A Reply to Sinan Antoon
Sinan Antoon’s July 11, 2011 article entitled “The Arab Spring and Adunis’ Autumn” paints a less than flattering picture of Adunis’ response to the ongoing revolution in Syria. While much of Antoon’s criticism is on target, I believe he does Adunis a disservice by omitting and distorting key points from his arguments, and also by failing to consider the fact that the revolutionary culture Adunis has been calling for throughout the past fifty years has very little to do with political “revolution” in any traditional sense of the word.
There is no doubt that Adunis’ response to the Arab Spring has been conservative, halting and unsatisfactory. As Antoon points out, Adunis has repeatedly failed to pay meaningful tribute to the men, women, and children dying on the streets of his native country. Whereas I agree with Antoon there there is much to critique about Adunis’ stance, it is not only imperative to build our critique on a fair assessment of his writing. It is also quite possible to do so—as evidenced in Mona Naggar’s May 25 article on Adunis, which contains a brief but even-handed criticism of the public intellectual.
To ask for accuracy and fairness and even generosity is not to agree with Adunis’ response to the events in Syria—quite the contrary. Context is everything, and I would like to provide some more of it here. It is in this spirit that I respond to Antoon’s essay on Adunis, with the added goal of fleshing out various aspects of Adunis’ legacy that are not immediately familiar to English-speaking audiences.
First of all, I should note that Antoon’s views on Adunis’ earlier critical prose writings are by no means unjustified. Adunis’ massive dissertation, published in three volumes between 1974 and 1978 under the title The Static and the Dynamic: A Study of Conformity and Innovation among the Arabs, certainly has its flaws. Although Adunis presents it as a “phenomenological historiography of Arab culture,”1 the work, with its fierce critiques of some of the most important thinkers from the Arabic tradition, often reads more like a polemic; and I believe it would have been much stronger had Adunis labeled it as such, rather than attempting to conceal this aspect under the veil of Hegelian terminology. As is evident from the title, the dissertation is an exercise in binary thinking. It is an attempt to rewrite the cultural history of the Arab world as an ongoing struggle between those stuck in a “static” mentality dominated by a fixation on the past, and those “innovators” in Arab history who revolt against this mindset. For Adunis the problem is, by and large, orthodox interpretations and applications of the Quran and the Sunna on the social and political levels. “A society based on revelation is, at its core, a society of imitation [taqlid],” he writes.2 Yet in describing the lengthy history of Arab culture in terms of a fundamental dichotomy of static vs. dynamic, Adunis ironically falls into the very trap that he himself denounces in so many Islamic thinkers: namely, reductive binary thinking, and the placing of facile, pejorative labels on those allegedly opposed to one’s own view of culture. Yet the dissertation remains, despite these flaws, an original and challenging reading of Arab history, and one that has provoked no shortage of discussion in the Arab world.
Whether Adunis’ dissertation and critical prose works as a whole are “marred by Orientalist assumptions,” as Antoon claims, is another matter altogether. Certainly, Adunis’ repeated evocations of “the Arab mind” or “the Arab mentality” lend credence to this assessment. However, by selective quotation and omission, by claiming to know that Adunis secretly covets the Nobel Prize, and by casually dropping pejorative terms such as “Orientalist” without actual investigation, Antoon portrays Adunis as someone who loathes Arab culture and is constantly fawning after the West. What Antoon fails to note is that Adunis’ critical prose writings are not only critiques of Arab culture, but also hymns to it. Innovative, vital thinkers can be found in abundance in Arab history, according to Adunis; this is the other half of his prose writings, the half that praises poets and thinkers such as Abu Tammam, Ibn al-‘Arabi, al-Mutanabbi, al-Qadi al-Jurjani, and al-Razi, to name just a few. Nowhere in his critical writings does Adunis claim that the Arab world should imitate the West, a cultural realm that he often portrays as overly consumerist and materialistic. Rather, he decries what he sees as the West’s domination of Arab life,3 and calls for a return to and a revaluation of those Arab thinkers that he believes represent the innovative current in Arab cultural history. Although this reading of Arab cultural history is problematic in many ways (not least because economic considerations rarely enter into it), and may indeed be rooted in Orientalist methods and assumptions, it is more complex than Antoon’s article suggests.
Likewise, Adunis’ delayed and vacillating response to the ongoing revolution in his native Syria should be critiqued. And although he does declare in his open letter to Bashar al-Asad that the Arab Socialist Ba‘th Party has failed “in theory and in practice, culturally and politically,” Adunis also sadly refrains from calling on the Syrian ruler to step down. Furthermore, as Antoon notes, Adunis shockingly refers to Bashar as an “elected” president. (An English translation of most of this letter is available here.) But the surprise that Antoon exhibits at Adunis’ eventual response to this revolution is somewhat baffling to me—for Adunis’ response is hardly inconsistent with his writings over the past fifty-plus years.
The trouble in Antoon’s account of Adunis’ response to the events in Syria is that he glosses over one of the main points. As Adunis writes in his March 31 column in al-Hayah newspaper, “Society cannot be changed by merely changing its rulers. Such a change might bring about less rotten rulers, or more intelligent ones; but it will not solve the fundamental problems that cause corruption and retardation [takhalluf]. It is therefore necessary to change society by going beyond a change in rulers, by which I mean changing the social, economic, and cultural foundations.” Adunis goes on, in the same column, to suggest that the term ‘revolution’ should not be used unless those foundations have indeed been altered. He is by no means alone in observing this—novelist Sonallah Ibrahim made a similar point when asked in an interview whether he thought what happened in Egypt in January and February of this year in fact constituted a revolution: “It certainly was not a revolution. A revolution has a program and goal—a complete change of reality or the removal of one class by another. What happened was a popular uprising against a standing regime.” Although Adunis’ views on revolution are less overt than Ibrahim’s, he shares the latter’s belief that for a revolt to be a revolution it must transcend the overthrow of an existing regime.
Adunis’ first concern with the events in Syria is the creation of a pluralist civil society based on the principles of inclusion and equal rights, regardless of one’s gender, religion, ethnicity, or tribal affiliation—and he is clearly worried that power might fall in the hands of those with a more narrow view of what constitutes a pluralist civil society. He makes this point in his March 31 column and his May 5 column in al-Hayah, as well as in his open letter to Bashar al-Asad. Now, the fact that Adunis voices his concerns at the same moment that thousands are dying on the streets of the Arab world—dying in order to simply have a say in the their political system—is an ill-timed response, to say the least. But the actual content of Adunis’ response is very much in line with the main thrust of his writings over the past fifty years.
Yet even were the inclusive pluralist system called for by Adunis to take shape in Syria, it is unclear whether it could be characterized as a “revolution” in Adunis’ broadest sense of the term. Such a pluralist system might very well prepare the ground for the revolution that Adunis envisions. However, revolution à la Adunis is less a single temporal event than a process. An examination of writings from even the earlier parts of Adunis’ career reveal a preoccupation not with revolution per se, but the inauguration of what he calls a revolutionary culture. Language, and poetry in particular, play a central role in this. “We cannot create a revolutionary Arab culture without revolutionary language,” he writes in a 1970 essay.4 And in another essay from the same year, he notes the following: “the role of the revolutionary poet is to explode the forms of the old system, culturally. That is, his role is to work on the deconstruction and destruction of the old cultural structure for the sake of establishing a revolutionary cultural structure."5 Insofar as it calls into question the systems of meaning and truth that subtend the dominant religious discourse, poetry for Adunis has a revolutionary role to play. The exact nature of this revolutionary culture is certainly up for debate. Much like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Adunis’ revolutionary culture is a nebulous entity that seems to be in a constant state of flux, one that is incessantly turning back on itself and revaluing its own values. In a certain sense, it can therefore never fully be realized, for it is a never-ending project. One could, of course, claim that Adunis is putting far too much faith in the power of language—and in the power of poetry in particular—but this is beside the point here. What matters is that Adunis’ conception of “revolution,” whatever one may think of it, cannot simply be equated with what is commonly referred to as political revolution, with the collective revolt against an existing system. (Paradoxically, however, the radical individualism that Adunis’ revolutionary culture seems to imply might, in fact, preclude the very possibility of the sort of collective revolt that is happening across the Arab world today.)
