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New Texts Out Now: Christa Salamandra and Leif Stenberg, Syria from Reform to Revolt, vol. 2

Christa Salamandra and Leif Stenberg, eds. Syria from Reform to Revolt, volume 2. Culture, Society, and Religion (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Christa Salamandra and Leif Stenberg (CS and LS): Syria from Reform to Revolt, Vol. 2 is the second collection of essays drawn from “Syria under Bashar al-Asad,” the first international, interdisciplinary gathering of scholarly experts on contemporary Syria, held Lund University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in October 2010. The first volume focuses on political economy and international relations; this book explores the quotidian politics emerging in cultural production and religious expression. Our volume fills a longstanding need—intensified since the beginning of the conflict in 2011—for ethnographically grounded, historically inflected analyses of Syrian society. We provide novel perspectives on how Bashar al-Asad’s pivotal first decade of rule engendered transformations in power relations that fed the protest movement turned civil and proxy war. The volume has just entered its second printing.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

CS and LS: Syria from Reform to Revolt offers a range of disciplinary perspectives as a prism refracting the experience of neoliberalism and authoritarianism through disparate realms of everyday life in late Ba‘thist Syria. We reveal competing narratives and unexpected convergences, and point to what we call “a moving wall of fear” that acknowledges reformist and dissident activities—sometime co-opted, often curtailed—that presaged the 2011 revolt. We chart the peaks and troughs of reform and repression, formulating the concept of a “legacy of raised expectations” to reveal continuities between pre and postwar perceptions, discourses, and actions, identifying long-term processes that fueled what some—even participants themselves—characterize as an uprising without precedent. Chapters on political fiction, Islamic foundations, television drama, Christian choirs and charities, experimental dance, and the relationship between Muslim clerics and urban merchants share a common theme: how Syrians worked with and through the state in attempts to reform, undermine, or sidestep the regime. It uncovers the intricacies, paradoxes and contradictions that have both promoted and impeded peaceful transformation.

J:  How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

CS: My contributions to Syria from reform to Revolt build on earlier media work that began with an analysis of the serial Damascene Days that appears in my first book, New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria (Indiana University Press, 2004). This book was the first to explore the rise of a culture of consumption, and its relationship to social distinction, at the beginning of Syria’s neoliberalization. Here I focused on contestation surrounding the preservation, restoration and representation of the Old City of Damascus that animated social life among elite groups in Damascus during the early 1990s. My fieldwork revealed that sectarian affiliations were re-emerging, propelled by new ways and means to consume, and alloyed with those of class and region, in a form of sociability I termed a “poetics of accusation.” Discussions of movements to preserve and celebrate the Old City of Damascus, and commodified representations of the city in public culture, provoked a torrent of vitriol. Damascus aficionados complained of the purportedly powerful ‘Alawis from rural backgrounds who allegedly sought to destroy Old Damascus and undermine the forms of power still wielded by the city’s politically disposed elites. Those who felt excluded from elite Damascene culture, and particularly those from minority groups, emphasized the weddedness of regime with Damascene business classes, and argued that the city’s Sunni businessmen had benefited much more than many ‘Alawi villagers. Accusations targeted not the regime directly—understood as ultimately responsible—but other groups of Syrians perceived to profit from and perpetuate the status quo. My more recent research among creators of Syria’s largest cultural industry, television drama, reinforces this interpretation. Ultimately, my book revealed a failed national project.

My interest in television drama has grown along with Syria’s “drama outpouring” (al-fawra al-dramiyya), as satellite technology has transformed drama itself and the lives of its creators and audiences. For over a decade I’ve traced how drama makers navigate a key cultural field amid the demise of socialism, the rise of Islamic revivalism, and the unfulfilled promise of political reform. I examine how fictional television creators manipulate a limited, ambiguous autonomy to produce critical representations of society and politics.

Both research projects informed “Reflections on Not Writing about the Syrian Conflict”, my 2012 Jadaliyya article interrogating the politics of taking positions, and reinvigorated my attention to sectarianism. The introduction (co-written with Leif) and chapter three in Syria from Reform to Revolt expands and extends this work.

