Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An Open Letter From Adonis

Boulversé!! That's the first word that popped into my mind after reading this article by Adonis today. Disturbing doesn't quite capture it!

After a long eerie silence, Adonis has finally written a devastating indictment of Assad and the political culture that gave rise to cruel men of his ilk. I have translated the looooooooooog op-ed, and you will see that it's an elegant rejection of the Baath Party and its hateful ideology; but it's no less a brutal whipping of Assad and his goons.

Adonis has only recently been permitted to return to Syria, to visit his aging mother (whom he hadn't seen in ages.) She's over 100 years old, and the regime would think nothing of pushing her over a cliff in Kassabin should Adonis dare talk out of turn. That is why you will note that his language is somewhat "guarded"--shall we say. But, Adonis is after all a wordsmith; and words he does know how to weigh and wield with extreme caution.

What he's treating in this op-ed is something that he's actually written about in great detail in his recent collection of essays (الكتاب الخطاب الحجاب) (Book, Rhetoric, Veil..) a title that in itself is a devastating frontal assault on religion and the Arabs' valorization of religious identities.

People like Assad, but also like Nasrallah, do not escape Adonis's scalpel in both the book, and this op-ed (which I think condenses the book's thesis.) Echoing the op-ed, Adonis argues that a culture that obscures the "Truth of and about 'the other', and rejects the existence of 'the other' as such," is indeed a culture that devalues human existence. "This is the creed of Michel Aflaq's Baath" argued Adonis; and
"a culture that accepts such a creed is one doomed to extinction. [...] A nation consumed by a need for 'oneness' in thought, opinions, language, and belief, is a culture of tyranny, not singularity; a collectivity that acts as an impregnable obstacle to personal and intellectual enlightenment... [...] It is imperative that the Arab mind be shaken out of its static context; a context doused in a kind of inertia bordering on the comatose physical state and the cultural, intellectual stupor. Rather than generating a comprehensive self-examination challenging the obsolete political, cultural, intellectual, and historical foundations of Arab culture, Arabs--whether on the individual, official, or intellectual level--remain besotted and immobilized by their cultural accretions. They unleash their rage on the 'the o
ther' rather than casting an introspective gaze at their own endogenous deficiencies..."

Enough of الكتاب الخطاب الحجاب, okay? Here's the translation of the As-Safir Essay (emphases added):

An Open Letter to President Bashar al-Assad; Man, His Rights and Freedoms, or the Abyss


June 14, 2011

Mr. President,
Allow me to say that it defies reality and reason to believe that democracy will somehow materialize in Syria soon after the current regime's dismantlement. Conversely, I would say it still defies reality and reason to believe that the current brutal police state in Syria should remain in place simply because there's no guarantee of a democratic aftermath.
This is the main dilemma of the times at hand!

Democracy shall not come about in Syria without a long and arduous struggle, nor will it come outside the framework of a number of indispensable preconditions and principles. That is why, it is imperative that we lay down the groundwork for these principles and preconditions. Today, not tomorrow!!! This is on one hand. On the other hand, without democracy there is nothing but retrogression and backwardness, until we trip and fall into the abyss.

It is superfluous to argue that the Arabs’ recent history is unacquainted with the principles of democracy. I would say that the Arabs have never been acquainted with the principles of democracy at any point in their history, not only in recent times. Indeed, culturally speaking, democracy has always lain outside of the Arabs’ cultural patrimony.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that it is impossible for Arabs to labor and lay down the foundations of democracy. Indeed, there were many courageous and constructive post-independence attempts [in the early 20th century] aimed at integrating democratic values into Arab societies. Still, integrating democracy, again, requires certain indispensable preconditions without which no amount of work for the sake of democracy will accomplish anything. Among those preconditions are a number of things that the Arabs need to borrow from ‘the other’. However, “borrowing” something and refusing to "use" that which one borrows will lead to naught—keeping in mind that the Arabs, throughout their history, have borrowed a number of things, both functional and theoretical, from ‘the other’. Indeed, not only have the Arabs borrowed, they borrowed, practiced, and perfected aspects of 'the other's' culture.

