Freedom, social change, and Syria

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Presented in World Press Photo’s «Reporting Change ‒ Stories from the Arab region» (Netherlands, 15 June)

28 June 2014

In Arabic, we differentiate between taghyeer (تغيير) and taghayur (تغيّر). Both words mean change. But taghyeer connotes planned action, executed unilaterally by a powerful elite, with a pre-known end result; whereas taghayur implies an open- ended, multitudinous process that could be influenced by organized social agents. Taghyeer is engineered according to a pre-determined ideal, already complete before its application, while it is this ideal which is always revised and revisited during the process of taghayur. The agent of taghayur is the population; they are the changer and the changed, while the agent of taghyeer is an omniscient and mighty elite, to whom the population is a passive object to be changed from above and outside. For there must be an outside to effect taghyeer.

Which outside?

First of all, we can talk about foreign colonial powers that impose its civilisational ideal on the colonized by means of invasion and violence. Syria experienced this at the hands of French colonialism between the two World Wars.

Colonialism is also a model for local forms of taghyeer that were applied in many countries in the 20th century. Soviet communism and its likes had a full-fledged ideal and it committed itself to transferring this ideal to a working class that does not know its real interests. We, in Syria, lived through such a societal taghyeer since the Baathist coup in 1963. Through violence and looting, this regime of taghyeer evolved towards internal colonization which evolved again towards a system of political slavery. The mission of this system is staying in power «forever», generously killing the ungrateful slaves who rebel against their masters.

Now we are being introduced to a third position outside society, struggling hard for taghyeer us, individuals and community: Jihadist Islamism. This contemporary version of Islamists has their sacred, perfect ideal that just needs to be applied on the population, regardless of the population’s opinions about it. Humans should have no word to say about God’s commandments.

Here it might be useful to say that these fascist Islamists are not the «natural expression» of a Muslim society. Actually, they consider themselves the only genuine Muslims while the others are apostates, heretics, or nonbelievers.

These are 3 types of societal change from outside, above, and by force. The characteristic in common between them is that they have creeds of salvation: mission civilisatrice, the one Arab nation, the Islamdom.

They also share a social engineering method, and an inherent enmity against freedom and equality.

Now, the difference between taghyeer and taghayur is the difference between Salvation and freedom, in the words of Jacob Talmon. When free, people develop voluntary forms of solidarity, invent new values and modes of life, and bigger numbers of them display altruistic spirit. Society changes through innumerable initiatives of individuals and groups who reinvent themselves while they are inventing new practices and situations. This type of change allows a wider space for the role of human perception and imagination. Taghyeer, on the contrary, implies that only a small group of social engineers have the right to think and the right thinking. With time, this group will do its best to dispossess people from initiative taking, free debate, and any power of resistance to keep public power in its hands.

This is what happened in Syria.

The country has been ruled for more than half a century by a salvationary- taghyeeri regime, led by the Assadist dynasty that changed the republic to a monarchy, imposing full identification between Syria and the ruling tyrant (Sooriyya al-Assad سوريا الأسد). This means that those who oppose the regime are not true Syrians, are either traitors or foreign agents. The whole system is built around the function of preserving power forever (ila al-abad) in the hands of the dynasty, and preventing any meaningful change. Taghyeer ends with total social freezing.

In the Assad slavedom we were not only prevented from saying what we believe in, rather people are forced to say what we do not believe in. It was not only forbidden to act according to your beliefs, but you were compelled to act according to the regime`s creed (that the Assad dynasty is superior than you, and they are your masters). Under the Assads, we Syrians were not only deprived form political life; we were also deprived from ethical life: to defend what you believed in in the public space, even in private spaces indeed.

Nevertheless, the regime was confronted with active resistance from Syrians. We resisted tyranny for decades. Our struggle did not begin yesterday or three years ago. Tens of thousands of victims fell and are still falling for freedom and dignity. Tens of thousands are now in jails, suffering from obnoxious torture and starvation.

