From the Editors
The New York Times says Jadaliyya "Brings New Life to Arab Studies." Read about it by clicking here.
It is problematic enough that Fouad Ajami repeats much of the reductionist arguments about all things Arab in his new book on Syria's rebellion, but then the New York Times must stumble upon this book, and review it. I will not attempt to review the book itself, for critiquing Mr. Ajami has become like critiquing Fox News: there is no gain. Instead, I will seize the opportunity and examine the review in the Times, as it reproduces not only Ajami's faulty—though always well-written—analysis, but it also represents the intellectual poverty of mainstream media analysis on Syria in the United States.
Unfortunately, some of this analysis is also reproduced outside the confines of media power in the United States, including among some strands of the Syrian opposition. Uncritical proponents of the Syrian uprising usually prioritize one goal (i.e., replacing the regime with a better one for the Syrian people), while most opponents of the Syrian regime among the American establishment are far less concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people and more concerned about their interests in the region (i.e., the security of the apartheid state of Israel, the conservative oil-rich Arab dictatorships, and a coterie of derivatives). In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, one of the reasons for the discursive conflict and debates about the Syrian crisis relates to the scope of one's gaze. Those who want the regime to go at any price are not so concerned with the bigger picture, and those who only consider the bigger picture seem quite desensitized about Syrian lives (or advance the cynically banal and "liberal" claim that all parties are engaged in the killing inside Syria, thereby equating the decades-old crushing brutality of the regime with its growing militant, even if often thuggish, domestic opponents).
As both the debates and the killings go on, we have witnessed in some circles in the US establishment a discourse on Syria that is both hawkish and "stuck," reflecting the complex calculation of the desirability of seeking regime change in Syria by any means. From Elliot Abrams (who, thankfully, continuously demonstrates that most of his views are all "politics," with no consequential analytical substance) to more dovish/prudent State Department or even Pentagon officials/analysts, the question is seldom about the cost to Syrians, but rather about the cost to US interests. One might say that this is the norm anywhere: states follow their interests. True, perhaps, but let us take off the "democracy promotion," "our values," and other hypocritical discursive gloves, and, more importantly, let us not assume that the US government is any different. The myriad efforts taking place in the halls of power in the United States, or their tentacles, to effect the situation in Syria carry the pretense of interfering on the side of democracy. One would be hard-pressed to find a single genuine effort among those that speaks of democracy region-wide (even when putting aside the disgraceful involvement or blessing of the United States of the crushing of the Bahrain uprising).
Yet droves among the Syrian opposition flock to these halls, or are lured by money, "prestige," power, and/or the nauseating liberal discourse on democratic change in Syria. The farce continues, and some of us watch with amazement. We, well, many of us observers, oppose the Syrian regime and have done so for decades (even when the United States supported Saddam's savagery and then used Syria to help turn on him in 1991, help which was very willingly furnished by Mr. Hafez al-Asad), and want a much better life for Syrians, but certainly not from this perspective, mindset, or even moral compass.
In any case, Ajami's work, what it represents, and why/how it is perpetuated are all related to this bizarre pro-democracy push that comports with the dominant discourse on Syria in both the mainstream media and government in the United States. His work is seized upon quickly and at the highest levels. “Of course," he is the indigenous expert. He knows best how Arabs think, and, after all, he is “sympathetic.”
[Disclaimer: This essay is not intended to isolate the reviewer, Dexter Filkins. Rather, it considers Filkins an instance of a general phenomenon in the mainstream media. The review can be found here].
"I Feel You" . . . Ajami to the Arabs
Now and then, Ajami's work (with the exception of his early books) rightly points to the repressive regimes in the region, but consistently attributes the causes of repression to factors inherent in Arabs themselves, exhibiting the ugliest form of Orientalist salvo as it appears to come from a dissident within the "culture" (whatever that means). Furthermore, Ajami fails to move up the chain of causality, as he absolves the outside powers of responsibility for the perpetuation of a particular geostrategic configuration. No one in their right analytical mind would attribute all authoritarian/economic ills in the region to outside powers, but the same goes for confining the causes to local factors, and ignoring the palpable role of external powers.
