Violence in the Arab world

Born of a barbaric state

In this essay, the Syrian writer Morris Ayek describes how repressive Arab states have succeeded in creating societies modelled on themselves

"The state of barbarism " was the title Michel Seurat gave to his study of Hafiz Al-Assad's Syria. In 1985, just one year later, he would be kidnapped and murdered in Lebanon, himself a victim of the barbarism he had once investigated.

His account pinpointed certain characteristics of a state that acts and exercises its power beyond the rule of law or institutional checks and balances. Its treatment of its own citizens – opponents or otherwise – is marked by unprincipled and unscrupulous behaviour.

Another potentially decisive factor is that the power and authority in such a state draws its lifeblood from fanaticism stemming from a group consciousness, described by Ibn Khaldun as taking the form of confessionalism or tribalism.

A cross-border phenomenon

Iraq′s former dictator Saddam Hussein during a military parade in Baghdad following the Gulf War in 1991 (photo: Reuters)
No mercy for "treacherous comrades": when it came to political opponents, ethnic and religious groups, Iraq′s former dictator was known for his extremely brutality. Yet Saddam Hussein also cultivated an atmosphere of fear amongst members of the Baath Party, staging show trials to ensure they remained loyal. He described himself as "al-Qaid al-daruri" (the irreplaceable leader) and regarded himself as heir to the ancient throne of Babylon

The barbaric state is by no means a phenomenon unique to Syria. It can also be found in Iraq and Libya and in diluted form in Egypt and other Arab states. The Hama massacre in 1982, the Anfal genocide conducted by Saddam Hussein's troops and the poison gas attack in Halabja in 1988 can all be said to be examples of state-led barbarism.

But the setting par excellence for the manifestation of barbarism remains the prison and it is thus no coincidence that the names of certain prisons have become synonymous with state-sanctioned violence: from Tadmor Prison in Syria to Abu Zaabal in Egypt through to the high-security prison Abu Salim in Libya and Baghdad′s infamous Abu Ghraib.

Ostentatious, if not theatrical, displays of barbarism might also be cited here, such as the national conference held by the Iraqi Baath Party in 1979 at which Saddam Hussein finally seized power.

During the conference, "treacherous comrades" were unmasked, their confessions heard and they were then summarily executed, all without trial – indeed, the other delegates present were even forced to personally carry out the executions.

Collectivised crime

The liquidation of Libyan opposition member Abdel Salam Akhchiba proceeded in similar fashion: he was dragged to his death without trial while dozens of soldiers beat and kicked him. In both cases, it was not only the lawlessness that made these heinous public executions so horrific, but also the forced participation of all those present – thus collectivising the crime.

Yet barbarism has not remained confined to the state. It has long since infiltrated society and become a general feature of behaviour, marked by increased cruelty and a widespread lack of morality, or any modicum of human empathy and compassion.

A collective witch hunt, the tying of a young man, half-naked, to a lamp post and his public flogging, or the forced entering of an apartment, from the balcony of which furniture is soon sent flying without anyone trying to intervene – these scenes are not horrific fantasies, but real incidents witnessed in Egypt. Incidents that just a few decades ago would have been impossible, indeed unthinkable – and yet nowadays appear completely normal.

Bodies of protesters following the forced clearance of their camp on Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Social disinhibition and brutalisation: people in Beirut rejoiced and handed out sweets in their delight at the carnage in the Syrian town of Al-Qusayr. Elsewhere, the bloodbath on Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in Cairo was met with joy and satisfaction. "Factions" of a people celebrate death coming to other "factions" of one and the same people

These days we witness people in Beirut rejoicing and handing out sweets in their delight at the carnage in the Syrian town of Al-Qusayr, inhabitants of the western part of Aleppo welcoming the destruction and the deaths in the eastern part of their own city. Elsewhere, the bloodbath on Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in Cairo is met with joy and satisfaction. "Factions" of a people celebrate death coming to other "factions" of one and the same people, thus making common cause with the barbarism of the state, with all its rationalisations and staging.

How did we ever sink so low?

I am convinced that one explanation lies in the relations between three specific elements – the state, society and law/morality. Before the advent of the modern state, the traditional system of rule saw to it that the "natural order" of things was preserved, embodied in morality and in the traditions common to all of the state's inhabitants, which regulated their conduct. Morality and traditions were overlaid by religious laws, which were also a part of society. The role of the ruling system was therefore limited to maintaining the "natural order", as well as ensuring its survival and preservation.

