Sunday, February 13, 2005

"A Liberal in Damascus" By Lee Smith

A good article written by Lee Smith about Ammar Abdulhamid, the founder of al-Tharwa project, just appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

A Liberal in Damascus
February 13, 2005
New York Times Magazine

When I first met Ammar Abdulhamid in Washington in the fall, the 38-year-old Syrian novelist, poet and liberal dissident had Damascus on his mind. He had received word from his wife back in Syria that the political situation at home was becoming more precarious for rights activists like himself. As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, he'd been meeting with leading figures in the Bush administration and writing articles in the Arab and Western presses that were sharply critical of the Syrian government; he simply didn't know what to expect on his return. Now, sitting here in a Damascus coffeehouse in late January a week after his return, he is telling me that he had found reason for optimism about the country's future in the least likely of places.
''When I arrived at the airport,'' Abdulhamid says, ''I was told I had to go to political security. It took me some time to find out exactly which security apparatus wanted to speak to me, but then I met with them for two days in a row. I was very up front about my activities and even talked about things they didn't know yet, like an article I had co-written with an Israeli. One of my interrogators told me that what I was doing would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and he's right. I got the sense from even some of the security police that they see there has to be a new way of doing things in Syria.''

For the last half-century, the Islamist movement and Arab regimes themselves have pushed Arab liberals to the sidelines. As a result, the Arab world's democracy activists and intellectuals do not enjoy the same advantages their Central and Eastern European counterparts did back in the 80's: whereas the generation of Havel and Walesa was backed by the Catholic Church and its Polish-born pope, Arab activists enjoy no such solidarity with any established Muslim institutions. Indeed, while militant Islamist leaders have called for elections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they typically see liberal, secular reformers like Abdulhamid as a threat to the traditional foundations of their authority.

Even so, the liberals seem to be gathering a little momentum. Recently, intellectuals from Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia petitioned the United Nations for a tribunal to prosecute both terrorists and the religious figures who incite violence. In Egypt, two new publications, Nahdet Misr and Al Masry Al Youm, fault the region's leaders and clerics alike for keeping Arabs from joining the modern world. The Iraqi election posed a stark challenge to regional autocrats. While Abdulhamid harbors mixed feelings about the United States' decision to invade Iraq, he says he believes that the American presence in the region is vital to the prospects for reform. ''We are an important part of the world,'' he says, ''and our inability to produce change on our own terms invites people in. The world is not going to wait for us.''

Political engagement is unfamiliar territory for a writer who grew up in an artistic milieu (his mother is one of the country's most popular actresses) and describes himself as a reluctant activist. ''I got politicized in spite of myself,'' Abdulhamid says. After the publication of his first novel, ''Menstruation,'' a sometimes-surreal depiction of the sexual and intellectual mores of young Syrians, the foreign diplomatic community in Damascus identified him as one of the important voices articulating the rising generation's disenchantment. ''The novel made it so that many embassies wanted to hear my take on things,'' he explains.''I was frank before, but no one was asking.''

Abdulhamid's outspokenness helped win him invitations to conferences abroad and grant money from European foundations, which he used to start the Tharwa Project, a Damascus-based group with a Web site monitoring the status of Middle Eastern minorities. Tharwa is a bold initiative in a country that's sensitive about its minority issues, especially those involving the historically marginalized Kurdish population. Still, the ruling Assad family -- which is itself drawn from the minority Alawite population -- has looked kindly on Tharwa. ''We met with the president's wife,'' Abdulhamid says. ''She was interested and complimentary, but confused. She wanted to know if we were Kurds.''

Abdulhamid is actually a member of the country's Sunni Muslim Arab majority. Indeed, he went through a brief fundamentalist phase, which ended with his disgust at the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. ''Without that period in my life,'' he told me, ''I never would've been assertive. As a fundamentalist, it was my responsibility to preach and teach, and so I had to live up to this idea I invested in myself. It's why I'm as inquisitive and self-inquisitive as I am today.''

In embracing first Islamism and then liberalism, Abdulhamid has played a part in the two main opposition forces in Arab politics. If today the two movements have little in common, they each did issue from the same 19th-century Muslim reform movement that emphasized how far the lands of Islam had fallen behind the West. In the early 20th century, liberal democracy appeared to be the future of Arab politics, especially in Egypt, where the country's popular revolution won Egyptians their first modern constitution. But liberalism failed to take hold in the rapidly growing middle class. Religion was the language they knew, and organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood responded by dressing their criticism of the existing political order in Islam's traditional message of social justice.

