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Sectarianism in Syria: Between Adonis and Ajami - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Perhaps some people were surprised by the stance adopted by Syrian poet and critic Ali Ahmed Said Asbar (known as Adonis) towards the popular uprising in Syria, when – during a television interview – he described it as “youthful rebellion” that does not reflect a revolution in the theoretical or historical context. Adonis warned of the consequences of using weapons, as well the looming sectarianism in the country. Adonis’s position fluctuated between fear and hesitation, and was subject to strong criticism. In an interview with al-Arabiya (20 April 2011), Adonis said “I cannot accept, for example, joining a political demonstration that comes out from a mosque, but I also cannot accept this same demonstration being met with violence and murder.”

The stance adopted by Adonis in this regard was not accepted by those who support the revolution and are calling for regime change in Syria. Despite the fact that he is an intellectual who has written extensively about the necessity of modernization [in the Arab world] and boycotting the traditional Arab and Islamic culture, his hesitation with regards to withdrawing legitimacy away from the [Syrian] regime did not help, particularly after he sent an open letter to the Syrian President in which he called on him to carry out reforms before it is too late and also warned al-Assad that the US and the West have colonial interests [in Syria] and that they believe that the current situation is a good opportunity to pounce on Syria (As-Safir newspaper; 14 June 2011). While it is true that Adonis recently demanded al-Assad step down from power, yet at the same time, he has also expressed reservations about backing the Syrian opposition abroad or joining the opposition at home, so long as this is not explicitly committed to secularist and civil principles. In a recent interview, Adonis said “the structure of the Syrian society is a religious one, on all levels. This regime must be overthrown, but the [political] force that will replace it will be the [political] force that is strongest and most organized in popular circles. This will be a religious force, whether we are talking about the Muslim Brotherhood or another Islamic trend.” (Al-Rai newspaper; 5 August 2011).

There can be no doubt that the stance adopted by Adonis in this regard is one that he has expressed repeatedly, and is similar to the position adopted by other Arab intellectuals at the beginning of the year. These intellectuals found themselves in a position where they had to adopt a specific and indeed long-term stance; either to support the regime or stand with those demanding change. Under normal circumstance, an intellectual would take their time to study and review the situation before taking a position, whilst such intellectuals would also not be obliged to take up political stances or otherwise on public issues. However advocates of the “Arab Spring” argue that Arab intellectuals, who previously feared to criticize regimes, can no longer remain silent about the killing of innocent civilians, and they must therefore adopt specific stances now, particularly as these regimes are weak and in a state of conflict with the street.

In an important interview entitled “The Arab intellectuals who didn’t roar (New York Times, 29 October 2011)”, American journalist Robert F. Worth touches upon the state of confusion being faced by Arab intellectuals with regards to the “Arab Spring.” This is because we are not seeing any new intellectual movements appearing during these demonstrations, or Arab intellectual figures and symbols leading demonstrations and making speeches in the same manner as what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. On the contrary, it is the revolutionary youths who are in the streets clashing with riot police or the army and challenging the regime. On the other hand, we see the frightened military regimes that are trying to hide behind their armed forces and use them as life-rafts before the ship goes down. In the midst of this scene, we find that secular and liberal intellectuals are under siege; they cannot afford to stand up for the military (semi-secular) regime after all this blood that has been shed, nor can they completely back the public protests, where demonstrations are launched from mosques and where dozens of different religious, sectarian, tribal, and regionally voices are fighting to be heard.

However Fouad Ajami, [Lebanese-born American MacArthur fellow and university professor], summed up this confusion [being felt by the Arab intellectuals] some 12 years ago in his book “The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey” (1999). In this book, and in an expert manner, Ajami writes that the crises of the Arab world was not due to the autocratic or despotic regimes that ruled our region, but rather the intellectuals who failed not only to confront these despotic political regimes, but also the cultural, religious, and traditional system that consolidated the culture of fear and hatred towards others, not to mention the narcissistic boasting about our national past and religious history. Ajami wrote “on their own, in the barracks and in the academies, in the principal cities of the Arab world – Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo – Arabs had built their own dream palace – an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity.” However this palace was nothing more than an illusion, because it failed to go beyond the cultural values of the Arab and Islamic society. Instead, Arab intellectuals retreated to contemplating their own heritage, either under the pretext of criticizing this, or seeking inspiration from the work of their predecessors.

In his review of Ajami’s book, Professor Avi Shlaim draws our attention to Ajami’s main argument that Arab societies are solely responsible for this failure, saying that this is only one school of thought, and a relatively unpopular one, in comparison with other schools of thought such as [Arab] nationalism, Nasserism, Baathism, and others, which attempt to place the blame on imperialism, western plots, or Arab rulers who ally with the West! In addition to this, there is also the Islamist revivalist school of thought that believes that the reason for the backwardness and failure [in our region] can be attributed to social negligence to the (idealist or Utopian) religious model, as well as the influence of secularism and materialism. Shlaim said “amongst such contradictory parties, there are several moderate attitudes that can explain the Arab predicament.” (Oxford Press, 16 March 2011).

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a recent interview with the British “Sunday Telegraph” (30 October 2011), warned that there would be an “earthquake” in the region if there is any foreign intervention in Syria. Al-Assad said “Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake.” He also asked “do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?” In fact, al-Assad is right, for he – and his regime – have destroyed all the tools through which this crisis could be resolved, and today there is less evil in disposing of this regime than there is in the regime remaining in power. Indeed, we can now say that after all the blood that has been shed; there is no longer any chance of the al-Assad regime remaining in power. The situation has deteriorated to an extent where moving towards an unclear future is less dangerous than backing a despotic and bloody regime that is determined to destabilizing the region.

Adonis hit the mark when he warned of the consequences of what is happening in Syria today on the secular and modern trends in the country, and indeed now there is nothing in Syria that can be guaranteed. An Arab state official said “The al-Assad regime resorted to targeting its neighbours’ interests, and now is dealing with its own people in an inhumane manner that nobody can remain silent about. So why do people continue to defend its policies?” However Adonis was wrong when using Western imperialism – and Israel – as a warning with regards to the foreign danger [to Syria], particularly when he is aware that this is nothing more than a marginal issue in view of the bloody confrontations between Arab states and their despotic republican regimes. Indeed, it can be said that the Bashar al-Assad regime – by allying with the mullah’s regime [in Iran] – has become a strategic, or rather a geo-political threat to the Gulf States, particularly after he mocked their capabilities of harming or destabilizing his regime.

Fouad Ajami has previously been accused of sectarianism, whilst before this he was accused of opposing Arab causes, yet the recent “Arab Spring” events – and his response to this – have shown that he is an independent intellectual who has nothing to do with sectarianism or [Arab] nationalism, but rather is closer to the principles of social coexistence and political reform than the other Arab intellectuals who were previously known as the strongest advocates of the resistance and the liberation of Palestine.

Ajami wrote that the Gulf States, with their monarchies, are more humane and civilized than their Arab military “republic” counterparts. Even with regards to the Bahraini issue – which the western media failed to interpret correctly – Ajami was clear in his rejection of the unjust claims about the Kingdom of Bahrain, when he attributed what happened there more to sectarian tensions than to anything else.

Let us compare Ajami’s position with that of other Arab intellectuals’ who long raised the slogan of resistance and profiteered from the [Palestinian] Cause in the Gulf and the Arab media, however when it came to the final exam [the Arab Spring], they failed!

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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