Interview with Sadiq al-Azm

"Democratisation is a Gradual Process" interviewed Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, one of the most prominent Arab intellectuals, about democracy in the Arab world, and about the stance Arab intellectuals take towards authority

Sadiq Al-Azm (photo: Ikhlas Abbis)
Sadiq Al-Azm

​​In one of al-Hayat's April issues, the poet Adonis published an essay on the war against Iraq. Instead of offering an up-front analysis of the impact the war has on the Arab world, the poet simply used hollow phrases to describe the situation. Does this example indicate a state of intellectually bankruptcy of the Arab intelligentsia?

Sadiq al-Azm: The word "bankruptcy" is probably too strong in this context. I believe that Arab intellectuals are deeply divided within themselves about what is going on in Iraq at the moment. When an intellectual is divided in such a way, when he has one point of view listening to the news in the morning and another point of view when he is watching the news in the evening, he usually does not admit that he is confused. Instead, he might try to escape that crisis, as Adonis has done, by using a vague language that tends to be emotive – a flexible language of slogans that covers up the actual crisis. Just like many other intellectuals, Adonis does not want to reveal his confusion regarding the war; he does not want to give away what is in his heart – namely, that he might actually be happy or relieved if Saddam's regime is put out of power by whatever means.

At the same time, Arab intellectuals feel horror and shock about the American attack, in which the most modern weapons are used against a Third World country. The intellectuals do not want to reveal any of this, so it is only natural to resort to such language. And Arabic is a very useful language in that regard, because it can give us excellent cover for such situations. Therefore, I would not consider it to be a case of intellectual bankruptcy, particularly if we talk about someone like Adonis. Adonis is more capable and more intelligent than that. I'm sure he acted deliberately and on a reflected level. Yet I believe that the best that has been written regarding this crisis is the article by Abbas Baydoun in the al-Safir newspaper.

But that article was rather an exception.

al-Azm: I don't think it was. Surely, it was a contribution on an extremely sophisticated level. But there are several other intellectuals that expressed their grave concerns in a similar way, even if they did not achieve the same level of clarity, precision and elegance that Abbas achieved. I did not write anything on the subject because Abbas had written everything that needed to be said, so there was really no need for me to repeat all of this. I would, however, like to add that two months before the war started, a group of intellectuals, among which were Edward Said, Shibli al-Mallat, Elias Khouri, and myself, issued a statement in which we called for Saddam Hussein to resign from office and go into exile. We were severely criticised from several intellectuals; we were even told that by making such a demand, we were supporting the United States in its effort to wage war against Iraq.

What do you think are the reasons behind the widespread solidarity with Iraq as shown by the Arab elite and Arab society in general, and would you say that it was actually supportive of Saddam Hussein's regime?

al-Azm: I do believe that everyone in their right mind who participated in those demonstrations was well informed about the true nature of Saddam Hussein's regime. Had we conducted a public opinion poll according to westernised standards – something we do not have, of course –, I am sure we would have found no one with any illusions about the Iraqi regime. Therefore, we really have to take a closer look.

I think that much hatred is directed at the US-American diplomacy concerning Palestine. This led to a perverted situation. As long as the US stand against Saddam, we will support and defend him to spite the Americans, because in such situations people are guided by their emotions. And there is yet another reason for the stance of the Arab majority. We in Syria are not quite familiar with demonstrations, but only with marches that have been organised by the authorities, the security forces and the intelligence services. Only recently have people been demonstrating out of their free will for the very first time as the second Intifadah was started. The demonstrations in support of Iraq were thus only just the second "spontaneous" demonstrations in which the people weren't shoved around by the authorities like a herd of sheep. The authorities are now unable to stop this, but they monitor the demonstrations and try to control their frequency so that people do not grow accustomed to these new habits. Yesterday the people demonstrated for the Intifadah, today they demonstrate for Iraq, tomorrow they will demonstrate for issues such as democracy, human rights and the lifting of the martial law.

Why don't people demonstrate against other vital issues concerning the Arab world, such as terrorism in Algeria or the victims of Halabja?

al-Azm: I have no answer to this question. People usually take to the streets to express grievances that are affecting them directly. Before satellite TV became available, regimes were able to cover up almost all of the activities that were critical of their policies before the respective news were broadcast to a wider audience. Usually, it was only the intellectuals who issued any critical statements. But let us return to Iraq once more: Here, a similar question should be considered. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, I was astonished at how fiercely a great number of people in the Arab world turned against the Kuwaitis. Why did the Arab majority gloat against them instead of sympathising with them, demonstrating to support them? I really can't explain the background of this issue.

But despite those demonstrations in support of Iraq, I believe that, after some time has passed, there will be a feeling of relief at being rid of a nightmare, although one might not be willing to admit it openly. Perhaps the war will even be a lesson for other regimes, prompting them to change their policies after the September 11 attacks, and I'm not only talking about Saudi Arabia. Now that Saddam Hussein's regime has been put out of place, we might as well profit from it. That would only be natural. Those groups working for a civic society, human rights and democracy in the Arab world are probably already debating about how to exploit Saddam Hussein's downfall for their political goals. The recent developments might actually improve their abilities to pressure Arab governments to change their policies, for instance by releasing those being imprisoned for their political beliefs.

But I expect that if chaos breaks out in Iraq, the position of other Arab regimes will be strengthened. "At least we enjoy stability and continuity," they will argue, "and we do not want to be put into a state of chaos and internal conflict like Iraq." And by the way, Turkey has become a model that is regarded with admiration. That is a new development, because in earlier times Turkey was hated by almost everyone. It was hated by the Islamists because of the country's secularism. It was hated by the (Arab) nationalists because of the Turkish occupation (the nationalists refer to it as "Turkish", not as "Ottoman"). And it was hated by the leftists because of its NATO membership, Turkey's position against communism and its alliance with the United States. But now, we find that Turkey has become the example that all those parties cite. Moderate Muslims praise the successful Turkish experiment, while nationalists and democrats praise the independent state that said "No" to the United States.

