By Rabbil Sikdar (reblogged from Medium, here)
I wear my socialism on my sleeves and will never shy away from that. Every Political Compass test has me basically nailed down as a ‘hard left’ person. The things I believe in, radical to some, sensible to others define my sense of socialism: fair wages, fair taxes, strong public sector, social housing and a compassionate welfare system. My socialism comes from my experiences and values, in growing up in east London and seeing a community fall victim to poverty and gentrification.
In an age where compromise is needed to move forward, I won’t apologise for that. But I will for being so slow to realise how Morning Star was positioning itself across a wide variety of issues.
I’m not a factional socialist; I’d happily write for the Morning Star and at the same time agree with people from Progress. Mostly though, when I initially began writing for the Star I did so as someone so happy to be writing for a newspaper. I did not know Star’s history but I would come to learn of it later; I waved it away thinking these were different times. Besides, at the start we had more in common. We both wanted a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party.
That was then. I no longer write for the Star and for a while had been winding down my contribution. By the end it was just sport content because of my respect for the sports editor. For the other part, I have a lot of things to be angry about with the Star.
For a newspaper that subscribes to left wing values, that should include free speech and right to criticise politicians. Unfortunately this never extended to criticism of Corbyn’s failing leadership, or Diane Abbott; it didn’t include the ‘Lexit’ vote — and where it mattered most crucially, it did not include Russia and Assad.
The paper has never criticised the Assad regime or Putin. Lines that go along with “we’re no fans of the Assad regime but…” are poor condemnations. In fact, they’re not condemnations at all. Someone recently described it quite well as imagining defenders of the British Empire dismissing the Amritsar Massacre. Likewise, saying “we condemn all bombings” gravely misunderstands who is doing the bombing and draws a false equivalence between aggressive actors and those responding to the violence. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported in 2015 that the Assad regime was responsible for more than 10,000 deaths. ISIS, for all their barbarism, had killed just over a thousand. Since then, those statistics have continued in underlining the basic fact that Assad — backed up by Russia — has been responsible for the brutal carnage.
This is the humanitarian war crime of our time, a genocide that we watched live on television Facebook for years — and we did nothing. We have witnessed ethnic cleansing, repeated breaking of ceasefires and remorseless ruthlessness towards civilian population. The Syrian resistance against a fascist dictator desperately needed solidarity from the international community, and especially the left.
Some gave it; I’ve seen some fantastic leftist activists bravely holding everyone to account; Oz Katerji, Idrees Ahmad and James Bloodworth being some of them. The late Jo Cox was a strong supporter of the inspirational White Helmets.
But how did the Morning Star respond? They called the near fall of Aleppo a ‘liberation’. What was genocide was seen as liberation by this socialist newspaper. Rather than backing down, they doubled down instead. For the past year the Star have led a horribly pro-Assad line, painting the rebels as Jihadists, pouring suspicion over established facts regarding Assad’s war crimes. They continuously echoed propaganda emanating from Russia, unequivocally supporting the Moscow line. Even as Russia and Assad rained destruction, bombing civilians, destroying hospitals and every emergency shelter — the Star continuously chose to support them.
Why? Some believe that the Star are fond of Russia because of the old communist, Soviet relations. That’s one reason, but another is that the Star are simply a part of the left that believes anything which is anti-American translates into being good. This means celebrating Fidel Castro, defending Iran and Hazbollah and somehow always finding a way to pin the blame back on the Americans. The Star, Stop the War Coalition and others have somehow tried to continuously blame America for what happened in Syria. When they do that, they strip agency away from the Syrians, a common problem with the western left: in the eyes of the Star, these rebels must be funded by the west because why else would they revolting? How could people be possibly fed up of living with a dictatorship?
Aleppo has been falling for months; so little blood left to spill, very little to fight for. These are the people the Star have dismissed as Jihadists. Mostly, a lot of these fighters are probably conservative Muslims, but not motivated by religious ideas but rather survival. The Star in this echo the same lines as that of Assad and Putin, the former who even during the 2011 demonstrations repeatedly dismissed the protestors as terrorists. It was useful smears to try to de-legitimise their struggles. We have seen hundreds of thousands die and the Star have passed their deaths off as essentially nothing, a ‘liberation’. The Russians and the Syrian state fire warnings at civilians to leave their towns, to flee — and the Star would celebrate this as some sort of ceasefire, some sort of watering down of the hostilities. To anyone else, it’d be seen as ethnic cleansing. But not to the paper that supposedly defends peace and socialism. Can you imagine how they would have been if Assad was supported by the Americans? Was that all the people of east Aleppo needed to not be dismissed as jihadists?
I suspected the Star’s position but given I rarely read their stuff beside the occasional article, I wasn’t fully aware of their position. One of their long-time contributors John Wight, a staunch unwavering supporter of Assad and Russia, called me a “liberal apologist for murder” (paraphrasing here) in a heated Facebook row. It led to one of the editors apologising to me, but it was then I began noticing something.
Whenever I wrote articles that were critical of Assad and Putin, they were never published. I never even got responses on them. Other times articles had lines critical of Assad tweaked, removed entirely often. I wrote a football article about the Middle East, talking about Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and also Syria. The point about Syria was enough to get the entire article pulled. What was the point? “In Syria, the Civil War saw the football destroyed. Players and coaches took sides, willingly or reluctantly, Assad or the pro-democracy rebels. There were more who were neutral. Others left the country, compelled by intimidation or fear for safety. Some players such as Musab Balhous were imprisoned for supposedly helping rebels. More left because they came to regard the Syrian national team as associated with Assad…Incidentally, though the league system has been resuscitated, the power has shifted, tilting towards clubs in Damascus who are free from Assad’s ruthless bombing. Since the league was restarted, the last two titles have gone to Al-Shorta and Al-Jaish, clubs from the capital. Those from rebel-based cities have suffered immensely.” Again, this paper failed to acknowledge even the slightest of criticisms of Assad. Why? Because apparently the conflict was shades of grey and I saw a genocidal tyrant as too black and white.
I loved writing for the Morning Star because there were some good things to it. It did give a voice to the disadvantaged and voiceless often. But not the Syrian ones. My three editors were two women and a black man, the first black sports editor in the UK and one of the main reasons I continued writing at the paper by the end (I had more or less switched to sports content). As a liberal left-wing working class British Muslim, the Star gave me a platform to describe the world as I saw it through my own eyes. To talk about the racism, inequality and other vital issues. But they have betrayed the children of Aleppo. The blood and tears of the people of Aleppo did not matter to them. I’m not going to be writing for the paper while they spout disgusting Kremlin propaganda.
My anti-imperialism is consistent and just as with my socialism, it’s not something I’ll ever apologise for. It applies to America and Russia. Saudi Arabia and Iran. Assad’s Syria and Netanyahu’s Israel. It doesn’t excuse and apologise for a genocidal fascist simply because USA are on the opposite side and because he’s a secularist. We measure the barbarism and cruelty of ISIS by the thousands they have killed. Well, Assad has killed hundreds of thousands. But the Star would have us believe this man is a “liberator”. And they would silence internal criticisms within the paper. The Guardian at least used to let a whole range of writers across the left speak. At the Star, it has to be done completely their way. Diversity of thought, so critically required here, was shut down. For months over Syria, I was shut down. I suspect I was not the only one.
I refuse to recognise what happened in Aleppo as liberation. I have spent most of today watching the farewell videos of those trapped in Aleppo. They are waiting to die because hope has abandoned them as surely as we have. They know now that the world is not coming for them. The world stood and watched and never moved. As one Syrian trapped in Aleppo, waiting to die, said “we were free people. All we wanted was freedom.” He did not seem like a man who was being liberated. These were terrified people and the utterly shameless editorial positions of the Morning Star over this isn’t something I’ll put up with any longer.