Of Historical Musts & Clashing Desires!

Perhaps, for people who never heard of democracy, passing through a transitional phase of enlightened despotism was necessary and perhaps even a natural part of their societal evolution. 

But for people who have been exposed to democracy, not to mention modernity, no matter how indirectly or vicariously, and for people who know it through direct experiences and contacts, even if they do not completely appreciate its complexity and its demands on them, the task of achieving it through a necessary period of dictatorial transformations becomes that much more complex.

For those who crave democracy would not want to wait for generations to build the necessary cultural framework for it, and those who fear it would not want to establish any of the necessary reforms and framework for its introduction. Meanwhile, those who crave modernity would not want to wait until the society learns to appreciate it democratically and on its own pace and terms, and those who don’t would would want to resist it on a popular level, as they often have the greater share of popular sympathy and approval.

Can we really have both modernization and democratization as simultaneous processes that can reach an acceptable level of fulfillment in the span of a single lifetime to appeal to all those impatient souls out there?

The West had the luxury of experimenting and stumbling, though not blindly, for many decades and centuries until it worked out democracy and found itself embroiled in modernity. It all happened in fits and struts and then more fits and struts. We have no other choice to follow the same rocky path. But some of us would be lost in their yearning for a faster fulfillment of it all, for they cannot ignore the finished product that they can examine with their naked eyes and insist on reinventing the wheel from scratch when the whole truth of it is right there for all to see. Furthermore, they can also see how impossible and out-of-character it will be for the rest of the world to simply wait for us to catch up with it on our own pace and terms.

No, the world will not wait for us to learn and assimilate its new cherished truths at our own pace, just as we did not wait for it to learn and assimilate ours so long ago. There is no real malice, spite or design involved here, at least not a malice, spite or a design that is conscious of itself all the time, and of all the implications of the various horrendous decisions that gets made in the name of progress, the historical must and the plain greed that are part and parcel of it. What is involved here is the sheer folly that emanates from our own humanity and from the very structures and institutions that give our lives meaning and us a sense of belonging.

We, the sentient inhabitants of this earth, are a desperate and fractious lot indeed, a pitiful lot, an over-aspiring lot. Our interests, values, yearnings, beliefs, needs and desires will forever clash, and we will constantly walk all over each other, intentionally and not so intentionally, whenever the need should arise, all our principles and sense of humanity notwithstanding.

After all, the West did not have the luxury of working out its modernity and democracy unmolested. Neither shall we. Albeit the external dabbling which we have to endure is on a radically different scale than what that the West had had to endure with regards to both quantity and quality. And the pace of it all is maddening and merciless.

No, we, the peoples of this unfortunate region, seem destined to be more like the Native Americans in their fate – much of who we are will likely become extinct by the time we are modernized and democratized, whether we like it or not.

In fact, most of us don’t like it, and are, therefore, putting up quite the fight. That is indeed what lies at the heart of international terrorism, especially Islamist one. Oh, we, as a culture that is, will eventually go into that good night all right, terrorism notwithstanding, following the lead of our long dead civilization. But we won’t go gently. That’s the point. Death often has pangs, even when it is collective, no, especially when it is collective.

Most of us are simply too attached to the old ways to allow for a gentle fading away. They didn’t have time to see the wisdom of change, or appreciate its necessity and its potential benefits, or take part in making it so they can feel that they own it somehow. And they never will. Even if they did, enough of them will still hold out to share enough of their pain and frustration with an equally hostile world. It’s their belief system, after all, that is at stake here, it’s everything that they are, including in many instances, their very livelihood, and the world cannot accommodate it anymore, it cannot accommodate the particularities of their basic desires, wants and needs, not in practical terms any. In theory, accommodation is almost always possible. But in practice, we are just too human to let it happen.

So, we will indeed change in due course of time, and we will be changed as well. In fact we are already changing and being changed, though some of us at a faster pace than the rest. And some of us, though not always the best, will survive this. But most of us, though not always the worst, will die, at least in the cultural sense.

The survivors might still call themselves Arabs, Muslims, Kurds, etc., but the only thing that will be recognizably Arab, Muslim or Kurdish about them will be their assertions in this regard, and perhaps even their languages. This will more likely suffice most of the time, except for those few moments when a deeply buried nostalgia resurfaces, invoked, perhaps, by the sight of the few remaining vestiges or the few surviving holdouts who opted for a quieter form of rebellion.

