The Fronts That Will Not Stop Calling Us


How to advance the Syrian/Arab renaissance [Al-Nahda]? A look at history, national identity, religious and secular enlightenment.

24 January 2019

© SyriaUntold
Mazen Aktham Suleiman

Syrian poet and critic

Translated by: Moayad Hokan

Perhaps the pivotal question of this article is not a novel one, either on the Syrian or Arab fronts. Arabs have long pondered, written, and attempted in theory and in practice, to make a rupture in the factual, both modern and contemporary, levels in a bid to usher in change and a much-hoped-for renaissance. This question, however, derives a more compelling motivation today because it relies theoretically and objectively on the experiences of Arab Spring revolutions, who implications and consequences do not appear to be receding in any short term. I attempt here to identify the best axes to continue work on the Syrian/Arab renaissance [Al-Nahda] project for change, and the existence and perpetuation of its civilization.

Rereading history, and rewriting it

I have repeatedly been subject to scathing critiques for my interest in writing about ancient Arab history, particularly Arab presence in Syria before Islam and Christianity. In a nutshell, those leveling the criticism have scrutinized the utility in revisiting history. Discussions of such issues, they argued, seems obsolete, particularly in light of our state of schism and recession, and our political, social and economic backwardness.

My response concerning the importance of rereading history, and rewriting it, is grounded in the following premises:

1- I maintain that it is necessary to cleanse our Syrian and Arab subjective and collective consciousness in order to move forward towards the future. It is consequently self-evident to me that one of the most important levels on which to achieve that, along with others that I will mention later, is that of our inevitable challenging of purifying our existential consciousness, and recognition of our history, rereading, understanding, and rewriting it as objectively as possible. Not only is this a precondition to recognize who we once were and who we are now, but also to learn its lessons and use it to pave our return towards a modern history, and our anticipated openness towards a free, democratic, and pluralistic future.

2- I was, and still am, cautious of absolute belief in conspiracy theories, but I ought to make reference to the actual, not merely imagined, reality of practises by a (politicized) western orientalism which was an ally of, and reliant on, the biblical story, and which sought to fabricate Arab history before Christianity and Islam. This grand narrative has deeply contributed to a false historical awareness, both Arab and international, and to the diminishing of our capacity to understand the specific dimensions of our delicate civilizational being in this region. Therefore, it does not appear to me that an interest in ancient Arab history is merely a matter of histrionics or a matter of vacuous amusement, but is rather part and parcel of our current existential struggle. In this context, it suffices to attempt to grasp the vast multitude of artefacts and inscriptions, of invaluable historical implications, that have disappeared from Iraq and Syria in a methodical and malicious way. It also only requires us to take stock of the magnitude of the West’s interest in ancient Arab history, the size of their research centres, their armies of historians and professors, and what they have obfuscated from us, and from the students of Arab history in their universities and museums, including materials, documents and artifacts, to understand how precarious this issue truly is. One must also acknowledge the existence of many fair and objective western historians, researchers, and academics who are loyal to scientific and epistemological ethics, who escaped the narrow ethnocentric tendencies of their peers. With those, we should build bridges for communication, interaction, and constructive dialogue for the sake of both east and west, which will benefit the entirety of human civilization at once.

3- I also maintain that the questions of enlightenment and renaissance are pressing ones that cannot be abdicated or deferred. Our struggle for change is not only political, and we need to be aware that it is also fought on the fronts of culture and history (this pertains to rewriting our ancient Syrian/Arab history and Arab/Islamic history at the same time), as well as the sociopolitical front. There are no contradictions between these axes. It is within reason to claim that what is to be done is a critical, cumulative, and integrated work; and that the current Syrian and Arab condition, of stagnation and disintegration, does not lead towards a constriction of struggle to the political level, inasmuch as it opens doors for all forms of theoretical, cultural, historical, social, and civil activity among others. Whoever repeats phrases such as “let us limit our talk of ancient history to universities” is committing a grave epistemological error, as I see that all of the axes of this struggle, and particularly around reading ancient history, should have implications at the factual level. This is a cause that reaffirms the alignment of paths of struggle in regards to thought, culture and history, with that of the sociopolitical.

Past, present, future: between national identity and the concept of Arabism

The confusion surrounding the question of Syrian national identity resurfaces whenever I make a statement relating to the concept of Arabism. This triggers an avalanche of explicit and implicit accusations, based on a misunderstanding of overlapping levels, and due to a series of precedents that lend credibility to justifications, and to which I respond with the following points:

The first accusation typically leveled against any talk of Arabism, particularly in Syria, is based on drawing parallels to the “chauvinistic nationalist” party ideology. This position is influenced by the miserable political experiences of these parties, which have ruled for decades under the banner of Arabism, its figures pursuing a politics of violence and oppression throughout that era. Those employ national identity in a narrow and exclusionary manner, and their policies have not only adversely affected non-Arab ethnic groups but even Arabs themselves at the altar of their own authoritarian interests locally, regionally and internationally.

The second Syrian accusation against Arabism is based on an identity crisis, and a sense of inferiority, which only ostensibly contradicts the first accusation (of chauvinism) but is compatible with it at the collective and individual psychoanalytic levels. I personally believe that my work and my writing has always affirmed my belonging to Arabism, both cultural and civilizational, and the keenness of my awareness and steadfastness of my faith in ancient Arab civilizations, as well as my great respect for the Arab/Islamic civilization outside of the dualism of sanctification versus demonization/destruction. At the same time, I am of the view that as Arabs, like all peoples in the world, our history involves both righteousness as well as wickedness, and should be reread with intellectual objectivity, and a balanced and transparent scientific method, away from the pitfalls of either chauvinism or inferiority. For my part, my efforts began with myself, culturally and psychologically, years ago, so that I can now deal with the West and the Westerner (or with any person in the world) as a peer without any lofty chauvinism or sense of inferiority. I belong to a great civilization of which I am proud, and I consider myself an indispensable partner, in every sense of the word, in establishing modern civilization, while recognizing the necessity of being critical of our past. These are not paradoxical attitudes, contrary those held by most generations of the last century, who were divided into two exceedingly racist camps:

  1. A nationalist chauvinist romanticist movement that sanctifies the past and Arabism to the extreme without epistemological or cultural balances, and without authentic political and social projects towards the establishment of an Arab entity, or even a national entity.
  2. A current that is anti-Arab to a pathological racist degree, influenced by populist tendencies and by orientalist literature, and the premeditated poisons that lie therein. It is a movement that has no faith in its history, identity, past or present, tormented by an identity crisis and an inferiority complex. This camp is clearly manifested in those with isolationist tendencies, as individuals and groups.

I’ve repeatedly spoken and written more than one article or study and explained my notion of an open cultural identity and its epistemological signification, and a pluralist and comprehensive democratic identity and its political signification, and my enlightened and good-willed friends have come to know my clear and honest perspective on the matter. Arabism, as a vessel for culture and civilization, has dynamism and openness to the present and future, and is capable of transformation, development, enrichment and change, and is a pluralist and interactive space that is not based on a unipolar metaphysical compatibility that is closed, final, and exclusionary, but is rather based on critique, interpretation, renewal, differentiation, and variety.

Therefore I can say that the self is transitive onto the other, that through the other the identity is pluralistic, and the production of a national Syrian identity as being a front among many fronts of urgent action that calls upon us and awaits us, does not negate Arab, Kurdish, or Turkmen identities… etc. It does not even seek to countermand a human or global identity, particularly in the age of information, communication and digitalization.

Therefore, in Syria and in other Arab countries, we need to overcome that metaphysical dualistic, separationist, definitive and closed thinking (of either/or), towards a vital interpretive, integrative, open, creative, functional, and modernist approach. There is no need to pick a monolithic identity, and there is no existential dictum stating that belonging to an Arab identity, or conversely to broad humanity, contradicts Syrian nationalism, or the idea of citizenship more specifically, as the idea of a unified identity and its definiteness has become scientifically and philosophically questionable, in addition to the displacement the notion of individual and collective self and identity, in light of the displacement of the notion of a social collective in the postmodern and post-postmodern age.

On the issues of religious enlightenment and identity politics

Perhaps the culturalistic understanding, being under the authority of the “Islamophobia” concern, was one of the biggest misconstructions of the Syrian Revolution, and one of the most dangerous obstacle to constructive communication with it, either theoretically or practically. This approach has led to the construction of visions, attitudes, and nearly insurmountable barriers of fabrication and reductionism against it, away from any authentic national critique, and on the verge of being buried in primitive and inherited instinctual pre-nationalist identities, and the antagonism that regrettably manifests from such narrow tendencies. If the issue of “Islamization of the Revolution” is an issue with such complicated objective and factual dimensions, and the interlacing geopolitical factors that require in-depth and patient unpacking, in explaining the trajectories of either internal and external events. Reducing our analysis of these events to a strictly this Islamicistic dimension is an epistemological shortcoming that may often not be free from ill intent.

In this context, I wish to stress that a religious/Islamic enlightenment is urgent, and cannot be bypassed by describing it as a necessary renaissance gesture among the many fronts that await our national action. It entails, as it at least appeared to me during the past revolutionary years, an enlightenment that is parallel and intersectional at the same time. I tend to call it a secular enlightenment. That is because I see that we have fallen in a problematic that represents two sides of one coin, and it is the problematic of Islamophobia and “secular-phobia." Positing Islam as an antithesis to secularism, or vice versa, is reductive, flattening, and epistemologically reckless. It is also a real resignation from the responsibility of action on the enlightenment front, as secularism is an institutional system that guarantees the impartiality of the state and does not eliminate religions. 

The point of creative difference between them, religion and secularism, is evident in the construction of national and democratic notions that are pluralist. I hope that the day comes when I find secular political Syrian and Arab parties with a cultural and religious background that resemble Christian parties in the West, with the necessity of affirming that Islamic enlightenment remains lesser in that it sufficed itself with deconstructing and critiquing the majoritarian structure. It  ignored the importance of deconstructing the  sectarian Islamic structures and critiquing it at the same time.

The battle of the two enlightenments, both religious and secular, confirms that fragmentation to Syria, the Sykes-Picot countries, and the Arab world after the Arab Spring revolutions. This does not mean a surrender to suspicious identity politics that state that constitutional countries are based on sectarian and ethnic segregation as in Iraq and Lebanon, and therefore the fragmentation was not the product of its moment. What it proves is that the politics of Qatari states have failed, and not the failure of trans-sectarian and trans-ethnic national projects. This also reveals the need to establish the collective national contract, which in my opinion, requires a fertile Syrian and Arab imagination that first begins from, and before anything else, from national fronts in every Arab country in principle, contrary to the romanticist way of the twentieth century elite who lacked the objectivity that is based at the level of the reality in their Arab countries and their local problems, so they escaped forward. They put the cart in front of the horse, and spoke of an Arab and Islamic unity, succumbing to the power and allure of the imagination, irrespective of the credibility or otherwise of this imagination, colliding with larger politics that are different, not to say opposed to, what they had sought, lacking renaissance projects that analyze the level of reality, understands it, and upon it builds a project of change step by step. What I am saying does not entail ignoring the importance of preserving Arab and Islamic cultural affiliations, or the importance of social, economic, or political interests that go beyond the level of the national state. All of these elements must always be kept well in mind in any unifying national contract.

