#WithSyria and the Risk of Reductionism: Stereotypes and Charity


Manipulated image of Banksy’s two girls: Veiled in London (R), non-veiled in Syria (L)

Last week, #WithSyria campaign adopted Banksy veiled “balloon girl” as a symbol for their campaign. Many criticism followed. However, several Humanitarian Organisations officials were strongly defending their choice. Amnesty International UK Campaigns Manager, Kristyan Benedict (a.k.a. @KreaseChan on twitter,) insisted that “the main issue is to get humanitarian access for the most vulnerable in Syria” and that “an image is a small component (with many interpretations)”

He didn’t cite the many interpretations. (Discrimination can have many interpretations too.)

As for the “small component,” well it went viral (just to take the example of Banksy facebook page, where it received 41,431 likes and was shared 12,669 times, by 11.45 GMT +2,14 March 2014) and it was shared all over the internet as an image of hope, and plenty of time accompanied with the slogan “#Banksy stands #WithSyria. Do you?”

A star such as Banksy can sensibilize the opinion of large groups of originally uninterested people on this matter. But didn’t anyone see how pervert and reductionist this slogan is? It only draws on people mimicking their favorite stars actions.

I wonder if Banksy wasn’t standing #WithSyria, what would you do? Do you?

Anyway … and to confirm what i wrote earlier: “it seems saving the world is too important task to check details,” Mr. Benedict twitted that he have “little time for an image,” and kept insisting to “see [the] bigger picture.”

This is very patronizing …

I don’t want to see the bigger picture. I want to see the whole picture. It’s not because of the dramatic extent of the humanitarian crisis, that other issues have to be sacrificed. Syria and Syrians are not only a humanitarian crisis. The “bigger picture” reduces, simplifies and robs the Syrians (and the Syrian uprising) from all their dimensions and components, and confines them to the statue of people in need, even to simple beggars.

I understand Mr. Benedict worries. He wants to have a successful vigils organized around the world. He wants to see humanitarian corridors opened, and besieged people in Syria receiving aid. He doesn’t want any negative factor affecting this noble mission. But …

But before the but, let’s take a little detour to Cambridge, where a friend, AnnaLena Di Giovanni, received a letter from the Red Cross UK explaining “the many uses of [her] possible 5 pounds donation. Syrian refugees are on top of the list.” She continues: “reaching out for my wallet as I continue reading: “Abu and his family had to run for life”… wait. Abu? Abu. Yes, Abu.”

Abu in arabic means “father of,” and it’s never used without specifying the name of the son. Abu alone is a cliché, a stereotype of Arabs.

Arabs are Abus and their little girls are veiled.

In many instances in the West, Humanitarian organizations resort to these kinds of stereotyping to attract westerners sympathy to third world miseries. They play on the topic of the Otherness. To sympathize with the Other. While these actions succeed in mobilizing certain segments of western society, they do also reinforce stigmatization and discrimination. They reinforce the image of the Other.

We sympathize with the Other, but the Other should stay in his country, in his heimat. The Other cannot be an integral part of our society, even if he/she has our nationality, he/she remains a 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant. etc.

The issue is not if these Humanitarian Organizations do that intentionally or not. The issue is that it’s happening. It’s happening a lot, and with a damaging effect.

Another simple question: Do you know who in the Middle East will be the most thrilled and jubilant by the image of a veiled 4 year old girl? Did it ever occur to the officials in #WithSyria campaign, who took the decision of adopting and disseminating Banksy’s image, that by doing so they concur with the most radical islamists views on the subject?

Yes! This is Orientalism.

I would like to conclude with a tweet by Leila Nachawati Rego: “If you want to be #withSyria, listen to Syrians. Stand in solidarity, not in charity.”


Note 1: I wonder why the girl in Banksy, Elbow and Idris Elba’s video (released yesterday, 13 March) is not veiled? Isn’t she Syrian?

Note 2: Fortunately, not all campaigns rely on the Others method. A counter-example is “If Britain was like Syria” video. A very good video made by Don’t Panic for Save the Children. Simple, effective and, as a friend noted, subversive. But that’s another topic to be addressed later.


I would like to thank Anna Schmidt for her valuable comments.


Related post: #WithSyria and Banksy: Saving Syria through Orientalism

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Follow me on Twitter: @hisham_ashkar

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