Facing those mounting resistances, the regime waged two big wars against its subjects: The first one between 1979 and 1982, and the second one, which is far more destructive, is still in progress since March 2011.

Who are those standing against freedom for the Syrians today? The slavery regime and its allies in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Russia, China, as well as many in the ‘free world’…

Then there are the jihadi Islamists who have an ideal foreign to the Syrians’ live experiences and history. Many of them are foreigners indeed; completely ignorant of our society and history. For the paranoid roaming jihadist, Syria is only a new field for his eternal struggle against the supposed enemies of Islam.

Salvationary intellectuals who know the course of history also stand against our present struggle for freedom. Speaking like prophets or generals, these spokesmen of the «internal first world» think that taghyeer of the society is the important thing, not change of the regime. They are for the salvationary essentialist type of change, not with the taghayur in which social actors are changed while they are changing their circumstances.

But is change of the society in Syria possible without change of the regime? In 2004 a group of young men and women in Darayya, near Damascus, began to clean the streets of their town, launching a campaign against bribery and another campaign against smoking. After a short time, they were arrested. Some of them spent 5 years in prison.

Before that, what was ‘Damascus spring’? Embodied in forums, it was gatherings of tens of people discussing public affairs in private houses. As a combination of gathering and talking, Damascus Spring, in its deep meaning, was an attempt to appropriate politics. This effort was aborted after just a few months.

Then, what was the revolution all about? It was the biggest effort ever for Syrians to appropriate politics: To gather in public space, and to protest with their bodies and words against the power. For decades, we were under a very low line of political poverty, deprived from gathering and from talking our minds. From the very beginning, the regime resorted to war to prevent people from actively restoring the public space and reclaiming politics. People took up arms to defend themselves and to have a word about their public affairs. I do not think that there are fair and principled bases for objecting people’s engagement in war in order to obtain politics, when they are prevented by war so that politics remain monopolized by the masters.

Who are those who struggle for freedom in Syria? A multitude of people, women and men, ordinary people, activists, writers, artists, human rights activists, farmers and doctors, students and illiterate mothers, the young and the elderly, all participated in different ways in our struggle since the beginning. But they are scattered now among tombs, jails, exiles, with many of them still struggling under terrible conditions. Razan Zaitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada, Nazem Hamadi, Paolo Dall’Oglio, Feras al-Haj Saleh, Ismael al-Hamed and many others are kidnapped by Islamist fascist groups; Mohammad Arab, Ali Shehabi, Abdul Aziz Al-Khayyer, Iyas Ayyash, Maher Tahhan, Faiek al-Meer and Jihad Asa’ad Muhammad are in the regime jails among tens of thousands of others.

As people struggling for freedom, our problem is that our enemies are powerful states and semi-state actors, while our principled supporters are only people like us. States are either with the salve owner’s regime, or practically supporting Islamists, or engineering things in ways that lead to a prolonged war in the country.

I tend to think that the failure of Western powers and big parts of Western societies to support our struggle for freedom is the cause for their extreme interest in the jihadis. Jihadis are bad enough indeed, but those who have been killing tens every day for 1200 days are Bashar al-Assad and his partners. On the other hand, I do not think it is good for any country to build high walls around itself when people in another country are massacred.

To end up with less bitter words, I believe that societies, however complicated their problems are, can, under conditions of freedom, achieve considerable progress in solving their problems in a period of time that does not exceed the productive years of a human being, 30 or 40 years. True, progress is not a matter of decisions from above, but it is also not a matter of generations or centuries, as essentialist taghyeeri intellectuals prefer to think.

What Syria mostly needs is to put an end to 44 years of nightmarish rule of the two Assad men. We need freedom as a first condition for dealing with our social, cultural, and economic problems. Revolutions do not solve problems; they only eliminate the political obstacles that prevent people from efficiently dealing with the difficult situation they continuously face. Revolution is not salvation. There is no salvation, only continuous struggle for more freedom and autonomy.

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh

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