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Thomas Friedman on Syria's Role in the Mideast Conflict

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman just returned from a trip to Israel, Jordan and Syria. He talks with us about the war between Israel and Hezbollah, and where Syria fits in. Friedman's most recent book is The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century.

21:29

Other segments from the episode on August 1, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 1, 2006: Interview with Tom Friedman; Interview with Ammar Abdulhamid.

Transcript

DATE August 1, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tom Friedman of The New York Times discusses the war
between Israel and Hezbollah and where Syria fits in
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Tom Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist
for The New York Times. He just returned from a trip to Israel, Jordan and
Syria. We asked him to talk with us about the war between Israel and
Hezbollah and where Syria fits in. Yesterday the Israeli security cabinet
agreed to expand the ground war and the Syrian government put its military on
high alert. Tom Friedman has been writing about the Middle East since 1979
when he started covering Beirut for UPI. In 1982, he became The New York
Times correspondent in Lebanon. Two years later, he started covering Israel
for the Times. His best-selling 1989 book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem," won a
National Book Award. Friedman's latest book, the best seller, "The World is
Flat," is about the global economy.

Tom Friedman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One of the places you went on your
Middle East trip was to Syria. Why did you want to go there?

Mr. TOM FRIEDMAN (Columnist, The New York Times): Well, it struck me, Terry,
that Syria is really at the center of so much of what's going on right now.
First of all, Syria is the land bridge that connects Hezbollah in Lebanon with
its primary backer Iran. And Iran could not provide Hezbollah with the
rockets it has, except by going through Syria. So that's the first reason I
went there. Secondly, it's long been known that the Iranian Embassy in
Damascus has been the primary contact point for Hezbollah and Iranians. And
it seemed to me that, if one were to step back and say, `Hmm, what would Henry
Kissinger do right now?' That is, what is the game changing move that could
really shake up this chess board and in a way that would be positive for
American interests.

If you think about where Syria is in this whole equation, the bridge between
Iran and Hezbollah, the back room for Hamas in Gaza and also the back room for
the insurgents in Iraq, that the big game changing move would be if you could
somehow move Syria from an alliance headed by Iran back into its really
traditional home in many ways, the Sunni-Arab world with Jordan, Egypt and
Saudi Arabia, countries much more pro-United States, and that if we could
somehow do that, that's what would really change this whole equation. And
really as soon as the fighting broke out, I decided that's why I got to do. I
got to get on a plane and go to Damascus and try to assess whether that kind
of move is at all possible, because only that kind of move, I think, could
really change the whole chess board.

GROSS: So who did you talk to to try to assess that?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I actually interviewed Syrian foreign minister and another
cabinet minister and Syrian economists and lots of diplomats when I was there,
and a local Syrian journalist. And I came away feeling that it's a real long
shot. Syria and the United States are deeply alienated today. We have
withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus, Margaret Scobey. She's been gone for

months now. Our charge d'affaires there is about to leave, a very able
diplomat. He's about to leave, replaced by someone new. They're only
allowed, our diplomats there, to meet with the chief of protocol at the Syrian
foreign ministry, and his job is to ask you how you like your Turkish coffee.
So we have really no dialog with Syria. And the Syrians know that they're
basically alone but that they've got Iran at their back. Iran, which has
billions of dollars in oil money today and lots of weapons, developing a
nuclear capability, and so it would be very hard. But I also could hear in
between the lines that it might not be impossible.

It might not be impossible for several reasons, Terry. Number one, because,
you know, Syria's a Sunni-Muslim country. Iran is a Shitte-Muslim country,
led by a religious hierarchy. Syria's a very secular country. They're not
natural allies. I don't think a lot of Syrians are comfortable in this
relationship, and the best evidence of that, diplomats pointed out to me, is
how many times the Iranians keep sending senior delegations to Damascus just
to make sure everything's OK. So I think the Iranians are quite insecure
about this relationship, which has no real historical foundation nor
geographical foundation. It's a really artificial creation. I don't think
it's impossible. The price for the Syrians would be very high. It would be a
resumption of negotiations over the Golan Heights with Israel and probably
some kind of tacit understanding about their, quote/unquote, "legitimate
security interests" in Lebanon. But I think it's a dialog at least worth
having.