The dynamics of cultural and intellectual space

The aforementioned three fronts cannot be separated from the dynamics of the cultural and intellectual space. By that I mean that one of the most important and effective domains of these previously mentioned fronts lies in cultural and intellectual struggles.

Therefore, in Syria and the Arab world, we need to re-establish and rehabilitate the theoretical environment, so that it is capable of serving the factual environment in practice, particularly by employing  and developing the stock of knowledge, culture and science in favor of a state of citizenship.

There is no doubt that the experience of our revolutionary institutions in Syria have by and large been less than encouraging, but the picture is not totally bleak, as we can see a glimpse of great hope in what has been achieved at the level of many individuals, and even at the level of some news and cultural institutions (relatively). For my part, I see that the largest investment whose returns will benefit all of Syria in the intermediate and long terms, is that of refugees. Those displaced and exiled, who have been scattered throughout the world for years, have begun to achieve notable successes in all their fields.

The discourse on Syrian and Arab universities remains one of melancholy. I am a person who spent twenty years of my life in the hallways of three Syrian universities, and I’ve come to refer to it “Syrian pseudoacademia,” and this is a long discussion in need of elaboration and which I dare not rush. I would briefly say that the cultural and intellectual front remains in obsolescence so as long as our universities are incapable of producing creative generations, and or opening the door for scientific research wide open, or establishing large institutional research centres instead of being burial grounds for ingenuity and talent, as they resemble larger versions of our failing public schools, both educationally and in terms of nurturing creativity and innovation. 

The decisive political space

There is no doubt that the fundamental unit of comprehensive change on all of fronts of struggle is that of political theory and practice, or should I say in a more profound sense: This vessel is what leads struggle to fruition, and develops it. This does not privilege the political over all others, because as I have mentioned before, all of these battles for enlightenment and change are integrated, cumulative, and interdependent, including political action. However, we ought to concede that taking the sovereign and national political decision, both in Syria and the Arab world, is an actual gateway to employ all of the products of the struggle on all other fronts, without ignoring the extent of our ability of work on these fronts to have influence over the political, and so it becomes inevitable to discuss the somewhat dialectical relation between all of these axes of renaissance.

Syria today, far from falling into the sterile metaphysical dualism of the debate over the success or failure of the revolution, has in reality become subject to compounded conditions, and it is certain that the internationalization of the Syrian revolution was due to a structural relation between Arab regimes and the global neoliberal capitalist system. As the multitude of global power struggles manifests clearly today, so do the tensions relating to the struggle over influence in Syria, unfortunately. 

In addition this does not mean the end of history in any way, as we venture into a new revolutionary stage, or let me at least say, as to free my analysis (only dialectically here) from explicitly revolutionary terminology, that we are at the forefront of a struggle and open action, and a fight to take back our independence and national sovereignty, and to build our pluralist free and democratic state. It is a constant uphill battle, and it may take new forms that are different from those of previous eras. Some may speak of a significant possibility of a return to peaceful civil struggle to Syria, supported by large Syrian human efforts around the world, while others may speak about the beginning of a war of national liberation, or a popular resistance that has begun to show some of its features in several places within Syria.

In any case I could not, with any degree of certainty, predict the future precisely as it will progress, but the least I can argue is that, the timescale for major transformations and of peoples is different from that of individuals, and that history’s sudden and recurrent maneuvering, and the potential for changing the balances of power, and the scope of new avenues for mobilitization and struggle, on all fronts, means that the conflict is still in the process of escalation. Therefore, for the Syrian and Arab situation to stagnate again, in what was the case of the authoritarian historical obstruction before the Arab Spring revolutions, has become a matter of impossibility. Moreover, I maintain that the next juncture will have us witness the birth of new political and military entities, which learn from the mistakes of the past, and possess more realistic, more independent and more coherent national projects. Thus, all fronts for liberation, enlightenment and renaissance seem to anxiously await us, and certainly will not cease to call upon us either in our beloved Syria or in the Arab world.

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