On December 11th 2016, professor emeritus Sadek Jalal al-Azm died in the age of 82 in Berlin.
In spring we were honored and happy to have met him for an interview that is part of “A Syrious Look” magazine. To honor his extraordinary thinking, we decided to publish the interview online, too. Al Azm was one of the most important thinkers in the Arab world.
He has taught at the University of Damascus and Princeton, among others. His scholarly work is dedicated to intellectual freedom, Marxism, human rights, free speech, and the relationship between Islam and the West. His work has sparked many controversies, even leading to his arrest in 1970. In this interview, he discussed the renaissance in Arab countries, the sixties generation, modern revolutions, religion, and exile.
The family of Sadik Jalal Al-Azm started the Sadik Jalal Al-Azm Foundation.
Interviewed and edited by Mohammad Abou Laban and Ziad Adwan.
Ziad: Muhammad is an alumnus of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, and also studied philosophy.
Sadek: That would be after I left Syria.
Mohammad: No, it was in 1995, just before you left. I was part of the first year.
Sadek: I left Syria in 1999, so you were a student when I was the head of the department.
Mohammad: Yes! I started off studying philosophy, but later I studied at the
Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts.
Sadek: That was the golden age for the Faculty of Philosophy. Hamed Khalil was the Dean of Literature and Humanities. I was the head of the Faculty of Philosophy. We ran the Cultural Week in the late 1990s. It was a big thing to run in Syria. They [the authorities] did not tolerate us for more than five years, but, at the same time, they could not cancel an event with such a reputation. The solution for them was to dismiss Hamed Khalil and me. And, as you know, such events and activities are based on personal connections with the invitees, so the Cultural Week had to stop once we were kicked out.
Mohammad: It was extraordinary.
Sadek: Yes, the venues were packed. We once invited Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid [liberal Egyptian Islamic thinker]. We had to place loudspeakers and television monitors outside the Al-Mazzeh Cultural Center since the venue was overflowing. Abu Zaid had contemplated a new interpretation of the Qur’an, and the Egyptian authorities had expelled him from Egypt and divorced him from his wife. It was Abu Zaid’s first visit to an Arab country since his deportation.
Ziad: Was Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid’s talk provocative to the audience?
Sadek: Let’s say it was an excellent talk. I was the moderator and I cannot recall if there was anyone else with us. This was in 1999. Later on, I moved to Harvard and a couple of years later, Hamid Khalil passed away.
Ziad: Why did the Syrian authorities allow you to run the Cultural Week?
Sadek: Part of the answer is that Hamid Khalil could offer us a kind of protection. He was the one who negotiated with the authorities. I don’t know exactly why and how. But at the end of the day, or let us say the prima facie case is that it was a university, a place for lectures and seminars. And probably because Hafez al-Assad had held some meetings with Syrian intellectuals earlier. What counted for us was that we could organize these events despite the oppression.
Mohammad: There was a bit less oppression in the nineties.
Sadek: To some extent, yes. But they always required the Cultural Week to say a few words about him [Hafez al-Assad]. It was a big thing in the country and many remarkable intellectuals were invited. So we were frequently asked to mention Al-Assad and to thank him. They insisted that we say something regarding him, even if only briefly. And once, Ali Duba [chief of the secret police] invited us to lunch.
Mohammad: Did Ali Duba attend the Cultural Week? Or did he just invite you?
Sadek: No, he didn’t attend, but there were many prominent figures. We invited Refaat el-Saeed [Egyptian politician], Mahmood Amin al-Alem [Egyptian intellectual], and many others. So Ali Duba invited us. I was exhausted after a morning seminar and was resting, but suddenly I received a call saying that Ali Duba was inviting us to Nadi al-Shareq [The Orient Club]. (Laughs.) We had to accept the invitation. We didn’t have any other choice.
Ziad: Speaking of dinners, I want to continue a discussion we once had at a dinner in Damascus. We were talking about a book of yours, Self-Critique After the Defeat (1968). Does the book really contain a self-critique? Was there a critique of your own ideology and practice as a left-wing thinker? The book criticized religious and political leaders and Gamal Abdel Nasser after the defeat in 1967. Those things do not represent you. You don’t share their views on totalitarianism, freedom, and Islam. I wonder if this was a critique of yourself?
