In Syria, reflections of two men in one mirror

The Syrian war was marked by the rise of two men who grabbed the headlines of international media for their bizarre speeches and impulsive behaviors and made the world busy in pursuing ways to get rid of them. The two men’s narratives of power have become synonymous with destruction, bloodshed and are marred by their varied degree of fanatic obsession. It is a tale of the fanatic religious commitment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (ISIS Caliph) and Bashar al-Assad’s fanatic obsession with power and the dynasty of the family.

From a self-appointed podium of superiority, Baghdadi delivered his first public speech in July, 2014. Unlike his predecessors Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leaders and affiliates of al-Qaeda who used to post their videos from unknown places, the self-proclaimed Caliph identifies and names his location in the video posted on twitter; the Great Mosque in the city of Mosul in Iraq. The call to prayers intertwines his greetings to praying attendees (something never seen before in Bin Laden’s video), and a chance to clean his teeth with the “siwak” stick before his speech is erupted.

Unlike Bin Laden

Unlike Bin Laden, who addressed the world sitting down on a bench covered with cushions propping his gun against the wall behind him, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addresses the world from the top of the mosque’s podium, an elevated position to convey his superiority as the chosen Caliph. Instead of a gun, Baghdadi props ISIS flag on the wall of the mosque towards the right side of the podium or “almanbar”. Despite the fact that it is controversial in Islam for mosques to use flags, or symbols, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s gave himself the right to make the exception to convey a message that ISIS is part of the Islamic sphere.

A thin-line divides Bashar Assad’s inauguration speech before the members of the People’s Assembly in the heart of Damascus, following the swearing-in ceremony election and that of Baghdadi’s at the Great Mosque in Iraq. Assad’s speech did not only happen in the same period as that of Abu Bakr (both speeches took place in the same month of July,2014), but also it echoed few of its entangled messages and themes. Apart from Assad appearing the first address dressed in a suit, and Baghdadi in the second in Islamic clothing, Assad used the “democratic-elections” visage to justify his fanatic power, and so did Baghdadi by using an Islamic façade to justify his fanatic leadership. Bashar addressed his audiences as “honorable Syrians”, “free Syrian revolutionaries”, conveying an underlying fighting spirit which promptly creates a binary of “them” and “us”; the unseen enemy and the Syrian brothers and sisters. Bashar stressed the fact that he is one of “us” and his job is to fight “them” to keep “us” together, a way to justify the rhetoric of violence. This is explicitly clear in his speech’s closing phrase, that he is always “one of you (Syrian people), living amongst you (Syrian people), guided by your (Syrian people) opinions and inspired by your (Syrian people) awareness.” Bashar’s phrase echoed Baghdadi’s phrase that he is “placed as your (people) caretaker, and I am not better than you (people).” 

Nationalistic and ideological narrative

The difference is that Bashar al-Assad is using a nationalistic narrative to back up his pitch, while Baghdadi’s pitch is backed by his extreme ideological narrative. The similarity in the conveyed message suggests that there might be more similarities between these two men than previously thought and that these can bring both men together despite their antagonistic differences.

Abu Bakr Baghdadi, was held at Camp Bucca as a civilian detainee by U.S. Forces in Iraq, until he was handed over to Iraqi justice system late in 2009.

While Syria is drowning in bloodshed, both men are gradually being transformed into an immortal and ephemeral mirage

Dr. Halla Diyab

He has developed a prison culture of survival; namely the skill to manipulate people. He uses raspy manipulative techniques and deceptive narratives to justify ISIS brutal violence by twisting religious interpretations to his needs in order to attract vulnerable Muslims, indoctrinate them, rip them off their national identities in order to be recruited by his ideology and serve his power. His manipulation changes people to become criminals and killers, and convinces them that they are heroes fighting for Muslims and Islam. In the same sense, Baghdadi is similar to Assad, who manipulates Syrians to maintain his grip on power. However, Assad’ s manipulation is far more sophisticated with a semi-political quality of syntax that gives it a texture of a fact; where voting for his presidential re-election is a manifestation of the people’s courage to “defy fear and terrorism thwarting the aggression, and their machinery.”

Manipulation serves Assad's perpetuation of lazy clichés that he is the nationalist leader who is fighting the western conspiracy, and the Syrian people are partners in this equation. He replicates the same formulas over and over again to continue the narrative that will become familiar to Syrians until they believe it and act on it.

Both men employ violence as a discourse, Baghdadi‘s violence is religious, while Assad’s is more of a rhetoric violence. Baghdadi's violence represents the new insignia of al-Qaeda’s terrorism; not to bring down towers or bomb trains, but reshaping the world through invading territories and violating borders. The Syrian conflict feeds and nourishes a perfect environment for both men to practice and implement their violence, and build allies inside Syria. Assad uses the existence of Baghdadi to build support inside Syria with the seculars. Baghdadi uses Assad’s existence to build support inside Syria with those whose families were brutalized by the regime, and have developed bitter resentments.

Both men are pro-totalitarianism; Assad chooses who is the patriot, and who is the traitor; who is the reformist, and who is the loyalist; who is the rebellious, and who is the terrorist. On the other hand, Baghdadi chooses who is a Muslim and who is not, who should live and who should die.

While Syria is drowning in bloodshed, both men are gradually being transformed into an immortal and ephemeral mirage that cannot be hunted or defeated.

Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

Last Update: 10:42 KSA 13:42 - GMT 10:42
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