One basic issue that must be raised, in my view, is the stance that Arab intellectuals take towards authority. Why, after independence and the decades that followed it, are there no intellectual groups today that work independently of ideology or of an intellectual leader?

al-Azm: I'm afraid I cannot entirely explain the background of the historical reasons. The post World War II period, the great shock caused by the founding of the state of Israel, the expulsion of the Palestinian people and the gradual loss of Palestine made intellectuals want to reverse the historical process or at least stop Israeli expansionism. As a personality such as Abdul Nasser appeared, or as the 1958 revolution occurred in Iraq, intellectuals were attracted to such institutionalised programmes. A movement emerged that wanted to bring about radical changes in Arab society which in turn opened up possibilities for major goals. Arab intellectuals had great expectations concerning the movement of Arab liberation, or the Pan-Arab project. I believe that a large proportion of intellectuals supported that project out of conviction, not out of opportunism or a desire for materialistic gains.

But the relation of Arab intellectual towards authority remains problematic. It is said that the Arab intellectual can be bought very easily. Would you say that this is true?

al-Azm: Some of the intellectuals who gained prominence in the sixties and supported the Nasserite movement actually came from the countryside. Those groups that initiated coups d'état and regime changes allowed them to leave the countryside, move to the city, and acquire sufficient education to become intellectuals. So a kind of ends-oriented affinity developed between them and the new authorities, a kind of "filia", to use a term of Max Weber. It was an affiliation, a connection and a basic relationship that overruled the premise of critical distance. It had to do with self-interests and the opportunity that had allowed them, as rural people, to reach the positions they were in. For the longest time, they had been deprived of schools, education, hospitals and the institutionalised services that existed in the city. It was that group of intellectuals that played a considerable role in forming the Ba'th party in Iraq and in Syria and in paving the way to Ba'th's accession to power. Nasserism in Egypt had followed a similar path. After a period of time, however, those groups began to distance themselves from the regimes, which had not only given them the opportunity to gain access to the intellectual elite, but who had also allowed them to develop direct kinship ties to the pillars of authority. For example, a critical intellectual might have brothers who are members of the intelligence services, the army or the government, simply because they all originated from a certain privileged village. Family ties are still very important in the Arab World.

The interest system that prevails in the Arab World is one of the main reasons for its backwardness. But can you explain the backwardness at the political level and the failure to initiate democratic processes with those economic reasons alone?

al-Azm: Economic reasons are never immediate reasons. Economic factors only influence society indirectly. This whole issue of democracy in the Arab world is sometimes presented in such a desolate light. As long as no democratic traditions exist in the Arab World, it is said, democratic values cannot be established. But every country first has to attain democratic values and traditions. That is a historical process. I do not believe that there are some people who are born with democratic genes, and others who do not possess them. I would like to emphasise that the battle for democracy and human rights and the concomitant collection of values does not merely take the shape of a conflict between East and West and between Islam and Europe. It is an internal battle in every country. Every country that has developed certain civilisational standards goes through that battle – whether we talk about Germany, China, India, Syria or Egypt. Each of those countries has reached a particular level in achieving these standards, strengthening them and implementing them. It is therefore necessary to remember that the battle is not only a battle between East and West, between the Middle East and Islam on the one hand and liberalism on the other.

There is a ray of hope in the Arab world for emancipation from this crisis, even concerning the regimes themselves. We have no choice but to embrace the values of democracy and human rights and to establish a balance of powers, even if only in a partial process, even if we start out with thirty or forty per cent of democracy. It is worth noting that democrats try to establish their roots in a previous phase. In Egypt, for example, they refer back to the liberal parliamentary period, described by Albert Hourani as the Liberal age. The same holds true for Syria, where democrats are trying to fall back on the 1950s and the period of struggle against French imperialism. These groups try to create myths of origin.

Did something in particular occur that made those groups try to return to that past?

al-Azm: I do not think that anything in particular has happened. It is just that all other programmes had failed, whether we talk about movements of national liberation, Arab socialism or international communism. That also explains why there was a change of direction. Now, like I said, everyone is turning to Turkey as a model.

In the wake of the September 11 events, you expected Islamist activities to come to an end. Now, however, we experience that the Islamist movement is still alive and kicking, particularly due to the war on Iraq.

al-Azm: I disagree. Firstly, the Islamic movement has filled the vacuum that emerged after the Arab liberation movement ended in the years following the defeat of 1967 – and even more so after the war of 1973. In the following thirty years, Islamist movements have achieved something quite unique and remarkable: They have moved Arab societies into a more conservative and traditional Islamic direction, particularly concerning the role of women. But they have achieved something else as well. They are now in a position to exert control over cultural, intellectual and political issues. In the past, those issues were dominated by the political left, by pan-Arabists and by the secular parties. Now, however, Islamists dominate the public discourse in the Arab world.

But when Islamists become a power to be reckoned with or when they actually take power, they ultimately faile. They did not even offer a hint of a workable Islamic alternative – from Iran to the Taliban. I have pointed out that the resorting to blind terrorism is an expression of the depth of the Islamist movement's crisis, and not at all an expression of its rising and ascending.

Interview: Larissa Bender and Mona Naggar

© 2003

Translated from the Arabic by Samira Kawer

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm was born in Damascus in 1934. He studied philosophy in Beirut and has worked as a university professor in New York, Beirut, Amman and Damascus. The title of his most prominent book is "Critique of Religious Thought".

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