Sadek: It was a product of its time. It was a book of the moment: it was written in the wake of the defeat by the state of Israel in 1967. We had experienced the defeat, but we had also lived through the propaganda and the whole environment before the war. We witnessed the glorification of Abdel Nasser. Even the most pessimistic among us did not imagine that we would lose the war. People were counting tanks and military aircrafts to try to predict the outcome of the war. But most of our sources came from the West — Time magazine and so on. The war between India and Pakistan took place in 1965, two years before our war with Israel. They fought and destroyed each other until the Americans interfered and imposed a ceasefire. I thought there would be a repetition of the same scenario: we fight and destroy the tanks and the planes, then big international forces interfere and impose a ceasefire and re-arrange the region. At that time, speaking like this brought on accusations of defeatism and pessimism. We could not understand what Abdel Nasser was doing. Half of his army was in Yemen, and he provoked the Israelis by taking his army to Sinai. We did not dare to question anything. There were high hopes that the liberation of Palestine was nigh. The result was extreme depression. This was the context of the book. The kind of criticism you’re referring to is absent in the book. But, in a sense, there were several critical discourses among intellectuals: nationalists, leftists, self-proclaimed revolutionaries. I stated that their revolution was merely political, but when it came to personal, social, and family matters, they would all forget about their liberal thinking. Nothing of this leftist theory was applied to their personal issues. I questioned their revolutionary beliefs and criticized them for not practicing their beliefs on a personal level. This was a tiny hint of a self-critique. But apart from this point, the book was conditioned by the paradigm of that era. It was a critique of a paradigm that also included the petite bourgeoisie. In this respect, I don’t see myself as outside this paradigm. I hoped that the book would encourage the paradigm to renovate itself, that this collage of populism, socialism, Arabism, and so on, could lead to renovation.
Mohammad: Can we shift the critique to the current revolt in Syria? Do you think that there has been a revision of this double-standard of being liberal in principle but conservative in practice, in private life? Has this paradigm produced a critique of the bourgeoisie, Islamic values, and family values?
Sadek: I realized a difference at the beginning of the revolution in 2011, when civil protests intensified in the cities. I realized that there were some aspects that hadn’t been present back in the 19sixties. In the 2011 revolution, there were demonstrations and protests, but also graffiti, humor, and dances. This was novel, the concept of coordination. I recall some fellows who gathered to create a local Reuters, to create news agencies. This was all new. Even the faces were smiling and bright. Back in the sixties, people were angry and cross and full of hatred. If we compare the current demonstrations with earlier revolutionary practices, you see the difference. The Cold War era established countries or postcolonial nation-states and witnessed “third-world movements.” They all became stagnated, decayed, and died. Nowadays, there is a new paradigm in the making. The Islamists are trying to gain control, but people are resisting them.
Mohammad: What are the characteristics of this this new Islamic paradigm? Are the Islamists trying to control the populist demonstrations? What ideas help the Islamists to take over?
Sadek: People share a spontaneous belief in God and religion. The Islamists know how to use this fact to mobilize people, but they cannot go beyond this. They failed in Egypt. In Tunis, they had learned their lesson from Egypt and took a couple of steps back. There is the Algerian example, definitely, in the collective memory. They could intensify the populist religion. This is a raw material, easy to ideologize and mobilize. And in countries like ours, religion is the easiest way to mobilize people. But again, they will not go beyond this.
Mohammad: Is the Syrian example different from the other experiences you have just mentioned? At least in terms of the sectarian dimension?
“I don’t want to reduce what is happening now to Facebook and the internet. It is about values.”
Sadek: No, I don’t see it as similar. I do not see what is happening in Syria as a sectarian conflict, that is, religious sects mobilized to fight one another. The Durzi did not involve themselves in the war. The Syrian religious sects are not fighting like they were in Lebanon and Iraq. In Syria, there is a state and ruling parties, and the Alawites represent the skeleton of this structure. And the main skeleton of the revolution is the Sunni. This is a fact. But this is one thing, and to see other Syrian sects mobilized in a war against each other is another issue. There was no state in Iraq, and the Americans demolished the army and all the security sectors and let the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds fight one another in the absence of the state. The same goes for Lebanon. So this is the main difference with the Syrian experience: this is not a sectarian war. To make Europeans understand what is happening in Syria, I always remind them of the Hungarian armed resistance against Stalinism in 1956. No one called it a civil war — it was an armed revolt against the Stalinist government. We have a similar case in Syria. It is an uprising against a regime that fuses Stalinism with fascism.
