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Max Blumenthal discusses his article, “The right to resist is universal: A farewell to Al Akhbar and Assad’s apologists”

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from Baltimore.

Max Blumenthal, a well-known author, journalist, and regular contributor to The Real News Network, was also a staffer at the newspaper Al-Akhbar. Well, yesterday he resigned. And he wrote a letter, and the title of the article or letter of resignation is “The right to resist is universal: A farewell to Al Akhbar and Assad’s apologists”. Now joining us to talk about why he quit Al-Akhbar is Max Blumenthal. Thanks for joining us, Max.


JAY: So what’s—tell us the moment you were in. What kind of was the decision-making moment for you to quit Al-Akhbar? It’s—Al-Akhbar is known as a fairly progressive newspaper, especially coming from the Arab world. It’s not one of these sort of government publications or broadcasters that seems to dominate most of the Arab world. Why did you quit?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, I had noticed—I started really paying attention to the coverage closely on the website, and mainly the opinions following the Houla massacre, which was by all accounts carried out by shabiha affiliated with the Assad regime, to the embarrassment of the Assad regime. But, I mean, it was part of their campaign of suppression inside Syria, to crush what I consider to be a legitimate attempt at removing a dictator. And I noticed the opinions in favor of Assad had grown more strident on the website.

This is a point where, by all accounts, the Assad regime had killed as many as 10,000 people in order to remain in power, possibly 13,000, according to people I know inside Syria who’ve come out. I’ve done extensive interviews and during the past few weeks, partly prompted by my anguish about my own position as a staffer at Al-Akhbar.

The Assad regime was running an institution of torture in prisons. Possibly 100,000 people are in prison right now. And this makes Israel look like, you know, a champion of human rights.

And at the same time, while there were dissident voices at the paper, while there were still some great writers and some really humanistic people working at Al-Akhbar, I noticed that it was publishing op-eds by people like Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who were just openly apologetic of the Assad regime, if not cheerleading Assad as this kind of subaltern freedom fighter leading what she called a front-line resisting state, or Sharmine Narwani, the blogger who was nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, who was blaming the victims of the Assad regime and who was attacking the international press corps for attempting to gain access to the scene of the Assad regime’s crimes, which reminded me of the Israeli government during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza when they banned reporters from Gaza.

This just was really too much for me. And I’d always felt like Al-Akhbar was the most courageous—one of the most courageous publications in the Arab world, certainly the freest—gave me more latitude than any paper in the United States to write about Palestine, to write about Israel and Palestine, and still remains, in some respects, a valuable publication on a lot of issues, like, for example, the abuse of domestic workers inside Lebanon, which is a plague and very few other publications report on.

But for me it was a personal decision. It was too much to have my name and reputation associated with open Assad apologists when the scale of atrocities had become so extreme and when the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar was offering friendly advice to Bashar al-Assad on the website of Al-Akhbar, you know, painting him as this kind of genuine, earnest reformer who just needed to get rid of the bad men around him and cut out some of the rich oligarchs who happened to be his cousins, and then everything would be fine. That was ridiculous.

JAY: Now, you do get this kind of support for Assad, for example, in Latin America. Much—many of the Latin American countries, Bolivia, Venezuela, I believe Ecuador (I have to check on that), have not just opposed intervention, which is one position, but have also come to sort of a defense of Assad as being sort of an anti-imperialist, ’cause I think it’s important to separate the two questions. You know, let me ask you, in a sense, but you don’t have to—opposing Assad or supporting the Syrian people’s right to overthrow Assad certainly doesn’t equate to some support for outside intervention.

BLUMENTHAL: It doesn’t have to. Let me come back to that and just make one more point, which is that in the past weeks, I had learned of a major exodus of key staffers at Al-Akhbar over the Syrian issue. This issue exploded right after I joined Al-Akhbar to write about Israel-Palestine and to cover foreign-policy debates in Washington. So Syria wasn’t my beat. The Arab world wasn’t my beat. I didn’t really anticipate writing about it or discussing it on the website. But the conflict over Syria has divided the Lebanese left. And so the debates at Al-Akhbar really reflected the debates inside the Lebanese left. And what it came to by this spring, apparently, was that the pro-Assad faction, which saw him and his regime as an anti-imperialist bulwark, had more or less won out, although some dissident voices remain.

