"Difference Is Wealth"

The Tharwa Project is an independent initiative that seeks to foster better relations between minority groups and the majority population across the Arab World. Kristin Helberg interviewed Tharwa coordinator Ammar Abdulhamid in Damascus

The Tharwa Project is an independent initiative that seeks to foster better relations and establish a free channel for communication between minority groups and the majority population in each Arab country and across the Arab World. Kristin Helberg interviewed Tharwa coordinator Ammar Abdulhamid

photo: courtesy The Project Syndicate
Ammar Abdulhamid

​​"We do not want to change borders, we want to establish a free channel for communication and dialogue between minority groups and the majority population in Arab countries", says Ammar Abdulhamid. Kristin Helberg met him at the Tharwa headquarters.

Why did you choose the subject of minorities for your work?

Ammar Abdulhamid: We wanted to do a concrete work in the field of human rights. For a long time the Middle East has ignored the situation of minorities, their concerns and aspirations. When the various Arab states were established they did not pay attention to minorities like the Kurds or the Berbers, and by emphasizing sometimes the Islamic character they failed to address the issue of Christians or "heretical" Islamic sects.

As a result of government mishandling or attempts to ignore or sweep the problem of minorities under the carpet they created a situation for conflict. By addressing the human rights aspect from a practical point of view and by choosing the minorities focus we are trying to come up with proposals and move from the abstract into the actual practical level of life.

Isn't it a dangerous business to deal with minority rights in a region where most of the governments are afraid of separatism and national deterioration?

Abdulhamid: Indeed, it is very sensitive. But in the same time we are seeing another form of foreign intervention in the region. This time represented by the Americans in the name of not only democratization but also minorities or majorities. The way they intervened in Iraq is to save the oppressed Shias from the Sunnis, so they are using once more these kinds of problems that exist within these countries and within this region to justify their intervention. It's a pretext, of course, but one way of prohibiting intervention is to remove the pretext one after another. If we can address the issue of minority-majority relation in different Arab countries and from inside rather than from outside, we will take the carpet from under any force that wants to intervene in the region.

Is this the way to sell it to the local governments?

Abdulhamid: Exactly, this is our selling point, our sales-pitch basically.

Why did you choose Damascus as the headquarter of Tharwa?

Abdulhamid: I could easily have done it from the USA or Europe, I would have had more financial resources and less of a headache worrying about my safety or whatever. But frankly, this way it has more credibility to the people of the region. We have an international board of advisors made up by credible people from inside and outside the region. Some of them have a question mark from the official point of view and that's good because we are people that are independent and that try to push the limits and not work within the limits.

Are there any official reactions from the Syrian government?

Abdulhamid: So far, we had no official reaction from the Syrian government, but unofficially, what we are seeing is positive. Our contact is the Internet side and they have been monitoring it, we know that for sure. But so far, no one has tried to bother us. We have sold our message and it seems that it was well-received. Recently we are even getting press releases from official government sources. They are sort of acknowledging our existence by cooperating indirectly.

Officially we don't exist, we don't have an official status as NGO here. We are in limbo and I enjoy this limbo, it gives us freedom. Because if we want to establish ourselves as NGO, the government might approve of that but every time we want to do an activity we have to get an official approval. This way, we don't need approvals, we are tolerated.

It's strange: Not being officially recognized gives us more freedom. I might recognize an official status elsewhere but in Syria I prefer, until the laws are more clear, to remain in this limbo area. I don't want to loose the independence we have right now.

In Syria the different ethnical and religious groups live very peaceful together, do you consider this tolerance a model for other countries?

Abdulhamid: There is much positive about the Syrian experience but at the same time, there are negatives that no one wants to address. If we continue to ignore them they are going to foster and they are going to blow up in our face. I think the Kurdish issue has been one of them. For 50 years, almost ever since independence, this issue was not addressed by the government. Many Arab people have absolutely no idea about the Arabization politics vis-à-vis the Kurds, their living conditions, their aspirations, the fact that they are prohibited to speak their language and that they are not immigrants but indigenous communities living in this country.

