#FreeTox: Why Isn’t the Captivity of a British Aid Worker in Syria Being Covered by the U.S. Media?

Lately, the United States mainstream media has been showing less news about the crisis in Syria.  So it’s unsurprising that despite weeks in captivity, U.S. media doesn’t seem to be covering the story of a British aid worker, living in Syria’s opposition-held Idlib province, who was arrested by a dominant armed group. His exact whereabouts and health condition remain unknown, yet the story is largely absent from our media here in the U.S.

Tauqir Sharif, 33, was taken last month by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda-linked group that is designated by the United Nations as a terrorist group. The group has been in control of the last rebel-held bastion in Syria since 2019.

This is typical of the U.S. media’s inability to report on relevant world events that pertain to human suffering.  Judith Butler, the well-known feminist theorist out of UC Berkeley has written about this problem in relationship to the concept that the U.S. media has seemed to collectively decide that some lives are grievable, while others can be lost, or oppressed without notice or attention.  The widespread suffering in Idlib was somewhat publicized, but now, silence. 

Butler writes in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009): “The subjects presumed by the liberal and multicultural frameworks…are characterized as belonging to certain kind of cultural identities, variously conceived as singularly or multiply determined by lists of categories that include ethnicity, class, race, religion, sexuality, and gender. There are persistent questions about whether and how such subjects can be represented in law, and what might count as sufficient cultural and institutional recognition for such subjects. We ask normative questions as if we know what we we mean by the subject, even as we do not always know how best to represent or recognize various subjects. Indeed, the “we” who asks such questions for the most part assumes that the problem is a normative one, namely how to best arrange political life so that recognition and representation can take place.”

To simplify her writing, she’s asking a simple question: who has value?  We hear endless coverage of other subjects and the disappearances of certain demographics, while others go under-reported at best, and without any coverage at all at worst. The question of who is valuable — and thus what stories get coverage — is generally viewed threw the lens of colonialist Eurocentric imaginaries, which have so often neglected to place any value on rights, life, or any of the values that European society claims to uphold.

The question of who is valuable — and thus what stories get coverage — is generally viewed threw the lens of colonialist Eurocentric imaginaries, which have so often neglected to place any value on rights, life, or any of the values that European society claims to uphold.

Despite the fact that the humanitarian crisis in Syria isn’t a priority for the U.S. media, reports about what’s happening on the ground still make it to the U.S. for those who choose to read or follow the few outlets reporting, such as Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera has covered the disappearance of Sharif, using the hashtag #FreeTox.

Sharif, a British national, left his life in the United Kingdom behind to assist refugees. He rejected both the narrative of terrorism, and the devaluation of life. He moved to war zones, most recently Syria, and devoted his life to helping orphans and widows. He was then “arrested” by the al-Qaeda linked group HTS, who have held him captive for several weeks. HTS accuses Sharif of spreading sedition and unrest. Why isn’t the U.S. media talking about this?

Children who he has helped — children who are orphans — are holding up signs and protesting in war-torn, devastated Idlib, to try to speak up for a man who they report was like a father and a mother to them.  His wife and children have requested visits with him.  They report their requests to visit him were initially denied, although it appears his wife was able to visit him at least once according to a video posted to Facebook on June 29th. However, the children are not able to see him in his current condition; he is being held in solitary confinement. HIs wife reported via a Facebook account on July 8th that subsequent visits were canceled due to people bringing awareness to the case via videos and such on social media.

The current truce in Idlib is not being reported, the lives of these people are not being reported on, and now little children are begging for the release of a man who has helped them, and mainstream U.S. media is ignoring this story.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., protests are happening across the country — and around the world — for the Black Lives Matter movement. These protests and the changes stemming from them are long overdue. The question remains, though: how do we reach a place as people where we actually care deeply about life, about people, and about suffering? How does our society reach a place, collectively, where we care, and where stories of injustice are important?

From what is known of Sharif in the little coverage that’s been provided, he is a person who cares about people. Islam is a religion that is founded on caring about people. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, cared.  He cared about animals, plants, women, children, his family, the community.  He truly cared.  The fact that political groups have forcibly taken the name of our religion and dragged it through the mud with their violence and decision to disregard the heart of our tradition — the example set by Prophet Muhammad that life, people, and their suffering matters — is unacceptable.  How do we resist this corruption of our religion, turning it into a violent betrayal of the values of our Prophet and a travesty that betrays our faith?

The hastag #FreeTox receiving barely any coverage by the U.S. media is indicative of the general betrayal of the values of caring; clearly, they don’t. We as people need to continue fighting for Palestine, for Kashmir, for Syria, and anywhere else there’s oppression in the world. We need to be vigilant enough to fight for the people fighting for the people who are impacted by humanitarian crisis and human rights violations globally; people like Tox.

One thing we can all do is get #FreeTox trending. We all need to be vigilant to try harder, and work harder, to work for justice, to work for peace, and to work to support people doing this work on the front lines all around the world.  Our caring cannot stop at what is trending; we need to be inquisitive and proactive, connect to media globally and maintain the momentum we are building as a people.  We need to fight for each other, for life, and for peace, as much as we can, to sign petitions, to volunteer, to work for good.  And we need to make sure that we do not believe the illusion of center and periphery, or values that make us not care about lives that are othered. 

I am in no way pointing to others at the exclusion of myself.  If anything, I am trying to clear my head of the incessant blind echo chamber of the U.S. media, and recognize my own apathy.  My grandmother read the news every day.  She always knew everything that was happening globally.  We need to be careful to not forget about places like Idlib, and their suffering, especially in a world where Fox News can run the risk of desensitizing us. We need to care about places, people, and stories that are not in the media every day.

In this case, I would advocate that we care about Tox and his wife and children, and the children who love him, and do everything we can to help him return home safely and in good health to his work, and people to whom he has dedicated his life.

You can sign a petition to #FreeTox here.

Sarah is a social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area, the traditional land of the Ohlone people. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.