The price of speaking your mind

The abduction of a Syrian blogger serves as a reminder of the volatile situation in the country.

Imagine you are a young woman walking through the streets of your home town with a friend on a balmy summer evening, when you are seized by three armed men and bundled into the back of a car. Your family have no idea where you are or who has taken you -- you are entirely helpless.

This is the fate that has befallen Amina Abdallah Arraf, a Syrian blogger and poet who has achieved relative notoreity for her frank discussion of the country's politics and the logistics of being a lesbian in a traditionally conservative society. Her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, has acquired a considerable following in both Syria and abroad -- a fact that seems not to have escaped the notice of the country's security forces.

Since her kidnapping last night, there has been no news of her whereabouts or her safety. Her disappearance was reported on her blog by her cousin, Rania Ismail.

"Amina was seized by three men in their early 20s. One of the men then put his hand over [her] mouth and they hustled her into a red Dacia Logan...Amina's present location is unknown and it is unclear if she is in jail or being held elsewhere in Damascus... We do not know who has taken her, so we do not know who to ask for her back."

For Amina's family, the anguish of not knowing her fate must be almost unbearable -- but this incident is important not only for the dramatic way in which Amina was taken, but also because it deals a further blow to freedom of speech in a country known for its brutal treatment of dissenters and activists. According to human rights groups, over 10,000 individuals -- including women and children -- have been forcibly detained since anti-government protests began in March.

Social media has its role to play here. The "Free Amina Arraf" Facebook page has already amassed over 4,000 followers (and counting), and activists have been tweeting the news using the hashtag #FreeAmina. But it is difficult to know how much impact such guestures will really have. For Amina and those like her, incacerated for speaking their minds, there is little left to do but wait in hope. As she herself wrote in a poem entitled "Bird Songs" in her last blog post on Monday: "Freedom is coming/ Here I am wanting/ To know it one day".

 

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition