Since the consolidation of the Assad state in the 1970sٕ, Syrians have been drowning in a raging sea of authoritarian symbols brought forth by a taboo-generating regime. Many ofٕ these symbols unambiguously demanded obedience, such as the iconic leader, his statues, and the reduction of Syria to his name. Other symbols had rather obscure effect on the structure of Syrian society, latently terrorizing them into instinctive, often unconscious obedience to the state apparatuses. A few symbols served the two functions simultaneously.
After this immaculate symbolic order was finally transgressed and undermined by the Syrian revolution, we found ourselves once again awash with new sets of authoritarian symbols, which in their majority eerily resemble Assad state symbols in their intent to terrorize and intimidate. This text will attempt to decipher Syrian symbolism, and to identify the intersections between the Assad regime and some of its adversaries in this regard.
The Assad State Lays Its Foundations Between Cracks
Syria seceded from the Ottoman state in the wake of the Great Arab Revolt (1916), and thus departed from a component of its political symbolism and social identity. Before being able to venture into bridging the gaps in their collective identity, Syrians became occupied by French forces, whose expulsion took yet another quarter of a century. Later, post-independence Syria made a few strides towards a new symbolic pattern, one which belongs to all the people on this patch of land. Syrians harbored and expressed divergent political views, which ranged between national emancipatory calls for a Syrian nation, and others of pan-Arab nationalist tradition. In the meanwhile, democratic political models which are based on the charters of human rights were taking hold elsewhere after WWII. In the midst of this total chaos, precisely in 1970, the Assad state began laying its foundations between the cracks in Syrian identity.
Over the decades, the Assad regime has established rites of transformation and passage1, the purpose of which has been to symbolically set the boundaries between the various elements and attitudes within the social hierarchy, as well as to mitigate the qualitative differences between social status and its consequent rights and responsibilities.
Both Assads, the founding father and then his son, would later occupy the position of God atop the social hierarchy – or that of God’s representative on Earth to say the least, such as that of a prophet or caliph in the Islamic sense. It is impossible, for instance, to find a single work of Syrian drama or cinema where either of the Assads are portrayed, not even for the sake of sanctification and glorification. Just like the Islamic teachings prohibit the depiction of God, his messengers or their successors, considering such a depiction to be sacrilegious, Assads were placed in similar paramount esteem. The Syrian public at the bottom of the hierarchy had no option but to oblige.
Syria’s Time in Assad’s Clock
The recurrence of rites consolidates belief in the mind and body, serving as tacit modes of domination, or what is often called symbolic violence2. Those who exercise this sort of violence, as well as those who are subject to it fail to recognize its violent nature. This is how the Baath Party’s coup d’état (1963) became officially referred to as a popular revolution, and Hafez al-Assad’s turning on his Baathists comrades (1970) as a Corrective Movement. Over the span of four decades, ritualistic celebrations of these two events have been imposed repeatedly, to the extent of becoming more resemblant of mass hysteria.
These rites invoke a sacred and legendary time. They invoke its mental manifestations as they had been coercively planted in the collective imagination, effectively stifling actual linear time that moves forward, and circling back to a spiritual history where there is no champion but Assad3. Accordingly, this regime is only emboldened insofar as time is petrified in the minds of Syrians.
The Myths of Assad’s Genesis
It seems that the imaginary formation of Syrian society4 has already been designed to be its best possible iteration, as the farthest Syrians could reminisce in this Assadist calendar, beyond this formation, is a blurry image of a feudal past dominated by extremism, injustice and exploitation.
While one of the defining features of the symbol is its reference to a latent and distant meaning, which in turn evokes the collective imagination of a group of people, the Assadist symbol refers to no other meaning than Assad himself. There is no collective imagination which could be matched with such a manifest symbol supplanting abstract meanings5.
Accordingly, Assad is not a representative of God; he is God incarnate, a giver of holiness. “Assad’s Syria” is irrelevant to Syria’s picture in the atlas – except when the Tyrant-God grants pardon to its features in geography and in people’s minds.
In his phenomenological understanding of symbolism, philosopher Paul Ricœur concludes that every symbol in the world represents a totality in regards to one dimension of the sacred, and the aggregation of these symbols represents the sacred in its totality, in a self-contained symbolic formation. The same applies to the Assad regime, which limited the symbol, its implications and representations to its authoritarian form of government, rendering any deviation from this pattern profane and disgraced . This explains the reason why Syrian state media unabashedly made such outlandish claims as considering Bashar al-Assad the leader of national opposition; it is difficult for them to comprehend the notion of a rival to their deity.
Therein lies the Syrian dilemma. If you wish to initiate a revolution, you have to conceive of an alternative symbolic pattern in which Syrians could identify themselves. If you seek to form a political alternative, you must first overthrow the regime, which monopolizes symbolic reference and eliminates alternatives. This vicious circle would never be resolved but through such “suicides” as the one that occurred in March of 2011, when a group of Syrian dared to miraculously chant “The people want [have a will ]…”
What will do they have?
Verbal Catharsis Routes
A lack of willpower is the defining feature of society under the State of Assad. To will was to be a lion (assad), and pluralism implies the ability to choose. It was therefore unthinkable that the will could deviate from its “divine” centrality, not even through rigged elections. No synonyms exist for Assad. How then could this will be generalized and granted it to the “subjects.”
“The people have a will” was the tool through which the revolution began dismantling Assad’s vision and conception of Syrian society and nation. It undermined the Assadist axioms, unquestionable givens; the essential characteristics of tyranny and extremism.
