Conspiracy theories are endemic for historical reasons. Imposing western categories and offering ‘solutions’ creates resentment. Refugees want to return but what will be left? It is essential to understand what is happening in context, through the eyes of those who are living through it.
Matthias Krepp considers the political issues faced by refugees from Syria and Iraq. He is wary of imposing western categories and views on people from societies where the level of insecurity and violence is unlike anything we have experienced in the west.
The very name we use, ‘Middle East’, for the west of Asia, betrays our Eurocentric perspective, and while we argue about the roles of Russia and the US in that region, the people in the film have more immediate knowledge and concerns about regional powers.
But he points out that the actions of Western governments have damaged the reputation of democracy, which they used to claim to be the guardians of a few decades ago.
Religion has replaced political ideologies, partly as a result of this disillusionment with imported theories, and also due to the brutality of many Arab dictators in repressing dissent.
Nowadays, as Yassin Al-Saleh says, religion is the last refuge of stability and identity in societies where the regime has systematically destroyed the cultural and political institutions.
The success of the Arab revolution in Tunisia has been attributed to it being the only country where political institutions have been allowed to mature.
The people he interviewed in the film all expressed the desire to return, once the fighting – especially in Syria – has stopped, but they are pessimistic about political change continuing.
Indeed, they may not have much to return to, and Assad’s new Law 10 has made it almost impossible to prove title to land for those who have been away for more than 30 days.
The Sheikh said: “All we want is to get back the rights that were taken away 40 or 50 years ago”.
Concerning the political goals of the people during this first period of peaceful protest, there’s such a wide range of opinions, and we should be very careful not to impose categories from our political systems into another society. Slogans like “freedom” and “dignity” were much more important than “democracy” for many people during the Arab Spring. But freedom and dignity are also important aspects of modernising a society. Of course the reputation of democracy is not as good as it used to be a few decades ago, in this part of the world. But talking about this development, we should put our own house in order, since the West was quite busy spattering this reputation. I think some people in the film know better than me, what freedom or democracy are – because for us there’s the danger of taking these values for granted.
They understood the political system in Austria and integrated easily. Others have problems finding their way, but not necessarily for rejecting “European values”.
To give you an example: I asked a young guy from Damascus, what his dream of a future Syria was, when he joined the demonstrations. He said: “I hoped we could become a modern country, like the Emirates.” His image of modernisation was economic prosperity and postmodern architecture. He didn’t mention the political system or social structures. But this is nothing to make fun of. It’s understandable if his dream was about more tangible elements of life than abstract values.
Yassin Al-Haj Saleh says westerners aren’t interested in Syria, but they still want to tell Syrians how to solve their problems. What do your friends think?
There are those who try to see things in a bigger context, and can analyse things clearly, but it takes a lot of courage, when you are threatened. There are other people who would say how terrible Assad is, and then two sentences later how great Saddam Hussein was, because he was Sunni and, in their eyes, gave his country pride and stability. You have to understand that this is how people make sense of what is happening. I can’t judge it as someone who has never experienced this kind of social and ideological insecurity.
In Yassin’s book he says that Islam has become a last refuge for Syrians’ identity, because all the cultural institutions that mediate political debate have been deliberately destroyed by the Assad regime.
The predominant ideologies of the Cold War period, Arab nationalism or -socialism have been widely replaced by religious ideologies. The way dictators in the Middle East oppressed any kind of opposition, is one reason for that. Within the educated middle class, many people oppose this religious shift, but it’s extremely hard for them to develop a positive narrative for the future of their countries. The exact same people in the film who could create a real opportunity for reforms in their societies are often the most pessimistic, in my experience.
How do your friends feel about the various foreign powers that are intervening with arms or money in the Syrian war?
I have the feeling that superpowers like the US, Russia and China are still quite abstract for most people I met, compared to Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. But most of my friends left Syria before the Russian intervention in 2015.
To tell you a personal anecdote: I went to Iran two years ago and one of the Iraqis in our film almost broke off our friendship. It was hard to convince him that visiting Iran does not mean supporting the Iranian regime’s actions in his country. He told me if I went to America or Israel, he wouldn’t mind. That doesn’t mean that he’s free of prejudices towards these two countries, but I think it’s a good illustration of a change of paradigm in the Middle East in the last 15 years.
Al-Qaida is Sunni
I never met any refugee who supports Wahabi extremism, but often people minimize it or deny that it has anything to do with Saudi Arabia for example. To maintain this illusion, conspiracy theories play a key role. Conspiracy theories in Middle Eastern societies have roots that go back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the way victorious powers acted afterwards. The military coups and interventions that followed were a breeding ground for these ideas. Arab dictators used these theories, whenever they needed to distract public opinion from homemade problems. There’s an interesting book by Bassam Tibi, a famous Syrian political scientist, living in Germany, “Conspiracy. The trauma of arab politics”. We could not dig into the historical roots within this film, but also couldn’t ignore this aspect. We included the opinion that ISIS was created by Assad’s security forces. That’s of course factually wrong, but we often heard similar opinions talking to refugees or travelling in the Middle East. We were aware that we had to balance this out and contrast it with another opinion, a woman totally denying it, and even explaining how it arose.
In a situation of insecurity, people need positive self-identification and to not lose faith in their own group, whether it’s confessional or ethnic. One should not be too easy with comparisons, but we have a rise of conspiracy theories in the West too, also related to social insecurity and fear of the future. We should not turn our back on people in our own societies, who are looking for simple solutions, nor should we do that with these people, who will be future citizens of our countries.
The Tunisian rapper El Général, was important in the Tunisian revolution in 2011. When asked what’s left to do after the success of the revolution, he answered “Fighting the Freemasons”. The journalist’s conclusion was that it’s important to understand figures like El Général in their own context. We should be critical with opinions like that, but still leave space for discussion.
We should be critical with opinions like that, but still leave space for discussion. I told every protagonist of the film that we don’t have to share all their world views and we will contrast their opinions with those of others, with respect. If we had interviewed extremists, we couldn’t have done it this way. But they are a tiny minority and we were more interested in average people.
Do your friends hope for a positive outcome and plan to return?
Return yes, some of them, are still quite patriotic and say: “I want to die in my own country”, but the system changing?
No, they don’t see that happening.
Have you got a new project?
Yes, totally different, fictional, a short film. Some of the episodes that I experienced during the creation of our last film will somehow end up in the screenplay, but I wouldn’t dare write a story from the perspective of an immigrant character. I can’t see the world through their eyes.
(Photos provides by the interviewee)