One of the main preconditions of democracy is for the Arabs to take their societies—politically and culturally speaking—out of the “divine, heavenly, and unitary era,” and thrust it into the “human, earthly, individual era.” In civil political language, this means a complete separation between that which is religious, and that which is political, social, and cultural. Throughout history, going from the early days of the Arab-Muslim state to the present time, many were the Arab intellectuals and poets who have struggled to instate this concept of separation. Unfortunately, not only have they failed in their endeavors; they were denigrated, accused of blasphemy, and often killed—depending on their individual cases and the historical eras they lived. Indeed, then like now, the "foundational religion" always won the day. Then like now, the conflation of the religious and the political remains the theoretical and practical foundation of Arab-Muslim life. Indeed, the ingrained destructive bases of this sort of mixing between the secular and the sacred are still the facts of life in Arab Muslim societies; facts of life to which we bear witness daily, in a number of domains. It is based on these foundational tenets of our societies that the killing of Man is lent legitimacy. Indeed, for the sake of the “text” and “scripture”, and for the sake of a certain interpretation of the “text” and “scripture”, Man is killed in our societies; killed both intellectually and physically.

So, my question is the following. How can we expect democracy to take root in a climate that devalues individual freedoms and human existence, and rejects ‘the other’ as such, either by casting ‘the other’ off, or by dismissing him as an infidel, or by outright killing him? How can we expect democracy to take root in a society that is incapable of fathoming of life, culture, times, places, and human civilizations, except through the lens of our reading of the “Text”—which, as we all know, is a “Text” with multiple, indeed contradictory, interpretations. Add to that the fact that, regardless of how lofty the “Text” might be, it can be easily debased when read by narrow minded folk, as is often the case nowadays.

In any case, there is no democracy as such in religion—at least, not the kind of democracy that is understood in the original Greek and modern Western conception of idea. Religion, by its very definition, is a form of bias or bigotry for the benefit of “heaven”; a way of subjugating the earth to the will of heaven; a way of shackling Man with the “Texts” of heaven. What’s more, when it comes to basic human relations, religion is incapable of dealing with ‘the other’ outside of the confines of mere “tolerance” of ‘the other’, and in the best of worlds possible “openness” toward ‘the other’. Yet, “tolerance” is nothing if not the antithesis of democracy. For one tolerates ‘the other’ outwardly, all the while deeming oneself superior to that tolerated ‘other’. Tolerance is indeed an insincere pietistic smugness; a form of “monopoly” over the truth, and indeed, a form of conceit and racism. In any case, “tolerance” is not “equality”, and is indeed the total opposite of “equality.” Man does not require “tolerance”; Man requires and deserves “equality.” For, without equality there are no rights, no recognition of the ‘the other’, and no democracy. And so, democracy remains mere drivel, rhetoric, and idle talk in Arab society.

Mr. President,
To recapitulate, laying down the foundations of democracy begins with the complete separation between all that which is religious on the one hand, and all that which is political, social, and cultural on the other hand.

Need I remind you then, that contrary to what was expected of it, the Arab Socialist Baath did not engage this kind of separation. This Baath Party, which has been leading this country for close to half a century has donned an old cloak, dominated the political arena, played the “old game”, and ruled with the same old mentality, adopting the same old outmoded cultural and social contexts. Therefore, the Arab Socialist Baath Party ended up resembling an ultra-racist organization when it came to the non-Arab ethnicities in our midst—namely the Kurds. In this sense, the Arab Socialist Baath Party morphed into a “religious party”, or rather a party built upon a religious structure. And just as belonging to Islam—at least in the Salafist conception—has been rendered into a sort of a human-intellectual “supremacy”, so has belonging to the Baath Party become a kind of human-intellectual “supremacy”—theoretically speaking—and a political, commercial, and functionary “supremacy”—practically speaking. And so, the Baath Party’s struggle became one intended to draw society into the Baathist “religion”, instead of fighting to liberate society from the “foundational religion” and construct a whole new civil society where citizens are judged based upon their capabilities and contributions, not upon their religiosity and partisanship.

