Since protests first began against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in March 2011, my position on the Syrian bloodbath has remained the same. I support all secular democrats fighting for a free and democratic Syria; I am opposed to the Damascus dictatorship; I am equally opposed to the throat-slitting jihadists and al-Qaeda elements who have exploited the chaos and hold ever-growing sway over the country; and I stand against any Western intervention in the conflict, which would prove nothing short of a catastrophe.
The reason I have to make this position clear is that I’ve been involved in a furore involving a Syrian nun, Mother Agnes, and a Stop the War conference I was invited to speak at. Given the persistence of a small band of critics over this, I’ve felt obliged to write this as a clarification.
Beginning over a week ago, dozens of activists got in touch with me to demand why I was sharing a platform with Mother Agnes. Given that I was (and am) overwhelmed with about a thousand deadlines and am scarpering across the country for talks, I had no choice but to ignore them until I had time to look into the issue. They were persistent, passionate and in some cases angry with me, but nonetheless, I had to put it all on hold.
Now - without getting out the world’s smallest violin - I’m now more than accustomed to being relentlessly attacked by the right, but the problem here was that these activists were - in many cases - opponents of Western intervention. They simply objected to the presence of this particular individual at an anti-war conference.
But what made my position completely untenable was that a renowned US anti-war journalist, Jeremy Scahill, who had also been invited to the conference publicly announced that he had informed the organisers that he “will not participate in their conference if Mother Agnes is on the platform.”
At this point, I was bombarded by activists demanding to know that - given Jeremy Scahill had withdrawn - why would I not follow suit? This forced me to engage with their concerns, and so I looked into what the problems were (and the issues I was emailed about are now in an open letter signed by a range of figures, including anti-war activist and leftist Professor Gilbert Achcar and other socialists):
Mother Agnes is perhaps most infamous for publishing a 50-page report claiming that the video footage of the Ghoutta massacre was faked, that the children suffocating to death had been kidnapped by rebels and were actually sleeping or “under anaesthesia”. This was the most striking, crank-like example of Mother Agnes blaming what were widely accepted atrocities on the rebels, and therefore her detractors regard here as a mere mouthpiece for the Assad dictatorship.
Syrian Christians for Peace have previously attacked Mother Agnes for publicly claiming that there had been no peaceful demonstrations in Damascus, despite been seen witnessing one herself. They further claimed that they had never received any money she had raised, and even called for her to be “excommunicated”.
A Jesuit priest named Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was been exiled by the Assad dictatorship and is now imprisoned by ISIS, an al-Qaeda group, has denounced her for being “consistent in assuming and spreading the lies of the regime, and promoting it through the power of her religious persona. She knows how to cover up the brutality of the regime.”
I therefore responded to one of the activists that I appreciated the concerns, and would not a share a platform with her. This then spiralled in a way that I did not anticipate. The following day, Stop The War announced that Mother Agnes had withdrawn from participating because of the controversy her presence would cause.
This then led to a number of attacks on me, largely from Assad supporters (including one, proudly displaying the Syrian dictator on his twitter page, who then subjected myself and Cahill to a cyber-attack involving hundreds of spam-bots), but from a few others as well.
The first claim is that I have attacked Mother Agnes’ freedom of speech. This is an issue which was very well covered by blogger Steve Doran in a witty YouTube video, which I recommend you watch. The obvious point is that Mother Agnes is free to say what she wants: well, that is clearly not true in Syria, but nothing that I have done prevents her from expressing herself. My detractors are effectively claiming that I should be forced to attend a conference, because a consequence of me pulling out is that Mother Agnes is no longer speaking on a platform. In other words, I no longer have any right to my own political conscience: I must be forced to speak on a platform against my will.
It should also be pointed out that freedom of speech does not mean the right to a platform. If the Independent suddenly cancelled my contract, they have not attacked my freedom of speech, they have simply stopped me broadcasting my views on their platform. If a radio phone-in does not put somebody through on-air, they haven’t attacked their freedom of speech either. Mother Agnes has not been prevented from saying what she wants in any way.
The second argument is that I am “happy” to share platforms with those who prosecuted the war against Iraq - including former members of the Blair government - on TV platforms before, but not a Syrian nun. The response here is pretty straightforward. If a pro-war politician had been invited to the Stop the War conference, I would have refused to share a platform, too. That’s because an anti-war conference is an event where - despite differences or nuances in views - everybody is there to make common cause. We are there as allies, as part of the same movement. When I appear on, say, Question Time to debate ministers, there is no presumption of common cause.
The third argument is perhaps the most irritating. There is a section of the left that is incapable of accepting a disagreement within its own ranks. They refuse to believe that an opponent can disagree with them on the basis of principle; it has to be on the basis of bad faith. In other words, I am a careerist, or a closet supporter of Western intervention, or I am part of some sinister conspiracy against Mother Agnes. Ever since I inadvertently became a left-wing writer, this claim - which no-one who actually knew me would dream of believing - has been thrown at me: that I must really be a self-serving careerist looking to build my own profile, rather than fighting for beliefs that are second in importance in my life only to the people I love. It is, sadly, a long-standing accusation thrown at anyone on the left who has any sort of platform.
The truth is I just made a decision based on engaging with activists who got in touch with me, by looking at the facts. People may not agree with it, but it was a decision made in good faith and on the basis of principle.
And as for Syria - well, it is important to point out that the anti-war movement commendably prevented the escalation of the catastrophic conflict in Syria, by stopping Western powers becoming directly militarily involved. But we did not stop the war. As I write this, and as you read it, the nation of Syria continues to bleed to death. Only a peaceful resolution involving all the key parties can end this unbearable situation. But - in my view - that does not mean anti-war activists compromising a principled stance against both Western intervention and Assad’s murderous regime.