GROSS: So if Syria separated from Iran and if Syria was invited to peace
talks or cease-fire talks, what role do you think Syria could play?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, the most important role they could play would be to
endorse an international force in south Lebanon which would send a signal to
countries wanting to contribute forces to such a peacekeeping operation, but a
robust peacekeeping operation. Not blue helmets, you know, with a bunch of
Norwegians, Swedes and Ghanaians, but, you know, a real NATO-like or
Bosnia-like force. If the Syrians gave their green light to that, then I
think countries would contribute. If they didn't, I think a lot of countries
would not contribute. I don't think any countries will contribute.

GROSS: During the years that Syria occupied Lebanon and they pulled out their
troops only last year, what did they get out of being there?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Oh, the Syrians milked Lebanon dry. Syrian officers and
intelligence people basically, you know, pulled every important string in
Lebanon. You couldn't really get any senior government position without their
tacit approval. They were renown for being involved in, you know, a myriad
smuggling scams. And, most of all, they basically erased the border between
Syria and Lebanon in terms of Syrian workers. So you had the Lebanese economy
basically absorbing up to, I think, as many as one million Syrian workers who
couldn't find jobs in Syria. That was a big deal.

GROSS: So they got money out of it?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: They sucked Lebanon dry financially. They got money, they got
jobs, and they got a broader sort of front with Israel to protect their claim.
You know, Syria was basically in the Beqaa Valley, it's soft underbelly, so
Israel couldn't do a left hook into Damascus.

GROSS: You know, I was reading your book "From Beirut to Jerusalem" again
over the weekend.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Bless your heart.

GROSS: And you have a whole chapter devoted to Hama, which is a city in Syria
in which there was an incredible massacre. Why don't you just explain what
happened there?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, in 1982, Syria faced its own Islamist uprising, and at
that time, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president Bashar al-Assad
was in power, and for years the Sunni-Muslim brotherhood was becoming stronger
and stronger in Syria, in opposition to the ruling Assad family, which comes
from a sect of a sect. It's sort of a offshoot of Shiism which is known as
Alawite Islam. And the Alawites are about 10, 11 percent of the population of
Syria. Most of the rest are Sunni Muslims. And so you have this kind of
minority ruling over this Sunni majority, and the Sunni majority at the
religious end, there was this Islamic fundamentalist movement that basically
was trying to topple the regime. The movement was headquartered, had its
greatest strength, in Hama, and in Hama it basically made a bid to take over
the town and use it as a foundation to foment a rebellion against the Assad
government. And they had been involved in running clashes, the government and
these Muslim brotherhood groups for months. But basically what happened in, I
believe, February of 1982, Hafez al-Assad decided he was going to finish this
problem once and for all. And he basically pummeled Hama, leveling whole
neighborhoods. You've seen the pictures of Qana, the buildings that were
brought down by Israel in south Lebanon, that was basically what whole
neighborhoods of Hama looked like after days of pummeling by the Syrian army
artillery and I believe probably air force as well. And one should know
exactly what one's dealing with when you're dealing with Damascus.

As I said in my column, it's a brutal, ruthless regime. I have no illusions
about it. They are responsible, probably indirectly, for what happened to the
US Embassy and the US Marines in Beirut, and yet we dealt with them
afterwards. We dealt with them in Gulf War I, we dealt with them on the
Madrid peace conference. You know, you've got to--in this neighborhood, you
just have so many bad actors, and you really have to make a choice. Are you
going to stand on principle and say, `You know, we're not going to deal with
you because you're really bad.' That's cool. That's a policy. If we're going
to go to war with Syria to make them pay for all the bad things their regime
has done, I totally get that. But if you're not going to go to war, but you
really need them and you're just going to adopt this kind of aggressive verbal
stance and some economic sanctions, then you kind of have the worst of all
worlds, because basically you're going to have a hostile Syria, but it's not
afraid of you. And therefore you have no real leverage. And that seems to me
to be the penumbra that we're in right now vis-a-vis Syria. And I don't see
it serving anyone right now.

GROSS: I just want to say something else about, this is President Hafez
al-Assad, the current president's father. A month after the massacres in
Hama, he said, `Nothing is more dangerous to Islam than distorting its
meanings and concepts while you are opposing as a Muslim. This is what the
criminal brothers are doing.' The Muslim brotherhood. `They are killing in
the name of Islam. They are butchering children, women and old people in the
name of Islam.' But would President Assad today, the son of that President
Assad, consider criticizing Hezbollah for being dangerous to Islam because it
was distorting its meanings and concepts and killing people?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, now, this is all about staying in power, and if
Hezbollah is ready to act as Syria's cat's paw in Lebanon, then, `Wow, we're
all for Hezbollah and we don't really care.' They'll just make sure that
Hezbollah can never operate in Syria. The thing about Hafez Assad, the
current president's father, is that he was the most dangerous kind of
extremist. He was an extremist who knew when to stop. You see, what
distinguished him from Saddam Hussein, who in the end proved to me a moron,
was that he was an extremist who didn't know when to stop. He was always
overplaying his hand. And, of course, the great thing about extremists is
they don't know when to stop and usually overplay their hand and undo
themselves as Saddam did.

Hafez Assad was really dangerous. He was an extremist who knew when to stop.
He knew when to level Hama and then when to rebuild it with lovely new
government housing. He knew when to crush the Muslim brothers and then build
a new mosque around the corner. You know, he had a wonderful, wonderful--I've
inverted commas--sense of balance and survival. He was really the
pre-eminent, you know, Middle East Machiavellian player. I don't think his
son is anywhere near the sophistication of the father. But like I keep
saying, it's worth testing only because I don't know how the alternative of
trying to ignore them is going to work.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York
Times and author of the best sellers "From Beirut to Jerusalem" and "The World
Is Flat."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York
Times. After the start of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Friedman
traveled to Israel, Syria and Jordan.

You think that Hezbollah miscalculated. You think Israel miscalculated, too.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Too soon to tell. Too soon to tell. Certainly Israel, you
know, miscalculated if you think this is about a PR war and Israel has, by
tragically, you know, hitting a building that kills 56 Lebanese civilians in
one day, and this is a tragedy, has gotten a huge global black eye on it, but,
you know, wars are fought for political ends, Terry, and we'll see what the
political end is here. You know, Nasrallah says, `We won already. We've
stopped the Israeli army.' And, you know, `We fought them to a standstill.
We're the pride of the Arab world.' And, you know, you just hear that stuff,
and you want to weep. You want to weep because you want to say, `Don't you
see? Israel's making microchips and you're making potato chips. And you won?
Israel is the Technion and you've got Hezbollah high? And you won? Israel
has more companies on the Nasdaq than any country in the world outside the
United States, other than Canada, and you can't make a light bulb, and you
won? What a terrible thing to say.'

You know, I don't care at the end of the day what Hezbollah says about Israel.
They can hate the Israelis and Jews all they want. But you know what really
disgusts me and makes me just enormously angry is not what they do to the
Israelis. It's what they do to their own people. The future they have
deprived their own children of. The fact that they hate Israel more than they
love their own kids. That is such a travesty.

GROSS: Do you feel agonized now over the civilian casualties in Lebanon from
the Israeli air campaign?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Oh, of course. I mean, and this isn't some cheap `I feel
agonized about all civilians.' I lived in Beirut for five years. And I was so
excited to go back to Beirut. It was 1999. I hadn't been back, basically
since 1982. And see the incredible amount of rebuilding that had happened.
Some of it paid for out of the pocket, incidentally, of Rafik Hariri. I have
a lot of friends there. Lebanon's where I started in my career. My wife and
I started our marriage there. It breaks my heart to see this. And the
tragedy of the Arab world today, which is so well-documented in the Arab human
development reports is that there are so many young people there who aspire to
something different, OK. But the politics is really perverse. And when
someone like Nasrallah who is just another false messiah,
just...(unintelligible)...another guy who will stand on the ruins and say, `It
isn't whether you win or lose, it's just whether you fight the Jews.' Another
guy who will stand on the ruins and say, `Look what we won.' You know, you
just know what a long-term travesty this is. Let me tell you something from
my perspective, Terry, that I would just add, you know, there's already all
this commentary, `Nasrallah won, Nasrallah won, Nasrallah won.' Yep. You
know, in the Middle East, Terry, there's the morning after and the morning
after the morning after. I have no doubt if there's a cease-fire here, the
morning after, Nasrallah will stand on the ruins and say, `I won! We fought
the Jews to a standstill. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Applaud, applaud,
applaud, applaud, applaud.' But the morning after the morning after, when
people come home, they look at their homes that are flattened, their factories
that are flattened, their futures that are flattened. There will be a
reckoning. I reckon there will be a reckoning. The laws of gravity even
apply to Hezbollah.