Ziad: Can we still use a twentieth-century vocabulary to understand twenty-first-century events? At the communication level, for instance, we now have Facebook and WhatsApp. Is revolution, as a term, still valid? The current revolution is being enacted by the marginalized masses. It is the marginalized who are becoming the catalyst of change, rather than the working classes and farmers.
Sadek: We are still looking for examples that are close to our experience. But at the same time, I don’t want to reduce what is happening now to Facebook and the internet. It is about values. Social movements and revolutions use the available tools. It was the cassette in the time of Al-Khomeini — people spoke of the cassette as if it was the reason of the revolution. Earlier, there were also the party newspapers like Al-Hadaf (Goal), Al-Hurryia (Freedom), Al-Sharara (Spark). Now we have new media. But we might still lack the conceptual scheme to comprehend this.
Ziad: Can we understand ISIS by using the analytical tools already available, or do we need more analytical tools to understand a state that is not officially a state?
Sadek: I always have the same view of ISIS and Al-Qaeda — I understand them by analyzing Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya (The Islamist Group) in Egypt in the 1980s. Their founding documents were Sayed Qotub’s writings, Abd-Al-Salam Faraj’s The Absent Obligatory, and Shukri Mustafa’s Excommunication and Exodus. I believe that the theory behind the Islamist Group in these books is more sophisticated than the debris of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. One of the ISIS people came out with a book called The Management of Savagery. They clearly declare themselves in favor of savagery. The author states that part of the movement is to be savage and provides instructions on how to control it. To me, this phenomenon is a defensive reaction against modernity. It is a mixture of a Romantic movement and a Counter-Reformation charge. In the documents I mentioned, one reads a question between the lines: If life continues this way, how can Islam avoid the fateful decline of Christianity in the Middle Ages? To avoid becoming expelled from the public sphere and absent in the lives of the individuals? It is not articulated, but it is there between the lines. To put it in a more theoretical frame: Max Weber introduced the theory of disenchantment. The modern world has been disenchanted. Like Goethe’s Faust, the West has sold its Christian soul in return for effective control over the physical world. This analogy does not have an instant application to our situation nowadays. The Minister of Internal Affairs and the Chief of Police are not concerned about this. But a combination of capitalism, modernity, and science will disenchant any culture. And I think that this disenchantment is occurring in the Muslim world and we are witnessing the results.
“In countries like ours, religion is the easiest way to mobilize people.”
Ziad: Well, let’s face it. Whenever we speak of an Arab renaissance — in the late nineteenth century, the 19sixties, the Arab Spring — intellectuals and elites seem to be very distant from science and physics. Arab renaissances have never incorporated the latest scientific achievements. In this sense, ISIS — like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — sees the individual as a metaphysical being that receives its legitimacy from God. So an individual possesses a superiority to other races and religions, since he is the descendant of a metaphysical will.
Sadek: Absolutely! I always emphasize this aspect. Even the European Renaissance would have been limited to painting and beautiful prose and poetry if not for the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. The scientific revolution recognized the changes in the arts and philosophy and shifted them to another level. The thing that is absent in the Arab renaissance is the knowledge of science. You read a lot about the importance of science, but the important point is that the Arab and the Islamic worlds have not produced any kind of scientific knowledge in the past one thousand years. The Arab renaissance(s) were full of ideas and some of them have developed. But the only branch that has not developed is science. Besides, religious people fight science. The books that I mentioned earlier possess a huge account of contempt for science. Shukri Mustafa claims that the Prophet was illiterate and he had no interest in mathematics and astronomy. The nation, to them, is perfect and does not lack or require anything. It is an umma ummiya, an illiterate nation.
Ziad: Hamlet, Don Juan, Faust, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza are the figures who reflect the European Renaissance soul. Why hasn’t Arabic literature produced characters who can represent the soul of its renaissance, with all its contradictions?
Sadek: The European renaissance represented the beginning of individualism and the collapse of communitarian identities. Romeo and Juliet is a good example: the beginning of individual love outside tribal and family constitutions, the dawn of individual self-determination. We’ve had some examples, but like other aspects of Arab life, they have remained pale and dim. Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1933, translated into German in 1982 and English in 2007) could be an example, though it’s still based on Al-Hakim’s personal experience. The book describes the relationship between Egyptians and something new that started in the city of Cairo called civil law. People were introduced to the concept of a court for the first time. The novel is the story of a prosecutor who has to apply civil law to a society that is still controlled by customary law, violence, tradition, and metaphysics. There is a lot of farce in it. But simultaneously, it tells how civil law spread from the center and conquered the countryside, slowly replacing customary law, violence, tradition, and Sharia. The process of civilizing the countryside has been documented throughout Arabic literature. Certainly, there were forces that rejected and resisted this influence. This has also been well documented by Naguib Mahfouz.