Now, in my view, it’s a ridiculous contention to make that Assad is a legitimate anti-imperialist figure. Just because there are Western imperial designs on Syria doesn’t make him a freedom fighter. It doesn’t make him a legitimate anti-imperial figure. He’s always being a self-interested autocrat. His regime has in fact offered negotiations with Israel with no preconditions. They allowed the U.S. to render terror suspects, including those who appeared to be completely innocent, to Syria for torture. You know. And at the same time—.

JAY: And in particular the famous case of the Canadian, Maher Arar.

BLUMENTHAL: Maher Arar. Right. And he was innocent. So Syria was doing these favors to the United States.

But really for me it came down to the question of Palestine, something I really care about and which I’ve committed myself to. And I don’t claim to speak for any Palestinians. This was a personal choice for me. I mean, I’m speaking for myself. But knowing Syria’s history with Palestine, for example, invading Lebanon to crush the Palestinian national struggle taking place in cooperation with the Lebanese left, besieging the Tel al-Zaatar camp and eventually massacring its inhabitants with the approval of the United States, this is Syria’s history, and it’s not a history of standing in solidarity with Palestinians, necessarily. It’s a history of acting in its own self-interest, as any dictatorial regime or as any state does.

And, you know, I think the left needs to move beyond looking to state power as a means of advancing what should be humanistic ambitions, especially in a time of worldwide revolt not just in the Arab world, but even the United States and Europe, against the austerity measures. How can you make apologies for a dictator in one country and then support people power in another country? Similarly—.

JAY: Max, the counterargument some people will make is that there’s a plan—certainly the Saudis are driving it, the Qataris to some extent, maybe equally to the Saudis. I don’t know. The Americans to some extent—it’s hard to know exactly where they’re coming down on this, but it looks like at least the U.S., the Saudis want another Libya. At the very least, they’re arming and encouraging forces within Syria that militarize the struggle in a way that maybe it didn’t have to be militarized, and those forces within the opposition creating a civil war and, in other words, creating the context, the pretext for some kind of Libyan outside intervention. And so you get this argument within the left that in those conditions the issue is simply to oppose that, not to go after Assad. How do you respond to that?

BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, I mean, I won’t disagree with anyone who makes those claims. It’s clear the United States, Saudi Arabia, and even Israel—I mean, I’ve heard scandalous stories from friends working in Washington about the Syrian National Council and who they’ve been meeting with. I mean, this is a really lousy organization, which is actually rejected by a lot of Syrian dissidents who’ve have spent time in Syrian prisons and who reject foreign intervention, like Michel Kilo.

So I think, you know, it’s legitimate to report on Western designs and Saudi designs on Syria and to expose them, and it’s important to stand on the side of authentic Syrian dissidents who oppose imperialism. But to go beyond that and paint Assad, a character who’s really at the helm of a regime that’s ideologically hollow that represents nothing beyond a fascistic security apparatus, married to (and sometimes literally, in some cases) a rich neoliberal business class, is just beyond the pale for me. It crossed a red line. And I was seeing that increasingly in the opinion section at Al-Akhbar. It’s why I made a personal decision to leave. So I think they went beyond a legitimate critique of the Syrian opposition.

JAY: And, Max, where are you getting information from about what’s really going on in Syria? Like, at The Real News, you know, we’ve been almost—I mean, not staying away from the Syrian story. We’ve tried to give—contextualize it as best we can, you know, dealing both with the issue of the right of people to rebel against dictatorship and the various nefarious schemes of outside players to fish in troubled waters and create and take advantage of the crisis. But we haven’t been doing a lot, because we’re not sure what’s going on. We don’t know what’s a reliable source of information. So when anything specific happens, we don’t know which claim to believe, and unless we had our own journalist there or somebody we really knew we could trust, we’re kind of left doing not very much. Where are you getting information from?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, that’s something I tried to avoid, which is speaking with complete authority about what’s happening on the ground or speaking with total certainty. I think certainty is an enemy of any intellectual clarity in a situation like this. I mean, we have to be probing, we have to be questioning.