LS: My contributions are related to fieldwork in Syria that started already in the mid-1990s. One foundational ambition in my work has been to understand “religion” as a dynamic social phenomenon. Thinking of religion as a set of diverse, evolving, socially embedded discursive practice is, in my opinion, essential in analyzing its role and function in any society. However, in my contribution to Syria from Reform to Revolt, I have placed more emphasize on Muslim organizations in Bashar’s Syria than I had in my previous work. I focus more closely than earlier on questions of interpretative power and agency, in order to demonstrate how Islam is conceptualized, or produced, in a specific context. My perspective suggests a contribution to the study of religion and Islam that is attentive to fluidity in the construction of everyday religious life, rather than to more abstract notions of theology. That is, I aim to analyze processes of conceptualizing Islam in the daily life of believers. In addition, I discuss how non-Muslim agency influences interpretations and conceptualizations, and also how rituals and organizational changes relate to political realities. Hence, political, social and economic experiences, both “Muslim” and “non-Muslim,” were significant sources for reforming the ritual life of the organization. These ideas are linked to work I did in early days of my career, but also incorporate a perspective discussing the role of different stakeholders and their agency in relation to how religion is interpreted and manufactured, contributing to the discussion concerning the terms “insiders” and “outsiders” in humanities and social sciences.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CS and LS: We aim to convey the vibrancy of a society that has often responded to pre-war dilemmas and wartime traumas with creativity and dignity. The ongoing conflict has polarized Syrians and outside observers alike. We hope to complicate facile assumptions about what it means to be “with” or “against” the regime, a dichotomy satirized in Syrian popular culture of recent years. Conflict resolution and post-war rebuilding require empathy with and among Syrians who have weathered repeated cycles of hope and betrayal, and now endure downward spirals of violence. Our goal is to contribute to these processes by rendering legible a complex decade of alliances and fractures, continuities and ruptures. Our accessible register anticipates an international audience of scholars, students, and all who struggle to understand Syria’s devastation.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CS: My forthcoming book, Waiting for Light explores the cultural politics of television drama production in a transnational satellite context. Drawing on eleven years of research conducted in Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Qatar, I examine how television makers (writers, directors, actors, designers, composers, producers, programming executives and others) respond to transformations in both Syrian society in the Arab mediascape since the early 2000s. The preproduction, filming and airing of a single contemporary social drama, Waiting, form the core of the ethnography, around which I weave fieldwork conducted beyond it in both time and space. I argue that despite—and because of—changing conditions and constraints, television creators manipulate a limited, ambiguous autonomy to produce critical representations of society and politics. Employing what I term a “dark aesthetic,” social realist drama makers offer complex, unflinching depictions of past and present, politics and society, customs and values. I argue that this dark aesthetic, as a visual language of critique, enjoys an afterlife in the work of the Syrian uprising’s dissident cultural producers.

LS: I am finishing another edited volume at the moment. The preliminary title is Islam in Motion and it follows and develops ideas I presented in my chapter in Syria from Reform to Revolt. As its preliminary title indicates, the book includes contributions on a variety of subjects, yet all recognize the fluidity of interpretations, conceptualizations and practices of Islam in everyday life. I am also involved in a number of projects that are about to conclude, one of them being a book-length history of Muslim ideas, exploring the linkages between the religious traditions of Islam and the production of knowledge. It is a historically oriented follow-up to my doctoral thesis on the Islamization of contemporary science. Another, more long-term project is a monograph drawn from my empirical material from Syria. This book will analyze transformations in a religious organization and network in Syria over a fairly long period. I think it will offer fresh perspectives on developments in contemporary Islam.

Excerpt,  "A Moving Wall of Fear":

Throughout the 2000s, dissident activists, artists and intellectuals continued to press for realization of the Damascus Spring promise, using subtler, more ambiguous methods rather than overt demands. They experienced cycles of raised and dashed hopes, during which the occasional loosening of censorship restrictions was predictably reversed. Nevertheless, many believed that a more participatory polity could gradually emerge without a violent overthrow of the regime, and worked toward this outcome through the small margin for maneuver the leadership allowed. By sustaining expectations of transformation, offering a critical language that diverged from the regime’s neoliberal rhetoric, and revealing the hollowness of official slogans, their efforts laid the groundwork for the uprising. While commentators celebrated the 2011 protestors’ breaking of the so-called wall of fear, this process had been initiated long before by human rights activists, socially committed artists, and political critics chipping away at that wall, moving it incrementally to widen the range of public discourse. Continuity has been as significant as rupture.

