Guest Column: Respecting Syrian lives is the least we can do

Ameer Al-Khudari, Guest Columnist

The Syrian conflict has found its way to Northwestern campus politics. It took only four years, nearly four million refugees and 220,000 lives to do so.

Its emergence on our campus isn’t going to give the few Syrian-Americans on campus a gasp of long-needed fresh air, either. If anything, the little air left in our lungs has been exhausted with a final punch to the gut.

Last week, a particular set of student organizations on this campus decided to boil the Syrian conflict down in a neat and concise manner. For the NU Coalition for Peace, all of Syria was a single tangential talking point — one of many, and likely nothing more.

The Syrian catastrophe has become the most tragic conflict of this century. That said, it still has no place in Coalition for Peace’s legal pad of counterpoints in a student debate. That’s especially true when neither has felt the need to talk about the issue ever before.

It isn’t that they never had the opportunity to do so. There was a torrent on social media after the Assad regime launched sarin rockets on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, in what some call the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq War. The movement on social media was calling attention to the atrocity in the hope that the international community wouldn’t let it happen again. It did happen again. 

Unfortunately, though, Syria’s tragedy has only mattered when it benefited one group’s political agenda as fodder for debate. In even greater irony, the atrocities in Syria are only used as a barrier to inhibit a stream of social justice efforts on atrocities in other places. When activists want to make a difference on one topic, Syria is brought up as something more deserving of immediate attention.

Just this week, Wildcats for Israel invited two Israeli intellectuals for a talk titled “Exploring Human Rights” which, according to its Facebook page, sought to “explore the web of human rights violations in the Middle East from Gaza to Syria.” This method of derailing the discussion is nothing new.

In this logic, Syria isn’t deserving of attention by itself, but only as a distraction from other cruelties. The world is filled with so many different problems, so we should sit idly by as they all go unattended, the logic continues. It is a cruel justification for maintaining the status quo.

There is another irony, too, in that Syria isn’t really relevant to any of these political debates and panels.

It’s an ill-mannered way to co-opt the Syrian tragedy, and it isn’t only insulting the millions of Syrians who have suffered tremendously inside and outside the region these past four years, either. It is disrespectful to one of our own here at NU. That is, the legacy of James Foley, who reported on the atrocities of the Syrian regime that had clamped down on peaceful protests in its country starting in early 2011. He was someone who took it upon himself to make a difference, something he paid so dearly for. Syrian activists continually show their respect for him. It’s no question that we all should as well.

It is also disrespectful to Bassel Shehadeh, a Syrian film student who received a Fulbright scholarship to study at Syracuse University while protests were emerging. He left Syria for New York (where he also spent time interviewing American intellectuals on nonviolent resistance in light of Occupy Wall Street) as soon as he was released from a Damascus prison for protesting against the government. One semester into his studies, he felt he needed to go back to Syria to continue his work as an activist. He was killed in cold blood by Syrian security forces on May 28, 2012 in the central city of Homs that my family and I call home.

There is something important to take away from Bassel’s story. He understood U.S. university campuses could do little to change the outcome back home. It was his personal bravery, his activism and his work that was so essential to the early movement back home. That is why he returned to Syria, to make a difference and join the ranks of those like James Foley who paid the greatest price for doing what was right.

The truth is, that in our capacity as students of NU, there is nothing we can do to substantially affect the outcome of this war, turn the tide, or absolve ourselves from responsibility for human rights abuses. That is why it is not relevant to the discussion here on campus. That is why it is disrespectful to the millions of Syrians suffering today to half-heartedly bring it up anyway.

This isn’t a commentary on campus politics. This is a commentary on how not to conduct campus politics, about how to be cautious and sensitive when you attempt to speak for others. It’s also a comment on how nobody spoke up and recognized how problematic it really is. When you co-opt the increasingly complex Syrian conflict as a tangent in your arguments against another campus group, you’ve reduced it to some ploy in which you claim to speak for Syrians. You don’t.

The least we can do within our capacity as students at NU is respect the tragic loss of life in Syria.

Ameer Al-Khudari is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].