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The role of culture in Syria’s struggle


The New Inquiry has an interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer, intellectual, and former political prisoner who has lived in exile in Istanbul for the past two years. Among other things, Saleh discusses his time and prison and the ways that Syrian writers alter their prose style to get subversive message past official censors. An excerpt:

I want to go back to this idea of culture as a strategic field for struggle for freedom against fascism, both the Assad-ist and Islamic version. What is its role in the struggle against each of them?

One reason why culture is such an important strategy for our struggle is that we have a religious problem. We have a big problem related to Islam. Some people, and I am one of them, talk about religious reformation in Islam. The problem is very complicated. Now Islam, in our modern experiences, has been in many instances a tool of resistance against colonialism, against Western hegemony, and this prevented many of us from fighting against the problems within Islam, things related to the inequalities between men and women, for instances, between Muslims and non-Muslims, and things related to legitimizing absolute power and tyranny. My work, for instance in my book about Islam (The Myths of the Latters: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of its Critique) is about how to develop a radical criticism of Islam, while doing radical criticism of the injustices in the modern world. To racism in the world. While I am criticizing Islam I have to criticize some other criticisms of Islam. Many Muslims, many Islamists, are essentialist. But many critics of Islam are essentialist in their own way. Even though some of them are thinking about Islam on the basis of modernity or secularism, there is nothing radical about their critiques — they are not interested in human dignity, equality, freedom, or justice. Islam is not only interesting because of questions of values, it is important also because of its relation to identity in our society. So you have to deconstruct this, and to rethink it, to open this identity to criticism and ethical thought. This is what I am trying to do.

Culture is also an important strategy against the Assad regime, because this is a regime that has suppressed intellectuals, suppressed critical thinking, has not allowed people in the universities or the media to discuss issues of religion, sectarianism, of tyranny. Though the regime is modernist in a way, and Assad is the fascist with a neck-tie, it is against culture, no less than the Islamists of Da’esh. Actually we have three monsters in Syria, three inhuman creatures. One, the Islamic monster, second, the monster of Tyranny. And third, the Western Imperialist monster. And culture can be our weapon to remake these monsters into human energies, human politics, human actors. Culture is a humanizing field to transform these monsters to human-scale powers.

Image of Yassin al-Haj Saleh via Boston Review.


This seems hugely important given the fact how nearly all citizens in the islamic world are equated with fundamentalists/ islamists, especially by those western citizens who aren’t educated, afraid of change or just not used to use their brains and fall for rightist ideologies.

While we are still relatively free to discuss and think critically, I spend much time thinking, talking and reading about how (e.g. where I’m from) we’re predominantly unpolitical and entrenched in a co-isolated-apathetic-swoon*. I assume there are ten thousands of discourses going on and activists’ groups plotting against the emerging cultural and societal ice-age**, but all activity seems so atomized. It seems of special importance to me how we are supposedly unable to negotiate between our everyday life and the global poilitcal (mediated) crises.***

*Sorry for some pathos here, just cutting things short.
** While earth is heating up. :{)
***Read some Rosler, Debord, Baudrillard.