows similar confirmations from Canada and Israel, as well as serious discussions on behalf of the EU to do the same.

The US decision should hardly come as a surprise to most Muslims, many of whom had their hopes somewhat dampened when President Barack Obama practically promised Jerusalem to Israel, a decision that was not his to make. However, we are still shocked that an administration that is taking pride in its willingness to engage with both those the country agrees and disagrees with, would do something so self-destructive.

What have the past few weeks of international good will visits by the US President and his staff amounted to, then? Why has President Obama ruined all the good faith he has worked so hard to create, over one article within the document, one the forum intends to discuss, and is nowhere near final?

Also, since the president and his government are supposed to be so forward-looking, why is it that they can’t see that not attending is a disadvantage for activism against racism in America as well? The US may be proud to have elected its first African American president, but that is not the end of racism in the United States. There are so many issues it could help resolve concerning those disadvantaged because of prejudice in the US, which can only come by attending these conferences. It can help flesh out African American, Arab and Muslim American, Asian American, Latino American, and other American minority group issues, as well as maybe voicing their extreme disapproval on the “Zionism is racism” segment of the document in person. Camping out in the White House just makes it look like he’s hiding, something President Obama cannot afford to do at this point.

To Barack Obama from a Syrian citizen

Damascus, 13 December 2008

Mr. Barack Obama
President-elect of the United States of America
c/o President Jimmy Carter

Dear Barack, 

You certainly want to know more about Syria, and I will volunteer —even uninvited— to share some information that can be useful until you manage to see for yourself.

This is a time of festivity in Syria. The end of Eid Aladha is marked by the joyous return of pilgrims from Mecca, each of them celebrating the completion of a journey of a lifetime to live peace with God, with themselves and with one another. It’s also Christmas, when bells of some the world’s oldest churches ring in unison with the carols’ sweet repeat of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And it is the end of a year, an opportunity to reflect on the time bygone and to embark on new beginnings. Beginnings have in them the promise of a miracle that still happens in abundance every day: a new birth.

My letter comes to you from Damascus, an ancient city where many civilizations have seen their beginnings. I hear from visitors often that in Damascus they feel at home. Much of that is due to a fact that I find amusing: any visitor will find a Syrian that looks like them!  I will show you when you are here. This is because our people are not the product of today, or of the turbulent 20th century.  We are a blend of cultures that have triumphed over their ethnic or religious identities to form one nation. Our Arab identity is flavored with a rich Islamic culture, a Mediterranean character, a proximity to Europe, and a nucleus location that connects the East to the West. The contributions to humanity by people that called Syria home through the ages are too many to count. And above all, we have a double-edged blessing; the overwhelming majority of youth in our population holds the keys to both, the crisis and the solution.

Those young men and women will arrive at a crossroad as they enter the ‘real life.’ What they decide to do today determine how our tomorrow is going to look like.  The two easier choices are to accept the status quo and fuel it, or to quit in pursuit of ready-made opportunities elsewhere. The more difficult choice is to challenge the status quo and become an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are inspired by their emancipation, and driven by their ability to take charge and stop relying on “the other” whether this “other” is a government, a parent, or a friend. It makes them stronger and more determined to achieve great results, all the while maintaining even a stronger attachment to their nation.

Our country today has a vision of what it can be, and has set on course to implement it. Thousands of Syrians, in government, civil society, and the business sector, and “quiet heroes” of ordinary citizens have worked hard to maintain that course despite the immense and unjust pressures that we have endured. Our military is perhaps not as strong as the ‘army’ that is working make available to our worthy young generation a vision of what they need to have as able citizen of Syria and of the world; a vision of how they can be makers of peace —inner peace before anything else— not seekers of peace. When they are at this crossroad, we want them to choose to be positive and assertive in Syria, not be that somewhere else, nor be passive and submissive. We want them to follow in the traditions of their forefathers and become the self-consciences entrepreneurs that are agents of change and progress in all walks of life, from medicine to technology; from music to sports, and from business to philanthropy.

