On 13 May 2013, Human Rights Watch released a statement attesting to the authenticity of a disturbing video that circulated first on Syrian pro-regime websites and then on social media. In it, a Syrian man cuts open a dead regime soldier’s chest, pulls his heart and lung out, threatens “Alawite dogs” that they will all face a similar fate, and takes a bite of the viscera while addressing the video camera. This latest sectarian evocation by a member of the armed opposition, Khalid al-Hamad (“Abu Sakkar”), was simplistically depicted by many US and Gulf media outlets as an isolated abomination perpetrated by a savage man. However, the incident tells a more complex story about the evolution of sectarianism in Syria, the relationship between war and social media, and the Western media narrative on Syria more broadly.
“Most Disgusting Atrocity”
The editors of Foreign Policy opted for a sensationalist title for a piece by Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch "Is This the Most Disgusting Atrocity Filmed in the Syria Civil War?" Two weeks after another massacre in al-Baida village and Baniyas, where parents discovered their children’s bodies cut into pieces, stabbed, and burned by regime soldiers, it has become redundant to note that a voyeuristic title suggesting a hierarchy of atrocity is an insult to the suffering that is hardly shared by an increasingly apathetic audience.
Abu Sakkar’s action in the video is undoubtedly and unquestionably horrific. However, unfortunately, it is reminiscent of other cases in Syria and beyond--on either side of the battleground--where violence in all its forms is used as a weapon of war to intimidate the adversary and empower the perpetrator (not unlike the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film Inglorious Basterds). Singling out an act of atrocity alone is an obfuscation of the pervasiveness, proliferation, entrenchment, and intransigence of Syria`s gruesome and grueling sectarian problem.
The latest “cannibalistic” spectacle follows many equally damaging, albeit less graphic, incidents in Syria over the past two years that were not pornographic enough to make the headlines. In July 2011, exiled Sheikh Adnan Kaour said that Alawites deserved to be put into meat grinders. In December 2012, members of the Free Syrian Army burned down a Shii mosque in Jisr al-Shoughour, perhaps in retaliation for the regime attack on the city in June of that year, which sent thousands of refugees to Turkish refugee camps. In February 2013, some children in Binnish disturbingly sang of cutting throats of Alawites, under the guidance of fighters harboring the al-Qaeda scarf. Those few examples, for which there is no shortage of equivalents on the other side, show the steady progression of a harmful mediated sectarian rhetoric threatening to leave an irreparable scar on Syria. Abu Sakkar`s video, like any other, is dangerous especially as it is magnified, instrumentalized, and internalized.
The Good Guys
When the news depict Abu Sakkar as being somewhat of a free agent having created his own brigade, they insinuate that he is an exception to the rule. Many a media outlets was quick to point that the event was an isolated case, with TIME advancing that the Supreme Military Council, overseeing ninety percent of the fighting groups, had joined forces to catch Abu Sakkar, “dead or alive.” However, this reassuring statistic, for anyone familiar with the diverse armed opposition spectrum in Syria, is mere wishful thinking.
Indeed, there were various instances where commanders adopted a nonsectarian discourse and seemed to be advocating for the ideals of the Syrian revolution. This was the case of Abu Furat, an FSA commander who was killed in combat last December. However, in a context of protracted asymmetric war, where factions have different objectives and are mostly chasing funds, drawing the lines between the “good guys,” the “bad guys,” the “secular,” the “religious,” and the “moderate,” is both loaded and irrelevant. Earlier this year, Ghaith Abdul Ahad was reporting on how many "secular-minded" rebels were trying to impress Gulf funders through videos to receive more resources for battle. Thus, though the latest incident is certainly condemned by many, this should neither cast a fog on the major public relations campaigns played by rebels, nor overshadow the now widespread use of sectarian rhetoric in their ranks.
In the case of Abu Sakkar`s video, he certainly had a predetermined audience in mind--both of the radical sectarian comrades and enemies in the Syrian army--considering the heavy symbolism of eating hearts and livers. Before biting into the viscera of his victim, Abu Sakkar looked to the camera and said:
I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!
It should come as no suprise that the surfacing of such a video and its exponential proliferation serves as fodder for Islamophobia on the Syrian war and beyond. For instance, Theodore Shoabat, a prolific anti-Muslim writer, wastes no time to raise Abu Sakkar`s video in the context of a critique of Islam. He notes the television appearance of an Egyptian scholar who revealed that some Al-Azhar-sanctioned high school books condoned cannibalism. While the gorging and biting of an enemy`s viscera was considered, historically, an act of bitter humiliation in combat, it did however contradict Islamic tradition. For instance, at the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD, Hind bint Utbah allegedly bit the heart of Prophet Mohammad’s uncle, Hazrat Hamza, in a battle opposing Muslims and Meccans, an act considered a complete abomination. It is interesting to note that while most outlets failed to pick up on that particular instance of religious and historical symbolism, they were nevertheless quick to draw broad generalizations about a timeless Sunni/Shia animosity dating back to the time of Karbala.
Two days ago, Richard Spencer published an article that attempted to historicize cannibalism in the context of Chinese and early Greek history, an aspect overlooked as the prevailing journalistic narratives stressed the exceptional nature of the video, and pointed out the "tension sometimes between journalist and moral narratives." Beyond this journalistic urge, however, lie more structural problems. At the outset, the narrative is reinforced by the difficulty of reporting accurately from within Syria and the choice between being followed by rebels or regime soldiers in an increasingly dichotomized polarized environment. In such an journalistic climate and given the levels of logistical chaos, there is more room for homogeneous, replicable, and lowest common denominator reporting. The denominator in this case is both "evil" and "random."