GROSS: It seemed like Mahmoud Abbas, who is the head of the Palestinian
Authority, was on the verge of getting some agreement on using a peace plan
that was drawn up by Palestinian prisoners who are still very powerful
politically. And using that as a template to start negotiations again, he was
on the verge of moving forward with that when Hamas kidnapped an Israeli
soldier. Do you think that timing was intentional?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It was intentional, Terry, but here's the real story. There's
Hamas and then there's Hamas' military wing. And the military wing takes
direct orders from the Hamas commanders in Damascus, not from Haniya, the
Hamas prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. And I have been told while
I was in Israel that what was going on was that, basically, the Hamas
political authority was looking to reach a power-sharing agreement with
Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah people. They were on the verge of that, when the
Hamas military wing, under orders from the leadership in Damascus, abducted
this Israeli soldier to blow it all up. And that's part of the perverseness
of this region.

GROSS: So, in other words, Syria didn't want this agreement to go forward?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Syria didn't want this agreement to go forward and the Hamas
external leadership didn't want this agreement to go forward because it would
have meant that Hamas leadership in Gaza then would have had greatly enhanced
authority. So this was also an intra-Hamas struggle, because if Hamas inside
Gaza and the West Bank were able to participate in the government in an
effective way, open peace talks with Israel, the authority of Hamas outside
would have been greatly diminished and become increasingly irrelevant.

GROSS: And in essence they succeeded. I mean, they succeeded in stopping any
forward movement and pushing things very backward.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Bad guys. They win so often in that part of the world. It's
been--it's been such a long time, Terry, since the good guys and good gals
won.

GROSS: You've written that the world hates President Bush more than any US
president in your lifetime. What does that mean for America right now?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: What is means is something really sad, which is that, you
know, a lot of bad things happen in the world without us. But there aren't a
lot of good things. I mean big good things like Kyoto, like a Gulf War I
alliance against a mad dictator who invaded Kuwait. There aren't a lot of big
good things in the world that happen without us. And there are so many big
good things now that we need to have happen, Terry, whether it is on climate
change or on disease or on world trade talks or on trying to somehow shore up
the only elected democracy in the Arab world, albeit flawed, in Iraq. There's
so many big good things that we need to have happen. And we just are too
radioactive.

This administration has enormous moral clarity, and it has no moral authority.
It has no moral authority because it walked away from Kyoto, an issue that so
many people around the world feel is important. It has no moral authority
because it perpetrated Abu Ghraib but never really prosecuted anyone higher
than the local grunts who did it. It has no moral authority because it came
to Iraq in the name of democracy and has produced a complete disaster, you
know, in many ways. And because of that, we can't do a lot of the big good
work that needs to be done right now. And that is really bad because these
people are going to be here for two and a half more years and they are so
radioactive they glow in the dark.

GROSS: Well, Tom Friedman, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: My pleasure. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Friedman is a foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and
author of the best sellers, "From Beirut to Jerusalem" and "The World is
Flat."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. His mother is a famous
Syrian actress who went to school with President Bashar Assad, and he was
asked to leave his country last year. He now lives in the US and is
affiliated with the Brookings Institution.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Ammar Abdulhamid discusses his life as a dissident in
Syria and his views of what's happening in the Middle East
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident who left his country last year
and now lives in the US. He says growing up in Syria in the '70s and '80s, it
wasn't fears of an Israeli attack that kept him up at night. If there was a
bogeyman in his life, it was the dreaded Syrian security apparatus and certain
government officials. Abdulhamid's family is famous in Syria. His mother is
a movie star; his late father was a director. Abdulhamid studied in the US
between 1986 and '94. He's a poet and novelist and writes a blog called
Amarji. He's also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban
Center for Middle East Policy.

Ammar Abdulhamid, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me read something you recently
wrote in talking about conflicts between Israel and Arab countries. You
wrote, "I put the greater burden of blame on us because all of us, both people
and ruling elites alike are always so cavalier in our willingness to confront
Israel and the international community and to supply them with all the
necessary excuses and justifications for their acts of aggression against us."
How does that apply to the current conflict?

