The entire world is now looking at Syria due to beheadings carried out by the fanatics from ISIS and other extremist groups. Over the years, as the war in Syria waged on, Western interest began to fade. It is important to not let the shadow of ISIS allow us to forget the terror of Assad. Assad and ISIS have much in common: They both brutally kill innocent civilians without conscience, both believe that their world view is the only way and that they have the right to shape it at any cost, and both discriminate against minorities.
I started public school in Syria when I was six years old. On my first day of class, the teacher said, "All Christian students, raise your hands!" At my young age, I only discovered then and there that not all Syrians were Christians. The students who raised their hands went to the Christian "religious education class" while those who did not went to the Muslim class.
Growing up in my impoverished Christian neighbourhood, I used to think of the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad as a saint or a God. Everyone referred to him as "The Father." His pictures were everywhere, even on the walls of the Church. So when I first started my religion classes, I mistakenly thought that Hafez al-Assad was a member of the Holy Trinity.
With time, I came to realize my error. "Father" Hafez al-Assad was most definitely not a member of the Holy Trinity. In fact, he was the polar opposite. By the time I reached the end of secondary school, I became aware that many of my fellow Christian students had not seen their fathers in decades. I asked my mother why this was the case. She shushed me and whispered fearfully "They said something bad about the Leading Father, Hafez al-Assad."
Unlike the Loving God of the Trinity, we used to fear "Father" Hafez terribly. No one would dare criticize him. If we even mentioned his name, we would need to also add that he was the "Leading Father." At the tender age of six, I and all my classmates were made to shout "Our leader forever, the great Hafez al-Assad!" as we marched through a schoolyard covered with his photos.
I never realized how horrible my school was until I fled Syria for Canada a few months ago and encountered Canadian schools. There were no decorations anywhere in my school -- just grey walls, huge posters of Assad family members, and strident slogans about how Syria was perfect under Assad and we hate the "Zionists" and "imperialists," but Assad strikes fear in their hearts. This was an environment for brainwashing, not learning.
Since coming to North America, I've also been shocked by how many people buy into the idea that Assad is "pro-Christian." They seem to think that Christians had equality in Syria. I grew up under the Assad regime. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I had it inculcated into me that I must never, ever discuss politics because I was Christian. The adults in my neighborhood would tell me, "We are Christians. Politics is not for us. Be happy just that we can live." For me, this was a slave mentality. People who spoke up spent years in the prison and some of them have died from torture. Bassel Shihade, a Syrian Christian filmmaker, was killed by regime snipers while documenting regime atrocities in Homs, his family and church were not allowed to give him a funeral.
As a Christian under Assad, I never felt like I really belonged in Syria. I heard about the regime's terrible crackdowns on Christians in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. I saw how members of my poor Christian neighborhood would suddenly disappear for good after speaking their minds. I was always fearful. Like most Christians I knew, I was always one step away from packing my bags and emigrating.
In the year 2000, the "Great Father" Hafez died and his deification reached new heights. Now we were told that he was the "Eternal Father" who lived on after his death like some supernatural being. Since his eldest son Bassel died in a car crash, we were told that "Father" Hafez had passed his superhuman powers to his younger son Bashar from beyond the grave.
Originally, I thought Bashar al-Assad would make things better because he was young, educated, and had a Western education. He turned out to be even more evil than his father. After I wised up to regime propaganda, I thought of "Father" Hafez as a mafiosi in an action movie. Bashar is more like a werewolf in a horror movie. By day, he smiles and dresses nicely alongside his glamorous wife who always wears Prada. By night, the mask comes off and the fangs come out. He mutilates women, gasses children, and severs body parts at a pace staggering enough to make Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi blush.
Syria was intolerable long before ISIS existed. It was so intolerable that brainwashed Syrian schoolchildren like me -- Christians, Muslims, and all other faiths -- have grown up to free their minds and sacrifice their lives by the thousands for a free Syria. The international community ignored our cries.
Now that the Islamic State is in the picture, the world is paying attention to Syria again. As the world fights the radical presence of ISIS, they must keep in mind that Assad and the Islamic State are two sides of the same coin. They are both brutal, bloodthirsty murderers. If we destroy ISIS now, another ISIS will quickly emerge. I believe that the only way to destroy ISIS is to destroy Assad too.
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