UCSB’s Project Nur hosted the dinner and panel discussion “A Revolution in Crisis: A Panel Discussion and Fundraiser for the Syrian People” last night at the Student Resource Building, providing students and other attendees with a complete perspective of the region’s ongoing revolution and surrounding conflicts.
The event — which began at 7 p.m. in the multipurpose room of the SRB — discussed Syria’s history and present role in the Arab Spring, as panel members explained how anti-government rebels are currently fighting to take down the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who represents the Alawi religious minority. The panel includ- ed history professor R. Stephen Humphreys, communications pro- fessor Walid Afifi, religious studies professor Juan E. Campo and Fullbright Iranian-Syrian scholar Majid Rafizadeh. The discussion covered the historical, political and economic aspects of the dynastic al-Assad reign that has held onto single- party rule for over 40 years. Project Nur raised roughly $250 though the event, all of which will be directed to the United Nations Refugee Agency to fund assistance for Syrian refugees.
According to Humphreys, the major difference between the Syrian revolution and others in the region is that it is far more fragmented and has struggled to mobilize a broad spectrum of people against the regime, despite opposition coming from a wide range of Syrian citizens.
The government’s ability to intimidate and control the Syrian people seemed to work its way through every speaker’s presentation.
Campo spoke about the problems future regimes — like a secular Ba’ath party regime or other possible governments — could face if al-Assad loses power and one of these other parties manages to assume power.
“In Syria, the government uses the ethnic and religious differences that could be used to exploit the people — that sort of divide-and-conquer strategy,” Campo said. “They’re playing with religious identity in order to divide the people against themselves and maintain control [and] in doing that then it would sort of promote the idea that if it weren’t for them, you’d have chaos.”
Rafizadeh, who has appeared on media outlets including CNN, BBC Persia and Al Jazeera, began the discussion by telling of his own childhood experiences in Syria, where he and his peers discussed politics in code for fear they would be punished for offending the hard-fisted regime. Rafizadeh said that children played a major role in revolutionary thought as they were the first to express dissent, oftentimes scrawling anti-government graffiti on the streets of Damascus. The political system of Syria is very complex and deeply rooted in the religious divides of the country, as Alawis currently hold the most governmental power through their status as the majority of the Syrian elite despite only making up about 11 to 12 percent of the total population. Such a minority-dominated structure is thus not only pushed forth by al-Assad himself but by the entire community of Syrian Alawis, Humphreys said.
“The [al-Assad] regime is deeply embedded in the political system — it’s not a one-man show. It is a tight network; this regime is overwhelmingly dominated by this minority group,” Humphreys said. “People feel very vulnerable to this change in a world where political Islam is really coming forth. The Christians who don’t love the regime have found that [it still] protects their interests and security.”
Rose Khouri, a fourth-year Middle Eastern studies major who founded Project Nur on campus and currently serves as its president, said last night’s event included fundraising in order to support the humani- tarian aspect of the situation in Syria, where many refugees are oftentimes left to starve.
“This fundraising event is a new direction for us. I was inspired from my trip to Lebanon over the summer, where I saw [an] unusual number of homeless people on the street begging,” Khouri said. “These people turned out to be Syrian refugees that f led this conflict. 10,000 Syrians are refugees outside of the country, with 7,000 in Turkey right now.”
Project Nur, which is a student-led division of the American Islamic Congress aiming to promote social justice in the Middle East, will host a Middle Eastern food sale at the SRB lawn on May 31 to continue raising funds for Syrian refugees.