For Ajami, Syria, like other Arab cases, becomes one of those tragic Arab tales that follow the same predicament of wasted potential of a people who could have done much better for themselves had they rooted out their self-inflicted cultural ailments. Those of us who have been following Ajamindustry (it is like an industry) for more than two decades have ceased to be perturbed or repulsed by his claims or his positions (not least of which on the war on Iraq in 2003), except one: the pretense of sympathy for a seemingly monolithic and mosaic people, simultaneously reflecting the magic of Orientalism, and requiring some pretty cool mathematical formulas to explain and reconcile them (e.g., Shi`is versus Sunnis as a defining split on the one hand, and "all the Arabs" as one category on the other hand as simultaneous narratives). If only they ("the Arabs") could all be liberated from their self-afflictions like Fouad was, how much more amazing the Arab world would be: racist Jewish-only Israeli settlements on occupied land would be dismantled and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia would suddenly experience egalitarianism with the rest of the population; the United States would cease to have imperial aims; and, of course, the IMF and the World Bank would shut down in awe. In the final analysis, Syria's predicament is explained through Ajamindusry, with very little variation. And though the book might merit a review to reveal the consistent pattern, I have opted for taking up Filkns’ review which perpetuates this approach and this industry, one with equivalents in discussing Islam, terrorism, and gender among other topics in relation to the region.
"We Feel You" . . . NYT to Ajami
Mr. Dexter Filkins reviews the book with ease, as both the book and the publication in which the review appears, as well as a good portion of the readers, feel at home with some of the ill-conceived assumptions about Syria, the region, and its peoples.
"On the Banks of the Euphrates." Really?
I would like to start with the last sentence of the review which produces, yet again, another romanticized narrative by word choice:
At some point, it seems likely, the regime will crack. It is then, and only then, that we will discover the true Syria, whether it was just an improbable creation set on the banks of the Euphrates, or a real nation after all.
So, the outcome of bloodshed and oppression carried out by all sides, even if primarily by the state, will tell us if Syria is a "real nation?" And what would Syrians do if they find out (brace yourself) that Syria is not a "real nation?" Do they pack up and move on, and call it a fake nation? More importantly, what is a "real nation?" What exactly happens in a real nation? How do countries become "real nations?" Is it an eternal trait that they carry that then automatically blossoms into a "real nation?"
Nations are constructs, and the construction depends on a myriad of factors: domestic, natural, and external. There really is no inherent nation among a people waiting to be discovered. In other words, if Syrians don't act like a nation, or if others did, it says a lot less about what they have in common and a lot more about the constellation of factors that impinged on the construction of this nation. How will Syrians benefit from this question/discussion? Can they eat "nation?" Did the French colonialists ask Syrians where to draw the lines that constitute Syria's borders, and the borders of the Syrian "nation?" If not, and suppose nations have an eternal essence, how might the outcome of the current conflict tell us anything about the "Syrian nation?" Finally, is Syria the only country on earth that has experience such turmoil and killings? History, of east and west, tells us otherwise, and the question of nation is misplaced here. How do we classify the Germany of 1938 in terms of "nation?" How beneficial was the notion of a "real" and/or closely knit "nation" to itself and its neighbors?
Jesus Christ in Heaven
Here we go again with the selective indigenous credentials.
“The Syrian Rebellion” is an elegant and edifying book, written on the fly, by an observer who retains an almost loving intimacy with his subject.
Words fail me. The template is so powerful and, for many, convincing. There is little to comment on here, but this "sympathy" and "intimacy" business merits a treatment at another time, especially when compared to the portrayals of writers who oppose US foreign policy or the policies of its allies. Their love, intimacy, and sympathy is simply misplaced, not worth mentioning, and almost consistently not brought up.
But He Was Educated in London!
When Hafez died, in 2000, he bequeathed power to his son, the London-educated Bashar, age 34.
Where do I begin? This "western-educated" drug fascinates westerners. "He was educated in the West." It is such an important and telling part of the puzzle. "But he was educated in the West, how could he commit this horror?" Had he been educated not in the West, it would have been more understandable. Nothing beats "he was educated in the West," except that Hitler was also educated in the West. In fact, Most Western leaders, from colonial masters to former president George W. Bush, were educated in the West. It did not do them any good. The faith in the dichotomy continues to fascinate. To be fair, the reviewer is not the only one. I got this question in almost every interview about Syria at the outset of the uprising. Here’s a live version from a perplexed caller (towards the end).