Mr. AMMAR ABDULHAMID (Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings
Institution): Well, the adventures of Hezbollah basically. The reason why
Hezbollah has acted against Israel and has been sort of attacking Israel for
the last six years really has nothing to do with Lebanese national interests.
It has something to do with Hezbollah's desire not to disarm and to hedge its
bets, vis-a-vis other communities in Lebanon, by showing that it doesn't only
represent the demographic power but also a military power. There is also its
Islamic predilection. There is an inability basically to accept Israel's
right to exist. And also there is Hezbollah's role as a proxy for the Syrian
regime interests and the Iranian mullah's interests, which is to de-sway
public attention from their own internal problems and to create pressure on
Israel for the return of the Golan Heights, as far as Syria is concerned. And
the reality is our main struggle is not only to get back the occupied land but
also to develop our countries and our economies. We are experiencing a lot of
problems, and our main problems really are developmental issues. And we have
been spending on the military and on armaments for the last 30 to 50 years
without really spending enough monies on education, on health care, on
infrastructure.

GROSS: Now I know that you oppose the government of Bashar Assad, and you
opposed the government of his father, Hafez al-Assad. But do you support the
Bush administration's interest in regime change in Syria, and, you know, who
knows what if anything the Bush administration would do to move toward that
goal. But do you think that's a wise goal for the Bush administration to
have?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Well, to be honest with you, this is exactly where I find
myself always second-guessing myself. On the one hand, I don't want to see
the Iraqi scenario in Syria. On the other hand, I cannot stomach the idea
that an administration in Iraq state, whether it's the Bush administration or
any...(unintelligible)...administration should sit down with Bashar and have
talks with him to normalize the relationship between the two countries and the
cost of internal reforms. We have been through that path before. I mean,
this has been the real policy that has been followed over and over again. And
it always came down at the expense of internal freedoms. And this is not
going to allow our societies to develop. The more we deal with the corrupt
elite, the more we are going to have societies that are breaking up and going
in the more radical direction. What I'm afraid of is that we are going to
have a series of failed states in the region under the rule of these corrupt
regimes because they're siphoning off all the fortunes, all the wealth in the
country. They are not addressing in any serious manner the developmental
needs of the country, and we are reaching in several of the countries in the
Middle East, Syria included, a level where any more pressures, the entire
states would collapse.

So, in a sense, I support regime change by internal means simply because the
rule of the Assads have brought us disasters and will continue to bring us
disasters. But, at the same time, I want America to back us on this as far as
putting pressures and isolating the Syrian regime. I don't want to see
military action because this will also create a lot of havoc in the country
and may not even help our cause because by that time you will be so entangled
in American policies for the region and for the country, and that you will not
be able to shake free from that. So it's a mixed approach therefore. I just
want the regime to be isolated, and I want us to then do the job of achieving
regime change by hopefully orchestrating some kind of a Velvet Revolution.

GROSS: When you were growing up in Syria, what were you taught about Israel,
in your school, by your parents, by your friends?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Basically, it's, you know, it shouldn't be surprised in here
that, of course, we were taught to hate Israel, both as a Zionist entity, as a
Jewish entity, and, of course, we studied history from our own perspective
which blames Israel for almost everything, basically, wrong in our societies
today and its Zionist conspiracy and imperialism and so on. So, of course, I
had very unflattering views of Israel and the Israelis. And it's only when I
came to the United States to study at the University of Wisconsin that I had a
different version of history and that I have, in fact, even had some contacts
with Israelis. And increasingly in the earlier '90s when we had the Madrid
conference and then the whole peace process was started, we know the contact
began to be more friendly with Israeli students. Now we can talk actually
about the possibilities of peace. And I think we had some hope basically that
we can really end this in the 1990s, and we can start sort of a new chapter.

And there is enough blame to go around. Why this did not happen? You can
blame the Israelis for dragging their feet. You can blame the Syrians, and I
do a lot, for also dragging their feet. I don't want to spend my time
criticizing Israel and the United States and imperialism and Zionism and what
have you because there are enough critics out there of Israeli policies. In
fact, all of our criticism is aimed at the Israeli policies. But we don't
have enough criticism of our own policies and of our Israeli conflict or of
our internal policies. So I spend most of my time doing that, which is why I
found sometimes too radical or unbalanced, but the realities, I don't have to
repeat what other people are saying. We know that Israel is wrong. It's
occupying our land. We understand how we got to this state of affairs. But
what have we done right in order to get back our lands? The reality is our
tactics have always been the wrong tactics.