An Afterthought

Does anyone think that the just despots of the West would have introduced any reforms, had they known that these reforms will eventually destroy the entire systems they have built or inherited, and would change the entire way of life with which they were familiar and which they, perhaps, revered?

I think that the main difference between the just despots of the Old West, and the current despots of the Middle East lies in the fact that contemporary Middle Eastern leaders know very well where reforms will eventually lead, which is why they can never be just.

24 thoughts on “Of Historical Musts & Clashing Desires!

  1. I have to disagree with your predictions. The East has been despotic for millennia – practically since the dawn of history. It will continue to be so. That civilization will not perish and neither will it become democratic. Democracy leaning easterners have only one choice – heretical. I will not be able to continue the discourse right now, because my plane takes off to the east in few hours. I promise to look at this issue from a different perspective as it appears to the people on the ground. By the way, there is this other alternative system to Democracy which they call these days al-Wilayat al-Faqih – it is worth looking at as an alternative to heretical Easterner!

  2. I have a comment on Ammar’s “afterthought”If you can not force a dictator out, maybe you can have an understanding with him that reforms will not lead to his outster soon. When “the end” is delayed, it become a bit easier to digest.For example, one of these Middle Eastern rulers said to close friends that he intends to leave in 7 or 14 years (depends on some factors)If opposition leaders can accept a slower pace of reform then they might have a better chance to “convince” the ruler and the others benefiting in the current system, to not resist reforms.The problem is that whenever there was a partial lifting of controls on freedom of speech, the opposition very quickly started to escalate its demands for faster and more wideranging reforms. That makes the current rulers not comfortable opening up things, not even partially.

  3. Indeed, Alex, people have always been unreasonable in their demand for freedom and justice, what’s our poor dictator to do? The more the dictators push, the more “unreasonable” the demand for freedom is going to get. The onus, I believe, is on the dictators to try to do the reasonable and rational and decent thing, no mater how contradictory this may sound. But now, the real problem does not lie here. the problems with the reformers who expecting dictators to change, the real demands and the real discourse and the real efforts should aimed and invested in people, the more relevant reformers make themselves to the people, the more they can press on with their demands for freedom and justice, no matter how unreasonable they may sound in the eyes of the dictators. The problem with our reformers is that they expect change from the top, the very corrupt and inept top, because they want to relinquish their duty for bringing enlightenment to the masses. I understand why this is, our reformers, who tend to be secular for the most part, understand very well that their mass appeal is limited, especially when their social and religious opinions are known. But there is no way around this really, we need to find a way to communicate with people and establish grassroots support and shake our apathy in the face of this problem and in the face of government repression and in the face all the unreasonable obstacles in our way. Being foolhardy enough to be optimistic, at least on the longer run, even though everything around you informs you to give up, we have to be as equally messianic as any religious zealot while avoiding his particular methods in order to make this work. For, and no matter how rational we like to claim to be, the real difference between secular and religious zealots lies, or should lie, in the nature of our actions and methods, not in our idea’s greater share of reason. This is why in my post I sound both pessimistic, on the short term, and optimistic, on the longer term, because I simply don’t want to lose all hope and turn my back on the possibility of change in the region, and accept that some sort of unenlightened religious rule is going to be the endgame no matter what we do, even though there are ample justification for their rather bleak point of view, much more so than for my optimism. But here I’d like to say that western democracies were also elaborated and worked out in a very repressive and unaccommodating environment. The one we have to deal with is even more tough, and the challenges more great, and the timescale more demanding, and the pace of change unrelenting and merciless, but we might just surprise ourselves and succeed. Well, we won’t know unless we try, will we?

  4. Ammar, My first instinct was to point out many details in your post that I cannot agree with and furthermore that your reading of the historical record ,over the last few hundred years in general but the last fifty in particular, is not totally accurate. But then I decided that these disagreements were not essential either to your position or to mine because we agree fully on the conclusion.Ther is a question that I have used in my public presentations to all kinds of audiences whenevr the issue of globalization, political Islam or cosmopolitanism is addressed. Are there any who believe, really believe, that in say 30-50 years from now the world will be ruled by Al Qaeda/ Taliban/ HA/ Hamas kind of groups or will we be governed by more democratic rational regimes in a world where borders are less important and diversity is more of the norm. Invariably I never get any votes for a backward movement. Yes Ammar, we will have to change with the times and those that cling to the past and to tribalism will not be able toreconcile themselves to the new sensibilities of the times. They would just be swept away.

