Friday, March 25, 2011

Harvard Also Fell For Asma al-Assad's Charm Offensive

Asma al-Assad addressing the 6th Arab World Conference of
Harvard Arab Alumni Association

Before it hit the fan, Syria's Assads -- with Asma serving as the patron-saint -- had been very busy building a facade of growing movement towards progressive, democratic reform and apparently lots of highly educated folks bought into it. 

In January, 2010 Asma (is that a Valentino she's wearing?) convened a conference for the Syria Trust for Development about "the emerging role of civil society in development." As reported in Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs website, Mme. Assad, "...opened the conference by declaring that the state wanted to open more space for civil society to work, develop and partner with the government in designing and implementing development-oriented policies. We will learn from our mistakes, she said, and a law will be passed soon -- after consultations with civil society -- to provide non-governmental organizations the safeguards they need to operate effectively. She challenged them, for their part, to rise to the occasion and achieve higher levels of efficacy and professionalism. Her overall theme of partnership reflected a realization that the government alone could not provide all the expertise or services needed to develop the country at the pace that its citizens expect." You couldn't make this up if you tried.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Syria hosted a conference of Harvard's Arab Alumni with Asma leading the event. In a fantastic post, Syria's Charming Offensive, on Reuters blog site, Chrystia Freeland nails the Harvard for its willful blindness especially given that, "On Wednesday, the day before the planned Harvard alumni event, security officers beat and detained a group of nonviolent demonstrators who gathered to call for the release of the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 political prisoners in the country.

Freeland then goes on: "On its Web site earlier this week, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association highlighted its connection with the dictator’s wife: ‘‘We are greatly honored to hold our Arab World Conference under the esteemed patronage of Her Excellency Mrs. Asma al-Assad, The First Lady of Syria, and are privileged that Her Excellency will deliver the conference’s keynote address. A thought-provoking, inspiring and tireless leader and advocate, the First Lady’s address will certainly be the highlight of our event.’’
The Web site was enthusiastic about Mrs. Assad’s role in Syrian national life and the connection between her work and that of her husband’s regime: ‘‘In her role as Syria’s first lady, Her Excellency Asma al-Assad applies her experience, energy and influence to her country’s social and cultural development. Her role reflects the significant economic, political and social change that is happening in Syria today. Asma al-Assad’s work supports that of President Bashar al-Assad by fostering the emergence of a robust, independent and self-sustaining civil society.’’
As Martin Kramer wrote on his Facebook page, "Harvard didn't get the Arab-dictators-are-no-longer-cuddly memo. Harvard Arab alumni are meeting in Damascus, "Under the Patronage of H.E. Mrs. Asma al-Assad, The First Lady of Syria." And who's showing up? "We are honored that Harvard Vice Provost for International Affairs, Prof. Jorge Dominguez, will be joining us in Damascus to deliver the Harvard Guest Address." Libya, Syria... Despots don't faze Harvard."

We've already reported Vogue's preposterous puff piece about Asma. But it seems that that academics are even more vulnerable to certain types of flattery. Just as the London School of Economics fell for the 'new & improved' Gadaffis, Harvard fell for the Laboutin wearing Asma al-Assad.

Here is how Harvard alum, Charles Jacobs' of the American Anti-Slavery Group put in a letter to the editor of WJS referenced in the website of The Reform Party of Syria :

"Not only has Asma al-Assad, wife of the brutal Syrian dictator, charmed the editors of Vogue, it looks like she's also captivated fair Harvard. Under Mrs. al-Assad's patronage, Harvard's Alumni Association is sponsoring a conference in Damascus on March 17, at the posh Four Seasons Hotel. The university's vice provost for international affairs, Prof. Jorge I. Dominguez, will deliver the Harvard guest address.

"At a time when the peoples all across the Middle East are risking their lives to be free of tyranny, why in the world would Harvard partner with a ruling family that has brutally dominated Syria for 40 years and runs a country on the State Department's terror list? Since the al-Assad family took power in 1970, a state of emergency has remained in effect that gives security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention. 

"Syria, a one-party state with no free elections, harasses and imprisons human-rights activists and other critics of the government. The most basic human freedoms-of expression, association and assembly-are strictly controlled. Indeed, Facebook, which has functioned as a tool for liberation across the region, is blocked by the Assad regime.

"Clearly today Harvard would not sponsor events with the Ben Alis of Tunisia, the Mubaraks of Egypt or the Gadhafi clan. Must Harvard administrators witness a bloody revolt by Syria's freedom-starved people to withdraw from the embrace of a tyrant?"

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