People’s mere ability to separate the name of Syria from that of Assad was viewed by the God-like dictator as a daunting transgression. It meant that those alienated in “Assad’s Syria” may have finally, and definitively, arrived to Syria –their own Syria.
Prisoners of Nowhere
Assad’s Syria is the truest embodiment of the concept of “nowhere” as set forth by anthropologist Marc Augé. The entire country was an impossible space, where no social entity could be established; a space which was devoted for unknown passers-by, and for the extraneous practices that will ultimately constitute their lives6. As such, life under the State of Assad was devoid of any value, especially when Syrians today stand in confrontation with each other, deemed by the world as faceless strangers.
Meanwhile, the place, as the container of social relations, history and identity, was fenced by security agents and informants, and was further confiscated by paranoid obsessions, emergency laws and occasional curfews. The primary violation committed by the revolution, then, was the use of bodies and voices to express identities and values. It was the first time that Syrian bodies gathered in Syrian streets without being instruments of the regime.
In light of the above, one can understand why Assad was keen to have his picture raised above the devastated streets of eastern Aleppo. A country would only be familiar to its tyrant insofar as it is alien to its own people.
Rendering Alien the Streets of the Revolution
The street is thus the ideal place to formulate and perpetuate the identity of Syrians, and accordingly the identity of their revolution. Therefore, the pursuit to institutionalize the street became a common goal for all parties competing for power, that is, competing for re-taming Syrians and leading them back to the nowhere, whereby others can assume the role of expressing their will on their behalf.
On the one hand, the regime sought to restore these streets by armed force. Even if they were unable to erase from Syrian collective memory the Syria that had been discovered in light of the revolution, they nonetheless attempted to obscure this light, by sending troops on a quest to expand the “nowhere” in the minds of Syrians. This goes to explain the regime’s endeavor to rob the revolution of its substance, especially the slogans that have resonated in the streets, as exemplified by “Go and leave, Bashar” which was promptly co-opted to become “We are Bashar’s men.”
Conversely, Islamist graffiti and street propaganda alienated Syrian cities from their revolution, especially with quasi-religious prohibition of the initial ideals of the revolution, such as freedom and democracy, which are considered outlawed notions under Daesh, An-Nusra and other extremist organizations.
This type of ideological graffiti derives its power from the religious prohibition. It represents God’s “opinions” and laws, and so it cannot be subjected to debate or violated in any way. The sanctity extends to the ideologue as well, who is in turn elevated from the midst of ordinary mortals. As an earthly representative of the Heavenly Almighty, he belongs to the unquestionable, inviolable immortal sacred. The symbolic regime resurfaced once again.
One Regime, Many Actors
In Elements of Semiology, Roland Barthes argues that at least a part of the iconic message is, in terms of structural relationship, either redundant or taken up by the linguistic system. Perhaps this explains the reproduction of the Assad State symbolic regime by organizations that have emerged after the revolution. In fact, the constituent reference of these organizations implicitly relies on the conceptual frameworks put forth by the regime, albeit with novel expressions and nascent labels.
All extremist organizations, including the Assad State, are at war against each other, and are contesting over the Syrian bloodshed. The dispute among these organizations does not revolve around the protection of Syrians, but rather around who holds priority in taming and abusing them. This is what an authority is in their conceptual reference, and this is specifically why they managed to garner the enmity of Syrian revolutionaries, who had once and for all departed from the authoritarian symbolic pattern.
It ought be noted that extremism does not seem very alien to the Assad regime. Ever since the disintegration of Assad’s hybrid facade, which is composed of cracks in Syrian identity and the exploitation of its fragility, the various components of the regime, under the threat of erosion by the social changes brought about by the revolution, have resorted to intensifying their rites of passage to where they can derive some meaning7. The regime of the Islamic State caliphate has undoubtedly been a former component of this facade. How many times have we “pledged allegiance” to Assad?!
Until the revolution’s deconstruction –or rather destruction– efforts of the regime of totalitarian symbolism come to align on certain axes, which could be the foundation of a new democratic state, any attempt to contain Syrians will remain a mere redistribution of the roles of the Assad regime across new actors.
The Birth of Meaning
It seems that the Syrian dilemma has resurfaced. In order for us to rid ourselves of extremist Islamist domination, we ought to dispose of the regime; but in order to dispose of the regime, we ought to absolve ourselves of extremist Islamist domination which prevent the constitution of a democratic, inclusive state.
If the first clash with the symbolic regime has pushed Syrians towards the suicide of “The people have a will,” the second clash seems to have revealed what people’s determination needs to deconstruct and undermine such symbols. It seems evident that the only act that could salvage us from this vicious circle is a second suicide, one embodied in a revolutionary graffiti in Binnish, which could lead to the crystallization of meaning as well: The people have a will to revolt against the revolution!
- 1. See Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage.
- 2. See Pierre Bourdieu, La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d'enseignement.
- 3. See Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History.
- 4. See Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society.
- 5. Ali al-Zayyat, Glossary of Linguistic and Literary Terms (Arabic).
- 6. For more on this notion, see Awatef Alkutaiti, “New Creative Expressions of the Youth in Post-Revolution Tunisia” (Arabic), Alawan website.
- 7. For more on that point, see Moncef el-Mahouachi, “Rituals and Tyrannical Symbols: Functions and Signs Within Changing Society,” (Arabic) Insaniyyat.