GROSS: What were you taught about the United States when you were growing up?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: It's an imperialist nation. We are a socialist nation. So
you can imagine the kind of rhetoric we've had. It's the usual Soviet-style
rhetoric vis-a-vis American imperialism and so on. But, however, when it
comes to America, the interesting thing is, of course, the American culture.
So people cannot simply overlook American culture or American products. And
whenever a brand is really made in the USA or has an American feel to it, the
people will simply prefer it over anything else. And American movies are
always popular and American TV series are always popular. For a while, the
government tried to introduce Russian series no one wanted to watch. So
everything you can imagine in the '70s and '80s that you've been watching in
the States, we've been watching. From "The Mod Squad" to "Hawaii 5-0" to
"Star Trek" to whatever. We've seen them all.

GROSS: It sometimes seems like it would be almost surreal to be watching
shows like that while you're living in, you know, virtually a dictatorship.

Mr. ABDULHAMID: It is surreal. It is definitely surreal. But this is
something that we have lived for. I mean, that's why many people say that
we're so restricted and whatever. But reality is we do have a cosmopolitan
view that's even much richer than people imagine. I mean, we've been exposed
to American TV shows, French TV shows, Russian TV shows, even sometimes
Chinese, and a lot of these have taken part in our upbringing. A lot of my
friends tell me that, you know, `You're not true to who you are because you're
so Westernized and so on.' And I look at them and tell them, `What do you
mean?' I grew up listening to rock and roll as much as I grew up listening to
a lot of pop songs. And I grew up watching American movies. I am true to who
I am. I am a cosmopolitan person. I'm a cosmopolitan man. And this is my
real heritage.

GROSS: My guest is Syrian dissident, Ammar Abdulhamid. He's now affiliated
with the Brookings Institution.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ammar Abdulhamid, and he's a
Syrian dissident now living in the United States where he's a nonresident
fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings
Institution.

So you grew up in a very well-known and special family. Your mother is a
famous Syrian actress and your father was a well-known film director. So did
that give your family special privileges within Syrian society or did it make
your family more suspect by the government?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Actually, it gave us a special privilege, I have to admit.
I have always been considered to be part of the very elite that I'm attacking
now. And I went to the same schools that our president, Bashar al-Assad, went
to, and we were not really colleagues or classmates. I've always hated his
guts from way back then. And at the same time, one of the reasons why when
calling the president on a variety of interviews when I was in Syria up until
recently, calling him Fredo Corleone, the idiot Mafioso and whatever, instead
of actually getting shot or getting imprisoned, at least, I simply got a call
that it's about--for an interview, and in that interview, I was told by the
president's brother-in-law and the head of the military security apparatus
that probably it's better to leave the country at this stage. So I was given
a way out, and that's the only...

GROSS: Wait. Wait, wait. Let me stop you a second. So when you made a
comparison between the current president of Syria, Bashar Assad, who succeeded
his father, Hafez al-Assad, as president, you were interrogated for that? And
why don't you tell us what the analogy was that you made between the current
president of Syria, Bashar Assad and Fredo Corleone from "The Godfather"
movie. What did you say?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Well, basically, ever since he came to power, Bashar struck
me as being weak and dumb. And I've always known him in school, and I've
never really had a high opinion of him. So I was being interviewed because I
also had this, as a dissident who was very vocal and as a person who was in
charge of an organization, an NGO that works on the relationship between
minorities and majorities, I had a lot of interviews, and I was giving a lot
of interviews. And in a few of them, I compared the president to Fredo
Corleone, the weaker, dumber brother, basically in the Corleone family in "The
Godfather" movie. So many people were always making comparison, was perhaps
Bashar would be Michael Corleone and he would legitimize the family business.
And I told them, `No, he's the Fredo Corleone. He's the weaker, idiot brother
who had no interest, in fact, in legitimizing the family business and who was
always manipulated by others to do their bidding.' And so to me, therefore, he
was really not convincing as a leader, and having said that, yes, I got a call
finally for an interrogation by the president's brother-in-law and the head of
the military security apparatus and one of the chief suspects also in the
Hariri assassination.

And, you know, I was told off about this interview and about my activities and
my statements. And after we had it out for a while, I was asked to actually
leave the country. And had it not been for my background and had my mom not
been so famous and all, and had I not had some contacts also with such
institutions as Brookings and outside, I would never have had the opportunity
to leave. I would have been shot or put in prison or made to disappear, as
some of my colleagues were. So indeed I was lucky to come from a certain
background, and I feel guilty about it a lot of times. But it's also the
reality that has saved my life.