Demonstration against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Hanover (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
The monstrosity which is the post-colonial authoritarian state: the post-colonial Arab states had no moral or legal foundation that might have kept their own actions and their internal conflicts in check. Instead the ruling elites preferred to base the consolidation of their hegemony and power on brute force and the fanaticism of their particular communities

With the onset of the Ottoman reforms, however, the state was increasingly empowered with legal authority in all possible matters, charged with wresting this authority from society and making the law its own exclusive domain.

This process reached its height after the end of colonial rule, which had itself previously snatched full legal authority from society, until the state even ordered the seizure of the waqf – the religious foundations – and their nationalisation. These very same waqf had once guaranteed the independence of the religious institutions, which stood guard over all matters of religious and moral law and defended them from the incursion of the state.

But the post-colonial state didn't stop at merely seizing control over the law; it sought to attain a much more far-reaching goal – a revolution in ethics and morals and an abolition of all "reactionary" values and traditions.

Targeting the moral order of society

This project found legitimisation in the ideology of modernisation, according to which the state was a revolutionary and highly advanced instrument for transforming and renewing a society that was considered outdated and backward. On this basis, the state took aim at society's moral order, trying to restrict it to the smallest possible niche in the form of matters of personal status and family law, which remained under the purview of the Sharia, or religious law.

Cover of Michel Seurat′s ″Syria – The state of barbarism″
Michel Seurat′s book pinpointed certain characteristics of authoritarian Arab statehood, which acts and exercises its power beyond the rule of law or institutional checks and balances. Its treatment of its own citizens – opponents or otherwise – is marked by unprincipled and unscrupulous behaviour

At the same time, the state instituted the legal framework that would govern the interests of the general public, conceiving it as the revolutionary instrument par excellence for the modernisation of society. This in turn meant that society, its moral and ethical value system, would henceforth no longer be independent of the state.

That said, the process did feature a couple of positive aspects. After all, the objective was not only to rationalise the law and morality, but also to place them under state authority. Rationalisation and growth formed the framework for the image dreamt of by the theorists of modernisation, inspired as it was by the ideal model offered by the Western states.

Yet, just as the return on an investment all too often falls far short of the original outlay, our states would not end up enjoying anything resembling this hoped-for and imagined condition. On the contrary, the state degenerated instead into an ugly monstrosity.

The problem is that the post-colonial Arab states had no moral or legal foundation that might have kept their own actions and their internal conflicts in check. Instead the ruling elites preferred to base the consolidation of their hegemony and power on brute force and the fanaticism of their particular communities.

Power relations have thus become the unofficial factor regulating the allocation of influence and wealth, along with a written canon of laws that no one actually heeds. In this way, the state has been able to unleash its prisons and security forces on the public, while degenerating into a condition of general venality and corruption, where bribery is the order of the day and theft is regarded as a sign of prowess.

The dissolution of the Arab state

The distinguishing feature of the Arab state, as Michel Seurat said of Syria at the time, is not its presence but rather its absence. This is also the case if we understand the state as the expression of an entity organised by a code of law, even one that may be flawed, inadequate and unjust. In our current situation, such a legal code is lacking altogether, as is an institutional form of any kind that might be able to put "fanatical tribal thinking" and ruthless violence in their place.

What is really tragic, though, is that society has been left bereft of its own moral system – one that might serve it as a higher authority and in which it could take refuge in order to regulate its own affairs and do so independently and detached from the state, in particular at a time when the state is in the process of dissolution or in agony.

It doesn't even matter what the standards and rules prescribe, or whether these meet our notions of justice or not. The main thing is that moral standards exist at all as a reference point and this is precisely what distinguishes the pre-colonial societies from the post-colonial states.

Today, however, these societies have no moral authority anymore on which their members might base their behaviour, which is why they have long been left exposed and naked in their confrontation with the state. At the same time, the barbaric state itself has no law or morality to supply to its own societies; it has nothing to give them. The barbaric state has thus succeeded in creating a society in its own image and paradigm.

Morris Ayek

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Morris Ayek is a Syrian publicist. Having gained a master's degree in electrical engineering and IT at Munich's Technical University, he went on to study the science and technology of philosophy.

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