Friday, June 04, 2004

New Voices From Syria

New and interesting intellectual ventures are popping up in Syria all the time - a product of the increasingly liberal climate under Asad. They allow for open and heated debate on topics that have long been taboo. Here is an article by Ammar Abdulhamid, entitled, "Cradle of Contradictions," which speaks about some of the new projects being started, especially and his own, Tharwa Project. (Here is a bio of Abdulhamid, which appeared in the Washington Post.) This appeared in Project Syndicate

Syria's various political power centers have embarked on a desperate search for a vision to promote change yet allow the existing order to survive. Because Syria's rulers have neither the ability nor the know-how to produce such a vision, civil society has been granted some leeway for action.

Clearly, this expansion of civil society's operating arena may even turn into open opposition to Syria's rulers. The point is to allow for some debate to take place in the hope of producing the sorely needed vision of change. This will give the outside world the impression that serious change is taking place and that the regime should be given the time to see it through. Crackdowns, detentions, and illegal trials thus exist hand in hand with a growing tolerance for creative initiatives.

Over twenty NGOs have been formed in the last few months. Many are charities and often include on their advisory boards one or two members with clear government connections (the daughter of a minister or an army general, or, in a couple of notable instances, the President's wife). Even so, this development is still significant by Syrian standards, as independent initiatives are traditionally frowned upon.

Of real significance here is the press service, All4Syria (, created by the Syrian engineer Ayman Abdul Nour. The service contains an electronic newsletter that includes Syria-related reports and articles gathered from a variety of sources, often including comments by opposition figures at home and abroad. In its way, All4Syria has provided an indirect conduit for dialogue between government and opposition, which may not have taken place otherwise. Although All4Syria's Internet site was recently blocked for unspecified reasons, the newsletter continues to be circulated and Mr. Abdul Nour moves in his usual circles unmolested.

I have been involved with the launch of another initiative, the Tharwa Project (, which I have long envisioned as one way for the Arab region to address its problems with religious and ethnic minorities. Although regional in scope and with a colorful international board of advisors, the Tharwa Project (Tharwa means wealth in Arabic) is based in Damascus and will be run from there.

The launch of the Tharwa Project one month ago inadvertently coincided with Kurdish riots that rocked northern Syria. This, together with the prominence of the advisory board (which includes well-known Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, French expert on political Islam Gilles Kepel, and Flynt Leverett, a Brookings Institution Fellow) and the sensitivity of minority rights in general, combined to give the Project national, regional, and international notice.

So far, Syria's authorities have not reacted to the Tharwa Project. It's probably still too early in the game for that. But the Project seems to represent the type of activity that can help produce visions for change. Some in the Syrian government could be aware of this.

Nevertheless, fourteen civil society activists who attempted to organize a special meeting to address the realities of the Kurdish issue in Syria recently received various sentences on charges of working to undermine national unity. The authorities clearly wish to control the extent of the thaw in Syria's political culture. But even as such crackdowns continue, more private independent initiatives are bubbling to the surface.

For my colleagues and me, this is the time for hard and continuous work to expand the space of popular participation in the country and region. We can deliver no judgment at this stage as to where things might be heading. Everything and anything seems possible. Still, it is tempting to think that Syria is witnessing a new beginning, and the end of an era whose sins we all bear.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian poet, novelist, and commentator. He is also coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a regional program that addresses minority issues in the Middle East.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, April 2004.
My own favorite site is," which has both an English and Arabic section. In the Arabic section,The pulpit of Nabil Fayad, is the place to be. Nabil Fayad is fascinating. A Sunni pharmacist, he has translated Cook and Crone's, Hagarism, and Cook's, Muhammad, into Arabic, as well as a number of works by German scholars. He is determined to explore the influences of Judaism and Christianity on the Islamic tradition and rails against the blinkered anti-intellectualism of the "Asharites" who teach at the Sharia' college in Damascus and keep the door of Ijtihad bolted. He has been beaten up by fundamentalist thugs, as one can imagine. But he keeps at it. He talks about the Alawi, Ismaili and Christian communities in Syria with admiration and sensitivity, but is unflinching in his attack on small mindedness wherever he finds it. He is no friend of orthodoxy but has a deep knowledge of the Abrahamic traditions. It is Fayad's learning, intellectual courage, and wise humanity that will ultimately spark the deepest sort of cultural change in the region.

A passage from Fayad's piece entitled, "Cultural Maronitism" reads:
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th c., the Maronites carried the banners of modernization for the region through the Arab nationalism project, to face the Turkish occupation; Now that nationalist project has expired and outlived its usefulness, however the dangers of dragging the region to the abyss still stand. Despite the overwhelming presence of fundamentalist currents, the liberal current is in its best shape today. Hence, thanks to unorthodox communications media, it seems that the Maronites are once more required before anyone to carry the banner of a project of enlightenment, only not a Pan-Arab one this time for that is sure to fail. Rather, a project that is limited to Lebanon and Syria first and foremost. After that? Well, we can discuss that later. (The translation has been stolen from Tony Badran's June 6 Post)

I thank Suleiman Ward, an Ismaili friend, for bringing these sites to my attention and for his intelligent observations about Syria.

It is worth noting that the favorite link to an American intellectual on all these sites is to Daniel Pipes. Al-Tharwa features his Middle East Quarterly, but all use him as a springboard for discussion.


At 10/02/2004 10:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nabil Fayad was arrested in 09/30/2004 in Syria

"My own favorite site is," which has both an English and Arabic section. In the Arabic section,The pulpit of Nabil Fayad, is the place to be. Nabil Fayad is fascinating."

At 10/02/2004 04:07:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

This is very sad. Issa Touma, the photographer and gallery owner who has been fighting with the Baath Part has also been shut down. I don't know if he has been arrested, although, his friends are worried about him.

At 10/04/2004 04:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you can visit to get more info about nabil and Mr. Jihad nasra, both arrested because of their liberal and free ideas.

At 10/08/2004 09:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Jihad Nasra is free now,but the Syrian Liberal Gathering www.liberal was resolved, and Mr. Nabil Fayad still arrested.

At 8/17/2007 01:21:00 AM, Blogger Maldives Islands said...

More resources: Web Directory


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