A little over a generation ago, a huge national crisis erupted in Syria. It precipitated an unprecedented humanitarian plight, and forced one of the most progressive Arab countries onto a path of absolute decline. An indirect consequence of this has been the transformation of ‘The Syrian Arab Republic” into “Assad’s Syria”, or Assad’s kingdom, and the emergence of a young and ferocious dynasty. The current head of this dynasty has in turn presided over a second national crisis whose scale and long-term effects remain immeasurable. Today, we have passed the fortieth month of this crisis.
While Syrians, whether politicians, intellectuals or the common man, understandably have different stances vis-a-vis this significant struggle, it is difficult to comprehend how thirty years have gone by (prior to the explosion of the current round of the struggle) without Syrian intellectuals caring to examine the history of their country’s creation, its formative experiences, the concerns of its citizens, the political and intellectual tension embedded in its foundation, the sources of conflict and violence inherent in its self-definition, the risks of implosion of its entity, the means to overcome its divisions and its inherent rifts, and the policies necessary to turn it into a country capable of evolution – that is, one that ensures a minimum level of justice and dignity for its citizens.
One usually assumes that big crises are also opportunities for a historical contemplation which aims to prevent the very recurrence of such crises. So how is it conceivable that not one essential book has been published by a Syrian or a group of Syrians to examine and interrogate the sources of the recurrent Syrian crises?
I should note upfront that the pertinent intellectuals for this specific inquiry are writers, most of whom were born in the 1930s and 1940s. They were in their thirties and forties – and a few were in their fifties - during the first Syrian national crisis between 1979 and 1982. They include Antoun Makdissi (1914-2005), Hanna Mina, Elias Marqas (1929-1991), Adonis, Zakaria Tamer, Waleed Ikhlasi, Haidar Haidar, Sadek Jalal Al-‘Azm, George Tarabishi, Saadallah Wanous (1997-1941), Mamdouh Adwan (1941-2004), Ghada al-Samman, Michel Kilo, Burhan Ghalioun and Aziz al-‘Azmeh. The defining characteristic of this generation of writers is that they championed big causes, but rarely themselves took part in actual struggles.
Some of us may not be able, for political or ideological reasons, to say anything about the artillery massacre, the Palmyra massacre, the big Hama massacre, the arrest of tens of thousands and the execution of thousands in Palmyra prison or the torture that takes place in security headquarters and detention centers. But, for this very reason, going beyond politics when researching the founding of the country and its history is a perfect opportunity for the writer, and beneficial for the country. Had this been done, the discourse would have been elevated above the present-day political and ideological polarities and provided us with historical material and research tools to consult. We, as intellectuals and political activists, would surely have been in a much better position if, during the past 30 years, we had found ten books that probe Syria’s paths to various destinies.
But there is nothing. Why?
The Politics of Truth
The first reason that comes to mind is that, in Syria, writers cannot, no matter how hard they try to avoid politics, avoid it to the extent that they stay out of trouble. They have few options. Either they completely ignore the contemporary era, and a few have indeed made such a choice; or they avoid discussing the country’s affairs, a path taken by some others, who focused instead on the Arab world, the Arab regimes, the third world and developing countries. Or they beat around the bush while speaking of the era they live in, in the process undermining the seriousness of their work.
In each case, the choice is subject to the political consequences of speaking the “truth”. The truth is always political and it is political everywhere, but it is twice as political in Syria given that the political system is premised on the negation of independent investigative efforts and an unfettered examination of the political apparatuses: their structure, their history, their acts and functions.
Because of the circumstances surrounding the emergence of its leadership and because of its composition, the Assad regime has been determined to prohibit any discussion about the structure of power, the history of rules and regulations, and the history of the country itself. Thus legitimate demands are confronted with two prohibitively high barriers: the ideological barrier which is responsible for misnaming things (and so a coup becomes a popular uprising, the defense minister of June 5 is a national hero, sectarianism is national unity, the apparatuses of fear are security apparatuses…) and the barrier of oppression which dissuades people from calling a spade a spade. These barriers relegate discussion on all that is essential about the country’s social and political fabric to a taboo zone guarded by fear, and those who dare violate these taboos expose themselves to a great danger. A generation of dissidents, including both secularists and Islamists, tried in various ways to break those taboos and were crushed at the hands of this political formula. And it appears that an entire generation of writers, upon seeing their fate, has engaged in self-censorship so as to not be subjected to the same experiences.
But fear, or the repercussions of telling the truth, cannot justify conforming to rules. The intellectual should be defying and breaking these rules: it is his raison d’etre to do so even before it is his duty. It is far too important a matter to remain silent about. Moreover, the intellectuals belong to a class whose members, relatively speaking, enjoy more immunity than others. Quite a few of them in fact live outside Syria. It is not expected of intellectuals to take absolutist political positions they would perhaps loathe, but it can be expected of them to interrogate and examine the underlying structure of the country, its history and its fate. In other words, to engage in intellectual work of a general nature. Doing this might not be entirely safe either, but surely it does not invoke the same dangers as does candid and outspoken political speech.
