43 minutes | Jul 21, 2020

13. The Syrian Enlightenment

The Syrian revolution, any revolution, should not serve as a confirmation of received political ideas, but rather as a challenge to all that has heretofore been thought. We are not here to supply Syrians with an ideology that would have succeeded in their situation, but to ourselves be transformed in the light and heat of their actions. Some claim that we as Americans must focus on the enemy at home, but if we ourselves cannot show solidarity, cannot feel the need to understand and work together with those harmed by the same rotten world order we benefit from, then we are not ourselves yet able to meet our problems with the appropriate clarity and purpose. What we say and think about Syria has consequences for Syrians, this is true, but graver yet for the American left is what it means about us that we have spoken so recklessly and thought so little. Hama was the catastrophe that defined the state, that created Assad’s Syria. A kind of Nakhba occurred in Syria in the 1970s with individual rights being strongly curtailed, and where power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. The culmination of this preventive counter-revolution was the movement against Assad in the 80s, wrongly ascribed as primarily caused by the Muslim Brotherhood, being brutally repressed, as we discussed in the last podcast. Yassin-Kassab and Shami discuss the catastrophe of the early 80s in this way: “Assad’s ‘revolution from above’ involved a general infrastructural modernization as well as grand and ultimately failed projects like the Assad dam on the Euphrates. Most significantly, Assad presided over a massive expansion of the Syrian state. By the 1980s one in every five workers would be employed in the bureaucratic or public sector. The army would grow to over 200,000 men, in addition to the police, various state-Party militias, and at least twelve overlapping security agencies… Assad further outraged his Arabist constituency by supporting Iran against Arab Iraq after 1980, and by joining the US-led coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait in 1990. Economically, though Syria retained its bureaucratic-socialist character, further waves of liberalization were pushed through in response to recurrent debt crises. These policies, alongside an entrenchment of the crony capitalist elite, meant that by the 1990s ‘an upper class [had] emerged both greater in number and wealthier than the bourgeoisie of the pre-Baathist era… ‘Assad’s Syria’ (as state propaganda called it) was fascist in the most correct sense of that word. It sought to replace class conflict with devotion to the absolute state. Following the fascist corporatist model, the peasants and workers unions, the professional associations, the youth and women’s unions, as well as Party and army, were entirely absorbed into the state machinery. A facade of pluralism was provided by the National Progressive Front, set up in 1976, comprising the Baath and nine smaller parties which accepted the Baath’s leadership -- and by the People’s Assembly, where two-thirds of seats were reserved for baathists. Beneath the froth, Syria’s was a one-party system, and the party was controlled by one man. The state cultivated a surveillance society, everyone spying on everyone else and no one secure in position, not even the top generals and security officers. Hafez stood alone at the apex - the Struggling Comrade, the Sanctified One, the Hero of War and Peace - a rarely seen yet omnipresent leader who governed by telephone.” (BC, pp.12-14). With the mass murder and razing of Hama in the early 80s, together with massacres and repressions in other places as well, a hard silence fell over Syria. The previous co-opting of Syria’s civil society and the constant threat of violence eradicated any meaningful space for resistance or even a minimum of free expression. Many report being afraid to speak their minds in private, for fear their children might repeat at school what had been said at home resulting in the heads of family disappearing into Assad’s torture camps. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/02/201129103121562395.html. At the same time, the regime ramped up the cult of Assad, compelling the population to attend and participate in mass demonstrations of support for the regime. Sam Dagher recounts Kaled al-Khani’s memory of cowering in a basement with a dozen or so women, old men and small children as the death squad arrived. The crowd was led in a chant of support for Hafez al-Assad that the regime had been forcing people to take up. I’m paraphrasing: “God in heaven your time is done. Assad now takes your place.” (p. 236). That situation, of cowering away from Assad’s forces or his bombs or his chemical weapons, that is an apt metaphor for the situation his rule prepared for the people captured by it. Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar is a classic of dramatized political fiction, on par with Animal Farm or Catch 22. Written on the eve of the revolution, the book vividly describes living conditions in Assad’s Syria. Housewives who couldn’t attend the pro-Assad rally had to tune into it on their television, playing it loudly enough to be heard by their neighbors who would otherwise have to report them. In the afterward to his novel Sirees notes: “Is it possible for the silence and the roar to co-exist? The answer is most certainly, yes. In countries ruled by people obsessed with supremacy, authoritarians and those who are crazed by power, the ruler or the leader imposes silence upon all those who dare to think outside the prevailing norm. Silence can be the muffling of one’s voice or the banning of one’s publications, as is the case with Fathi Sheen, the protagonist of this novel. Or it might be the silence of a cell in a political prison or, without trying to unnecessarily frighten anyone, the silence of the grave. But this silence is also accompanied by an expansive roar, one that renders thought impossible. Thought leads to individualization, which is the most powerful enemy of the dictator. People must not think about the leader and how he runs the country; they must simply adore him, want to die for him in their adoration of him. Therefore, the leader creates a roar all around him, forcing people to celebrate him, to roar.” (p. 153). For fear of repression by the regime, Sirees originally staged the drama in an unnamed Arab country, but the afterword to the 2013 English version ends with the author saying “my heart is agonizingly heavy about what is happening in Syria, my homeland.” (p.154). In her 2019 book Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates, Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab has gifted us with a masterful accounting of the enlightenment inspired discussion that preceded and inspired the Syrian revolution. In the late 80s several prominent Syrian intellectuals founded a journal entitled “Qadaya wa-shahadat” (Issues and Testimonies). From 1990 to 1992 the journal would issue six volumes. “The major themes of the journal were rationalism, democracy, modernity, modernization, the nahda (the renaissance), national culture, dependency, tradition, and history.” (p. 105). Crucially, Kassab discusses the nahda from its origins in discussions of the ideas of reason, human rights and freedoms that began in the Arabic speaking world before European colonialism (pp. 3, 151). In so doing, she is able to discuss the role of these ideas in the development of the modern Middle East without identifying the ideas with western culture. Too often, enlightenment ideals are considered as essential to one culture, which implies that some cultures are unsuited to human rights. By originating the debate around freedom and democracy in the 19th century, with thinkers like Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), Kassab avoids both the orientalist narrative that imagines Europe saving the Middle East and the orientalist attitude of the noble savage that imagines enlightenment is alien to the Middle East. I want to note again in passing the irony that enlightenment came to Europe from Syria during the crusades, and we imagine enlightenment reaching Syria from France as a foreign influence. Enlightenment ideals are no more European than they are Arab. Both regions struggle to achieve and maintain democratic institutions. Syrian enlightenment thinkers all recognized the influence of Taha Hussein. Hussein promoted the ideas that enlightenment required democracy and robust modern education, that religion had to be understood in historical context and that there were no cultures that were better at understanding and affirming enlightenment ideals such as human rights. In Egypt enlightenment figures like Taha Hussein and Murad Wahba were enlisted to promote secularism in the name of the state that arose from the Officers’ coup that catapulted Abdul Nasser into power in 1952. The evolving authoritarian tendency in the Egyptian government put these intellectuals in the horns of a dilemma. They were given paid positions in the Egyptian government and were hence free to criticize traditional religious authority, but on the other hand they couldn’t prepare the kind of popular enlightenment that radical democrats, like Marx, would advocate because doing so would challenge the authority of the government. This is known as Wahba’s paradox. Because secular ideas were closely associated with the Egyptian state, religious reaction was able to pose as a discourse of opposition. The situation in Syria was different. Kassab identifies two moments in the Syrian enlightenment: the one Sisyphean and the other Promethian. In Syria two conditions precluded intellectuals from falling into the Wahba Paradox: (1) the Syrian government didn’t hire thinkers who were free to say whatever they wanted (the Wahba paradox comes from the hypocrisy of the int
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