The dynamism and energy of the reforms in Syria today has a global perspective too. The long heritage and cultural accumulation gives confidence that transcends from one generation to the next.  We are an old country that now has new people shaped by the globalization of knowledge and technology. By virtue of that, our people are citizen of the world, just as much as they are citizen of Syria, the ancient nation.  In many ways, Syrians have not thought of their country only as home, but also a meeting place; a refuge for the persecuted and the displaced; and a hub where ideas, resources, and goods can be exchanged in a free and just manner. They have believed in partnership as a means for creating added value, sustainability and growth. They have believed in equality, justice, and solidarity as their social capital—an infinite resource that maintains our social stability in the tides of crises hitting everywhere in the world, and one that will not only reduce financial poverty, but also enlighten the soul, and restore a deserved and much need meaning of human values, often lost in the quest of needs and wants satisfied by money.

More severe probably than the crisis of prosperity today is a “crisis of heroes.” A few of them still exist however. Last night, at Marquand House in the American University of Beirut, I sat at the dinner table with one of them, President Jimmy Carter. Thirty years ago he was where you are today. His hopes had their share of fulfillment and disappointment. But at eighty-four, he seemed as driven and unrelenting in his quest to “wage peace” around the world. Many young people are looking to you, Barack, as they arrive at the crossroad. You have inspired them, but can you be their hero? They think you can, as Abraham Lincoln’s promise of a “new birth of freedom” has been renewed by your election, America’s new –and much needed– triumph.

Peace through justice and equality, and friendship through peace and common human values, are the pillars upon which you can build the foundations not only for a new America, but for a new world. It’s going to be a hideously tricky mission should you decide to take it. But you are an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs are not derailed by obstacles along the way but believe instead that it is only the results that are measured at the end —when the curtain falls— that matter. Your kind of people firmly believes that the smallest of deeds are greater than the biggest of words, and they lead by example to chart new horizons. “Yes, we can”. This is what they have faith in as they strive to leave the world better than they had it.

Congratulations and good luck with the transition and inauguration. I will be watching it, and praying that you succeed where most others have not had enough courage or attitude to try or persist. As you are taking the oath to give the United States of America “the change we need ,” do remember that millions of proud and peace-loving people in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria —and indeed the world— are extending a firm and warm hand of friendship to you.

I hope you can do the same, Barack. I hope you will.

Haykal's signature



Abdulsalam Haykal

Copy to President Jimmy Carter

Carter v.s Forward Magazine: 1st Syrian media outlet to conduct an interview with a U.S President

Forward Magazine is the first Syrian media outlet to ever carry out an interview with an American president. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is the first American leader to speak to Syrian media – he spoke to Forward last month and broke many important news, including:

  • The appointment of a US ambassador to Syria is expected soon.

Jimmy Carter speaks to Syrian media outlet, Forwrad Magazine (1)

The 1st American president to give an interview to a Syrian media outlet…

Carter to Syria’s Forward Magazine: I’m carrying Assad’s good greetings to Obama

DAMASCUS (January, 2009) – Former American President Jimmy Carter said that Syria and the United States can expect there are “better times ahead” for their bilateral relations. In the first-ever interview for an American president with a Syrian media outlet, Carter told Forward Magazine, Syria’s first independent English monthly, Carter implied that the near future will see the return of the US ambassador to Damascus, filling a post that has been vacant since relations plummeted in 2005. Such a move will coincide with re-opening of the American school in Damascus, Carter said, in addition to reopening the American Language Center – both of which were closed by the Syrian government after US warplanes raided the Syrian town of Abu Kamal last October killing 8 civilians.

Speaking to Sami Moubayed, Forward’s editor in chief and Syria’s top political commentator, Carter confirmed that he “will be carrying some good greetings to the leaders of the new administration, through my meeting with President Assad.” During his visit to Syria, the fifth since 1983, Carter met with President Bashar al-Assad, whom he described as “popular among his people.” They discussed Syrian-American relations, in addition to regional developments in the Middle East, including the peace talks between Syria and Israel. Speaking of the involvement of the upcoming administration in Washington, Carter asserted that Obama cannot “put enough pressure on either Syria or Israel to yield on their basic principles.” He added, “My hope and my belief are that there are enough compatibilities between the two parties to reach a final agreement.”

The full text of this exclusive interview appears in the January 2009 issue of Forward Magazine (Syria).