Indeed, such efforts to effect gradual, nonviolent change continued through the first months of the protests. Though some Syrians viewed these attempts as reactionary and believed them more likely to bolster authoritarianism than to undermine it, individual cases proved more complex. After the screening of his documentary The Road to Damascus (2006) at Lund’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, eminent filmmaker Nabil Maleh described one such instance of reformist advocacy. Before the outbreak of violence, this “father of Syrian cinema,” longtime dissident, and key Damascus Spring activist devised a plan he believed could spare Syria the ravages of violent conflict. Knowing the centrality of satellite television to Syrian social and political life, he proposed a new station, National Dialogue, to serve as the Ba‘thist state’s first open forum for discussion and debate. As he envisioned it, National Dialogue would nurture a nascent democratic atmosphere where opinions could be exchanged without fear of reprisal. No such arenas existed, as political gatherings were forbidden and media strictly controlled. Maleh hoped that dialogue would render the al-Asad regime more accountable, helping to avoid the bloodshed that appeared imminent. Believing the authoritarian status quo untenable, Maleh had worked toward a peaceful transition to participatory governance for a decade, and he saw this television forum as a last opportunity toward this end. In April 2011 he brought the idea to Bouthaina Shaaban, the president’s spokesperson and a member of his inner circle, who encouraged him to proceed. Maleh quickly garnered support from opposition figures throughout the nation and submitted a written proposal to Shaaban, emphasizing a precondition: the station’s “complete immunity from security and political interference.” Receiving no reply, the director sent Shaaban a text message pleading for a green light to open the station because, as unrest mounted, “every day counts.” He received no response. Maleh believes the regime found his demand for editorial freedom a step too far in the democratizing direction. Even more bitterly, Maleh realized his language had been coopted to pacify the opposition when four months later, with Syria’s armed forces turning their weapons on peaceful protestors and with the death toll escalating, the regime invited opposition figures to a conference on “national dialogue.” Most who were invited boycotted. Many dissident intellectuals, as well as ordinary citizens, began to leave the country in the spring of 2011, as the regime cracked down on nonviolent protest. Maleh did so just before security service cars pulled up to his Damascus apartment.

The burial of Maleh’s proposal for a television station featuring open political critique echoed official practices during Bashar al-Asad’s first decade in power. Regime gestures toward greater participation amounted to mere “authoritarian upgrading,” a restyling of repression in the latest global fashion, as the kleptocracy was dressed in neoliberal language and government-controlled NGOs created the façade of a civil society. But this is not how it appeared in July 2000, when thirty-four-year-old Bashar inherited the Syrian regime. With an elegant financier wife burnishing his public image, the British-trained physician seemed poised to transform an antiquated polity. Outwardly more president than dictator, the new leader discouraged the worshipful iconography that had marked the three decades of his father Hafiz al-Asad’s rule, and he promised a range of political and economic reforms. He closed the notorious Mezze prison, releasing hundreds of political prisoners. As the tech-savvy head of the Syrian Computer Society, Bashar al-Asad began reversing Syria’s previous telecommunications isolation, broadening access and permitting the satellite dishes that had been in limbo under his father’s regime: usually tolerated but never formally authorized. He accelerated the economic liberalization process initiated but only fitfully implemented by his father in the 1990s, a move that pleased urban merchants and industrialists and prompted the return of expatriate Syrian businessmen. Sunni business classes, long both intertwined with and resentful of the ‘Alawi-dominated ruling elite, anticipated a dismantling of sectarian privilege that would advance their interests. It was not exactly Basharmania, but the new leader was received with a cautious optimism.

New prospects—which were, in hindsight, a mirage—temporarily revitalized Syrian activists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs long inured to regime-engineered inertia. The technocratic language of modern institutions displaced Ba‘th party slogans, with terms like “social market economy” and “pluralism” filtering through public discourse. Relaxed controls on freedom of expression permitted a brief honeymoon for cultural producers and the rise of venues for political opinion. In December 2000, political cartoonist ‘Ali Farzat launched Al-Dumari (The Lamplighter), the first independent publication of the Ba‘thist era. Emboldened activists, artists, and entrepreneurs seized the moment, and a long-suppressed civil society movement emerged. Independent gatherings called muntadayat (forums) sprang up, first in Damascus and then throughout the country. These gatherings began discussing arts and culture but quickly moved into the danger zones of politics, the role of religion, human rights, and the future of Syria. Prominent among these groups was the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society (Lijan ihya’ al-mujtama‘ al-madani), which gathered in filmmaker Nabil Maleh’s Damascus home. The group produced a document called “Statement of the 99,” signed in September 2000 by leading intellectuals, academics, and artists. It called for practical steps toward democratization, including an end to the emergency law in place since the Ba‘thist coup of 1963, a pardon of all political detainees, amnesty for exiled dissidents, and a loosening of restrictions on public life. In the subsequent “Statement of the Thousand,” released in January 2001, a larger coalition of artists, academics, and intellectuals reiterated these demands, adding calls for multiparty democracy, an independent judiciary, and the abolition of laws discriminating against women. The movement flourished into 2001, despite signs of an impending backlash.

By the end of 2001, much of the progress had been reversed: The regime closed all but one of the forums, silenced the oppositional press, and arrested or intimidated reform movement leaders. The leadership also channeled development energy into GONGOs, government-operated nongovernmental organizations that mimicked civil society but remained firmly under regime control. It blocked social media sites and email services. Many Syrians now interpret the brief period of relaxation as a cynical attempt to gauge the strength and sources of opposition, and to imprison some of them.

Yet for a broadening upper-middle class willing to enter into partnerships with the regime, business flourished. Monied classes enjoyed a burgeoning leisure industry of restaurants, hotels, and cafés. Upscale boutiques offered Syrian clothing made under European license. Freed from socialist restrictions on ostentation that Ba‘thist ideology had viewed as invidious, advertisers hawked new, expensive commodities in an expanding and privatizing media landscape. Billboards sprang up on once-barren desert highways. This apparent prosperity belied the resilience of older power structures and the growing class divide: devastating droughts and the repeal of welfare subsidies rendered everyday life increasingly difficult for most Syrians. An April 2011 decree formally ended the state of emergency, but this had little practical effect. Repressive measures intensified rather than lessened as the uprising unfolded.

The reformist language favored by the Bashar al-Asad regime has had contradictory effects. One has been to hijack pro-reform sentiment so successfully that those adopting it risked accusations of complicity. Strict censorship of privately owned media may have merely outsourced propaganda to non-state producers. Indeed, the granting of media licenses primarily to those with personal or professional links to the regime attests to the survival of authoritarian strictures. Yet another more nebulous and politically significant outcome of the regime’s uptake of reformist language was that its circulation in the public arena highlighted the absence of substantial change, a contradiction critiqued in popular culture and the arts, and ultimately one that engendered disillusionment, as several chapters in this volume illustrate.

Amid the fallen leaves of the Damascus autumn, a legacy of raised expectations among activists and reform-minded intellectuals persisted. Artistic expression continued to flourish in officially sanctioned commercial enterprises like television drama, in overtly dissident autonomous works like novels, and in seemingly apolitical cultural forms like dance. Oppositional voices continued to murmur, forums operated below the radar, and Syrians criticized the government in private conversation. Two English-language periodicals, Syria Today and Forward Magazine, gingerly broached sensitive issues. Religious leaders became more outspoken on issues of gender, justice, and human rights. These dynamics fed the 2011–2012 uprising against four decades of Ba‘thist dictatorship, a movement often misrecognized as an unprecedented, spontaneous, and youth-driven rebellion operating with entirely novel ideas.

It is this legacy of expectations raised during the Bashar al-Asad era that the contributors to this volume trace, writing from various disciplinary perspectives and addressing different arenas of Syrian society. As their chapters demonstrate, the anticipation of change encouraged actors in religious, cultural, and political life to work with and through the state in attempts to reform or undermine the regime. During this critical period, political novelists, television drama creators, experimental choreographers, and independent religious movements and organizations attempted to cooperate with, manipulate, undermine, or sidestep state control, frequently offering overt critique at the same time. Discourses of dissatisfaction formulated during the Damascus Spring were reworked within official strictures rather than abandoned, only to emerge more loudly in the 2011 protest movement. 

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