Connecting Black Lives Matter and Syrian Lives Matter

Despite the differences in the historical experiences of African American freedom fighters and Syrian revolutionaries, both have something in common:  Being treated as the dehumanized “other,” and suffering from the ways in which prejudice and discrimination have been used to impede their struggles for social justice.

Frieda Afary

July 21, 2016

When we revolt, it is not for a particular culture.  We revolt simply because for many reasons we can no longer breathe.”  Frantz Fanon*

It struck me that some Black Lives Matter activists in the United States, and the authors of   Burning Country:  Syrians in Revolution and War ** have used the above quotation from Frantz Fanon to represent the universality of their respective struggles.

Let’s take this shared interest in Fanon’s statement as a point of departure to ask what African Americans fighting against racism/for human dignity, and Syrians who participated in the 2011 Syrian revolution have in common.

Of course the history of each people is very different.

The ancestors of African Americans were taken as prisoners of war by local African rulers, sold as slaves to European traders and forcibly taken to the Americas to work in mines and on plantations starting in the 1500s.  Even though African Americans participated in the American Revolution against British colonialism in 1776, the United States constitution did not recognize them as full human beings and allowed for the continuation of slavery.   The slave labor of African Americans laid the foundation for and became an essential component of American capitalism. *** They fought valiantly in the 1861-65 U.S. Civil War and achieved the abolition of slavery but continued to be subjected to slavery by another name and a legal system of racial segregation.   In the 1950s and 1960s, they participated in a Civil Rights Movement that gave them some rights but have continued to face racism, de facto segregation, poverty, police brutality and imprisonment.    The Black Lives Matter movement, the writings/activities of Black feminists and LGBT activists, and the movement for environmental justice represent the latest expressions of this struggle.

Syrians were part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, after which they became a French colony.  Even after independence in the post-World War II period, they were subjected to authoritarian Arab nationalist regimes from that of Gamal Abdel Nasser to the rule of the Baath Party.  The Baathist regime of the Assad presidential dynasty was influenced by both Stalinism and fascism, kept them under a fifty-year state of emergency and denied them basic human rights.  In 2011, when the majority of Syrians were inspired by democratic movements in the Arab world to come together in a revolution and overthrow the Assad regime, they were brutally crushed in a counter-revolutionary campaign of this regime that has resulted in the death of half a million Syrians, the imprisonment of 150,000 and the displacement of 12 million, many of whom are now refugees languishing in other countries and experiencing dehumanization and discrimination.

Despite the differences in the historical experiences of African American freedom fighters and Syrian revolutionaries, both have something in common:   Being treated as the dehumanized “other,” and suffering from the ways in which prejudice and discrimination have been used to impede their struggles for social justice.

In Syria, the Assad regime has used not only military force but ethnic and religious divisions between Sunnis and Alawis, Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians to promote hatred and sectarianism among those who supported the 2011 revolution.  The Arab revolutionaries also did not offer a vision that included self-determination for the Kurdish national minority and an alternative to Assad’s exploitative capitalist regime.  The regime’s brutality and sectarianism, the intervention of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf nations, and the limitations of the opposition, all created a fertile ground for the rise and growth of ISIS and other Jihadist terrorist organizations in Syria.

In the U.S., racism has been used to sow hatred between the white working class and African Americans, the majority of whom are working class.   Over fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the U.S. racial segregation system “a psychological bird that told him [a white person] that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.” **** This slaveholder mentality is what Donald Trump uses to prevent whites, African Americans and Latinos who suffer from the injustices of capitalism to come together in a multiracial alliance for social justice.

How can Black Lives Matter activists and Syrian revolutionaries begin to help each other?

Syrian revolutionaries can point to the African American struggle against racism and capitalist injustice as “the other America,” which needs international solidarity.  Many Syrian revolutionaries and refugees have also expressed their solidarity with the victims of terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, and have taken a stand against these attacks.

Black Lives Matter activists can challenge the dominant narrative that helping the Assad regime will end the terrorism of ISIS.   They can point to the equally terrorist nature of the Assad regime and declare their solidarity with those Arab and Kurdish revolutionaries who simultaneously oppose the Assad regime and ISIS and all religious fundamentalists.    Black Lives Matter can embrace Syrian revolutionaries, now refugees, and engage in a dialogue with them about what happened to the Syrian revolution, what is required to end the war now, and how to establish social justice in Syria.

Given the ways in which racists such as Donald Trump and many other U.S. leaders have used the threat of terrorism to promote the militarization of U.S. society and to advocate taking away hard-won civil rights, it is really critical for Black Lives Matter to address the events in Syria.    Jihadist terrorists inside and outside the Middle East cannot be stopped so long as the Assad regime and its allies continue to massacre civilians, the moderate as well as the revolutionary opposition.   At the same time, U.S.  imperialist military intervention in the Middle East has only made matters worse.

Frantz Fanon has shown us that although we revolt “simply because for many reasons we can no longer breathe,” the struggle for social justice is very complicated.  It demands that we challenge the class, racial/ethnic and gender divisions outside and within our movements, and always see our struggle in the context of the international struggle for human liberation.  In that spirit, Black Lives Matter and Syrian Lives matter are indispensable for each other.

This article was originally published by the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists on August 2, 2016.   Frieda Afary is a member of this Alliance.  She lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at [email protected]


*Frantz Fanon.  Black Skin, White Masks.  Translated by Charles Lam Markmann.  New York: Grove Press, 1967, p. 226.  This translation states:  “It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt.  It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe.”

**  Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami.  Burning Country:  Syrians in Revolution and War.  Pluto Press, 2016.  See my review-essay about this book:

*** As Karl Marx wrote in Capital: “Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.”  Capital,  Volume 1.  Vintage, 1976.  P. 925.

**** Martin Luther King Jr.  A Call to Conscience.  Eds. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard.  New York:  Warner Books, 2001, p. 124.