The State of Barbarism

Ziad Majed

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In 1986, a year after his abduction and experiencing the barbarism he has discussed and analyzed in his writings on Syria, Michel Seurat died in the southern suburb of Beirut, the Lebanese capital which was devastated by civil war and the grip of the Syrian Intelligence services.

Today, we remember his texts that have been compiled in the second edition of his book “The State of Barbarism”, with their ingenuity and pertinence, even though it has been three decades since they were first published.

In the context of the ongoing Syrian Revolution, we can contemplate two issues he addressed in his texts: the “Asabiyya” and “The conflict between Society and State”.

The driving element for the regime: the Asabiyya

To understand the regime founded by Hafez al-Assad, Michel Seurat adopted Ibn Khaldoun1Asabiyya” concept (or what was referred to by Durkheim as “automatic solidarity” that creates strong cohesion between members of a specific group). Adopting this concept allowed him to explain, the role of the power circles and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) created by the Assads in transforming the “Alawite community” into a political sect, and not just a religious one (in a way regarded by Seurat as similar to certain Lebanese sects of the time). The transformation came about through implementing a discourse and a terminology, resurrecting the collective memory of indignation towards the City as a historic symbol of the abuse of rural groups as well as focusing on enlisting thousands of the sect’s youth in the army and intelligence apparatuses. Then all that was cemented through imposing the Baath Party’s control on public life and employing its bodies to subdue and control the state institutions and community organizations, especially the urban ones.

With that, Assad was able to establish a dominant Asabiyya in the country. Once it was entrenched, it was followed by a gradual expansion of the regime’s social base in addition to the economic and utilitarian networks (from various sectarian affiliations) associated with it.

These days, we see that the sectarian issue, as well as all issues related to the roles of military and intelligence apparatuses and the Baath Party, have a strong presence and are integral to the understanding of what is happening in Syria of Hafez’s heir, Bashar al-Assad.

The Asabiyya exists as a solidarity factor to preserve the regime. It is most likely, the sole primary element of strength left for it after the decline of its power, the disintegration of its symbolic influence, the narrowing of its social base, and its transformation into a mere repressive machine since March 2011.

In contrast, the demographic and social developments have amended the Urban-Rural paradox. The revolution is no longer Urban, as depicted by Seurat in the early 80’s (of the past century), it is also Rural. And the Rural-Urban duality is no longer able to reduce it or draw separation lines within it. Separation lines have, in fact, been surpassed by the new generation that is reinventing political action, whether in the peripheral rural areas, or the areas annexed to urban spaces due to their expansion, or in the heart of Syrian cities themselves.

“The Syrian Society against its State”

Michel Seurat used the “Hegel-Marx controversy” with regards to Society and State as a headline for one of his texts to address the conflict that erupted between the Muslim Brotherhood (in addition to a number of political and syndicated Islamic and leftist formations) and Hafez al-Assad’s authority between 1979 and 1982. A conflict that ended in horrific massacres in the revolting city of Hama and campaigns of arrest and detention targeting thousands of political opponents. It the end, Assad, through relying on the Asabiyya internally and a blind eye or corroboration from abroad as well as speeches, and ideological slogans that proclaimed Arab Nationalism and a struggle against imperialism and Zionism, succeeded in turning the Syrian political field into ashes and eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood within the country. Yet his success was also a result of the Brotherhood’s inability to expand their popularity horizontally, Damascus and its bourgeois abstaining from supporting them, and the sheer height of the walls of fear and silence built by oppression and terror. Ultimately, Syria became a fragmented space, with autistic residents, and people “crushed upon each other” as described by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism and its effects on society.

If the Syrian society’s defeat in the early eighties has prevented every political citizenship action for decades (with the exception of the short lived Damascus spring in late 2000 and early 2001), then the Syrian revolution that has been going on for over a year constitutes the final emancipation from autism and agony. From Daraa to Homs, Deir Ezzor to Hama, Damascus to Idlib, Aleppo to Salamyeh, and Kafranbel to Qamishli, the Syrians– in their daily demonstrations and resistance to the death machine – are rebuilding the political field on the ruins of fear. They are regaining their citizenship solidarity and land relations, repossessing their geography, their public space, for the sake of overcoming fragmentation and disintegration, and reweaving their social ties.

Thus, the Syrian society is being liberated by the day from the residual burdens of tyranny. Being born again, exploring itself, and forming a new memory for the future. Only the fading regime remained as it has been three decades ago, exactly as Michel Seurat called it: The State of Barbarism.

1 Ibn-Khaldoun is a XIVth century historian and sociologist from the Maghreb.

Source: Ziad Majed’s blog

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