GROSS: Is your mother still in Syria?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Yes. She is.

GROSS: And do you worry that she might be punished for your outspokenness,
even though you're living in the United States now?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: She's too famous, I think, for her to be hassled in any
manner.

GROSS: Now you are a dissident. You are a Syrian dissident. You oppose the
government and you also oppose Islamic radicalism. At the same time earlier
in your life when you were in college, you had become a fundamentalist Muslim.
And from what I've read, even considered going to Afghanistan in the late '80s
to fight against the Soviets. How did you become a radical Muslim?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Well, this is one of those things that I've never really
understood myself completely. It seems, however, the reasons were far more
psychological than ideological. I was a very introverted child, and I had my
mom's fame and my parents' fame and being under the spotlight all the time.
So you could say was not very comfortable thing for me. It brought the envy
and jealousy of my peers in school, and I really never really was comfortable
with it. So I guess what happened is, at some point, religion empowered me.
Instead of saying, `I'm shy,' I can always say, `I'm religious,' you know.
I'm not introverted, I'm just simply not interested in going out and drinking
and following girls. I wanted to but I was simply too shy and inadequate. So
I covered my teenage inadequacies and my youthful inadequacies with a layer of
religiosity, and at the same time, religion really managed to bring me out of
my shell because part of the instruction is to actually go to mosques and to
pray and to meet people and to be active. So Islamic fundamentalism actually
slowly made me break my shyness, made me become more social, stand up on my
own two feet and interact with people with much more confidence. But the
greater the confidence I've gained because of this Islamic activities, the
more also I questioned the nature of the ideology itself, because I was never
really a person who was comfortable following other people's dictates. I
always had a free mind. This is the heritage that I've had from my family.
They've always encouraged me to form my own conclusions and opinions. So as I
was doing that and growing in confidence, I was also questioning the very
graces of the ideology I had adopted. Eventually, this led me out.

GROSS: Now I've read also that the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie also made you
question the religion that you had become part of or the radicalism of the
religion that you had become part of.

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Indeed. At one point, as I was going through this period of
questioning the ideology, the Salman Rushdie affair also broke out, and even
though I was willing to condemn the book having only read excerpts of it that
was sent to us by some Islamic groups in London, I still could not stomach the
death sentence. I can see this as something that is definitely unacceptable,
and at that time, I was interviewed by The Los Angeles Times because I was
working as an imam in a mosque. And I condemned the book but I also condemned
the fatwa which created a lot of problems for me with the Iranian community
and the Shia community that also used the mosque to pray. But, after a while,
I realized frankly that I cannot belong to that--I cannot keep on doing what
I'm doing, being an imam and preaching, whatever. It's something that I'm not
interested in anyway, and that my views were really radically different from
those of the congregation. So I left the mosque and read more about the
country I'm staying in, about the United States and finally decided to go back
to college and study history. I was studying astronomy at one point, but I
realized that I need to go back to earth and root myself more in human values.

GROSS: Now correct me if I'm wrong. I think you've written a couple of
novels.

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Yes.

GROSS: One of them is titled "Menstruation," a very provocative title,
particularly in an Islamic country. Another had an even more provocative
title, "The Whore with the Trillion Vulvas."

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Yes. The first one...

GROSS: Yeah, tell me something about these novels and why you wrote books
with such truly intentionally provocative titles.

Mr. ABDULHAMID: The idea was to try to, for the first novel "Menstruation,"
was to deal with the concept of sexuality in our societies. Many people think
that you're very conservative. They don't realize that you're only
conservative on the surface. But underneath your surface, we can be very
adventurous.

The idea of writing something with this title "Menstruation" goes back to when
I was a fundamentalist. In a mosque, we were, in fact, a group of young men,
and you're studying Sharia and part of the Sharia has to do with hygiene and
feminine hygiene as far as the menstrual cycle because women during the cycle
are not considered to be pure. So there are certain things that they should
not do and certain things that they could do and so on. And I was looking
around, and we were all, you know, young men, and the teacher was, of course,
male. And I thought, `Why should we classify the final analysis of woman
according to liquid oozing out of their bodies?' I mean, it's ridiculous.

