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10 years on, the Syrian spectacle continues

Monday, 08 March 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Protestors march through central London, at the sixth anniversary of the Syrian revolution.

Do ten years, in our swiping age, suffice to pen the obituary of the life of a movement? Next week marks the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, when the smell of freedom, however deceptive it turned out, first lured the Syrian people to the streets. As the diplomatic etiquette goes, EU delegates are expected to re-pledge their commitments to the Syrian people; that, in spite of the recent news coming from Denmark about the return of Syrian refugees to Damascus.

A return, according to Homer, is never possible: Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, but his odyssey, his journey home, is as long and as perilous as the Trojan war itself; and even when he re-finds Penelope, things are no longer the same. It is astounding that a myth, thousands of years old, is more attuned to the meaning of return, to the suffering of he who must depart his homeland, than our modern politicians; who, judging affairs on the basis of statistics and red- or green-colored zones, can trace on empty maps a road of return without, like Homer, necessarily tasting the roaring seas themselves.

It is, of course, a matter of hubris that, in a time of tweeting, we can proclaim the death of the deeds of others when Syrian men and women themselves assumed that their humble contributions to the national cause – their pain alone – will be judged only by competent historians in the distant future. But if we revisit the words of Danish Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye, we find that the problem is not so much Syria as the notions of asylum and responsibility ingrained in the mentality of some European delegates. “We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary,” he says. “It can be withdrawn if protection is no longer needed.”

One feels tempted to ask Mr. Tesfaye: if the said protection can be rescinded as unnecessary overnight or over a decade, was it an actual protection in the first place? When Jean Jacques Rousseau fled France, and Switzerland, to plead Frederick the Great for his protection, I do not assume that the Genevan philosopher prayed the Prussian king for temporary lodging.

I mention Rousseau because it is indeed his Social Contract, an arguable founding document for the European nation-state model, that the Danish justification rests on. But in truth, we deal with a misreading of Rousseau, who required homogeneity to “come from all and apply to all,” because otherwise, “we are judging of something foreign to us, and have no true principle of equity to guide us.”

We surmise from Rousseau that, so long as the EU judges Syrians as something foreign to them, there is no true principle of equity to guide them. Of course, the naive statement from Minister Mattias Tesfaye betrays precisely the opposite – “we have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary,” that is; from the get-go, there was a refusal to see the incoming arrivals as ‘one of us’.

The irony remains that when Socrates says, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world,” we are moved to slow applause with crocodile tears in our eyes, but when the Syrian refugee says the same, we charge him as a usurper of culture. I am unsure how many Danish students, wishing to surpass the limited reality of Danish life, hopped on a plane to volunteer in the Middle East – but the road in reverse, it seems, still needs smaller boats and frailer motor engines.

Hypocrisy, in its Greek etymology, means play-acting; and our double-standards vis-a-vis Syria shows us how the spectacle of global humanitarianism in the past ten years has been but that; a spectacle, with a few temporary monologues to get the orchestra playing – because silence, by itself, is suspicious. The final act of the Syrian play, it seems, is relying on a Deus ex Machina, the bizarre supernatural phenomenon that wraps everything up too quickly; a playwright’s shortcut that, faced with a madness on stage that can no longer be rationalized to the audience, re-directs the performers to not advance but return –  return indeed to how things were before everything got too complicated.