  5. Ammar-Question…why does anybody care about being Arab or Arab culture? I can understand a loyalty to a religion for certain…because you believe God has set certain univeral truths behind it…I guess I can see loyalty to a country…but to being Arab? Does anybody ever wonder about that?I am white. Do I give a special damn about white guys? I am Jewish..the Nazi’s and the Commies and the Cossacks were all white. I have no love for them.Arab has tortured and slain Arab and a far more rabid and passionate pace than we Jews could ever come close to. Do the Kurds love the Iraqi Arabs? North Yemen’s the South? Kuwaitis the Iraqis? Does an Arab in Sudan really relate to some white blued Syrian? I really don’t get this Nassarian pan-Arab deal…and forget the history of fighting. What difference does it make that you are “Arab”. Is that worth fighting for? It is such an enmorous and heterogenous group in every religious, political, national, racial sense. The common culture? Who gives a shit about culture? I care about my people’s bagles and lox or right to sing Hava Negila? Culture is cool…but it ain’t God..Hmmm…good humos with zatar and olive oil with fresh pita or lafa..now THAT might be worth killing for!

  6. Y’all-I think there is a lot to learn from the civil rights movement in the USA during the 40’s-60’s. If you think about it carefully…the parallels would have many similarities…only here there was a basically free press so the oppressors could not get away with the stuff your leaders can get away with.But Ammar is correct…he leans towards my basic philosophy of life…there is only one thing people want….MORE.Folks won’t accept crumbs or even reasonable pieces…again…look at the recent history of blacks in the USA…OK..you can have equal…but separate…it was progress…didn’t do anything by increase the desire for more. Oh..the analogies are potentially endless. In fact…I would predict that, e.g. in Syria, should the government “throw ’em a bone”…the dissent and screaming will only increase. Those guys are not going to let go of their jobs and go back to practicing dentistry…not easily. Anybody ever do that willingly? Maybe kind of Gorbochav? Kind of? Of De Klarck in S. Afria? Look at what happened and is happening in Iran for a closer example…or what happened in Cuba etc.

  7. Mr. Ammar,You, like every single intellectual in this area, relies in your analysis on the absurd view that this world consists of the West and the Arab-Muslim East ONLY. When are people going to realize that their is in East Asia a whole world that is numbered almost three quarters of the earth’s population and that has its own version of things that we should a least consider when we compare experiences?Why is it always, the West and us? We and the West are going to be less than 5% of this world in couple of years, and we still deliberately ignore important experiences and lessons that could be learned from giants like India or China or Indonesia and Korea etc..All your analysis about democratic transformations sounds absolutely out of prospect if you want to apply it at the way Indian, Korean, Japanese, etc societies found their ways to democracy. Why should we look or even consider how French people found democracy four hundred years ago and completely turn blind eye on how Japanese or Indians did it fifty years ago or Korean did it less than twenty years ago?

  8. Good point Syrian in the Far East, but it would be a much better point should you just show us how exactly a consideration of the recent histories of South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia would change the above analysis, as general as it is.

  9. In fact, most of us don’t like it, and are, therefore, putting up quite the fight. That is indeed what lies at the heart of international terrorism, especially Islamist one. Oh, we, as a culture that is, will eventually go into that good night all right, terrorism notwithstanding, following the lead of our long dead civilization. But we won’t go gently. That’s the point. Death often has pangs, even when it is collective, no, especially when it is collective.I hate to be as crude as to point this out, but I see a real possibility that jihadism will lead to massive slaughter before any cultural change has taken place. There’s some completely suicidal in a people who think God bestows unlimited blessing its right to attack a country like the United States that has the ability to end all life in a country or region instantly, by simply pressing a few buttons and turning a few keys.As I said, this is as crude as speech can be, but it’s a truth that should be pondered: those who declare themselves to be enemies of the American people continue to live only through the mercy of the American people. And our mercy does have limits.

  10. Oops, I left out a preposition. That should have read, “…who think God bestows unlimited blessing on its right to attack a country like the United States…”

  11. A Syrian In The Far East, I assumed that Ammar focused on the west as the source of change because that’s simply part of the insane narrative that obsesses everyone in the middle east. “The horrible western infidels want to cheat, oppress and corrupt us” has been the idea fixeé of all middle eastern discourse for fifty years, well other than the conniving-evil-Jews-under-the-bed thing.But the only enemies of the Arabs are in their delusional imaginations. It doesn’t really matter that the west is the designated enemy… It has nothing to do with us. It’s just the ravings of a crazy man shouting at apparitions as he walks down the street, alone.

  12. Nightstudies-Interesting points. Today on NPR they had Said Nasser. I heard this big build-up…he was Harvard MA. and Yale PHD or whatever etc etc. and a escapee from the Iranian revolution.I figured…OK…gotta listen..he must be a sharp guys with some big points.His points…there are Moslem terrorists (I assume he includes those in India, London, Spain, and the Phillipines etc.)…because of American policy and the Arab-Israeli problem.At times…it reminds me of the days when rapist would blame the rapee. Oh…and where did Mr. Nasar run to when things got hot in Iran…yup…I don’t need to say it do I.At least the Jews under his bed have some goyim to keep ’em company.

  13. I think I better repost my first comment, because there are more typos in it than the one I corrected the first time:In fact, most of us don’t like it, and are, therefore, putting up quite the fight. That is indeed what lies at the heart of international terrorism, especially Islamist one. Oh, we, as a culture that is, will eventually go into that good night all right, terrorism notwithstanding, following the lead of our long dead civilization. But we won’t go gently. That’s the point. Death often has pangs, even when it is collective, no, especially when it is collective.I hate to be as crude as to point this out, but I see a real possibility that jihadism will lead to massive slaughter before any cultural change has taken place. There’s something completely suicidal in a people who think God bestows unlimited blessings on its right to attack a country like the United States which has the ability to end all life in a country or region instantly, by simply pressing a few buttons and turning a few keys.As I said, this is as crude as speech can be, but it’s a truth that should be pondered: those who declare themselves to be enemies of the American people and who intend to harm us continue to live only through the mercy of the American people. And our mercy does have limits.

  14. anonymous said “The East has been despotic for millenia”. That’s true, but I’m not sure I agree with his prediction that “it will continue to be so”. Change had been very slow everywhere in the world until the industrial revolution. Since then, the pace of change has accelerated. Change has spread from Europe to the rest of the world particularly since The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the end of the colonial era in the 1950s and 1960s. Now the world is getting smaller and faster and ideas know no borders. The Human Rights Declaration can provide a solid foundation (and I stress the word foundation) for any political system. We can all be cynical about politicians and political realities but lets say that Western nations were among the first to abide by the spirit of the Declaration. Far Eastern and other countries have followed suit at their own pace and to varying degrees of honesty. You don’t need me to tell you that it all starts in the home and at school. Enlightened parents and teachers instil in children high principles and values and lead by example. Religion and culture can certainly work against liberal and secular values but economics and demographics can work for them; the fewer the children and the higher average income the more likely women will be better educated and pass on more liberal values to their children and society in general. No one should underestimate the ability of women to transform societies.We would not be blogging here today about liberal values if our mothers were ignorant and bigotted. Note the extent to which Japanese women have been emancipated in the last 40 years and how Chinese women are now hot on their heels. Emancipation is not necessarily a clear measure of progress or happiness but it helps to break social rigidities. What happens next depends on how community leaders react to women’s changing perception of their own roles and destiny. They can encourage and guide them or trample on them. Contrast for example the attitude of socialist Baathist Syria of the 1960s with that of Saudi Arabia. Also, people who can leave their despotic countries, do. While abroad, their children feed on different, generally more liberal, values. Assuming these families maintain links to their friends and relatives back home, they can slowly but surely influence the social attitudes and politics of their country. This is indeed what we are all doing, consciously or subconsciously, are we not? The change may be too slow for our taste but it is happening. As Alex more or less said, if you cannot topple a despot, you have to be patient with him. I say you have to be persistent and clever in the way you apply pressure. Never waiver or let him off the hook while you try your best to win hearts and minds at street level. So, I would say to secular liberals that the world and the march of history remain (despite the recent setbacks) on our side. It is a question of when rather than if, but we can be too self-doubting or complacent.

