By March 2021, a whole decade will have passed since the popular uprising in Syria started, and a titanic tragedy has been unfolding itself. What is so crushingly peculiar about these ten years is that Syrians have no promises whatsoever that things will be better, or even that the worst is already behind them. Some factual truths are in order here to give an idea about what has taken place in the Middle Eastern country. At least half a million people have been killed, some hundred thousand people have been forcibly disappeared, six and a half million people are refugees outside the country (close to 30% of the population), and there are five powers occupying Syrian territories: Iran, the US, Russia, Turkey and before all Israel. Almost 90% of those still living in the country are under the poverty line, which amounts to public famine. Hundreds of thousands live in camps close to the northern border of the country under unspeakable conditions. And, to top it all, the root cause of all this misery, the Assad regime, has remained in power after a decade of uprising. The Asaad family has now been in power for 51 years.
It is legitimate to discuss whether the massacres, industrial torture, and discriminatory targeting of certain communities, lies within the concept genocide. The concept is quite rigid, at least in its definition in the UN convention of 1948 about the “definition and prevention” of crimes. But it is quite possible and necessary to talk about speicide, murdering hope (from spes= hope, and -cide= killing in Latin), a neologism to represent politically manufactured situations of extreme hopelessness and promise-lessness.
The Holocaust was a huge crime, unprecedented in scale and death technologies, but the criminal Nazi regime was destroyed, the survivors were taken care of, and the victims were recognised, reverently remembered, and their dignity restored. “Never again” was introduced as the promise that such a horrific crime would be history, something confined to the past. The genocidal regimes in Cambodia and Rwanda were toppled, and (far from ideal) measures of justice were introduced.
Our type of genocide, however, is one of destroying hope full scale, of engendering despair for ten years. It is as if all the suffering was meaningless, millions are Homo Sacer (Giorgio Agamben), with no laws to protect them, and murdering them is not a crime. It is as an exclusion from humanity.
Many people forget that the Syrian speicide did not start in March 2011, which was rather a window of hope, and that there was a previous round of struggles between late 1970s and early 1980s with dozens of thousands of victims and similar numbers of people arrested, tortured, and spending long years in jail. Living ever after under the same regime of jail and torture was in effect a continuation of our years in jail by other means. Reducing Syria to a greater jail was what made it possible for Hafez al-Assad to build a dynasty in the country. The eternal present under which we have lived for more than half a century is a speicide condition — the mass production of despair. This should be kept in mind to better understand why at least one million Syrians have risked their lives to reach Europe. They know only too well that “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious,” as Walter Benjamin bitterly put it, not long before his tragic death. The “enemy” under the supervision of their Russian protectors, had really re-killed the dead of the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta after the Russians and their local agent re-occupied it in April 2018. Their mass grave was destroyed: they had never existed, there had never been a massacre.
This is by no means just a Syrian condition. Speicide is gradually becoming global. It can be understood as a new name for Margaret Thatcher’s TINA principle. In a recent interview, Thomas Piketty said that the exclusion of the socio-political system from the public debate in the West has led to the prevailing presence of issues of identity and border control, or to what I call the genocratic turn (the rule or ascendance of identitarian nativist majorities: right-wing populism, white supremacism, Hindutva, Islamism…). The possible convergence of genocratic movements and arms, i.e.genocidal terror, is already looming on the horizon. Nihilist Islamism may soon prove to be just an avant-garde, and breaking into the Capitol might prove to be only the most recent bell ringing. From our experience in the Middle East and from observing history, terror has never been an alternative, but the condition of “no alternative” engenders nihilism and terror.
What is quite speiciding in the present condition is that many people just want to go back to the good old days: before Trump, before COVID-19, before the refugee crisis, etc. This will only lead to more disappointment and cynicism, and only genocratic movements will capitalise from it. For the good old days were not good. They were so mediocre.
The speicide engine is still working, and hope is already badly wounded, but not dead. Many are still fighting to create hope, and they find it at the bottom of despair. They are learning that hope is the most desperate power of all; it looks destruction, death, loss, pain, torture in the eye, and does not run away. The opposite of hope is not despair, it is false hope, and it is hope as an ideology, as dogmatic optimism, rather than a desperate struggle. In Arabic, there is an etymological relationship between suffering and meaning, one that I keep referring to. For those whose suffering has been dismissed as meaningless, creating meaning is what saves hope and humanity. They tell their stories, they create memory, they build meaning communities, they politicise their traumas. Extreme forms of suffering do not lend themselves to representation, they can be unrepresentable. Representation, generating meaning, is an open battle, and an extremely desperate one.
The politics of meaning is not the antidote to the politics of speicide and hopelessness. It is just the promise the promise-less give to themselves.