But I made a personal decision based on my own values and based on the accounts that I was getting from Syrian activists, from Syrian intellectuals, and from journalists I respect who have been inside Syria, who’ve been in Homs, who’ve been with the revolution in Syria. And, I mean, these are people I trust.

But I also think criticism of the opposition with journalistic authority is completely legitimate. My problem was that the opinions at Al-Akhbar’s website in support of the Assad regime, which I’ve identified specifically by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb and Sharmine Narwani and by the editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Amin, were not based on any journalistic fieldwork. They’re based on poring over YouTube clips, looking at textbooks, or really disturbing citations by Amin of anonymous regime sources, including documents that he cited which he referred to as investigations of people detained for trafficking weapons. And I asked if those investigations referred to interrogations, which, you know, is really disturbing to me.

So I think it’s important to rely on journalistic work, to consider that, yes, journalists often have their own agenda, especially if they come from the United States and don’t really understand the Arab world, don’t know much about Syria. But I trusted the people who I’ve spoke to who’ve been inside the country, who’ve been on the ground, much more than I trust a bunch of YouTube clips or people who are speaking purely from an ideological point of view and trying to fit everything the regime does into a procrustean bed. And so that’s my perspective. And it was really a personal piece that I wrote about disassociating myself from apologists for a dictator in the context of the universal right to resist.

JAY: Now, Max, some of the criticism you’re getting is that you do write for other publications, some of which are not nearly as critical, for example, of Israel as Al-Akhbar allows you to be and others that write for Al-Akhbar, that the question is: why didn’t you just write what you wrote and see if Al-Akhbar would publish it, but without resigning? Why do you feel it’s necessary to quit? Why couldn’t you fight it out there?

BLUMENTHAL: I didn’t. I didn’t think that—I don’t doubt that they would have allowed me to fight it out there. Al-Akhbar remains a very free publication—as I said, more free than most in the Arab world and many in the United States, and more progressive than many in the United States on the question of Palestine and on a lot of other issues. And they cover issues like ethnic minorities in Turkey or the abuse of domestic workers in Lebanon that U.S. publications don’t cover. So there’s still value to the website. For me it was a personal decision.

And it’s true As’ad AbuKhalil made some good points in his critique of my decision. I don’t agree with them all, but I might have created a quandary for myself, because I’ve set the bar so high that many U.S. publications can’t meet this bar.

He used the example of me writing for the Huffington Post, which I think is comparing apples and oranges. The Huffington Post represents practically nothing beyond, at this point, some news, some good analysis, but mostly softcore celebrity porn, and I haven’t written for the site since the Writers Guild started striking against it because they weren’t paying their writers. I understand that the picket is over and I could write for it again, but I don’t really write for it. And it’s also not an outlet that focuses on the Middle East like Al-Akhbar does.

So Al-Akhbar’s supposed to represent something, and for me it was coming to represent, increasingly, through the dominant pro-Assad tone in its opinion section, something that I couldn’t attach my name and reputation to. Specifically, because my beat was Israel-Palestine and foreign-policy debates in Washington, I couldn’t continue to provide cover for the other writers as long as they were there.

As’ad AbuKhalil has said—and he blogs at the Angry Arab, which is an essential blog—he said that, you know, it’s a work in progress and I should have waited. I couldn’t make any excuses any longer. I couldn’t wait any longer to leave. I needed to wash my hands of the whole operation. But it won’t begrudge anyone who wants to joust with these Assad apologists on the site. It was something I personally couldn’t do. And I am looking to move to a higher ground. And we’ll see if I get there.

JAY: Alright. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Max.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget we’re in the midst of our fundraising—spring/summer fundraising campaign. Every dollar you give will be matched until we reach $100,000. Thanks again for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.