How the unfolding events in northern Syria play out may well set the tone for things to follow in this region for years to come, given the many wars now taking place there among global, regional and local powers. Amidst this unprecedented situation of often desperate warring actors, I believe it is appropriate to remember this week the life and work of the late Anthony Shadid, who reported for the New York Times when he died in northern Syria exactly four years ago this week.
I say this because Shadid reminded us of the most powerful force that ultimately determines the outcome of battles among ideologies, states, and armies: individual human beings who assert their humanity as they navigate the challenges of day-to-day life in a region plagued by regimes that sap individual lives of rights, wars that constrain people’s opportunities to develop, and foreign military interventions that expand our intermittent chaos and brutality.
Shadid reported on big regional issues of war, revolution, foreign invasions, and shaken countries by allowing his readers to understand conditions on the ground through the eyes of ordinary men and women in their local communities. The people he portrayed in his articles and books individually and collectively usually could only react to events that shaped and often shattered their lives; they never were able to contribute to the policy-making process that brought about those events.
Yet the past two decades have shown that individuals who get together in groups and take action—peaceful protests, armed resistance, and everything else in between—can actually drive the course of history. Shadid understood that people’s emotions and calculated political reactions to events were shaped by a combination of material needs and intangible emotional factors that were not always so clear on the surface. These included historical memory, collective identities, their family’s material needs, indignities at being brutalized by their own governments and foreign armies alike, and prospects for their and their children’s future well-being.
People in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and other Arab societies constantly have to decide how to react to events like the 2011 street uprisings, engaging or opposing military regimes like Field Marshal-President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s in Egypt, whether to join the armed opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria or even go join the “Islamic State,” whether or not to seek refuge in Europe or neighboring Middle Eastern states, or how to express legitimate grievances and nonviolently seek meaningful reforms for full citizen rights in states like Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Algeria, and Sudan.
Shadid died from a medical condition while on a reporting trip in northern Syria, before he could provide new insights into how citizens emotionally and rationally process how they react to their changing economic and political conditions. He understood that men, women, and families in the Middle East have been doing this for thousands of years. The last two generations of Arab life, since the late 1970s, that Shadid chronicled include many examples of how collective action by many individuals did change the course of history, both for the better and the worse. These include the rise of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Islamist groups, the 2011 uprisings, collective action by many Arab groups in Iraq, peaceful and militarized rebellions in Syria, the activism of assorted Kurdish parties, the popular demonstrations that evicted Syria from Lebanon in 2005, and the constitutional transition in Tunisia, just to mention a few.
The Arab and global media tend to focus on the actions of autocrats, popular mobs, foreign armies, or helpless citizens. Shadid’s valuable contribution that still inspires me and many others was to connect readers with the individual men and women in the epic tales of our time—in the heat of battle in south Lebanon, on dusty backroads in rural Iraq, in barbershops and cafes in Cairo, and in 370 million other places where the beating hearts and active minds of Arab men, women and children look around their world and quickly calculate two critical elements that shape our region today: How do I and my family safely survive the immediate turmoil around us? What can I do next in order to achieve the ability to shape future developments in my society, rather than perpetually only reacting to what others impose on me?
That process has seen our region transformed since 1990, often through messy and violent phases. As the Arab uprisings enter their fifth year, millions of men and women battle peacefully and violently to make the transition from docile wards of the authoritarian state that defines and confines them, to active citizens in a dynamic society that reflects and serves them. Our individual humanity, Anthony Shadid’s work still reminds us, is the most powerful force in human history. It is awakening in many parts of the Arab World. I am glad that Anthony had the chance to witness the start of that process, grateful that he chronicled critical parts of it, and always humbled to read and appreciate his work.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
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