Mr President,
Most specialists and observers of the Middle East agree that the “ideological experiment” has been an utter failure in the Arabs’ political life—an utter failure in every domain possible, not very much unlike the failure of the Communist model. Why, the Arab Socialist Baath party is part and parcel of this failed experiment. However, if the Baath has remained solidly ensconced in Syrian life, this is thanks to its brutal coercive ideology and its “police-state” methodologies, not due to its appeal.

History shows that coercion, brutal as it might be, can guarantee the hegemony of one group over another, but it can do so only for a limited time period, and only as long as certain internal and external conditions allow this hegemony to remain in place. What’s more, the hegemony of the single party breeds only divisions, dislocations, backwardness, humiliation, and violation of basic human dignity. In the end, there is no legitimate hegemony, save for that of freedom; and there is no security ultimately, except by way of liberty.

And therein dwells the paradox today: We are faced with a political party that claims to rule in the name of progress, under the pretext of lifting society away from backwardness to launch it towards progress. But this is a political party that is at the same time guilty of the same ills of which it accuses its opponents; a political party that is responsible for the country’s stagnation, retrogression, and ongoing collapse; a party that is responsible for the rending of Syria and the sullying of its millenarian image in the muds of sectarianism, tribalism, communal conflict, outside intervention, torture, murder, and desecration of victims’ corpses. This is the legacy of the Baath!! […]

Surely, Mr. President, most Party members must agree that the Syrian authorities currently ruling in the name of the Baath have not been worthy of the Party Principles. Indeed, they might claim that today’s rulers are behaving in ways that are in total contradiction with the Party’s Guiding Principles, especially as pertains to civil life, human rights, and basic freedoms. At least, this is what Party members are expected to recognize, if only out of moral obligation. Truth is, however, this Party hasn’t been established for any purpose that can be deemed modernizing, new, or creative. Indeed, whether in practical or cultural terms, this party has been a model of traditional, reactionary, religious organizations; the same applies in terms of culture, education, or any other intellectual endeavor. In fact, in over forty years of rule, this great Party did not establish a single “model university”, and not a single “prototypical” technical, intellectual, or artistic institution. It is a Party that could care less about the humanity of Man—except, of course, when it comes to the humanity of those who were card-carrying Party members.

In fact, the best way in which I could describe this Party is that it is closer to a “religious cult” than it is to a political organization: a “cult” that hindered the emergence of free civil society, destroyed the morale of people, and established a culture of “blind Party obedience” and venomous vilification of those who opposed it; a culture of silly sloganeering and superficial proselytism.

Indeed, one of the ironic tragedies of this Party is that those who are taking it to task today, are doing so under the banners of “communal” and “clannish” loyalties—tragic, isn’t it, for a Party that preened and propped itself upon ostentations of “nationalism” and “secularism”. The reality is, however, that the very discourse and “rationale” of this Party are religious to their core. Thus, the fine culture that this Party took pleasure in normalizing turned out to be a culture of haggling, racketeering, extortion, monopolies, communalism, sectarianism, tribalism, and brazen accusations of “treason” leveled against those who refuse to toe the Party line.

The Party adopted and promoted all these practices to the hilt, and all for a simple reason: self-preservation and the monopolization of power. This Party cared much more for maintaining itself in power than it did for transforming society and guiding it on the path of change, renewal, and cultural rejuvenation. So, in practice, authority under the auspices of this Party was reactionary—but a reactionary establishment whose overthrow did not require revolution, for it carried within itself the very seeds of its own downfall. In that sense, the Baath Party has been an utter failure in “dismantling the old societal structures to thrust them in the path of progress”—as it often likes to arrogate itself. This is all the more reason for Article VIII of the Constitution to be removed, now, before anything else—and before any other kind of “reform”—is given lip-service. Article VIII of the Constitution is a glaring symbol of tyranny, disregard for human life and human dignity, and contempt for Man, Reason, and Freedom. Therefore, it must be abolished.

