La Croix                   16/01/2015

Randa Kassis, a Syrian secular opposition figure, has been invited to take part in the negotiations in Moscow bringing together Syrians from the Assad regime and members of the opposition at the end of January.

She has long been kept at a distance from her native country, Syria, but she wants to participate in its rebirth. Born in Damas in 1970, Randa Kassis spent her childhood in a complex family scenario, with a Greek-Catholic father opposed to the regime of the Al-Assad family and a Greek Orthodox mother, who was a militant supporter of the government.

Is that why she quickly moved away and became a fierce partisan of secularity? In 1979, she joined her father in Algeria. A professor of psychology, he had left the oppressive atmosphere of a country where the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to overthrow the regime by force. Three years later, she was back in Damas.

Until the age of 17, she made every effort to lead “a normal life,” without getting involved. She avoided enrolling in the “shabiha, the youth movement of the ruling Ba’ath Party. “I learned to say ‘no.’” I learned how to revolt,” she declares. “But at the time, political life was a lost cause” due to the threats weighing on regime opponents. Close friends of her father spent time in prison.

She left again “in search of herself,” trying painting and travelling. She settled in Stuttgart, Germany, and then in France, where her daughter was born in 1997. She trained in martial arts, specifically kick boxing, “a good way to learn self-control, understand things and acquire self-confidence.” Attracted by the theater, she spent a short time at the Florent school of dramatic arts.

Her political awakening dates from 2007, four years before the Arab revolutions. Randa Kassis listened closely to what was being said and written on the social networks in Arab countries. “I got in contact with groups of young people demanding freedom of expression and rising up against the religious discourse weighing on Arab societies.” She could perceive the desire for change in Egypt and Tunisia. “It was more serious in Syria because the society was more heterogeneous and several regional actors were involved in it.”

She published articles in the Arab press, denouncing the Islamic proselytizing promoted by Saudi Arabia and the emirates of the Persian Gulf and challenged Turkey’s “moderate Islam.” She founded the Movement of Pluralistic Society and took part in the creation of the Association for the Protection of the Right to Freedom of Expression in the Arab World. When the civil war broke out, she was a member of the opposition forum, the Syrian National Council, representing a secular coalition. She was excluded from the organization in August 2012 for her strong criticism of Islamists. 

Kassis believes in the power of minorities and in their role in society. Keenly interested in anthropology, she refuses to align herself with any particular group. “What interests me is to change people’s perception. That is what pushed me to write. But writing is not enough; we need to have the power to change things. Being an independent woman may help; it also allows you to push back the boundaries.”

Since then, she has sought to make heard the voices of those calling for a different route. Together with essayist Alexandre del Valle, she has just published a book encouraging political dialogue, national reconciliation, the protection of minorities and the fight against “green totalitarianism.” She was invited, on behalf of the Movement of Pluralist Society, along with 27 other opposition members, to take part in a meeting on Jan. 26-30 in Moscow to prepare possible dialogue with the regime.

“Fifteen opposition members accepted the invitation. But I don’t think the members of the Syrian National Coalition will come,” she said.

The coalition is recognized in some countries, including France, as the political authority of the transition.

“The objective is modest,” she explains, shortly before boarding her flight. “Nothing will be settled by this meeting. But the Russians have succeeded in forcing the Syrian regime to participate in the negotiations, which is already a positive point. What is interesting about this initiative is that it puts the spotlight on the issue of Syria, which everyone has forgotten.”

It will soon be four years since the conflict began. Randa Kassis is convinced that this is a favorable moment for a political solution. “Because everything else has failed.”

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