Meanwhile in Damascus

For Syrians, Frustration Over Outrage About Film, Not Assad’s Horrors

As the media turn their attention to senseless violence elsewhere, the struggling, besieged people of Syria wonder: Where’s the demonstrators’ anger about what’s happening to us?

09.15.12 8:45 AM ET

“Dear Arabs, if you had dared to protest against Bashar in the same way of your protest against the American embassies, Bashar would not have been able to kill 200 Syrians a day.”

So read a banner in Syria satirizing the absurd and exaggerated outrage against the Web trailer for Innocence of Muslims. Another read: “We have an Assad-esque movie that offends the messenger [Muhammad] and the god of the messenger. It’s been playing for 18 months.”

Many Syrians on Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media sites have expressed outrage about the production of this Web film. But their anger is largely directed at the Arab world’s reaction. Bashar al-Assad’s forces are slaughtering people on a daily basis not in a movie, but in real life, while the media and protesters elsewhere have shifted attention to what many Syrians call “a silly movie.”

“What happened affected us Syrians negatively,” Yassin Al Haj Saleh, a prominent Syrian writer and dissident based in Damascus, tells me over Google Chat. “First, media attention was focused on this story. Second, the movie and the violent reaction served the regime and its supporters by giving them an excuse—that a regime that looks modernist from the outside and depends on a criminal intelligence apparatus would be the best for the Middle East.”

Al Haj Saleh, who was one of 11 people recently awarded the Prince Claus Award for his work, did not rule out the possibility that the acts of violence were backed by remnants of ousted regimes or opportunistic populist movements.

Many Syrian activists share Saleh’s view of the movie. They fear that Western governments will use the turmoil as a pretext not to support Syrian opponents of the Assad regime.

It’s understandable that many in the West would think twice after seeing an ambassador killed in Libya. Christopher Stevens, after all, supported the Libyan rebels. But we don’t want to be like those who wanted to collectively punish Americans because of the acts of a few criminals. Many in the Arab world have condemned this senseless violence.

In Syria, for example, out of hundreds of demonstrations only a few have expressed anger against America. Sadly, it has always been safer and easier to burn a U.S. flag than a picture of Assad.

“The majority of Syrians have condemned the reactions to the movie,” Razan Zaioutneh, one of the few prominent female opposition leaders and a cofounder of the local coordination committees, who is based in Damascus, told me. “We did not even get 25 percent of these demonstrations to stand against the killing of thousands of Syrians during the last 18 months.”

She added: “I am not surprised about this savage reaction, but those who committed this violence are not the entire people of these countries, but a tiny portion that want to use this incident to gain more media attention and popularity.”

Syrians in general—and especially on Facebook—have had many debates about the Web movie. Some considered it part of freedom of expression by producers who shouldn’t be punished. As Lama Hamoudi, a Syrian dissident who is based in Arkansas, recently posted “I’m looking forward to watch more films—silly or otherwise—and read more articles/books that attack RELIGION (especially monotheistic religions) and ridicule religious figures. My favorite genre ever!”

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Others have condemned the movie, but at the same time were outraged about the reaction in the Arab world.

“The movie is low quality, and the reactions were very exaggerated by people,” said Hanadi Zahlout, a former political prisoner who recently fled to Paris. “We don’t need these kinds of unconscious reactions. What we need is real actions that support the whole Syrian people, Muslim and Christians. The Syrians are facing one of the most criminal regimes in the world for more than a year, and yet no one supported or showed any kind of action to support them.”

Very few Syrians have praised the violence throughout the Arab world, even its Islamists. And despite some disagreements, most Syrians agree the movie and the reaction to it have served Bashar al-Assad more than anyone else in Syria.