Whoa! Back to Square One
Of course, the buzzword was coming.
The old man, as Ajami shows, pursued his designs with a brutal logic, setting up a ruling class of Alawites, some Christians, and a select number of Sunni businessmen, stifling dissent, stifling the Sunni majority’s yearnings for a freer expression of their faith, offering instead the slogans of Pan-Arabism and permanent war with the Jews.
Everything is about a primitive yearning for power, and, naturally, about sect/religion. The political economic dimensions are too distracting to merit mention. The "ease" with which the "consolidation" of power in Arab regions is written about and written off is fascinating. Beyond patrimonialism, there seems to be little else worth taking seriously. A few loosely connected words are insufficient to depict what are, in reality, complex processes. The development of state-business relations in Syria cannot be reduced to a "select number of Sunni businessmen." And where did "stifling the Sunni majority's yearning for a freer expression of their faith" come from? This is patently inaccurate to the extent that it actually refers to "faith." Accuracy does not seem to be a requirement in the New York Times when it comes to the glob of people that are called "Arabs." Finally, and most problematically, what is this business of "permanent war with the Jews?" The anti-Israel discourse in Syria, or in most of the globe, is universal, and in Syria, takes the predominant form of anti-Zionism, not a "war with the Jews." This is downright irresponsible. The existence of anti-Semitic expressions here and there cannot be translated into the words the author carelessly, or instrumentally, injected here.
The Banality of the "Bashar is not His Father" Bit
Ajami makes it clear that Bashar was not his father’s equal — neither in competence nor in temperament — and that an already despotic regime transformed into a decadent enterprise without the self-discipline that had once checked its worst abuses.
In fairness, this sub-standard analysis is also common among many Syria observers as well as being a widely accepted perception. But it is flawed on at least two counts. First, and I am not too invested in saying this, Bashar is not as incompetent as he is made out to be. I will not dwell on this, as it is an odd argumentative construction, especially in light of current events. More importantly, many observers, certainly the occasional ones with big impact and major access like Mr. Ajami, tend to both freeze Syria of the 1980s in time and fail to recognize Asad senior’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic developments from the early 1990s. Briefly, the regime's building and promotion of state-business networks in the 1980s and 1990s became increasingly mature and effective starting in the late 1990s. Even if Asad survived, the threads of power (as Hanna Batatu used to call them) would not have been totally under his control, as the kind of power underwent some change.
The structural power of capital has increased markedly in Syria since the 1980s, and exercising authority “Asad senior style” would have had to contend with the dilemma of shooting one's foot in order to stay at the helm in an undisputed manner. Thus, we cannot attribute whatever weakening or deterioration in the decade since Bashar took over solely to leadership style and other timeless liberal notions. "Checking" the regime's worst abuses is no longer dependent solely on the authority of the leadership, but also on dealing with complex trade-offs that constrained "political" authority. The increasing dependence of the Syrian regime, or state, on capital and investments/investors, compromised its ability to exercise absolute authority if it is to remain rational about its survival. The development of the power of capital was bound to the regime's fate: Alf mabrook to the socialist regime of Syria.
Sectarianism is Always the Best Answer in Ajamindustry
Where does it end? Ajami leaves no doubt that the Assad family project, especially Bashar’s, was an essentially sectarian one. In this respect, Syria resembles its neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, the former once ruled by a Christian minority, the latter by the minority Sunni Arabs. Remember what happened in those places? In Syria, the Alawites stand as a sort of palace guard, with everything to lose.
First, we should distinguish between the pre-uprising and post-uprising periods, where the gloves were ultimately taken off on all sides in the latter period. I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, along with many others, against the sectarian argument in explaining the Syrian regime. Alas, the sectarian argument is so deeply rooted in American mainstream media that one need not even justify it. It is not that the regime does not have sectarian dimensions, as it certainly does. And it is not that the regime is not increasingly comprised of Alawis at the very top, as it certainly is. But, predominantly, the Syrian regime does not produce `Alawi policies akin to how the white supremacist South African regime produced "white" policies. Hence, beyond its policies of recruitment at the top levels of power, while the regime may be `Alawi in constitution, it is not `Alawi in terms of its public policies. This is less about a steadfast anti-sectarian streak among the regime elite and more about its early goals/predicament and, well, rationality/survival in a heterogeneous society with a Sunni majority.