What I’m asking of the Party Leadership to do today, is marshal a modicum of moral and historical decency and come clean; recognize the failures of past experiments, and work assiduously on discarding and overcoming them. A new democratic page must be written; one that is indispensible for the building of a new society and a new government that is open to all of Syria’s political forces, and all its intellectual energies; especially the energies of the nation’s women and youth. This is the only way for Syrians to break free from the ossified traditional context, and chart a new course in the direction of a new, democratic, civil society.

Mr. President,
Nobody doubts that demands for democracy do not necessarily imply that those carrying the standards of democracy are perforce true democrats. Allow me to say that, absent the two conditions below, no democracy can be achieved. For democracy to eventuate,

1- citizens (men and women alike) must become part of a Syrian society that is an indivisible whole. The must become Syrians before claiming any other affiliations based on religious, sectarian, tribal, or ethnic loyalties.
2- Secondly, ‘the self’ must recognize and accept the distinct ‘other’ (be he man or woman) as a complete human being and a complete component of Syrian society, with equal rights and equal freedoms as ‘the self’.

What’s more, criticism and opposition are a basic human right and a fundamental precondition of democracy.


Who, or what is the opposition in Syria today?
The voices that are being heard in the Syrian opposition today are the voices of thinkers, writers, poets, artists, intellectuals, young men and women, people of varied origins and holders of different points of view, noble visions, and just aspirations. However, this opposition is not a united front under a single banner, even if only symbolically speaking. There is no single document that lays out the vision and goals of this opposition beyond its calls for the ouster of the current system.


There are also some oppositionists who are engaging in demonstrations, skirmishes, and confrontations. Some of them are agitators, sloganeers, militants, and ultimately dead demonstrators. Their common denominators are moral ideals and dedication to certain patriotic principles.

Others still might be driven by a violent contrarian streak; rioters, salafist, sectarians, thirsting for revenge.

History teaches that those who end up triumphing in such revolts or revolutionary uprisings, will most likely be the ones who are better organized, and those who are numerically superior. Which means that victory will come to those who “work” for it […]

Mr. President,
Today, more than at any other time in its history, Syria is in dire need of a brand new political alphabet; a new updated political alphabet to bequeath to the rest of the Arabs; an alphabet that would renounce deceit and dishonesty in the relationships between Party and Nation, and between People and Leader. For, only tyrants resort to deceit and dishonesty.

History beckons to you, Mr. President, to put an end to this culture of deceit between Syria and the Arab Socialist Baath Party. For, Syria is much greater, richer, and grander than to be reduced to slavery to the benefit of this Party—or any other party for that matter. You are invited, in the name of humanity and civilization, to do Syria’s bidding, not the Party’s bidding. […] Much too much time has been expanded for this Party to uplift this noble, unique, and distinct country. But the Party squandered this opportunity […] and no amount of brutality and violence will prove otherwise. Prisons are wide enough for individuals sometimes, but there can never be enough prison space for an entire nation. You cannot imprison an entire nation […] and political prisons are nothing if not a symbol of failure, and no amount of brute force and violence can cover up or suppress this fact.

In its brutal exercise of power all these years, this Party has abused the cultural identity of Syria. It submitted the richness of Syrian identity to a single linguistic, cultural, “racial”, and “religious” Arabism, laying down the foundations of a uniform, monolithic, one-dimensional culture. In sum, the Baath Party presented us with a narrow, regurgitant, exclusivist culture, built solely on negating, apostatizing, marginalizing, and obviating ‘the other’, in addition to accusing him of treason; in other words it brought us an Arabist replacement for theology.


In this way, over a period of forty years, the Party dismantled a diverse pluralistic Syria, forcing upon it a closed, brutal culture of “oneness.” Thus, Syrian culture was rendered one of proselytism, publicity, and propaganda linked to a brutal security apparatus. And so, Syrian culture was entrapped between two closed cultic mentalities: one arguing in the name of religion, heritage, the past, and Salafism; the other, Baathist, making the case for an oppressive Arab identity, in total contradiction with freedom and basic human rights, rejecting cultural pluralism, the very essence of Syria’s distinct personality…

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for investing the time to translate this piece. It's an important one. I started reading it this morning, but with my mediocre Arabic skills I stopped after two paragraphs!