Conflict in Syria = Conflicted Americans: Thoughts on a Recent Blog Post

With the Syria conflict heating up and involvement from the west becoming more and more likely, the social mediasphere has been virtually exploding with opinions. President Obama is being treated cautiously by his own voter base (it’s impossible not to compare the decision to ones made by former Presidents Bush), conservatives and liberals are split on the idea of military intervention, and the 24-hour news media’s coverage has been, well, nonstop.

Recently, my friend Arni Zachariassen – a man I respect immensely, and whose opinions have guided my own thought processes over the past two years such that I’m pleased he’s willing to host this on his own incredible blog – turned me on to an article titled “An open letter on Syria to Western narcissists.

This open letter is worth reading in its entirety, but the gist of it is threefold. First, the author explains he has vested interest in conflicts in the Middle East, with friends and family scattered throughout the region (including in Syria). Secondly, the author is frustrated by knee-jerk reactions to military intervention and nonintervention in the region from those who lack a complete understanding of the complex issues that have resulted in Syria’s crisis.  Finally, and most importantly, he is fiercely critical of those whose interest in the Syria crisis has more to do with an opinion about America’s role in global political conflict rather than the people on the ground. The people who face losing friends, family members, their own lives.

The article was both poignant and convicting.  I think there are more than a few takeaway points for those of us in the West who are used to opining on Facebook or our blogs before a jaunt to the grocery store.  I’ve spent the day mulling over this article.  Before I share my thoughts, I want to make it absolutely clear that my opinions on this matter are no better (and perhaps may be worth a great deal less) than someone more informed.

In fact, I believe the value in sharing my opinion here is that – like most in the West – I’m hopelessly under-informed. I hope that by acknowledging that weakness, and even expressing my discomfort with it, will add something valuable to the conversation, haphazard though it may be. (I apologize that the following thoughts are geared mainly toward Westerners in general and Americans in particular, but being one myself I felt it most appropriate to respond to the thrust of the article to which I am about to respond.):

1)     “Slacktivism” is not actual activism. No matter what we have to say and no matter how important it might seem to say it, sounding off doesn’t alleviate the situation for Syrians any more than talking about how awful worldwide poverty is builds homes or gainfully employs single parents. Giving to Muslim organizations or Christian ones that offer relief in Syria (when aid is stretching alarmingly thin) is at least a step in the right direction.

2)     An opinion is only worth what it’s worth. Social media gives the average person a bully pulpit from which he or she can engage a wide network, and the better an opinion is stated, the more traction it’s likely to gather. The issue here, though, is that any information that we’re likely to have is filtered through a media machine that’s expressly American. It can’t not be. Like it or not, cultural chauvinism and American exceptionalism are woven directly into the way that we parse information. We can either embrace or react against it – but only insofar as our American privilege allows us. Opinions become problematic when espoused with a sense of entitlement. No doubt two doctors may have different opinions on why I’m having headaches, but their opinions are worth immeasurably more than, say, a lawyer’s.

3)     On a related note, our tendency to think in black and white, borrowed from the Western Enlightenment, makes understanding complex foreign issues like the Syria conflict extremely challenging. In a word, we’re not prone to a holistic approach of anything, much less a conflict in a part of the world whose customs, culture, relationships, habits, beliefs – everything that informs the way a person lives his or her life – is foreign to us in every meaning of the word. As Americans, or as Westerners in general, we tend to draw a Manichean line through nearly every issue. When a Ron Paul or a Dennis Kucinich is the farthest “out there” you can get and still be taken with a modicum of seriousness, you live in a damn stable society. A black and white society. A wrong and right society. One that, compared with the Syrian crisis, is as far from volatile as you can get.

4)     In a way, you and I aren’t to be blamed for blasting America-centric opinions left and right. This is where I may tend to disagree a bit with the blog post: nobody thinks of his or her opinion as being uninformed when social media, news media, and alternative media are littered with diverse viewpoints, many of which resonate deeply with our desire for justice. Yet for the most part, we in the West are colorblind people trying to ascertain what “blue” means with only the most limited frame of reference. We mean well. We want to understand. We desire the best possible outcome for the men, women, and children in Syria whose very lives are at stake. Sharing our concern on Facebook or wherever is a part of how we reckon with these deeply unsettling issues, and doing so isn’t necessarily worthy of much criticism. Not in and of itself.

5)     Praying for Syria is immensely important right now. Maybe of the utmost importance. Because, regardless of our opinions about what prayer does or how it works, if we’re Christians we believe that the Holy Spirit can do a few amazing things: He can bring our prayers into sync with the prayers of those in the midst of conflict. He can move our hearts to humility and graciousness. He can take our best intentions, our groaning too deep for words, our soul’s desire to see peace and justice, and bring it all before God in accordance with His very will.

As this situation unfolds, I pray that we’ll see unity.  Our opinions on America’s role in this conflict are secondary to the peace that we all wish to see in Syria and the whole region. In our ability to acknowledge what we don’t know and refrain as far as we can from what may amount to partisan bickering, let’s work toward relief – and let’s pray for a miracle in Syria.

Brandon William Peach is a writer from Lebanon, Pennsylvania who enjoys talking about topics as diverse as religion, literature, marketing, technology, animal welfare, and scotch whisky. Follow him on Twitter or hit him up at LinkedIn.