Mohammad: Talking about the current situation in Syria, do you think that the opposition could create a discourse or an identity that is not based on enmity? I feel that the opposition has constructed and developed its discourse according to the regime it is fighting. It is a reactionary standpoint, rather than a discourse that calls for a civil and democratic society. Do you think that there is any potential to create this discourse and spread the ideas of freedom and justice?
Sadek: On the verbal level, it is possible to create a radical discourse, and we can create an epistemological break. On the practical level, one should preserve the new discourse. Let us take Erdoğgan as an example. He was promising when he came to power, but I could not ignore the authoritarian characteristic of Turkish society — authoritarian in terms of daily practices, family, school, mosque, religious authorities. Perhaps Turkish society is better than ours, but it still suffers from this symptom. Yet, nowadays the authoritarian paradigms of family and religion have intensified as a reaction to Erdoğgan’s bully behavior. Talking about federalism in Syria, I have my worries that all the small territories might produce a new little Hafez al-Assad. The authoritarian paradigm always longs for za’aeem, a leader. It won’t be an easy thing to achieve a radical change at the practical level. It requires effort and time. Take the Kurdish federation or canton in Iraq; they have another little Hafez al-Assad on top. I am worried that this paradigm might find a space to reproduce itself in society after the revolution.
Ziad: How can we translate the word za’aeem into English?
Sadek: Let us think of similar examples from history. Take the Cromwell era, for instance. What did they use to call him? Cromwell had some al-za’aeem characteristics. He was not only a liberator and a revolutionary leader. Aside from what historians and academics call him, I would go and check what the public called him at the time; we would find relevant terms in literature, probably. The Europeans also had the tendency of glorifying leaders through poetry. Or we could look at French literature, and what they called Danton. There you could possibly find a similar word to describe this relationship between people and leader. Al-za’aeem is derived from power. But one of the difficulties in translating al-za’aeem is that this word contains a certain emotional intensity that is hard to find in contemporary Europe.
Ziad: One topic that has been problematized in Syria is that of minorities. You wrote The Critique of Religious Thought, which criticized religious thought on the theological level, and you also wrote “The Tragedy of Iblis” (i.e., the Devil). Later, you became more interested in criticizing Islam. Of course, Islam is one of the most frequently heard words on the news. But are religious minorities in need of a critique of their religious thought? Or do they have the right to cling to their religions, since they fear elimination?
Sadek: They don’t need a critique of their thought and beliefs if they fear elimination. But this would not work if they want to create a new existence that is in tune with Syrian society. Minorities should base their existence on the concept of citizenship and equality and show a notion to clarify their mythology. It is not only Sunni Islam that should rationalize its beliefs. If one wants to survive elimination, one is required to adapt and accommodate. I think all religions need to revise their creeds. I would like to make a digression on Critique of Religious Thought. I wrote a chapter called “The Tragedy of Iblis.” It was not meant to criticize religion. We have a tradition full of stories and myths, and they do not mean anything to me on the levels of belief and rationality. The question was, what can I do with this tradition and these stories? The best thing I thought of was to write literature, or a tragedy, out of it, to give these myths a meaning that resembles me and my position as an individual. I go to the theatre and read Sartre, so I thought of taking the story of Iblis from the Qur’an and rewriting it as a tragedy or drama. It is like what Rushdie did when he novelized the story of the cranes in his novel The Satanic Verses. I did not want these precious stories to haunt me. I wanted to engage these stories in my current situation and interests, not only my individual interests, but also the culture’s general interests. The book was called Critique of Religious Thought. Practically, it was a critique of Sunni Islam. This probably why the Shia celebrated the book — it criticized their opponents. The Christians, though, were against the book. They were curious: what would I say about their religion if I spoke of my own religion in such a critical tone? (Laughs.)
Ziad: Why don’t you write a critique of each each type of religious thought? Alawi, Shia, Orthodox, Catholic, Druze, one by one?
Sadek: (Laughs.) The book I am working on might do this.