  15. Dear Mr. Ammar,You said: “It would be a much better point should you just show us how exactly a consideration of the recent histories of South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia would change the above analysis”.First I am not sure I am the right person for this mission since I do not have the specialty or time to analyze the democratic transformation of the Asian countries. I just hoped that someone of the many Syrian intellectuals who are interested and are writing about these matters would spend some time on studying these experiences rather than concentrating solely on the Western patterns.Secondly, the consideration you are asking for might not change your analysis at all. In fact it might reinforce it.I admit that I did not understand your point quite well when I wrote my first comment! You write in a somehow philosophical way and poetic style that is not very easy for someone like me with an engineer brain and without previous English-environment education to fully comprehend. Even one native speaker commented when reading your blog: Your English is too very good for political articles! Maybe this is because you are a novelist in the first place, or maybe it is because we, unfortunately, got used to mediocre language.Away from the compliments, I then awe you an apology because reading again what you wrote gave me a different impression this time that you might actually be emphasizing the same idea that one can get out of the experiences of the Asian nations. The idea being: We have to get rid of some of our dearest beliefs (such as Arab, Muslim Identities, rejection of borders, etc) if we want to be a nation with a respected position in this world. Now, my other point is: If many Asian countries could do a transformation to modernity and democracy smoothly and swiftly while maintaining their unique identity and culture, then why couldn’t we? They did not have the luxury of time and trial that the West had, nonetheless they did it. Now, why can’t we do the same? Here what I think I learnt from living in this Far East: (but again, I am not sure if I am repeating something you have already said or I am opposing you!!)The reason that prevents us is that we are tied down with the idea that this is a War of Cultures. Asian countries used to look at the West similarly: that it is all about the We and Them. There used to be philosophers (still are some) who talked about the identity and culture war of Asian as opposed to the Western. The whole pre-war Japanese propaganda was based on that notion.These nations could only embrace modernization and democracy when they turned back to their national identities and looked at the whole matter as a problem of having a backward country not a backward culture. In other words, they broke free from the Our Culture Against theirs, to face the real issue: Our Country and Economy against theirs.So the real problem as I see it, is that we still do NOT have a country in term of real belonging and identity. Our identity is scattered on a whole spectrum of beliefs that ranges from being Arabs, Muslims, or simply The-Not-The-Other (The case when people define their identity based only on not being someone else; the Westerners in this case). If we read your post for example, (and please do not consider that I am saying that this the way you believe or identify, I am just brining this particular article as an example) one cannot guess whether you are talking about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt!! What makes your analysis (You as a prominent Syrian intellectual) Syrian? Nothing, because the WE you use is still a general cultural WE of Arabism, Islamism, Middle-Eastern-ism, and have absolutely noting to do with the uniqueness of Syria. This WE reflects the ever-lasting identity-struggle in ourselves. Now, until this point, I think (?) that we agree. But what I could not see in your article is the alternative. If these identities are going to be extinct, then what remains of us? What is that you are offering in return?What I learned is that until we seriously start building our real identity as Syrians, we will be forever lost in the dilemmas of identity-extinction and cultural wars and all the problems that you described very well in your post above. The analogy of the Asian countries teaches that these problems are “problems encountered by groups” but not “problems encounters by nations”. They are more likely to be faced by a group of Muslim immigrants who live in the West and are finding themselves in the midst of an identity crisis. So if we want to overcome them, we should stop thinking like a vaguely defined group (Asians, Arabs, Muslims) and start thinking as a Nation. Why an established nation with six thousand years of culture such as Syria should go through these problems of identity annihilation and culture extinction? The answer is because there is simply no established nation called Syria. And that is because Syrians do not want to belong to this great nation and insist on wondering all deserts of identities that would at best lead us to disaster, and would at worst be annihilated as you prophesized and leave us lost and defeated.I brought up the Asian analogy to indicate that we have to create this identity even if some would say that this identity never existed. And this effort should start from intellectuals who should begin a whole stream of Syrian-ism. If we talk about Muslims, it should be the Muslims of Syria specifically, if we talk about Kurds, it should be the Kurds of Syria specifically. The dilemma of Iraqi Kurds or Jordanian Muslims is not our problem, they will figure it out as Muslims in Malaysia and Kurds in Sweden for example sorted out there religious versus national identity problems. We have to break loose of all the Muslim-Arab-Middle-East vs. West-America debates and headache and start directing the arguments towards our country. We have to break loose of the identity notions that the Syrian regime (for its survival relating reasons) is advocating. Sadly enough, most of the world, out of ignorance, is blindly repeating the same notion: collectively lump-sum Syria with Pakistan and Morocco and Muslim communities in Europe without any slightest consideration to its history or complicated communities.So in brief it seems that we do agree on the problem, although I do not know if you agree on the solution I presented. But I for sure will be very much interested to know your opinion on what should we do in front of this identity annihilation crisis you described in your post above. Also I have to admit that my solution is only partly rational in my case, and is mostly passionate and emotional; I blindly believe that the only way to mobilize people is to give them a clear vision similar to the Heaven of the Religious Ideology or the Arab Unity of the Arabism Ideology etc. We have to start promoting this vision of a future Syria, a Syrian Identity, and advocate that the rewarding prize of believing in it will be a strong nation as modern and advanced as Korea. The rewarding prize is to belong to a nation that respects you and protect your blood regardless if your second sub-identity is Arabism or Religious or whatever you like. The rewarding prize is that for once we are going to be proud, not because we defeated this or that in a small battle as is the case nowadays, but be proud because we are Syrians. Only then, and similarly to the Asian nations I brought as examples, our problems with the West will be reduced from Annihilation of Identity and Culture Wars, to establishing decent institutional services and start creating an economy-pulling industry. Sorry for the length. I prefer, however, to continue this Dardashe in Arabic, as it is easier on me on the one hand, and would be more useful if some other Syrians wanted to participate or read on the other hand.