The analytical weakness of the sectarian argument, like the weakness of all reductionist arguments, is not that it does not carry a grain of truth (it does). Rather, the totalizing effects of such arguments tend either to eliminate or marginalize the influence of other factors. In fact, in Ajamindustry, other factors matter little, even if they have played a far more concrete role in shaping the societies he depicts: political economy, institutional life, geography, international relations, class, and other factors are not sufficiently important, or not applicable. Even the "Asad family" project is far more than an "essentially sectarian one." I am not in a position to deconstruct the "project" of the Syrian regime at this point, and neither is it a requirement to debunk this silly analytical reductionism.
Finally, the combining of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq completes the circle. Why would anything but sect motivate Arabs, people and leaders alike? What else is there in the life of these people other than sect? Interestingly, the response of oppressed Syrians is suddenly absolved of sectarianism, revealing the inconsistency of the argument. But the omission highlights the more political (not analytical) utility of the sectarianism argument. It becomes a spigot variable, turned on and off exegetically. Most interestingly, no version of the sectarian argument is applied to the actual and legal discriminatory policies in Israel. Writers like Ajami and his reviewers would be discursively skinned alive if they turned the spigot on in that direction.
Welcome Back to the Land of the Liberal Delusion of Empire
That dark prospect [all out killing] surely explains the reluctance of the Obama administration to try to stop Bashar’s killing machine, even as the Syrian rebels beg for our help. It’s too easy to envision an Iraqi-style blood bath after Bashar’s demise. Ajami is frustrated by Obama’s passivity, and indeed, as the killing goes on, it is getting harder for all of us to avert our eyes. Why is Syria different from Libya, where Obama and NATO, at very low cost, stopped an almost certain humanitarian disaster? Why is it different from Yugoslavia?
I probably would watch myself get older as I address the gamut of problematic assumptions and assertions here. Only in America can one write such words, and in the New York Times nonetheless.
To take the first part of the quote, we are to understand that the United States is not interfering on humanitarian grounds to avert a bigger humanitarian disaster. Because otherwise, the United States would have certainly been motivated to avert the killing machine. Since when did the United States make it a habit to intervene on such grounds? The record shows that the United States has supported killing machines for decades, from those of the Shah of Iran and Noriega, to Pinochet and Saddam. And when it had to, it cut the "middle man" and presided over the most structurally egregious killing machine of sanctions in Iraq after 1991, only to invade that country militarily and usher in, with its own killing, a devastatingly systematic killing spree there that lasted for years. The reviewer and the reviewed author speak of the United States like children asking why there are mean people in the world—except they can know better when they so desire. They jettison regional politics, national interests, balances of power, and all semblance of realism in favor of highlighting the humanity of a leadership that is seldom exercised in international affairs. The United States may well be reluctant, but it is no secret that this reluctance is rooted in a calculation based on the (in)ability to control outcomes and unintended consequences, and on a host of other factors dealing with regional and international impediments/considerations.
And now we arrive at the central part in the world of delusion, and, let us say unintended imperial cruelty: "Why is Syria different from Libya, where Obama and NATO, at very low cost, stopped an almost certain humanitarian disaster?"
Let us assume NATO's intervention averted a humanitarian disaster for real. What kind of imperial pompousness would allow anyone to attach the phrase "at very low cost" to an intervention that produced anywhere between thirty thousand to fifty thousand deaths, compared to about two thousand before the NATO invasion? That "at very low cost" is very difficult to swallow or assign to analytical faux pas. It is very much part of the value assigned to Arab life. We have seen it in the discussions on Iraq and elsewhere in the region. The most significant aspect of such commentary is that it is firmly internalized, and many of its users and consumers take it for granted, or at least are not aware of its cruelty. In fact, the staggering numbers of those killed make it very difficult to speak of averting a humanitarian disaster. Finally, a similar intervention in Syria would make Libya look like a picnic for the same reasons that Mr. Obama is reluctant—except that the reluctance is about the uncertainty of the outcome, not about the humanitarian dimension. As for "Why is it different from Yugoslavia?" maybe it has to do with the presence of Hizballah, Iran, Israel, Islamists, and oil around Syria.
Let us leave it at that. Ajamindustry is alive and well, just in case one thought the uprisings would shake monolithic reductionism.
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