So, eventually, the idea of writing something about that was always in my
mind. And when I finally became, I don't know, a heretic, I wrote about it in
a heretical manner.

GROSS: My guest is Syrian dissident, Ammar Abdulhamid. He's now affiliated
with the Brookings Institution.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Ammar Abdulhamid. He's a Syrian dissident who left his
country last year and now lives in the US. He's a nonresident fellow at the
Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

In an article in The New York Times magazine in 2005 that was largely devoted
to you, the writer said, "Islamists have pushed liberals to the sidelines. As
a result, the Arab world's democracy activists and intellectuals don't enjoy
the same advantages their central and eastern European counterparts did back
in the '80s." Do you agree with him that Arab dissidents now and liberals now
in the Arab world don't have that kind of central role and visibility that the
dissidents did in eastern Europe in the Soviet era?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Yes, I agree. The liberals really are fighting an uphill
battle in order to be heard by the streets and in order to get more
credibility by the street. But the reality is the regimes have been
oppressing the liberals and the secular forces in the country and across the
region much more vehemently than these Islamists. You know, with the
Islamists, they followed a more sword-and-daggers approach. They oppressed
some, but they also tolerated and even encouraged others. With the liberal
dissidents, this was across-the-board attempt at silencing every independent
voice out there. For this reason, we really don't have much of a grass-roots
support. Some of us do, and those who do are the older generation who had
already been established before regimes had this chance to oppress them and
they had sort of residence in people's mind and imagination that the regimes
could not wipe out. But the new voices and, perhaps I am one of the new
voices, really are having a hard time being heard back home. Some of us
complicated the matter by the fact that they use other languages like English
and French to express themselves. And I use English mostly. So that also
created sort of a language cut-off. But we feel much more comfortable,
frankly, in these other languages because they're more dynamic. Arabic have
become too stultified in a way. So we have become too alienated from our own
culture and society, also for our own good. We have somehow to go back and
try to re-establish this connection with the heritage and see if we can indeed
gain our relevance on the street.

GROSS: There was a group of dissidents who were arrested just a couple of
months ago in Syria for signing what's called the Beirut/Damascus declaration
of May 12th. And it called for the normalization of relations between Syria
and Lebanon and for a properly demarcated border and the exchange of
ambassadors, while also opposing the United States and Israeli influence in
the region. I wonder if any of those dissidents who signed this declaration
and were arrested are friends of yours.

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Yes. All of them. All of them are friends of mine. And
it's really a pity because I left just a few months before this whole thing
happened, and had I been there, I probably would have been included. And in
fact these people are not simply friends, but many of them are older. So they
are even mentors. And it's really a blow to the entire movement of dissidents
and opposition to Syria that now our leaders are behind bars. But there are
still a lot of us outside also, and frankly despite all this attempt at
crackdown, there are a lot of people still writing and speaking from inside
Syria to actually show that we simply are not willing to back down at this
stage.

We have to stake a new ground, and we realize what's at stake here. It's
really the future of the entire country. So we have no choice but to
persevere in the course that we have chosen despite the fact that we know it's
going to be a lot of sacrifices ahead of us. And so far, frankly, the regime,
even though it's cracked down on certain figures, it has not really been able
to muster enough popular approval to crack down on all dissents. So that's
also a sign that we have created some room to maneuver.

GROSS: One more question. What is it like for you sitting safely in your new
home in the United States when you watch the fighting that's going on now in
the Middle East?

Mr. ABDULHAMID: It's surreal and depressing. Feelings of guilt are always
there. Feelings of helplessness are always there. Feeling of deja vu really
dominates the scene also, as far as I'm concerned, because this is exactly the
kind of mayhem I was saying will happen sooner or later. Even though I didn't
really necessarily expect Israel to be involved so strongly. I thought that
we, our country, would end up killing each other. So Israel might just
facilitate that and be a catalyst in this matter. We are worried constantly,
you know, the kids and I, my wife are definitely depressed. And we are
developing also physical symptoms. We are seeing doctors left and right for a
variety of symptoms that no one can explain except to say, `Ah, yes'--when
they hear about our background and whatever--`Ah, yes. Definitely. It's
depression. It is'--whatever. So the reality is it's very difficult for us.
I mean, being safe and at the same time, being out and yet you're still in.
And we have to watch all this, and we can't be detached truly.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ABDULHAMID: Thank you.

GROSS: Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident who is now an nonresident
fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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