Even as Arab liberals look ambivalently to Washington for support, many American analysts warn against placing bets on them. ''We hail the liberals as authentic voices for change in the Middle East,'' says Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. ''But what we don't hear is that many of these people have accents when they speak Arabic as well.'' In other words, the liberals are too Westernized to make an impact on the Arab masses. ''They won't get anything done by talking to people like me,'' Alterman says. ''They need to be at street rallies in the Arab world.''

Abdulhamid agrees. ''We need to go grass roots, and show some bravery,'' he says. ''We need to build a constituency, and create alliances, because without a strong opposition there is no change that's going to come at the top.''A key question, of course, is whether liberals would be wise to build alliances with the more popular Islamists. Would the victory of such a coalition bring liberals to power, or hasten their demise?

Right now, such questions are largely academic in tightly controlled Syria, where elections are not on anyone's calendar. Abdulhamid himself says he hopes to spend the next year explaining the American viewpoint to anyone in Damascus who will listen.

''A lot of people are waiting to see if Ammar is going to get into trouble,'' says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma who is spending the year in Damascus. ''Some want to see if this means they can advance their own agendas and stick their necks out. But there's a lot of resentment as well. People here have spent their careers observing all the red lines and playing by the rules, and if Ammar gets away with it, they're going to feel like fools.''

Lee Smith, who has written for Slate and Wired, is working on a book about Arab culture.

Also see Ammar's opinion piece in the Daily Star today.
Syria's salvation is through reform


At 2/13/2005 05:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Joshua,
This is a reply to your comment you made under your article "Washington Steps up Pressure on Damascus":

Dear Joshua,
While I am hearing a lot of arguments to the extent that Bashar is putting capable people in top positions, we see four major defects:
1- Many newly appointed officials on top such as the ones connected with the various sects of the economy are imported expatriates disconnected from the Syrian complicated laws and the legal loopholes. They lack the means to establish effective channels between the economic elements in the society necessary to communicate the detailed problems hindering reforms. While Bashar and his wife are reaching to the masses to get a feel of the social problems (maybe primarily for enhancing their self image), his economic ministers are only relying on Bath controlled establishments (like the chambers of industry, commerce and agriculture) which have no interest in anything but advancing their member's personal wealth.
2- While these newly appointed ministers have acceptable resumes, Bashar is not giving them the free hand to make the necessary cleanup of their ministries. Appointments of employees on departmental level and below still require the approval of Bath leadership and appointments are still made on the basis of favoritism and not merits. In turn, such appointees are making sure these departments they head serve their personal interest at the expense of the general welfare.
3- No reforms are made on the level of local governments whatsoever. A local official is still appointed for being only a Bath favorite and lacking the minimum merits to do the job and the chance of scheduling an appointment with such an official is much slimmer than meeting Bashar dining at a local restaurant. Once again, the means to communicate problems prior to solving them is absent.
4- The Judicial system is Syria is in a state of misery. Chances of finding an honest non-corrupt judge are slimmer than winning the lottery. Justice is auctioned on daily basis to the highest bidder. Final verdicts take years to obtain. Enforcements of verdicts cost a good percentage of the verdict. Suing the government is next to impossible even though the government is the main confiscator of people's economic rights (since we are keeping the discussion on the economic problems of Syria)
In light of the above, I don’t see how Bashar is doing anything at this time to correct the problems with the Syrian economy except by encouraging the unequal distribution of wealth and making the poor much poorer while his relatives are harvesting the majority of economic benefits under his so-called reforms.
Thank you for replying back to my previous post.

At 2/13/2005 09:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

from anonymous to anonymous!
I agree on most of your points stated as a reply to Joshua's comment. However, I find your conclusion very confusing and contradicting: Are you suggesting that Bashar is only pretending to do reforms? and that if he wants, he can fix the whole corrupted, incompetent goverment and infrastructure (including the people) by pressing a button?

At 2/13/2005 06:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In reply,
I am suggesting that Bashar is not taking any serious steps to implement any genuine reforms irrespective of his ability to succeed. His approach of cosmetic changes from the top does not tackle any problems except enhancing his portrait. His neo-Bathist elite (i.e. prime minister) are only the other side of his father's opportunistic junta.

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At 1/24/2008 12:27:00 AM, Blogger Philips said...

It is quite surprising that when liberalism fails to take hold liberal democracy seems the ultimate future of Arab politics in the early 20th century in the rapidly growing middle class. Liberals as authentic voices for change in the Middle East need to go grass roots, and show some concrete actions such as building a constituency, and creating alliances, because without a strong opposition no change is going to take place.


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