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Please Tony Burke, stop insulting us

By Joseph Wakim - posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013


"Syria is neither Palestine nor Ireland." Such should be the response to the speech delivered by the softly spoken Tony Burke last Saturday night. On behalf of the Gillard government, he addressed a symposium commemorating the second year anniversary of the Syrian revolution, and stood in solidarity and pride with the anti-Assad audience. As the federal member for the Watson electorate, he has every right and the democratic responsibility to reflect the views of the majority. After all, he presides over an area that is home to Australia's largest Arab population and largest two mosques. His electorate encompasses Lakemba, Bankstown, Punchbowl, Greenacre and Canterbury.

But he does not have a right to pretend that the vexed situation in Syria resembles his beloved Ireland of the past nor Palestine of the present.

On the eve of Saint Patrick's Day, Mr Burke evoked the celebration of his Irish ancestry and empathised with Australians "worrying about the land of our heritage". He recalls growing up with the occupation of Ireland, thinking that the "independence of Ireland would never come".

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The first alarm bell should have rung. Northern Ireland endured three decades of military occupation by the foreign forces of Britain until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Syria is not occupied by foreign forces. In its past, Turkey, Britain and France had occupied Syria. Under Hafez al Assad, the Syrian army occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, as a foreign force on sovereign territory. But occupied Ireland has no bearing on sovereign. How can a Syrian government constituted of its own citizens and its own army be a foreign occupier?

Ironically, the only foreign forces inside Syrian sovereign territory are those of the jihadists and mercenaries who are smuggled across the many national borders. This would have been a more confronting comparison for Mr Burke's audience. The terrorist acts of these foreign fighters including Al-Qaeda have tainted the perception of the Free Syrian Army as both are lumped as anti-Assad.

But just as these foreign forces have arguably hijacked the Free Syrian Army, the latter has also arguably hijacked the real genesis of the Syrian revolution. This was in March 2011 when teenagers smeared graffiti that was inspired by the Arab Spring: 'The people want the regime to fall'.

The second alarm bell should have rung, as these armed soldiers take credit for the struggle that was ignited by unarmed youth. The Syrian government treated the uprising as a foreign invasion by terrorists while the Syrian National Council refused to negotiate with the government who they treated as an "illegitimate occupying militia" and a "murderous regime" led by "butcher Bashar". When Mr Burke lamented that "when the Arab Spring came, there was optimism and a hope that this might be resolved", he should have lamented that an opportunity was squandered when the hopefuls chose a bloody revolution over a peaceful evolution.

Mr Burke drew applause from his audience when he slid across to Palestine and how "I was proud to be part of that decision. That Australia would not stand in the way of Palestinian recognition at the General Assembly".

The third alarm bell should have rung as this has nothing to do with the anti-Assad audience unless he was again insinuating that Syrian citizens are oppressed by foreign forces. Such implicit comparisons are deceptive and dangerous and would beg the inevitable question: if the freedom fighters are flocking to liberate their Syrian brothers from an oppressive occupation, why have the same people not swarmed to liberate their Palestinian brothers from an occupation since 1967 and from armed settlers who speak another language? Why have they not fussed over Saudi Arabia to liberate their sisters who enjoy far less rights than secular Syrian women?

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Mr Burke also drew applause when he insisted that "a peaceful negotiated outcome can only be possible when Assad has gone". He suggested the same exclusion when I met with him as part of a Mussalaha delegation on 8 February, when I was suggesting the third way of reconciliation. We advocated a meeting with the Minister for National Reconciliation, Ali Haidar, a veteran outspoken critic of the president.

The fourth alarm bell should have rung with Mr Burke's simplistic solution, as it begs many questions. If negotiations are to take place with the ever-changing head of the Syrian National Council, then who will the negotiators be representing? Will they be elected by Syrian citizens or self-appointed exiles? Would the negotiations include the Gulf states, the Salafist sheikhs and the mercenaries who have a vested interest in shifting Syria from a secular to caliphate, cleansed of Christians and Alawites? And what message does this exclusion zone of never negotiating with Assad send to the lion's share of citizens who see Bashar al Assad as their legitimate voice? Would the outcome have legitimacy to insiders if it is imposed by the outsiders?

In our private meeting, Mr Burke told me that he listens to a diversity of views and was receptive to our third way of unarmed dialogue. But in this public meeting, he told this audience that "it is with great pride that I stand with you in solidarity with your cause". If he is sold out to the rebels, how could a partisan politician pretend to be representing one of the most diverse electorates in the nation?

He may have been preaching peace to the converted, but the posting of his speech on YouTube means that he was preaching propaganda to the more sophisticated. Representing the Gillard government, he is insulting the intelligence of Arabs who have learned lessons from history, such as war torn Iraq, after the forcible toppling of Saddam Hussein ten years ago, which has since become a breeding ground for terrorists. He is insulting the intelligence of enlightened Arabs who can discern between the oppression in Ireland, Syria and Palestine. He is insulting the intelligence of all of us who are fed up with the politically correct 'Arab Spring' narrative as if democracy automatically follows dictatorship.

This may have been a good try if delivered ten years ago, but it is a banana kick that puts people offside today.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Joseph Wakim

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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