Illustration by Hannah Robinson

Opposing fascism should be simple. Despite the complexity of the situation in Syria, there are clear villains and one of them is Bashar al-Assad, the country’s dictator who has been complicit in war crimes according to the United Nations. Yet people from both the left and right have denied that Assad’s hands are drenched in blood. In a complex world where information is either too lacking or too abundant, some minds are susceptible to infection by ill-founded (more often un-founded) conspiracy theories.

These themes – simplicity, complexity, and ignorance – emerged during my chat with Joey Ayoub, a former PhD student from overseas at the University of Edinburgh. The Broad recently interviewed him about his experiences dealing with the University’s adherence to strict immigration rules; I spoke to him about his dealings with a controversial Edinburgh professor and the broader phenomenon of genocide and war crimes denial, which often emanates, sadly, from the left.

Professor Tim Hayward of Edinburgh is a member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, an organisation of academics pursuing supposedly impartial research on the subject. As Ayoub told me, this allows its members to say things with an aura of professorial objectivity and intelligence. Thus Hayward’s retweeting of articles labelling the White Helmets terrorists who organise ‘false flags’, his publishing on his blog of articles by Paul McKeigue denying Assad’s complicity in carrying out chemical attacks, and use of the hashtag #Syriahoax. The list could, and does, go on. The SPM’s members and advisers include Dr Tara McCormack who has said the White Helmets are ‘basically’ al-Qaeda and 9/11 truther Professor Mark Crispin Miller. This consistent professional association with promoters of half-baked theories reflects badly on Hayward, and the university.

Ayoub publicly called Hayward a ‘fraud’ which led to him being hauled into the university and told to delete the alleged tweet. Hayward claimed he was simply promoting debate and conversation; both Ayoub and I noted during our conversation that creationists and Holocaust deniers use the same evasive tactic. Ayoub says Hayward promotes himself as a persecuted questioner of The Man – again, another common tactic of more garden-variety crackpots.

For Ayoub, the question is not one of free speech or de-platforming but one of professionalism. Hayward has defended himself by saying that his comments on Syria are made as a private citizen. His association with the SPM undermines this defence – though it is true, I hope, that he wouldn’t get away with publishing his ‘theories’ in a respectable academic journal.

But Ayoub’s main concern is for the Syrian applicants, students, and refugees in Edinburgh and Scotland, many of whom already suffer from PTSD and are now faced with spending time and energy debating ‘the facts’, instead of recovering or directing public debate towards how to help Syria. Ayoub gives the example of 2016 when calls for aid to Aleppo were drowned out by conspiracy theories. Syrians have previously expressed their concern about and fear of Hayward. The hundreds of Syrians Hayward claims have thanked him (according to Ayoub) have yet to materialise – though there is one at least, discussed on Hayward’s blog in a post which attempts to undermine critical pieces from The Times and The Tab solely because they’re printed in Murdoch papers – which is irrelevant, given that they provide facts and evidence.

That post also claims that Syrians are pressured to accept the ‘western narrative’, conveniently robbing agency of all those Syrians who have attested to the crimes of the Assad regime. In this world, Syrians are people who must be saved from their false consciousness by brave and principled white knights and saviours such as Professor Hayward.

Ayoub and I discussed the broader trend of such denialism. In Bosnia in the 1990s much of the right just didn’t care about the genocide committed by the Serbian fascist Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnian Muslims and much of the left simply denied it was happening. Ayoub said he has spoken to many Bosnians who empathise with the situation of Syrians as they, too, have been forced to counter denialism.

Such luminaries as Noam Chomsky and Peter Handke were either silent, denied the genocide, or openly supported Milosevic. Why? Because, as Nick Cohen puts it, any enemy of the west is seen as ‘good’ and therefore any supposed crimes by them are seen as a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘discredit’ them. And who else do we find on the side of the Serbian fascists and genocidal murderers? Recall Dr McCormack of the SPM, who was happy when Milosevic died while being prosecuted for war crimes – not because of the evil he committed, but because it ‘brought an end to the farce’ of the trial.

Simplicity, complexity, and ignorance. Ayoub told me that the underlying principle of any decent person in this situation should be to oppose fascism and murder, however complex and nuanced things may be. To him, prosperous western academics flaunting their ignorance of the Syrian situation is not just sickening but deeply harmful, particularly to Syrian refugees.

We leftists must oppose the right as we always have, as well as western crimes, but we must also oppose our colleagues who fellow-travel with fascism and authoritarianism. We must oppose these latter two things unswervingly, and we must focus on helping Syrian civilians through aid and defending refugees from xenophobia. Sadly, Ayoub thinks there is little hope in the near future for Syria itself; Putin has made sure of that. But his last words to me were defiant: that the University ought to reconsider its position, for it will come to regret being so uncaring of its students, and that we must keep making noise to drown out the ignorant and the credulous, lest such denial keep happening.

‘This is just the beginning’ said Ayoub. However, I shall add that perhaps we can also hope we are moving towards an end – of respect for cranks, whether they’re shouting in the streets about the end of the world, or have comfortable positions at one of the world’s finest universities.

NOTE: I’m writing this postscript in December 2020, having thought for a while that in this article I come dangerously close to advocating the de-platforming or firing of Professor Hayward- I should have thought about this more clearly at the time, for it has long been my view that academics should be allowed to air opinions freely without their institution taking an official stance on any issue, let alone disavowing one of their own. Action against Hayward in this regard would create a dangerous precedent, that of legitimising the firing of tenured academics (I think Hayward is tenured, but the same goes for those lacking such divine status) for undesirable views. The best antidote to idiotic speech is counterspeech, so I want to make it clear that my article should be read with this interpretation in mind. Mea culpa, I should have thought more clearly whilst writing at the time, as I said. But I stand by the rest of the article and Joey (whose opinions may differ; this postscript is purely my own), for the wayward Prof. Hayward’s crackpot theories are deeply stupid, though I cringe when using the word ‘harm’ to describe speech, as I did in this piece. So read it in that vein, please; even the nuts have the right to an airing of their ‘ideas’- yes, even nuts with respectable positions. The danger of punishing academics for idiocy like this is much worse than letting them fulminate (they usually discredit themselves in the process, anyway).