Saturday 23 August 2014

Sadik al-Azm on the crisis in Syria: Self-Criticism or Self-Defeating Critique?

Sadik Jalal al-Azm
Syria's leading philosopher, Sadik al-Azm, has written an insightful analysis of the situation in Syria, which -- from 2011 onward -- has gone from bad to worse. Known as one of the most incisive minds of contemporary Arab thinking, Sadik al-Azm made name with penetrating writings, including Self-Criticism After the Defeat, where he criticizes the general intellectual mood in the Arab world, and 'Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse' which challenges Edward Said's account of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, again holding up what must be an uncomfortable mirror for many Arab intellectuals and cultural critics. An earlier response to the uprising in Syria can be found here.

While the article's subtitle, 'understanding the unthinkable war', points up the sheer impossibility of making sense of what is pitching Syrians against each other in the present conflict, it seems that as he develops his argument, al-Azm falls victim to the very failings he seeks to highlight: The loss of an overarching sense of 'Syrianness', leaving in its place a polarized fragmentation into other senses of belonging, now increasingly of a sectarian character, which -- with a nod to Ibn Khaldun's notion of asabiyya -- are by many taken to be of a more primordial nature. There is a poignant contrast between the beginning of the essay:
The people’s intifada in Syria, against the military regime and police state of the Assad family, took me by surprise. I was fearful at first that the regime would crush it almost instantly, given its legendary ferocity and repressiveness. Like other Syrian intellectuals, I felt total impotence before this devouring monster, which precluded any thought of an imminent, or even possible, collective “no.”
I was surprised by the revolution, but I should not have been. Daily experiences and recurrent observations foretold a crisis that many Syrians tried hard to deny. And deny we did. Let me explain.
After the violent suppression of the Damascus Spring in 2001–2002 and again after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005, which led to the humiliating withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Lebanon, angst spread throughout Syria. [...]
Like many in Damascus, I found myself beginning, almost unconsciously, to weigh every word according to the religious affiliations of passing acquaintances and close friends alike. Social engagements lost spontaneity. Confidence and trust evaporated, and offense was taken more quickly than ever before. An unusual dose of suspicion seeped into the Syrian intelligentsia’s traditional solidarity against oppression.
 ..and its closing paragraphs:
The solution can come only with the termination of political Alawitism. This is pretty much the way the Taef Agreement, in 1989, brought the Lebanese civil war to an end—by jettisoning political Maronitism and its predominance over Lebanon. In Syria’s case, that means the end of the dynasty, the end of Alawi supremacy, the end of the sway of the minority, and the rebirth of the republic. The West does have a role to play. Instead of letting Syria bleed, the West needs to help end Assad’s grip on the country and its future and negotiate political accommodation for Alawis within a democratic framework that will necessarily favor the Sunni majority. The West will inevitably intervene because the great powers will not permit Syria to fall into the hands of jihadi Islam. The question is whether that intervention will be guided by a proper understanding of the war.
As I write, no one claims to know where Syria is heading or what will end the bloody struggle. Still, I am certain that the Assad and Alawi dynasties will never rule again.
To read the full article, click here