If fear is not an adequate explanation for why Syrian intellectuals refrained from doing their work, then how do we understand their choice to abstain?
The Culture of Teleologies
The concept of the intellectual and his role is fundamental to the root of the problem.Back in the seventies and eighties, intellectuals were deemed to be “progressive”. At the time, “progressivism” was understood as a social and historical ideology that was part of the struggle for justice and the liberation of the downtrodden, but it also included an aspiration to “join the developed world”. During those same years, the latter motivation undermined the former one. On the one hand, the concept of progress suffered from a crisis of thought when it saw itself reflected in and defined by the literature on post-modernism. On the other hand, progress was confronted with the decline and inertia of Soviet communism as a political doctrine that had collapsed by the end of the 1980s.
The progressive dimension of the intellectual remains alive in the Arab context because the status of the intellectual is dependent on it. The intellectual, after all, is an individual who strives to ensure we evolve, catch up with “the present times” and become modern. But because of the intellectual’s alienation from the ongoing political and social struggle, and given the rise of Islamists in present times, the notion of progress has been supplanted by a temporal and nebulous concept which is out of touch with actual social realities. This is the concept of modernity.
The paradigm of modernity as put forth by contemporary western organizations which, putting aside debates revolving around their assumed universality, is our starting point, rather than examples of historical societies closer to ours such as Turkey, Brazil or India – a choice that cripples our societies and drains them in an intolerable way. Moreover using this coveted Western model as a starting point, the “justice-oriented future” as Abdallah al-Arwi has described in Contemporary Arab Ideology, makes the problems of existing injustice, oppression, persecution and discrimination in our country invisible and unworthy of attention, as if they were a temporary and inconsequential phase we are going through or an inevitable price we have to pay in order to reach the desired goal. This is nothing short of a death sentence for our political and moral aptitudes. These aptitudes are already, in any case, in jeopardy, given current times and the turbulent lives of the living and their struggle. Indeed, one is surprised to see thick tomes by modernist Syrian writers devoid of even a few lines expressing sympathy with the oppressed, or revealing a stirring of conscience in opposition to the horrific massacres, or even a few angry words about the big crimes.
Besides, exclusively focusing on the concept of modernism vis-à-vis the Islamists, makes one ignore the original source of discrimination, violence and corruption in our societies, which is the elitist accommodating regimes. The ideologues of modernism find themselves in proximity to the upper echelons of society, and they hardly utter a word about these regimes’ excessive crudeness. Modernity is perceived, in any case, as a telos rather than a personal involvement in the social, political and intellectual struggles of the day.
It’s not just liberalism that cannot be achieved in a modernist setting. Modernism favors everything that is orderly, elevated, fully formed, centralized and is against everything that is messy, lowly, lacking form, and marginal. And it’s not just justice and the struggle for freedom that is not possible in such circumstances. Acquiring knowledge about the human condition is also not possible. Thus, it is no coincidence that we rarely find a description of reality as lived or an analysis of the current situation in the writings of modernist authors. The Syrian intellectuals whose writings have dealt with aspects of actual reality are either critics of modernist ideology (Burhan Ghalioun, for example) or they are more preoccupied with their fellow human beings than ideological claims (Mamdouh Adwan), or they have entered the field of politics and become engaged in dissident movements, especially since “the Damascus Spring”.
The Culture of Essences
But is it also possible that some of the reasons behind these writers’ abstention from examining the creation of Syria, its history and its fate are entwined with the formation of Syria itself and not just in the formation of intellectuals? It is important to note that the majority of Syrian intellectuals of the generation I am writing about did not even recognize Syria in the first place, let alone know it. The Syrian intellectual was an Arab nationalist or “a Syrian nationalist”, or an “Islamist nationalist” - one who thinks about the imagined “Islamic nation” rather than the real Syria - and that’s when his horizon was not already contained by the sect or the tribe.
The Syrian intellectual, who identifies himself by his Syrianness, emerged even later than the late appearance of the intellectual in Syria. What I mean is that the Syrian trait itself lagged behind the appearance of the intellectual - and perhaps it goes no further back than the early years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule and “the Damascus Spring”. If we look back at earlier times, then we note that the intellectual would introduce himself as an “Arab thinker” or an “Arab writer” from Syria! (This, incidentally, is not the case in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq or even Jordan. And, naturally, it is not the case in Egypt either. The intellectual of essence presided for a long time in Syria alone.)
Syria, as understood in terms of the various ideologies embraced by the intellectuals of the country, was a temporary entity. This has undermined the importance of knowledge and intellectual representation in favor of what is supposed to be a fixed permanent essence present in “intellectual” nations. In the same vein, modernity has undermined acquisition of knowledge about our present in pursuit of the ultimate essence, which we would either reach one day or else we would “go extinct”.
Perhaps dedication to this essence explains the surprising determination to ignore sectarian issues even though they are the indisputable focus of violence and rupture in the country. The “intellectual of essence” refuses to address these issues because they are prosaic and belong to the inconsequential world of politics, and the intellectual of “ultimate aims” rejects it because it is one of the faces of a vanishing world (irrespective of how long that might take). And it is, above all, the taboo that the regime guards most zealously.
We owe what little has been written about Syria to the “Damascus Spring” and what came after; taboos were violated, things were named by their names and thought-provoking ideas were introduced into the Syrian world. During that time, contributions by Antoun Makdissi, Sadek Jalal al-‘Azm, Burhan Ghalioun and Michel Kilo, who belong to the older generation, succeeded in moving Syria from a negative framework in regard to the work of intellectuals, and inspired a strong interest in their work, creating a framework for their active involvement. But a new generation of writers and novelists also emerged on the scene. These individuals, born between the fifties and the seventies, are more Syrian than their predecessors and are also closer to the actual conflict. Still, even what was written back then fails to fulfill the need to delve into our country’s core and to write its biography.
The Prophets of Nothingness
Three factors have colluded to prevent this reflection upon Syrian history and representing it as it is:
1) The political factor which scares people away from knowledge
2) Dissolving of the present into a grand historical mission en route to modernity
3) Subsuming national existence into a wider concept of the nation.
In all these cases, the intellectual appears as an agent for a grand essen that never really materializes or a telos that can only be reached in the remote future. He is not the intellectual concerned with life as it is lived and is tangible, but he is the intellectual of beatitudes or salvation. Or, he assumes the role of the prophetic savant. And thus the natural mood of the intellectual is pessimism because his goal is so out of reach and the essence he cherishes will not materialize. And like the old prophets, today’s prophets will not stop lambasting the public for its drowsiness and lack of awareness.
Incidentally, the dissolving of the present time into the ultimate fate does not contradict the logic fundamental to Islamist ideology. Indeed, It coincides with a “historisit” principle in Islam since the revelation which placed Arabs within the broader Abrahamic lineage. And its also overlaps with the Islamic prophetic role, which favors overall wholeness and ultimate salvation over the reality of detail, diversity, and change. The blending of actual existence into a deeper essence also does not contradict an inherent tendency in Islamic thought, which denies present reality in favor of an assumed essence, one embodied in the Salaf and the Caliphate, and that prioritizes the afterlife over worldly existence.
Yet isn’t devaluation of actual existence the common characteristic found in all nihilist trends? For what is nihilism except the idealization of an ultimate fate and fixed essence at the expense of daily life or the here and now? Is the modernist or the secularist, then, significantly different from the Islamist when they both undermine the value of current knowledge, politics and life? Aren’t they, rather, nurturing nihilism when they create an intellectual, political and moral void that cannot be filled except with an Islamic void?
The prophets of today may be at odds with the prophets of yesteryears, but the latter’s eschatological logic and reclusive spirit in this ever-changing world is ingrained in them just as much. To put it simply, intellectuals as they had come to define themselves, were like missionaries in another era or representatives of a hidden essence, and are agents of nihilism in our contemporary times. Confronting nihilism necessitates turning the page on the prophetic savant who we inherited from the “renaissance era” and a return to the present and our actual existence. This kind of prophet is a historical construct; he has a beginning, the “renaissance”, and he has an end: the social revolution.
Looking into our country’s reality and its formation is not only an effective approach towards understand the roots of its plight and agonies, it is also a means to break with the utopian instincts of Islamic thought in both its ancient and modern manifestations.
A New Intellectual!
Is the situation different today? Are there any signs that a new kind of intellectual is about to emerge - one who resists the discrimination, oppression and marginalization occurring here and now - instead of the one who croons about nothingness and “beautiful ruin”, the prophetic savant who is only concerned with eventualities and true essences?
If the above analysis holds true then a big opportunity exists today to examine the Syrian entity, its fate and its conscience.
Political taboos have been broken, albeit with the destruction of the country itself.
Confidence in the new prophets and their beliefs is less pronounced than in earlier times.
And the Islamic vacuum which merely fills other vacuums with limitless violence is bound to provoke a wave of secular trends focused on the here and now that break religious taboos, and which are anti-nihilist in nature.
Preoccupying ourselves with the Syrian world, the foundation of the human and physical country, and eradicating the roots of violence and enmity from its institutions, is what will erect barriers in the face of nihilism in all its manifestations: the nihilism of contemporary prophets, the nihilism of eschatological religion, the nihilism of tyranny which does not refrain from destroying the majority, amputating memory and imposing eternal life as the only way of being for the living. For that means eternal death.
From the Damascus Spring until the Syrian revolution, we have had two formative experiences that have in common the fact that they both aim to re-appropriate politics and re-appropriate ownership of the country for its citizens.
The Syrian tragedy embodies the most extreme of human destinies in terms of torture, horror, death, diaspora, rupture, exile, anger, hatred and betrayal , the limitations of mankind and its greatness, crime and sacrifice. For that reason, we have been given an opportunity to reflect upon the fate of that entity called Syria and the fate of humanity in general.
It is imperative that we turn this into a practical project today.