Salmo's death renews secular activism

17 June 2013

The death of a teenager named Mohammad Qatta Salmo at the hands of an armed group in Aleppo who accused him of blasphemy resulted in a widespread campaign of solidarity with the victim. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the perpetrators of the crime are linked to the legal authority of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Those renouncing the act demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice. They say the killers are distorting the reputation of an uprising that was born in part to put an end to killing, and are also trying to execute a personal agenda in the midst of the security vacuum created in areas no longer under regime control.

Civil society and secular groups in Syria rose up in response to the incident. Salmo was killed for saying “If (Prophet) Mohammad were to come to this earth right now, I would still not lend you anything.” In Syrian vernacular, this phrase is not necessarily blasphemous. Yet, this episode makes clear the dangers of groups trying to hijack the Syrian revolution, especially those killing in the name of religion to achieve political dominance. Many intellectuals, artists and activists linked to the secular or nonviolent opposition movement in Syria have spoken out harshly against the act, and against all those who have tried to justify it. Although the Syrian regime is ultimately responsible for all that is happening in Syria, these activists reject the notion that the regime was behind the killing. They are demanding that the identity of Salmo’s killers be made public, and that they be tried for their actions.

Syrians were especially moved by a video of Salmo’s parents released by the Aleppo Media Center in which his mother screams, “This child has rights! Why did you kill him? What did he do to you? They killed him in front of me...They put a bullet in his head, another in mouth and another in his neck. May God exact revenge. We do not stand with one group over another. Why did you kill my son? Is he a terrorist?” Activists launched a campaign seeking to identify Salmo’s killers, and held a protest in al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, demanding a full investigation into the crime. One of the protesters said, “We are revolting not only against (the Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad, but against all oppressors. We will fight until the last oppressor leaves Syria.”

“Yes, this is the freedom we’re looking for,” the protester added, referring to an expression that has become commonplace among Syria’s opposition throughout the revolution.

Another protest was held in the Qadi Askar district of Aleppo, where people headed to the legal counsel’s headquarters, demanding justice.

Activists also created Facebook pages in solidarity with Salmo, including one based on the phrase that led to Salmo’s death (If Mohammad were to come to this earth right now, I would still not lend you anything) and another called “We are all the child martyr Mohammad Qatta.” In the “Enough is Enough” campaign, people vowed not to forget Salmo’s spilt blood, promising that the revolution would not end with the downfall of the regime, and demanding that the killers be identified.

The people of Kafranbel, who are famous for keeping others in check, condemned the act as well. They raised a banner that said, “Salmo, you were killed in the name of a religion that is more merciful on an infant than his mother.” The “Grandchildren of Abdulrahman Kawakbi” Facebook page responded to Salmo’s death with a quote by the late Kawakbi who once said, “Dear God, despots and their partners have created a religion unlike the one you brought down. There is no power but your power.”

Intellectual Syrian seculars also spoke out. Kurdish author and former political prisoner Bakr Sidki criticized extreme seculars who are angered only by issues related to religion. “We must work to bring the killers to justice, so that they pay the price for their crime,” he said. “I noticed that most people are speaking out against the reason for the crime, and not against the crime in and of itself. It is as if had Salmo been killed for another reason, it would not have been a big deal.”

Wael Sawah, another secular writer and former political prisoner also commented. “If Mohammad were to come down to this earth tonight, he would condemn Islam and the Muslims who killed a coffee vendor,” he said. “He would also condemn those who kept silent about the issue or denied it.”

Novelist Maha Hassan called for justice. “For the sake of his mother, for the sake of his blood, for the sake of justice and for the sake of the revolution, everyone must know who killed Salmo,” she said. “That person must be punished, or else, the path (of our revolution) will be lost, and even if Mohammad were to come down, we wouldn’t be able to fix it.” She is adamant that mistakes being committed in the revolution must be corrected, and that the people must speak up.

Some people believe that Salmo did commit blasphemy, and deserved to be punished for his words. They say that the campaign launched by secular activists is an attack against Islam. Hasan responded to these claims and said, “Even if he did commit blasphemy, no group is entitled to punish him. We have not yet voted on the future of our country, and the legal counsels that currently exist are only temporary,” implying that only an elected body is worthy of carrying out such punishments.

Artist Fares Helou criticized people questioning the authenticity of the incident leading up to Salmo’s death. “Maybe because people have grown tired, they no longer find it important that a young man was killed,” he said. “What has become important is how he was killed, who killed him, and the photos and videos that can be used as proof. Activists confirmed the reports (of Salmo’s death) without obtaining evidence, and now others are behaving like regime supporters and are demanding proof. There is no evidence yet, but it might surface within a few days. But what we’re certain of is that there is a corpse, and the boy’s parents have spoken out. Even some people who are caught in a feud came together and confirmed Salmo’s death. People worry that Islam’s reputation is being destroyed, but they don’t realize that those who committed the crime are tarnishing the religion’s reputation. Islam needs people to condemn the actions, to defend its honor, and to be angry that the crime was committed by people claiming to represent the religion.”

Activists and intellectuals refuted claims that searching for the perpetrators serves the regime’s agenda. They said that in order to counter the regime, Syrians must work to prevent such crimes by shedding light on them, in order to maintain a superior moral ground and to prevent the regime from using such incidents to label the revolution as extremist. Producer Ahmad Hasan said, “Honestly, we are focused on the incident of the young boy so we can discover who is behind it. We are sure that at this time, the perpetrators are serving the regime through their actions.”

Salmo’s death and the severe backlash make clear that secular and civil society groups have begun raising their voices against armed groups and legal counsels. In recent months, their activity has subsided, mostly because the Syrian situation has become highly complicated and they wanted to prevent the regime from taking advantage of these conflicts. However, the increasing number of mistakes being made has pushed seculars to action, as was made clear by their campaigns of solidarity with Salmo.


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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad