The Struggle for Syria’s Body & Soul!

According to Shaaban Abbod of An-Nahar, thestrugglebetween Islamists and secularists in Syria is intensifying. The recent sign in this regard can be seen in the open Letter to the President sent by Syria’s foremost Islamic scholars and Imams proclaiming the existence of an official conspiracy against Islamic education in the country. The leaders of this conspiracy seem to the secular forces in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Religious Endowment (?), where the new Minister has just issued an edict against admitting students into religious schools at the preparatory level.

But the existence of such a conspiracy is very dubious indeed, and the main reason for the edict seems to be the poor quality of education provided in preparatory religious schools with regard to math and science, which limits the choices of students when it comes to high school level education. Attending regular preparatory schools, on the other hand, affords more choices to students at a very critical time in their life. Moreover, the country definitely needs more scientists and technicians then they do religious scholars.

Of course, the educational system in the country needs to be revamped, and greater emphasis and respectability should be assigned to vocational training, but that’s a different issue really. In this regard, the desire of many of us (check the recent discussion on Syria Comment) to put greater emphasis on civil, democratic and liberal values will come in full confrontation with the desire of religious forces, of all stripes, to put greater stress on traditional values, be they Islamic, Christian, Druze, or what have you.

As such, the question regarding whether education is a key ingredient in the ongoing processes of democratization seems to beg the point that we are hardly going to agree on certain very critical details pertaining to freedom of conscience, academic freedom, gender equality, etc. etc. – issues that go to the heart of a democratic education and run in the face of existing traditional and religious norms. The reality is that both the regime and the society are against the sorely needed civic education that most liberal activist crave and advocate.

But, can we, alternatively, impose democratic values on our people? Can democratic values, considering their very nature, come as a result of imposition?

Some might say that Turkey did it. Indeed, but the price was enormous, and Turkey was helped by the fact that, having been the center of empire for a very long time, it still retained many of the needed and qualified technocrats and administrators to help Mustafa Kemal manage this necessary transitional period, and to take over the entire process after his passing. Turkey had also had quite the head-start over the periphery in terms of its efforts to modernize and, to an extant, secularize, their society, perhaps as long as two centuries worth. Evading a direct experience with colonialism must have helped as well, as the nationals struggle against the invaders was a very brief affair, relatively speaking, and, as such, it did not divert attention from the cause at hand and did not stain it by having associated so directly and manifestly with foreignness. The experiences of the past two centuries have afforded the Kemalist experience a certain historical background and context. Modernity and Secularism were not introduced as a completely new experiment, rather they were presented as a continuation of previous efforts in this regard.

Well, we, in Syria, do have a century of experimentation behind us now, albeit of the failed variety, but, then, one could argue, so were the Turkish experiments. Still, the nature of our recent history as well as that of the current ruling regime have served to alienate and decimate the traditional professional and technocratic classes on all levels, and have, more importantly, failed, for the most part, to produce any suitable and qualified alternatives.

So, who is going to champion the cause of change in our midst, and who is going to be responsible for the education, especially that much coveted, by some, and loathed and dreaded, by most, liberal education?

Our struggle as liberal reformers at this stage should be to simply create a niche for ourselves in the constantly shifting sands in our country and region in the hope of riding out the oncoming onslaught of illiberal mayhem in order to reemerge at some pointing the future, near or distant, and manage the mess that everybody else is bound to leave us.

But, in order to reemerge, we should never disappear, we should continue to make our presence felt and accepted in our environs, no matter how begrudgingly and no matter how dangerous things might become. This is easier said than done, of course.

Meanwhile, and while pragmatism is always needed, can we say that all is fair in the struggle for Syria’s body and soul? Well, I’d say there is one redline here: violence. We should never advocate violence no matter how tempting the situation might be, for once unleashed, violence tends to be uncontrollable. We should even avoid, as hard as we can, the temptation to respond to violence in kind, if not for reasons of principle, then for reasons of strategy, seeing that we, the liberals, are the weakest party out there, and, as such, are not in a good position to win a violent battle. Still, we can potentially “embarrass” the other side into ceasing its violent attacks when we opt for nonviolent tactics of confrontation. Otherwise, we’re fucked.

But while we survive, we need to work on everything at once. We cannot wait until we educate everybody in the proper manner, because we don’t even agree on what is proper. Furthermore, if I am willing to wait 40 years to see some of my values clearly implanted in our soil, will the world?

Multitasking is the key to success. We have to work on education and be involved in politics and work as technocrats and professionals of various sorts and stop trying to over-intellectualize the problem at hand. The real solutions to such problems in life as authoritarianism and oppression, both social and political, have always been stumbled upon as a result of trial and error rather than thought out and charted beforehand.

And so, we plod on, with no guarantees of anything, not even a good night’s sleep. The ravages of the struggle for our country’s and our world’s body and soul will have to be borne by our own bodies and souls, which are the only real currency that we have in this world.

14 thoughts on “The Struggle for Syria’s Body & Soul!

  1. AmmarA good an timely post. We are already beginning to pay the price for the regime’s flirtation with Iran and its fanning of domestic Islamic fires for external consumption. it is like throwing a piece of fresh meat to the wolves and hoping they will not turn on you. Democracy is only a mechanism for people to participate in decisions that affect their lives. If the mechanism is sound and fair, Islamic extremism will be at the fringe rather than heart of society. The fringe should enjoy its freedom but cannot be allowed impose its will on the majority nor should the majority be allowed to choke off minority interests. All of this must be inshrined in the laws of the land (see my latest post: “Syrian Constitution – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” on and backed up by the full power of the state. Turkey is a case in point and I agree there were special factors that allowed it preseve the integrity of its political system more easily than otherwise would have been the case.Secularism is not anti religion per se. It ensures that no one ethnic or religeous group dominates, provokes or undermines the rights of other groups. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religeous country like Syria, it is an absolute must. However, you have to believe in cultural diversity (as a philosophical, economic and moral issue) in the first place, otherwise you will be inclined to drive the minorities underground or out of the country. A Syria devoid of it rich cultutral diversity would not be the kind of Syria that I would wish to belong to.

  2. Indeed, violence, especially the internal revolutionary sort, is the great corruptor of soul and body.Secularism, I think, comes hand in hand with liberal political rights and values.

  3. Excellent post Ammar. a bit depressing, but that’s reality.After reading your thoughts above, and the 66 comments yesterday at Syria comment, I feel the following is a summary of the challenges for the liberal education reformers1) Regional factors that are leading Syrians and other Arabs towards more fundamentalism … frustrations from the Iraq war, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians (see Philip’s Gaza post). If you talk to most young Syrians, you will realize that they are genuinely convinced there is an international/Israeli plan to destroy the Arabs and Islam.2) The Syrian leadership which was under an intensive attack over the past 18 months from an all-liberal group (US, France, Europe, Syrian liberal intellectuals, Lebanese politicians …etc) started to turn to its remaining friends … Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah, and even many Sunni Syrian and other Arab fundamentalist parties.3) Residual bitterness of the post MB terror and “Hama”. For example, the regime can not risk again any Ataturk-style forced secularism on a part of the population that does not welcome secular values, that will remind people of what happened in Hama. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, feel the regime always owes them more reparations for what happened 25 years ago.3) The regime + many Syrians probably have a priority for economic reforms. 4) Corruption and bad management. This is a great challenge in all sectors, including education.So which ones of the above can we lobby against? fight?

  4. Ammar, this is a brilliant post… distilled and synthesized together sooo much of the material in the debate on the other blog, as well as, soo much of what was relevant but not said clearly or at all… down into its essence.

  5. The turkish model is an interesting one.Can we create a national concensus where the army is the arms-length guardian of the constitution and the MB and others are allowed to run in elections as long they stay within constitutional bounds?

  6. Of course I mean the pre-baath constitution, or a new one that is corrected along the lines that Philip I has been proposing.

  7. Regarding Alex’s above comments…and the question of what will be fought against or lobbied against….I don’t think there is any way to fight againstreligiousity or the fundamentalist tidedirectly. This would only lead to more backlash and potentially violence. I think the energy should be put to fighting for liberalism in every way possible.I think i said before and will say again, I truly envision that young people will be SEDUCED into liberalism. Maybe this sounds terrible, but I think the validity of this idea is born out by the fact that the fundamentalist are always characterizing the threat to religion in terms of temptation.I can’t escape my own image of my 23 year old damascene cousin….. watching some ultra-conservative Imam on the television late at night and proclaiming the man and his words to be soo admirable and clearly the right path, then subsequently… turning to his laptop to engage in several hours of DOOM III, playing Alice in Chains songs on his guitar, and drooling endlessly over half naked LBC babes. Oh yeah, and then he had to go pray. What do the contradictions all MEAN?For those of us aspiring to promote liberal values and education …..beyond pop music and culture, I think it means that such activities….can be competitive in the struggle for the soul of young syrians…but the message better be pretty compelling and exciting. Or as Ammar likes to say the message and the messanger needs to be, “Sexed Up”! laugh….

  8. iwxrZenobia said: “I think the energy should be put to fighting for liberalism in every way possible.” That is it, right there, the essence of our challenge: the need to define ourselves in positive rather than negative terms. Modernity is too tempting, and that’s one aspect that is clearly on our side. Still, people can do exactly what Zenobia’s cousin did, indefinitely it seems, that is, they could live the contradiction for an indefinite period of time and without attempting to reconcile the one part of their brain that is inurned in fundamentalism and traditional values to the other part that has fallen under the spell of modernity and its liberating trappings. What this leads to is clearly stagnation, social, moral, political and intellectual. Unless people begin to compare and contrast and make definitive choices one way or the other, even if these choices should end up leading them in the “other” direction for the foreseeable future, we will remain mired and trapped in the adulation of the status quo, at least as the lesser of all evils, while underneath all façades, deep down in our very core (should we ever have a core), the balance will continue to shift gradually towards the darker, more atavistic, more fundamentalist and more radical even, end of the spectrum. Why? Because this is where the inertia is, this is where the historical pull of 10,000 years of civilization is concentrated. The sway of the past in our individual and collective minds, psyche and subconscious is far stronger than that of the future, especially in the absence of any alluring vision of it, one that clearly accommodates our inborn desires and our interests (at least as we might perceived them to be at this stage) in its folds. So, the main challenge for the liberals will be to provide a positive and alluring vision of the future, one that can challenge our people into making the necessary comparisons and the hard choices, and into, eventually, surrendering themselves actively to the temptations of modernity by taking a more active and proactive part in its making. In order to claim some ownership of modernity and, therefore, be ale to derive some measure of pride, belonging, and identity from it, we need to play a more active part in making and defining it. It is not enough that our ancestors have played part in paving the way for it. Empowerment will not come as a result of finding some historical precedents for some of modernity’s inventions and claims in our distant and forgotten past, the disconnect in this regard, the downright lie, is simply too glairing and obvious to fool us for long, if at all. The collected “wisdom” inside of us, albeit cynical, will militate against such facile attempts. For that internal wisdom will not become active and will not shake off its cynicism and start to play as a counterweight to the collected inertia inside of us as well, unless something far more alluring, credible and “sexed up” is offered to the yearning eyes of our thirsty minds. We need to create an appealing enough myth to surround that jewel that is liberalism in order to convince people to wade through hell in search of it. And there should be sightings, and adventurers with claims to success, and all the necessary trappings that can help inspire the desperate minds. But more importantly, we need to eventually offer some serious substance, otherwise the let-down will be great people, and the frustration will run high and all our efforts will end up backfiring.

  9. Ammar, Just read your piece at the Daily Star, “Syria’s serial exporters of instability”.Great analysis, your conclusion that the failures of the Assads to improve things in Syria makes them thrive on foreign entanglements is bang on.

  10. Well, Alex, I was there in mind and spirit, but unfortunately I have not been able to go to the poolside in a while now, and next week promises to be even more hectic. Damn. Everything comes at the expense of pleasure. I really need to mix some hedonism with my heresies.

  11. Ammar, great writing and great work as always, I was very impressed with your daily star article that I covered it with a modest postalso this post might interest you since there is some recent media coverage about syrian blogs…Things take time to develop and little things can make big impacts…

  12. Ammar,Thanks a lot for your encouragment of my post and for your unwavery? support for our prisoners heroes.I am so happy that May Chidiac has survived the Syrian regime barbarism, she is a big symbol in our struggle to break the silence and change the status quo Happy News: May is backMay is not only a Lebanese hero but she is the hero of all liberal Syrians as well. I hope you write about her also since your style and knowledge is much more powerful than mine (after all I am just a technical guy who loves to read and get informed, good in oral but not written debates)

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