On Friday, July 29, 2011, journalist Mohamad Ali al Atassi interviewed Riad al Turk, whose story was published in Dar al Hayat, (meaning House of Life in Arabic) and subsequently translated to French by Sham Al Mallah of the Babelmed website. Al Turk has been referred to as the ‘Mandela of Syria’, and yet, nothing in the Western Press has been written about him or his views on the Syrian uprising, nor about his 17-year sentence behind bars. While revolution in Syria appears to be quite real, it must be bittersweet for al Turk, as he had fought long and hard for citizens’ rights. It took al Atassi quite a bit of digging around to locate al Turk, as he hints in his prologue that the man was literally ‘underground’. To gain a better understanding of what is going on in Syria, al Turk’s remarks to al Atassi’s questions have been translated to English.
translated by Aimee Kligman
Al- Atassi: In your January 17, 2000 interview which was published in “Al Hayat” a few months before President Hafez al-Assad’s death, which was your first interview after your release, you said: ‘Silence is the only thing left for Syrian society to express its existence and its refusal of the status quo. Thus, silence is taken here as a position, but it cannot last indefinitely, and society must, with its vital force, produce new forms of expression under the register of declarations, public statements and actions’ . Now, four months after the start of the protests in Syria, many activists blame you for your silence. What is the reason for your silence to the media? Should we be seeingit as a position?
Al-Turk: My silence is largely due to my desire to see people exercising their rights. Now the street has spoken. The young revolutionaries have spoken. Those who have created the events have spoken. It is now the people who have emerged from their silence today, and undermined the walls of the kingdom of silence. Of course, what I am saying here does not mean that we, politicians, have to be silent and shirk our duty to support the Syrian revolution. For myself, I am now where I can lend support at the organizational level, the real moral and political revolutionaries, to the limit of my energy and my ability though this activity has not been visible in the media.. However, let me say that what I hear from some people who want to take advantage of the revolution and are engaged in competition for easy comments on the events, revolts me and disgusts me of cheap talk, and leads me to devote most of my time to field work, the unification of the opposition from within, and to avoid slipping by some of its components to the taking of accusatory or spineless positions that serve the regime and undermine the goals of the revolution.
Let me say that in this context, one of the achievements of the revolution is that it has accelerated the process of clarification in the media of the Syrian opposition. For our part, in the People’s Democratic Party and the “Damascus Declaration”, we have positioned ourselves alongside the revolutionary youth and we have concentrated our efforts on supporting the revolution, and this, by all possible means . So my political position does not differ from the position of the “Damascus Declaration”, statements that it has not ceased to publish since the start of events and actions on the ground where it did not fail to participate.
Al- Atassi: You were almost the only one in Syria to openly challenge the draft succession in 2000, as you were the first to remind the Syrians in 2001 on the al-Jazeera TV channel that ‘ the dictator was dead’ and that people should be freed from the shackles of the past and look to the future. After the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, you were also the first to call for the resignation of Bashar Al Assad, and the election of a constituent assembly to lead the country during a transitional period. Do you not think that in these critical days, it would be useful that your voice not disappear from the public square?
Al-Turk: Revolutions are not made through statements and TV interviews, but rather by the action on the ground. Today that ground action has the taste, form and spirit of our youth. I do not think my comments have a lot of added value in this context. I was, I am and I remain with my people and I will not spare any effort on the road to success of the revolution and so that the safety of society and the state (and not the dominating authority) are assured. In the past, it is true that I was one of the few who had raised their voices in public, but now we face a people emerging from their silence, are developing their own language, inventing their slogans and forms of action. Let us listen to them carefully, walk with them and not ahead of them and forbid ourselves to hijack their voices to our benefit.
Al-Atassi: In your article titled ‘Syria will not remain the realm of silence’ and published in the ‘ Al-Quds Al-Arabi’ newspaper on 13 March 2011, two days before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, you said that the Arab winds of change had to go through Syria. But let me candidly ask you the question: did the outbreak of the Syrian revolution surprise you?
Al- Turk: Honestly, the outbreak of the revolution did not surprise me, although at first I was like everyone else, unable to determine where, when and how the revolution would break out. However, it seemed obvious, like many that followed the gestation of Syrian society, that it would not stay away from the Arab movement for change, that we would not be the exception and that Syria would not remain the realm of silence. And that’s what happened. I’ll mention here the long hours I spent talking to some journalists and foreign diplomats obsessed with the absence of an alternative to the regime and the weakness of the organized opposition, that which ultimately led them to indirectly side with the regime with our requests for a patriotic and democratic alternative. To this, I always responded that it was not sufficient to consider the process of change from just the point of view of power and the opposition, but that it was also important to observe the dynamics of Syrian society because, ultimately, it is that society that will make the revolution and it is that society that will decide the outcome of this conflict.
Society’s fate, when it will have recovered its right to elect real representatives, is to produce not only an effective opposition but also a credible political benefit of a real popular legitimacy. Today, we see how people have, once again, become the decisive elements and key players in this revolution, and it will, eventually, set up new political leaderships that are worthy of them and their sacrifices. In this context, I do not mind the absence of political leadership in this revolution, in the traditional sense. This absence is a new phenomenon in most Arab revolutions and has been raised at the international level, as opposed to revolutions of the past associated with charismatic leaders, parties and ideologies and even military coups.
Learn more about: Riad al-Turk
The Damascus Declaration