More abstractly, the depiction of an act as seemingly random, sporadic, and ahistoric prioritizes sensationalistic savagery over more genuine attempts at providing context. This lack of editorial perspicacity ultimately legitimizes a language of international relations serving some interests and ideologies at the expense of critical journalism. Indeed, it is this same international language that legitimizes apologetic statements, lowers the moral expectations and obligations for the rebels, and allows a Human Rights Watch employee to write the following words about the incident: “these atrocities are shocking but so is the obstruction of some Security Council members that still do not support an ICC referral for all sides.” It is this very language that enables journalists to, concurringly, slip in empty statements about how the events might, finally bring Russia to get on the Western bandwagon of moral high ground.
Though sadistic displays were always weapons of war, there is something to be said about memorializing this moment on camera. It captures the sense of impunity felt by the perpetrator, the endorsement of the act by his cheering friends, and its sick audience of over 900,000 viewers in pursuit of the latest adrenaline rush. Pro-regime pages used the incident as a warning about the fate of the Alawites if the Asad regime were to fall. Many viewed and shared the video as an insight into the latest sneak peek into the “unfortunate” and “incomprehensible” chaos unfolding in Syria. While many have emphasized the craziness of the individual, no one has questioned the guilty pleasure and fetishistic excitement felt by viewers. Relatedly, few have so far raised the question of individual and collective trauma and mental illness that will arise from the conflict.
Peter Bouckaert encapsulates that exhibitionist/voyeuristic instance when he describes what seems to be a performance by Abu Sakkar:
The cameraman jokes with the commander, telling him, "God Bless you Abu Sakkar, it looks like you are drawing a love heart [on his chest]!" The commander, the man called Abu Sakkar, then picks up the bloody liver and heart and speaks directly into the camera, delivering a chilling threat [...] As men in the background shout Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!), Abu Sakkar ends the video by putting the dead man`s heart in his mouth and ripping off a chunk of the bleeding organ.
The irony is that the social media, the very tools that enable human rights violations to be documented, archived, and perhaps prosecuted, have opened another front where a battle of words and acts is being shepherded.
Indeed, Al Jazeera English was quick to offer a platform for the latest Syrian National Council PR stunt, in which spokesperson Khaled Saleh reassures his audience with a “we’re not them” discourse, claiming that the SNC has initiated a new media campaign to “educate” rebels about the Geneva Conventions. In his paternalistic words:
some of [the fighters] do not understand international human rights law, and we felt that there is a need to provide education to help them understand the need to help them understand what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
Read: We would like to reassure the West that we are doing everything in our power to keep these uncivilized farmers under control, so long as you keep supporting us, the good guys in a post-Asad period. Indeed, considering that the funding of rebels comes from Gulf funders looking for videos of the rebels’ bravado, those media campaigns are nothing but self-serving and giving more weight to elitist politics.
And while the Free Syrian Army`s spokespersons the Syrian opposition distance themselves from Abu Sakkar and render him a pariah before the international media, the insatiable interest in the mind behind the video continues unabated. Media coverage attempts to weave a psychoanalytic profile of single man at the expense of a wider frame of the conflict. Channel 4 revisited a report from February 2012 featuring Abu Sakkar himself while Kim Sengupta of The Independent wrote his reflection about the man behind the media outrage. CNN invited James Dawes, the Director of the Human Rights program at Macalester College and author of just-published book entitled Evil Men (2013), to didactically explain how "war criminals" and "monsters" like Abu Sakkar are made and how to reverse their diabolical psychology.
The Fatalistic Narrative
To further entrench a fascination with the spectacle of evil and to render it functional, when TIME sought Abu Sakkar for an interview, he said in a Skype call that “after what I did hopefully they will never step into the area where Abu Sakkar is.” He is saying that if he cannot outgun his opponent at least he can try to scare him away with his inglorious actions. Even though the journalist is in direct contact with the Abu Sakkar, the quotes are provided with little context and Abu Sakkar’s dual PR stunt—to instill fear in the regime and embolden his sectarian-minded audience—is excised from story. More context behind this desperate calculated act could lead to a more important conversation about why and how the regime continues, apparently, to have the upper hand.
Is Abu Sakkar’s depiction as the crazy Syrian sectarian cannibalist yet another attempt to display the Syrian crisis as fatalistic in the absence of a definite rebel victory? In the early months of the uprising, the revolution was represented optimistically and romantically through a simplistic binary: the Syrians were fighting for democracy against a brutal regime. Over time, there was a greater emphasis on the sectarian threat looming, initially as something the regime had manufactured, then as an "a priori monster" re-emerging from past religious struggles with the arrival of foreign jihadists. The evolution of a fatalistic discourse on Syria strangely coincides with a foreign policy increasingly suited to the status quo and adverse to the idea of having to make concessions with countries such as Iran.
In that optic, it is better to maintain Abu Sakkar’s image of the lunatic Syrian sectarian cannibal. It is surreal enough to send shivers down the spine of its viewers who will feel saddened by the events, but apprehensive and noncommittal enough compared to massacres of children such as the one in Baniyas that would revive debates about international accountability and dialogue.