Let us now consider what Adunis has written regarding the protestors themselves. Antoon claims that Adunis, in the latter’s May 5 column in al-Hayah and elsewhere, does not “bother to refer to the massacres committed by the regime” and seems to be “as critical of those protesting against the regime” as he is of the Syrian regime itself. Antoon goes on to make the following assertion, this time citing Adunis’ May 5 column directly: “the Orientalist hamartia is always there when [Adunis] writes that ‘the present in some of its explosions is copying the events of the past with modern instruments.’ As if the contemporary Arab world is destined to repeat past tragedies.” While I can certainly understand why Antoon takes issue with this remark, the portrait he draws of Adunis from this isolated quote is problematic. Antoon depicts Adunis as an Orientalist sycophant to the West, and as someone who is at best neutral toward the protestors dying in the street. Antoon is more than entitled to this view, and others who have read Adunis’ work might very well agree with his appraisal. However, a contextual examination of the statement that Antoon cites is helpful here. Allow me to provide a translation of the entire final section of Adunis’ May 5 column, the same section from which Antoon cites. This, I believe, will provide a more nuanced view of how Adunis portrays the protestors:
It was to be expected for that which has happened in Syria to happen, in one form or another. For the sleeper—or the one who was put to sleep—to awake. For the people to move in demanding freedom, and human dignity, and the elimination of oppression, and the just distribution of wealth, and an end to arresting people because of their views, etc. The numerical minority is not important here. Numbers are a symbol here. And the numerical minority is a symbolic majority here.
Yes, it was to be expected for that which has happened to happen. The present in some of its explosions is copying the past with modern instruments here. A child playing or studying is pierced by the regime’s spear. The sword cuts off a thinking head. Bodies are chopped by axes, and thrown into the streets. Horror descends from on high, from the regime; and horror rises from below, from the people. Society moves hellishly. And the devouring fire is not sated.
The most absurd and ridiculous thing is what is said about the Americans and the Europeans intervening. They consider the Arabs to be devoid of memory and incapable of solidarity. Where have they intervened and then eliminated—or solved—the problem? In Palestine? In Somalia? In Iraq? And now Libya is the experiment, and the revolutionaries there are paying the price on their own. I have no doubt that the Syrians will decisively reject any foreign intervention in their domestic affairs, for they are more conscious, and more capable of resolving them.
Yes, it was to be expected, in my view, at least, for that which has happened to happen.
I do know how to cry. If I did know, then my eyes would turn into two springs of tears: my south is in Dar‘a, my north in Baniyas and Jibla.
Some of Adunis’ remarks deserve anger, even derision. And he may indeed be criticizing elements of the opposition when he refers to “horror [that] rises from below, from the people.” But contrary to what Antoon claims, Adunis seems to fall firmly on the side of the protestors, and does indeed make reference—albeit somewhat floridly—to the massacres happening on the streets. The reference might be late in coming, and it might be a much less direct condemnation than many would like, but it is there all the same.
Since the publication of Antoon’s critique, Adunis has written more on the Syrian revolution, including an open letter to the Syrian opposition entitled “Further than the System, Broader than Politics.” He has also stated, in an interview conducted at the end of August, that “I am with the revolutionary movement in Syria, whatever the outcome,” which is perhaps the clear and direct answer that Antoon and others have been waiting for all these months. Yet Adunis’ main concerns about the revolution in Syria have remained the same since his first column on the subject on March 31. Perhaps he is to be faulted for his delayed response, and for failing to more forcefully criticize Bashar al-Asad. And I would suggest that he also fails to adequately consider that the revolutions happening in the Arab world today might in fact be paving the way for the more ontological revolution that he himself has been calling for throughout his intellectual career. Whatever the case may be, Adunis’ thinking on the subject deserves to be treated fairly, even by those of us who would reject it.
1. Adunis, Al-thabit wa-al-mutahawwil: bahth fi-l-ittiba‘ wa-l-ibda‘ ‘and al-‘arab. 1 – Al-Usul [Vol. 1], First Edition (Beirut: Dar al-‘Awda, 1974), p. 24. All translations are my own.
2. Ibid., p. 39.
3. For just one example among many, see: Adunis, Al-thabit wa-al-mutahawwil. bahth fi-l-ittiba‘ wa-l-ibda‘ ‘and al-‘arab. 3 – Sadmat al-hadathah [Vol. 3], First Edition (Beirut: Dar al-‘Awda, 1978), p. 258.
4. From the essay "Al-lughah, al-thaqafah, al-waqi‘," in Zaman al-shi‘r, Second Edition (Beirut: Dar al-‘Awda, 1978), p. 131.
5. From the essay "Kayfa yaf‘al al-shi‘r al-thawri," in Zaman al-shi‘r, Second Edition (Beirut: Dar al-‘Awda, 1978), p. 123.