Goodbye Sadiq al-Azm, lone Syrian Marxist against the Assad regime

NB: An interesting obituary to a great intellectual. My knowledge of the situation is limited, but as regards this article, I'm uncomfortable with the argument that there should be no objection to the participation of communal parties in a democratic alliance. My views on this are conditioned by the history of religion-based mobilisations in India, where the communist movement has from time to time allied with communal groups of all colours, with disastrous consequences. Some material on this theme may be read here

Nor can I agree that Islamists, Hindutva groups or Khalistanis etc. can be described as 'religious parties'. I do not mean to justify alliances with 'secular' tyrants, but to remind anyone who cares to listen, that communalism is also an expression of tyranny. Communalists proceed on the assumption that membership of a religious community automatically produces a political interest, and strive to create that interest. They enter democratic movements masquerading as democrats, and for their own ends; there is little evidence that they undergo a democratic change of heart via such participation. 

The author quotes Al-Azm as defining democracy as a neutral ground for the meeting of the various religious doctrines and beliefs where they are allowed to interact in the public space, the national arena, and the political landscape.” This requires a crucial corollary: that participants in democratic polities be committed to upholding and defending that neutral ground. This can only be done by the maintenance of autonomous institutions and freedom of speech. Have the Islamists or other religion-based parties shown themselves to be respectful of democratic institutions? Or have they been using democracy to destroy it? Notwithstanding this, the Assad regime is undoubtedly one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Middle East. And opposition to it has been unfairly and deliberately covered with a one-sided, blanket description, as if all opponents of Asad are Islamists. DS

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By Omair Anas
He was a Marxist and one of the harshest critics of Islamists, but to the very end, al-Azm defended the Arab uprisings and stood by his principles
Professor Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, a Syrian Marxist by his intellectual employment and a democrat by his politics, who created a storm when he published his Naqd al Fikar Al Dini in 1969, died on Sunday in Berlin.  I had the privilege to talk to al-Azm during his stay in Germany - where I first met him in December 2012 - when he came to receive the Ibn Rushd Award on behalf of Syria’s revolutionary feminist Razan Zaitouneh. In his concluding sentences, Professor Sadiq quoted Razan saying, “This prize honours all those Syrians who dreamed the dream of freedom.”

In Sadiq Jalal al-Azm’s intellectual and activist life, one can read the story of betrayal of Arab and international Marxists, who sided with a tyrannical regime and justified everything to which Marxists had been hell bent opposed in the past. But Professor Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, despite being a Marxist, despite being one of the harshest critics of Islamists, honoured the principles and values he believed and advocated for his entire life. This sad story of betrayal & opportunism by Arab & international Marxists has made Sadiq al-Azm an isolated voice among Marxists who initially were confused about how to respond to the Arab uprising after peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad started all over Syria and gradually found themselves supporting the brutal regime directly or indirectly.

The celebratory Marxists, always Western, Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky can be easily seen undermining the gravest human rights violations by the Assad regime and its allies. Zizek went on to advocate for restricting the contours of the Syrian struggle to a struggle for social and economic justice. His position against Arab immigrants was as alarmist and perhaps xenophobic in its outcome as the position of any right-wing intellectual could be. Subscribing and endorsing all the Iranian narratives of the Syrian crisis, Noam Chomsky branded the entire Syrian opposition spectrum as jihadists in his Harvard lecture in 2015. Here one will be surprised that the leftist forces who opposed the American “war on terror” have conveniently and blindly endorsed the same erroneous logic for Russian war on terror in Syria. 

Not a civil war: Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, unlike most of Western and Eastern Marxists, stood alone in defence of the Arab uprising and subsequent Syrian revolution which he believed was a continuation of Damascus Spring of 2000. He problematised the entire crisis and concluded that democratisation requires an inclusive politics in which the Assad regime and his allies seriously disbelieve. He never subscribed the term “civil war” for the Syrian crisis, but rather explained it’s a one-sided war against the opposition. Syria, in which most groups have stayed united against the Assad regime, is completely different from what happened in the Lebanese civil war where each faction and ethnic groups fought against each other. To al-Azm, the Assad regime was “a highly militarised minoritarian regime depending on a strong form of sectarian solidarity which has a lot to lose, if they are out of power which is suppressing a revolt of the numerical majority which is Sunni". The Damascus Spring 2000 initiative onward, he remained consistent in his belief that Islamists should not be excluded from joining a secular democratic process anywhere from Palestine to Egypt to Syria. At the same time, he remained a staunch secular who believed that religion should not dictate politics.

The Left caught in the 'game of nations': There are two issues on which the Left's politics had been in great confusion and indecisive. First, how to engage with religious political parties, particularly with Islamist parties as the Left never had problems with engaging non-Islamic religious political parties in Europe or elsewhere. Al-Azm expressed his opinion about how and in what context the electoral victories of Islamist forces in Turkey, Egypt or elsewhere might not necessarily be dangerous. Knowing very well that the Muslim Brotherhood is still a dominating political and religious faction against the Assad regime, the left movement and left-affiliated civil society gradually abandoned the cause or rather joined the anti-revolution politics. For al-Azm, this was an opportunism embraced by the Left everywhere after the politics of the Cold War.

Al-Azm strongly disagreed with the argument that the Arab revolutions can not be supported because they have been hijacked by Islamists. Rather, he stood strong and unapologetic in his defence of the Syrian revolution against Assad. "Why would I not align with this overwhelming popular revolution against this form of tyranny and oppression, regardless of the nature of the convictions that I hold whether they be leftist, Marxist, moderate, or even right-wing?" he said.

The second question is how to respond to the Arab uprisings after they challenged the so-called secular and socialist authoritarian regimes such as of Bashar al-Assad. A majority of left thinkers do not even recognise these events as uprisings. They have consistently related the struggle as the extension of imperialist design or jihadi terrorism. Sadiq argued that the Left that used the argument of anti-imperialist conspiracy has “no problem with sacrificing Syria if it leads to a victory being handed to their international camp and 'geopolitics' that wants a global victory in the 'game of nations'. Their first priority is not Syria or its people in revolt to restore the republic, their freedom, & their dignity, but the game of nations at the global level of analysis & the side that they want to win".

Democracy as a neutral ground: Why did the Left choose this way? Sadiq traced the reason to the end of the Cold War when most of the leftists and their political parties reverted back to "their primordial and more primitive loyalties, especially the religious, confessional and doctrinal ones". As a result, they responded to the Syrian revolution, al-Azm argued,  by calling it "an imperial plot against the only regime that still stands up to Israel and remains an obstacle to Western domination of the Middle East".  They go too far in their theory of “the game of nations” that they end up with having developed “the same nature as that of the Taliban-Jihadis or dogmatic closed-minded sectarians, or even that of terrorist 'Bin Ladenites', in its blind defiance of the West, global capitalism (a global capitalism that Russia and China are now a part of) and imperialism". He pointed out that they are the most hostile to the Syrian revolution and the closest in their defence of the “tyrannical military-security-familial regime”.

Al-Azm's biggest intellectual success and contribution to the cause of the Arab democratic process is that he rescued secularism and democracy from being hijacked by fundamentalist secularism practiced by Joseph Stalin, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Habib Bourguiba and the Assads of Syria. Hopefully, he will be remembered and revered equally by his secular friends and Islamist opponents for clearly defining secularism and “democracy as a neutral ground for the meeting of the various religious doctrines and beliefs where they are allowed to interact in the public space, the national arena, and the political landscape.” Omair Anas, PhD in West Asian Studies, is a Delhi-based analyst. This article is also available here Middle East Eye French edition.

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