The government's national ideologies and the lack of freedom of expression have made people unaware and completely in the dark regarding the Kurdish issue. So when we had the riots in March a lot of people were not sympathetic. They thought who are these immigrants, they are abusing our hospitality and so on, not realizing that these people are in their own country, they are indigenous communities to Syria.

The Kurds seem to be an exception though. There have never been any problems with the Armenians or Cherkesians in Syria...

Abdulhamid: The Armenians and the Cherkesians are being well accepted because they are immigrant communities. They have no separatist claims, no autonomy claims so you can easily accommodate them. They have their culture, their religion, their schools and it's not a problem because there is no fear of rebellion against central authorities. With the Kurds you have a fear of rebellion against central authorities, the Arab character of the country comes into question here.

The Christians are indigenous to Syria as well...

Abdulhamid: This is the other issue of minority, which is the religious aspect. Indeed, the growing tolerance between Christians and Muslims is reality here. Of course, there ire still a lot of barriers to be broken, but generally speaking there is acceptance and a lot of interrelationships. The acceptance between Muslims and Christians has been rehearsed for hundreds of years.

The main problem in Syria is not Muslim-Christian, it's within Muslims themselves, between the Sunnis and the Alevites. This is a taboo in Syria that no one wants to address, but sooner or later, if we want to maintain credibility, we have to talk about it in Tharwa.

How do you prevent yourself from being abused by minorities?

Abdulhamid: We screen everything we have on the web site, we do not let anyone write. If you write a piece that completely criminalizes the regime or issues final judgement on Arab racism I don't think it's the right way of putting it. There needs to be a spirit of accommodation, there needs to be analysis and something that you can backup.

I do not want people who are frustrated to simply write emotional pieces cursing at each other. I can ask a person who is a separatist for his opinion and put it, but I will not advocate it, this is against our policy. We are not advocates of separatist solutions, we do not want to change the borders of this region. The governments will decide on that and the international community. We work within the existing states to ask for more rights for minorities.

Don't you think that your activities will have exactly the effect that you are trying to prevent? That by stressing ethnical or religious affiliations you promote separatism and social dissent?

Abdulhamid: We can not deny our diversity in order to safeguard our sovereignty. It's a delicate balance. We can not ignore minorities and we can not overstress minorities. Because if you ignore them they will not disappear and go away they will become more and more alienated, the walls between them and the majority population will grow thicker and thicker.

If you overemphasize and defend them all the time then you are doing the same, you are emphasizing their ethnic identity and therefore the separateness from the state. It's a delicate balance, we have to question ourselves every now and then and see what kind of writings are taking place on our web site, what kind of studies are being made, what kind of responses we are generating. It's a constant process of self-monitoring.

What future plans do you have for Tharwa?

Abdulhamid: We are planning communal meetings between members of different groups to discuss issues of identity on a grass-root level. We want to monitor various cases of existing cooperation, a village or a region where everybody is at peace and it seems that they have found a practical mode of accommodation. Syria is full of such examples and I am sure that there are other areas in the region where we can have successful coexistence and cooperation.

We want to report on these cases perhaps as something that other more troubled parts of this region can learn from. We would like to organize conferences on minority issues and develop studies on potential flashpoints in the region where the situation is so tense it could blow up.

Perhaps we could recommend certain ways of diffusing the situation before it implodes. We also want to do studies on the socioeconomic integration of various minority groups perhaps coming up even with something like a country assessment report with regard to minorities on a yearly basis.

This could help to judge to which degrees certain minorities are really a part of the socioeconomic and political fabric, to which degree they are playing an active role or they are being marginalized or they might be even overrepresented for one reason or another. There is a variety of ideas but right now we are limited by our funding to at least operate a credible web site.

Kristin Helberg © 2004

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