Tuesday 13 December 2016

A leading Syrian exilic intellectual: Sadiq Jalal al-Azm (1934-2016)

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Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm passed away in Berlin on Sunday, 11 December 2016. Al-Azm had already been living in German exile before civil war erupted in his homeland in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Although working mainly as an academic philosopher, Sadiq al-Azm also spoke and wrote about politics. Member of the prominent Damascene al-Azm family, which has produced generations of scholars and influential political figures, al-Azm positioned himself on the left and became an outspoken critic of the Assad government, when it became clear in 2000 that Hafiz al-Assad’s family and his wider Alawi clan were turning a military regime into a hereditary dynasty. For that reason, he also became one of the signatories of the 2005 ‘Damascus Declaration’, and later decided to join the Committee for the Revival of Civil Society’.

Although mainly regarded as a representative of the political left, Al-Azm has also written perceptively about religion and engaged critically with the challenge of Orientalism by peer such as Edward Said. This also forms the wider context for his decision to throw his intellectual weight behind opposition to the Assad regime that had its origins in the mosque. In an interview he gave in 2013, he explained that he did not regard this as giving up his advocacy of secularisation or his Marxist convictions. He still finds Marx’s classical analysis convincing, but believes that its interpretation and implementation along the lines of Franz Fanon are more relevant to a country like Syria. This is also the reason for his sympathy for the Catholic Liberation Theologies emerging in Latin America and even for the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which also included a very significant leftist component until its hijacking by the Islamists, which turned Iran into a ‘Mollahcracy’.

Al-Azm has always cautioned against having exaggerated expectations of what revolutions can accomplish. Structural changes to cultures are difficult to achieve and are the outcome of slow socially cumulative historical processes. In this regard, he pointed at argumentations put forward by other Syrian intellectuals like Jamil Saliba, Anton Makdisi and Tayyib Tayzini, as well as progressive thinkers from elsewhere, including his fellow philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabri and the historian Abdullah Laroui from Morocco, and the Egyptians Fouad Zakariyya and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.
As to the ideological dimensions for effecting drastic changes to a culture and society, al-Azm stresses that the key to success lies in secularisation and the creation of civil society, that is to say creating a sense of citizenship that overrides religiously-inspired one-dimensional identities.

A useful overview of the various stages of al-Azm’s intellectual life can be found here.

For some of  al-Azm's publications, click on the widget below: