Islamophobia and the Syrian Revolution: Let’s Unpack That, Shall We?

Mar 31, 2016
THINX Pieces

Written by Emma Glassman-Hughes


In the U.S., many suffer from a rare, chronic illness called SimplifyingConflictsAndUsingThemToBeRacist-iosis. It is a very serious disorder, but luckily it is not without a cure. Let’s examine, shall we?

The most recent diagnosis comes to us in the form of Islamophobia, and in misrepresentations of conflicts in the “Middle East” that serve to further our orientalist assumptions about Arab culture (whatever “Arab culture” is... ‘cause, like, the Arab region is kinda big. Kinda). The Syrian revolution, that has been raging for over five years, has provided us with the perfect example. Because it has produced the largest number of external refugees most of us have ever seen, and because there have been debates about the U.S.’s policy of accepting refugees into our country, Syrian politics has occasionally and fleetingly made it into the public consciousness thanks to some cursory journalistic coverage. However, most of that coverage has been of the geo-politics of the war--which states are involved, which countries are allied with whom, who is “good” and who is “bad,” etc. Very little of the coverage has given any thought to the micro-politics of the war--for example, there has been minimal focus on the actual Syrian people, who need our responsible and accurate journalistic coverage now more than ever--and therefore the story of the revolution has largely been distorted, in favor of states and to the detriment of the people, for U.S. audiences. A painful number of people (and politicians!!) think of Syrian refugees as a monolith of ISIS-loving jihadists who wrought senseless havoc upon their innocent regime--which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Basically, ISIS and the Assad regime are both equally evil organizations that we should fundamentally oppose. Yes, some refugees from the war have been drawn in as recruits for ISIS because it provides them an outlet for the extreme anger and despair they feel from suffering years of violence and oppression at the hands of their own government. Exploiting the desperation of the Syrian people, ISIS has made followers out of *some* Syrians, the way it recruited *some* Iraqis after mangled U.S. foreign policy that left the Iraqi people vulnerable. Let’s be real: ISIS represents unconscionable evil, no ifs, ands, or buts--(except this one) BUT, tbh, so does Assad--it’s just that Assad isn’t threatening the U.S. like ISIS is, so we turn away from his specific brand of evil (using chemical weapons against his own people, torturing and oppressing and bombing millions) and instead we blame the Syrian people for their own suffering, or sever our empathy for the victims of the war. In general, we’ve largely ignored the crisis in Syria (myself very much included).

Ok ok ok that’s all so super depressing, I know. But think about it: if you’re reading this and you live in the “West,” was my people-centric description similar or totally different from previous coverage you’ve seen or heard about the Syrian revolution? How many times have you heard the crisis referred to in human terms, and not in political terms? As feminists, it’s important to question the information that we’re being fed, and to replace western racism and preconceived notions about the “Middle East” with compassion, understanding, and interest for the crisis in Syria, as well as other crises in the region. It’s important to combat the oversimplified, Islamophobic narratives that are so often part of the discourse in the U.S., call them what they are, and do our best to resist them; for other Americans, we must try to humanize the Syrian people--refugees, revolutionaries, Olympic swimmers, terrorists, whomever. Yusra’s story (the 17-year-old Damascene who fled Syria, pushed her sinking lifeboat into shore in Greece, and is now being considered as an olympian for the summer games...the definition of NBD) is ultimately a beautiful one, but by no means should it be our starting and stopping point for engagement with the Syrian conflict. Not all refugees are heroes like she is--but we still need to care about them the way we care the Yusras. Here’s the fun part: we can cure our rampant SimplifyingConflictsAndUsingThemToBeRacist-iosis with some good old fashioned feminism--AKA investing in the wellbeing and humanity of others beyond the bare minimum that is presented to us, and often presented totally skewed. We can acknowledge the fight in Syria as a fight not only for freedom from regime terror, but for human rights and human equality. We can celebrate the people on the ground who are fighting for their survival. We can do it!! I know we can!! Many of you probably already are because you’re A+ feminists who know how to get down with equality (and take down da patriarchy, amirite?). But for those of you, like me, who are just entering this conversation, here’s your first stop on the anti-colonialist express: take a look at the amazing women below who are carrying communities on their shoulders.


Cool and creative and important stuff about women in Syria and surrounding states:

  • Ansar Hevi and others are working with 15th Garden, an urban farming initiative begun in Syria to support food sovereignty within war-torn communities. To combat starvation--the Syrian regime has a history of strategically cutting off access to grain and water for millions--this incredibly subversive group smuggles in seeds and supplies and teaches urban Syrians how to sustain their own eating, independent of the oppressors. Check out more of their work here.
  • Read this book for a truly in-depth look at the Syrian revolution, and let your love for Leila (and Robin!) overwhelm you.
  • All the mothers who have suffered.
  • Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights activist and lawyer, is credited with radicalizing and revolutionizing the field of human rights advocacy in Syria, and making it an accessible form of expression for much of the country’s marginalized community. She and her colleagues (known collectively as the Duma Four) were abducted in December of 2013 and haven’t been heard from since.
  • This badass woman who is known as Yemen’s first female rapper has devoted her career as an artist to raising awareness about conflicts in Yemen that specifically affect women and children. Check out some of her music! Lady talent is the best talent!


Psst! Comment w/ stories and links of other women who are changing the world simply by being who they are! It’s our fave thing ever. Like even more than Netflix&grill(ed cheese).

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