Guilty by association

Magazine blog, SyriaMehdi Rifai

As you are undoubtedly aware, the US ventured over Syria’s airspace and tread on its territory in an operation that resulted in the murder of eight people, five of them from the same family, and at least two of them minors, and the injury of 16 others. The US has yet to even acknowledge that they’ve committed this horrific violation of every one of their beliefs, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the Syrian people.

Indeed, to them, this equals the murderous act itself: that we are so disposable as not to be even worth acknowledging is something that so enrages this proud people, that they have begun taking action. The American Embassy closed in fear of retaliation for a few days, and three of the cultural institutions have been closed down, leaving the employees of these institutions unemployed in a land that, for now, hates the American government. These employees have been left to fend for themselves, mostly, and are in fear that their change in status will leave them vulnerable to having their residencies revoked, which would lead to their immediate deportation with no possibility of return for at least five years. The Damascus Community School, an institution in this country since the 1950s that has produced numerous important graduates, including FW’s own Sami Moubayed, has suffered that fate. It was closed down, and the teaching staff, whether they were Americans or not, were told to leave the country within 48 hours to guarantee their safety. As of today, Friday November 7, 2008, the same threat has been hung over the American Language Center (ALC) teachers’ heads like Damocles’ sword, swinging ever closer; we have received unofficial notice that the order to revoke their residencies has been issued, but has not been filed.

Many Syrians – by my count, most – agree that this is too drastic a measure. These teachers love Syria, and have come to think of it as home: to be asked to leave your home is something Arabs have experience in, and do not wish on any other people. Also, for the most part, these institutions have been of immense benefit to the Syrian people: ALC has always had the reputation of having the best ESL teachers in the entire country since it first opened in the 1980s; and the DCS has produced generations of graduates that both love America and its people, and have done immense good for Syria, opening it up economically and diplomatically, and fueling the current growth it has undergone.

However, these same Syrians feel that there must be some consequences for the Americans’ military incursion. Trade between the two countries is practically non-existent due to the American sanctions against us, and so, retaliation must be taken where it can. If this means that they must close down institutions that have become iconic in Syrian society; that one of the very few venues for cultural interchange and communication between America and Syria are to be closed down; and that American expatriates, who have lived in Syria for years, must be forcibly returned to a country that is no longer familiar to them, and is currently undergoing economic strife, then so be it. Something must be done. The last of those threats is not an exaggeration; many of the deported DCS teachers spoke of living in relatives’ basements and imposing on the kindness of their few remaining friends in the United States once they get there. ALC teachers fearing the same fate are asking if their embassies will at the very least loan them the money to get back home, as their salaries over here were only enough for hand-to-mouth existence, and their budgets didn’t cover unforeseen deportation fees.

From those I have spoken to, it seems that all it will take to change this is an acknowledgment of the incident by the American government. The enormity of this request is not lost on me, as the few words it would take to admit to what happened will have extreme consequences for the US. Still, if it is legal action the Americans fear, proceedings will go on whether or not they acknowledge the incident. In this month’s issue of FW, Ibrahim Daraji writes an interesting piece about the repercussions of the American attack. One recommendation jumps out and demands to be put into play: he feels steps should be set in motion to sue the American government in the same manner the US has done over two of their soldiers killed by al-Qaeda militants, completely unaffiliated with and unsupported by the Syrian government or its people. A US Federal Court in Washington found Syria liable somehow, and demanded on October 3 of this year compensation for the relatives of the deceased to the amount of $412 million. Some here in Syria wonder if military personnel, who are trained professionals capable of defending themselves and prepared for the eventuality that they may die, can recoup that much for their lives, how much should unarmed civilians murdered in cold blood while simply earning their meager living in a construction site be worth in compensation for their widows and orphaned children?

This isn’t going away, nor should it, but I hope for all my friends and colleagues here from the ALC and American Cultural Center, now that it is too late for the DCS teachers, that it doesn’t end up being the wrong people paying the price for what occurred, as it so often does, unfortunately. Please, Syria, realize who your true enemies are, an evil and maniacal administration in its death throes, not teachers who have worked had to impart the best of their knowledge to help Syrians become stronger on the world stage. Please, America, make some gesture of friendship, and let’s head off any increased hostility between our two countries before it’s too late.