  16. “No, the world will not wait for us to learn and assimilate its new cherished truths at our own pace, just as we did not wait for it to learn and assimilate ours so long ago.”I couldn’t agree more…I’ve always said that we will be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming… No one can afford to wait for us to GET WITH IT, especially after 9/11… the question is: if we never used our wings to fly, then how long is it gonna take for us to learn?We (Arabs) are struggling because we don’t know what a real democracy is… We also never learned how to DEAL with our enemies, we only learned how to hate them.

  17. Leafless Eve-Introspection and self-criticism is certainly one more step. As has been noted here, the “West” did not find its way to democracy and relative freedom without enormous birthpain (French Revolution, American Civil War, American Civil Rights Movement etc etc) and the process goes on and on.Still…it is worth the fight. Freedom brings its own miseries and the West is FAR from perfect…but freedom…(shut up Mel Gibson)…freedom is something that y’all have taught me to appreciate more than i ever have.

  18. I’m an IT person, not a historian, but I can’t think, off the top of my head, of a single dictator who ever gave up any power because of patience by the opposition.The English started with the Magna Carta in 1215 to limit the power of their monarchs. You know how much stupid BS they dealt with for 100’s of years after that before they got anything approaching democracy. I don’t think you want to wait that long.My impression that people are unable to define what it is they want, and unsure of the price they are willing to pay to get it. If consideration of a multiplicity of identities is added, it’s no wonder the dictators tighten their grips, while the thinkers dance on the head of a pin. You can’t set goals that way. If “we” can’t decide what “we” want because we’re not sure which “we” is in question, the national, or tribal, or religious, or ethnic, then we are not in a position to decide the price we are willing to pay, much less take action. As a programmer, I couldn’t begin to bid a price on software you couldn’t define the purpose or function of. The notion of getting rid of dictators in a peaceful, comfortable way doesn’t seem too likely. There will be a price.This is probably well known to the dictators, and just another tool for manipulation. They seem adept at limiting misery to the point of indecision.

  19. Ammar,Interesting post, I need your help in writing a common message to be published on all blogs demanding the freedom and release of our political prisoners. Also considering your writing skills and connections to the Syrian hollywood, writing a scenario and producing a prisoner movie would be very dramatic. Syrians need to do something