Ziad: You always speak of something called the “generation of the 19sixties.” Wherever we go on this planet, there is something called the sixties generation: in Latin America, France, Japan, and in the Arab region. The sixties generation was able to attain some achievements [in most parts of the world], but the Arabs did not get anything — they lost on the political, military, and cultural levels. What followed the Arab sixties generation was the rise of dictatorships and fundamentalism. We lost Palestine and began to lose one country after another.
Sadek: I do mention the sixties generation a lot, and am glad that you mention it! The US and Europe do enjoy what they gained in the sixties. I always say that they owe it to the sixties. When I was a student in the United States back in the 1950s, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were for men. There were no women there. It was the pressure from the sixties generation that led to more women at universities in the following decades. In fact, I have no answer for why the Arabs were defeated to that extent. But I think that it was a serious movement. In literature, there was something defiant in Syria and Egypt. The Arab sixties generation combined the aims of decolonization, movements against occupation, the Algerian Independence War, and Palestine. These movements did not last, and they died naturally. The anti-war movement in the US gradually faded once the Vietnam War ended. The sixties in the Arab world, by contrast, were cut off in a very drastic way, which created a cultural, political, and ideological vacuum. Then Islam moved in to fill this vacuum. I consider this sudden cut-off to be the reason behind the unfruitfulness of the sixties movement. (Long pause.) Even Socialism and Communism had a natural death worldwide, unlike the cut in the Arab experience. When the sixties movement reached a dead end, it produced terrorist actions of violence. We had Meinhof and the Red Army Faction, the Red Brigades, the Brigate Rosse in Italy, the Action Directe in France, and the Japanese Red Army. When they reached a historical dead end, new forces emerged. They thought that, through violence, they could break through this clog and shake up society. They wanted to shake up the communist parties’ postponing attitude of always waiting for a change in the objective circumstances. The same applies to the Muslim Brotherhood. They, also, have been waiting for the circumstances to achieve the change they want, in other words, for the Caliphate to appear again. Some people were impatient. There was a blockage in the Muslim Brotherhood project, and it failed to achieve a thing. Violence was thought to be the solution to break through this blockage. This applies to ISIS violence: it is proportional to their feeling of the blockage. All the Islamic attempts have failed, and whenever they fail, they escalate violence. The Islamist movements have adopted Ariel Sharon’s approach: “What you cannot do with force, you can do it with more force.”
Mohammad: People tend to compare the Syrian diaspora to the Palestinian one. Are there similarities? Are Syrians creating an exiled identity?
Sadek: I don’t think Syrians feel that they have lost their country permanently. Syrians are different from Palestinians in terms of how they evaluate the lifestyle in their own country. Syria is a failed state and is not livable. It is like Iraq in Saddam’s era. I believe that the majority of the Syrians will return. I ask myself whether Palestinians like Hisham Sharabi [a professor at Georgetown University] and other Palestinian stars in the US would return to Palestine if they had the chance. Same applies to Edward Said. Said wrote Out of Place, but, having known Said very well, I ask myself, where was Said’s rightful place? Whoever knew Edward knew that his rightful place was Princeton, Harvard, and Colombia, not Ramallah or Jerusalem. Out of Place states this clearly. There will be Syrians, too, who feel that their place is Paris, Berlin, or Washington. I think there will be elites or emigrants who send money back to Syria. And I also sense that many Syrians feel that Syria is a hopeless case. There is a sense of despair. They feel that it is irretrievable. It is impossible to live there under any conditions. What do you think? Muhammad and Ziad: (Mumbling) Mmmm! (Pause.)
Ziad: Will there be something called Syria? Is there something called Syria right now?
Sadek: (Laughs.) On the map, yes!
Mohammad: And on your personal map?
Sadek: I am loyal to Syria. Once, I was not allowed to leave the county. I had to go repeatedly to secret police stations to get permission to travel. The officer used to give me permission to leave the county one time only. That meant it was a one-way ticket, or in other words, they were telling me go and not come back. If you come back, you are coming back to us. I told the officer once that the Al-Azm family is in Damascus, and I want to return. I don’t know if I will be able to go back to Syria. I don’t think I will live to see it. My health… But I will defiantly return. I do not want to be an intellectual in exile, with all my respect to intellectuals in exiles. I could have been an intellectual in exile a long time ago. I kept on returning to Syria. Intellectuals in exile took their decisions and made compromises, and I took my decision and made other compromises, too.
Photo: Sadek J. al-Azm at the University of California, Los Angeles, 2006. Photo: Wikipedia user Bgadsby~commonswiki