  20. joadtoadFair comment. The identity crisis that you refer to is perhaps not as serious and debilitating as it seems. True, Syria is a mosaic of coummunities. If one community sees itself as Syrian first and something else second, other people will still define that community by its religion or ethnic origin. This is not unique to Syria and you have to ask yourself why.The state is supposed to act as a unifying superstructure and a melting pot. It can only succeed in doing this by delivering protection and justice to all, promoting social harmony and clamping down on discrimination and corruption. Otherwise, every man to himself and we revert back to the laws of the jungle. Those with no power take refuge in their own community, religious sect or extended family. When people talk of the Islamic nation (ummah), as a unifying identity, it is probably a desparate cry for social cohesion and justice rather than a pure religious message. Lack of social justice, both in an economic and political sense, is the cancer that we have to fight against. The myriad of ethnic and religious identities that we observe are like icebergs in the Syrian sea. These icebergs would at least remain submerged deep beneath the surface if the state was doing its job properly.The regime does not deliver social justice because it is essentially corrupt and represents a particular community rather than the whole nation. To survive, it has to protect its own community and economic interests against the wider population. The more corrupt and reclusive the regime, the greater the hostility of the wider population and the more insecure the regime feels. The regime can only fortify its position by keeping the Syrian nation politically divided. One way to divide the nation politically is to emphasise the religious and ethnic differences and play one community off against the others in subtle ways. People do not like to see these divisions being accentuated so the subliminal message that the regime sends out is “Syria needs to be ruled with an iron fist to keep it together”.When you say that Syrian thinkers are dancing on a pinhead while the regime tightens its grip, you are probaby right and it is a painful reminder of our relevance to the ordinary man and woman in the street. However, there is no ambiguity about what we want and the price that has to be paid to achieve our objectives. The bravest of us have been imprisoned or exiled. The options are (i) gradual bloodless change, (ii) a military coup, or (iii) a popular uprising. We are few in number and only have our pens to fight with. We choose the first option because it is the only option that does not involve us calling for other people to sacrifice their blood while we continue to live comfortably and securely in our Western homes. Some would call this cowardice and hypocracy. That may well be case. I don’t want to die or spend the rest of my life in a Syrian prison and see my children starve. That will neither make me a hero in the eyes of the wider poulation (only stupid!) nor serve to bring down the regime. As Richard Nixon once remarked about his political adversaries: “better have them in the tent pissing out than out pissing in”. Perhaps one day there will be enough liberals pissing into the regime’s tent to force them out, so they can join us!

  21. Syrian in the Far East, you raise many interesting questions and issues as usual. I think that one of the main reason why countries in the Far East responded rather differently to the challenges of modernity and westernization, after a period of initial hesitations, defiance and conflict with the West, certain vestiges of which still persist to this very day, seems related to the fact that they are in the Far East, while we have always been caught in the middle, serving as a bridge and a buffer between the two worlds. Our relation with the West, as peoples and states, is much older and far more complex and direct. The West has always been a rival and a source of threat, just as we were to it. The Orientalism that the late Edward Said elaborated upon and analyzed in his book under the same title reveals an Occidentalist spirit that was/is just as deeply-rooted in our subconscious. The messianic nature of Islam has also something to do with this, and its elaboration throughout the years vis-à-vis Christianity and Judaism bestowed on the two faiths the dubious honor of being its main rivals, in the religio-cultural sense, as well as in the politico-economic sense. A defeat at the hands of the West, or feeling inferior to it in every possible respect vis-à-vis the West, is much more humiliating and poignant somehow. Our relations with the Far East did not develop that edge to them. Nor have the West’s relations with the Far East. The conflict between the West and the Far East albeit far more bloody in some respects, never had that traumatic effect on the peoples of the Far East, because trauma is as much a product of mutual perceptions as it is of actual realities, and hinges much upon the nature of relations between the actors involved. This is why learning from the West, and accepting its current superiority is problematic for us, especially when this superiority is seen not only in economic and military terms but in religious and cultural terms as well. Unfortunately for us, there are quite few voices in the West that see the current situation through the same prism. Messianic triumphalism on the one side, vs. messianic defeatism on the other does not help matters. The relations between the West and the Far East never acquired such a dimension, and if they did, the timeframe was not that long, the baggage involved on either sides is not that heavy. But then, it might be my ignorance speaking here, though it is not so total. Area experts might have a radically different say on this matter. But my cursory knowledge of the history of the relations between West and Far East makes me willing to venture such an interpretation. ”What I learned is that until we seriously start building our real identity as Syrians, we will be forever lost in the dilemmas of identity-extinction and cultural wars and all the problems that you described very well in your post above… we should stop thinking like a vaguely defined group (Asians, Arabs, Muslims) and start thinking as a Nation.”I have a problem with the idea of nationhood. It’s just another form of tribalism form, another form of meaningless belonging at this stage. I don’t really believe that people need to derive their sense of identity from the state in which they live. I believe states main raison d’être these days, their historical evolution notwithstanding, should be to provide certain necessary services and, for sure, a sense of security, but not necessarily a sense of identity. I believe that we need to find a formula whereby we can live comfortably with our multiple identifies. Historically speaking, the idea of developing a particular identity that is tied to the state has always paved the way to internecine warfare. To my knowledge, the countries of the Far East have not been an exception in this regard. So, what I fear here, in our attempt to develop a purely Syrian identity is that it is going to come at the expense of our relations with our neighbors, because we often assert our identity in the negative, as you have noted, and so our assertion of our Syrians is going to be manifested vis-à-vis the growing sense of Lebaneseness and Jordanianness and Saudiness and Iraquiness, etc., not to mention Israeliness of course. We can see signs of that already, and they are not good.Moreover, realities in Syria inform us that the Kurds are simply not ready for this proposition. So, Syrianness is bound to become another Arab ideology from their perspective and another attempt to deny them their basic cultural right, not to the mention their political ones. Indeed, and as I have observed first hand from my own involvement in the Tharwa Project in Syria, the Syrian nationalists are not less antagonized by Kurdish aspirations than the Arab nationalists. For this reason, I really believe that what we need to do is develop a more pragmatic relation with the state in which we live. A belief in the functionality and functional necessity of the state can do us much more good at this stage than the idea of national belonging. We cannot stop the Kurds of Syria from feeling a sense of affinity with their kith and kin in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, and we cannot prevent practicing Syrian Muslims from sympathizing with practicing Muslims elsewhere, nor can we prevent Syria’s Christians from developing a greater sense of affinity with western culture, which is to them, Christian, at least in the cultural sense, regardless of how historical accurate or inaccurate this view happens to be.What we need to teach and preach, however, is a greater sense of affinity with the real and immediate, both in the physical and temporal sense. In other words, we have to show that caring about this haphazard state that is Syria is the shortest and surest way for them to improve their living conditions and achieve some of their more personal dreams and ambitions, as well as realizing much that is congruent with the common good. We need patriotism, and a very refined sense of it at that, not nationalism. And what I mean by refined is one that can accommodate a peaceful dissolution of a state or of redrawing its borders, in the spirit of the Czech/Slovak model if such a development should prove itself necessary. Because in this world, what does separation really means, economic ties can never be separated, and regional cooperation is something that can help offset any negative economic consequences. Any arrangement that can work to prevent a regional conflict is something that we can live with and is, in the final analysis, good. Foreign invasions do not worry or concern me as much as regional conflicts, because invasions and even occupations have proven much less bloody in comparison. We have been much more cruel to each other than any foreign power has. As for me, being human suffices for me. It really does. It makes me feel able to connect with the entire intellectual heritage of the humankind, and I think is very empowering and enriching. The heritage of the East, near and far, is not alien to me, neither is the heritage of the West of course. I studied the history of Mongolia and Korea in college, an I was planning to pursuer a master’s degree in Central Asian history, before my novelistic tendencies took over and made me return to Syria. Finally, let me just say thank you for your compliments Coming from you, they mean quite a lot.

  22. Excellent comments Ammar.Regarding this part:“I believe states main raison d’être these days, their historical evolution notwithstanding, should be to provide certain necessary services and, for sure, a sense of security, but not necessarily a sense of identity”A couple of months ago, could you convince Italian/American immigrants who were celebrating in the streets of New York after their team won the world cup, could you convince them that their “Italy” is about merely necessary services and security?There is so much fun, and pain, that comes with associating yourself in a closer committed “relationship” with your country … you decide how much passion you want to experience.Of course, the degree to which your state is successful, might affect your willingness to be more attached to it.

  23. Good point Alex. Well taken.On a different note though, or perhaps a related one, let me point out to the Arabic speakers of the blog, to the excellent reportage done by human rights activists and former political prisoner in Syria Razan Zeituna, on Islamic movements in Syria that has just been published on our “Whereto, Syria?” blog in the Tharwa Community. I think it is the most comprehensive concise guide that I have seen on the subject so far. Also, I would like to draw attention to the proposed Bill of Rights for Syria was p[ublished a cople of days ago on the “Virtual Syria” blog.

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