Questionable Thinking on the Syrian Revolution

1 August, 2022
A pho­to tak­en Aug 2, 2018 shows destroyed build­ings in the south­ern Syr­i­an city of Daraa (pho­to cour­tesy Mohamad Abazeed).


Sav­ages by Abdul­lah Chahin — writ­ten in Ara­bic and pub­lished by a major press in Lebanon last April — is premised on the con­vic­tion that he has cracked open the Syr­i­an quag­mire. In this review, Fouad Mami argues that it is not only non-Syr­i­ans who often mis­un­der­stand Syr­i­ans’ sac­ri­fices, and that a Syr­i­an might wreak as much dam­age as an Ori­en­tal­ist or neo-Orientalist. 



Sav­ages, Prob­ing the Trans­for­ma­tion of Indi­vid­ual and Col­lec­tive Con­scious­ness under Total­i­tar­i­an Regimes: Syr­i­an Soci­ety as an Exam­ple, by Abdul­lah Chahin, 
Nawãr/Riad El-Rayyes Books 2022 
ISBN: 9789953217482


Fouad Mami


Abdul­lah Chahin is a Syr­i­an med­ical doc­tor prac­tic­ing in the Unit­ed States. He has degrees in Islam­ic thought and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence among oth­er sub­jects. His book, Sav­ages, Prob­ing the Trans­for­ma­tion of Indi­vid­ual and Col­lec­tive Con­scious­ness under Total­i­tar­i­an Regimes: Syr­i­an Soci­ety as an Exam­ple, grap­ples with the prac­tice of oth­er­iza­tion of Syr­i­ans by Syr­i­ans: elites of oth­er elites, ordi­nary work­ers of oth­er peo­ple. The habit of reduc­ing oth­ers to noth­ing­ness and or insignif­i­cance can lead one to con­cep­tu­al­ize them as sav­ages. This mis/conceptualizing prac­tice, Chahin claims, has been a cul­tur­al par­a­digm. Polit­i­cal repres­sion is but an expres­sion of this par­a­digm. Indeed, this habit facil­i­tates geno­ci­dal killings, as with the drop­ping of bar­rel bombs on out­door mar­kets by the regime, or atroc­i­ties by ISIS dur­ing the war in Syr­ia, which erupt­ed in 2011 and remains ongoing.

The Ara­bic cov­er of Sav­ages by Abdul­lah Chahin.

Unde­ni­ably, Chahin asks the right set of ques­tions. For instance, how is it pos­si­ble for a Syr­i­an prison war­den, a secu­ri­ty offi­cer, or even a hos­pi­tal doc­tor to tor­ture oth­er human beings dur­ing the day and return after­ward to his fam­i­ly, kiss his chil­dren, and sleep with his wife? With Chahin, there is a banal­i­ty-of-evil type of ques­tion­ing, as famous­ly put by Han­nah Arendt. In order to swal­low such a con­tra­dic­tion, some­thing must beset the core of the Syr­i­an self and ren­der it sick to the mar­row. The nar­ra­tive that demo­nizes oth­ers as sav­ages has been around for mil­len­nia but has tak­en an espe­cial­ly intense turn dur­ing the reign of the two Assads. Still, in Chahin’s view, it is not only wrong, but crim­i­nal­ly mis­lead­ing, to put the blame only on the Assads, the polit­i­cal elites, or their neme­ses from the so-called opposition.

Decades of a gen­er­al­ized prac­tice of oth­er­iza­tion have result­ed in a mas­sive fail­ure: a fail­ure that is both moral and intel­lec­tu­al. Chahin — he nev­er tires of repeat­ing — does not aim to impart moral lessons. Instead, he seeks to clar­i­fy that when vic­tims of repres­sion inter­nal­ize this oth­er­iza­tion, the sav­agery is just as pernicious. 

It fol­lows that in con­se­quence of such oth­er­ing and alien­ation, Syr­i­ans have become inca­pable of build­ing a viable poli­ty. Chahin claims to have expe­ri­enced this gen­er­al­ized soci­etal dis­trust and fail­ure in the relief and human­i­tar­i­an work he was charged with under­tak­ing in free zones, those areas lib­er­at­ed from Assad’s rule in 2013:

“In col­lab­o­ra­tion with sev­er­al experts in fields such as micro-econ­o­my, human lead­er­ship, and durable devel­op­ment, we planned in 2013 a small devel­op­men­tal project called Mihãd. The point of the project was the build­ing of indi­vid­u­als’ set of skills, pre­cise­ly the ones point­ed out by experts as well as on-ground activists in the lib­er­at­ed areas. Even though the aware­ness of the lack of train­ing comes from the very peo­ple that applied for fund­ing, we not­ed that inter­ac­tion was almost inex­is­tent … from over 200 peo­ple who reg­is­tered for the event, only 10 peo­ple attend­ed the first work­shop. The remain­ing work­shops did not wit­ness more than five atten­dees…” (p. 175)

The people’s readi­ness to sac­ri­fice what was dear­est to them explains why ordi­nary actors were and hope­ful­ly still are light years ahead of intel­lec­tu­als report­ing on the revolution.

For Chahin, this lack of par­tic­i­pa­tion is cat­a­stroph­ic. The rever­sal of what he sees as a sol­id oppor­tu­ni­ty to build a viable future for aid appli­cants he inter­viewed and which his orga­ni­za­tion financed con­vinced him that ordi­nary Syr­i­ans are beyond redemp­tion, giv­en their cur­rent ways of per­cep­tion and mak­ing sense of the world.

The book unfolds in four uneven sec­tions. The first has 15 chap­ters. The sec­ond is divid­ed into two chap­ters, the third con­tains six chap­ters, and the fourth also has six. All adhere to a blog­ging style of writ­ing more than to that of a book address­ing a sin­gle and well-delin­eat­ed prob­lé­ma­tique. The first sec­tion attempts to account for Mus­lims’ fall from grace; it traces Mus­lims’ his­tor­i­cal (or imag­ined) lead­er­ship of the world from the Mid­dle Ages to the humil­i­a­tion they expe­ri­enced dur­ing the colo­nial and post­colo­nial peri­ods. Inter­est­ing­ly, Chahin views the post­colo­nial as an exten­sion of the colo­nial peri­od. His sub­ject near the end of the first sec­tion is the whole col­o­nized world: Africans, Asians, and oth­ers. Polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence, which Syr­ia gained in 1946, has only brought to pow­er imi­ta­tors who mim­ic colo­nial rulers. The lat­ter had ush­ered in an excep­tion­al style of gov­er­nance: ruler­ship with­out respon­si­bil­i­ty. Yet why oth­er post­colo­nial poli­ties did not degen­er­ate in the Syr­i­an way, cul­mi­nat­ing in the post-2011 col­lapse, Chahin does not specify.

The sec­ond sec­tion intro­duces vari­a­tions of sav­agery in prac­ti­cal life sit­u­a­tions drawn from Syr­ia. This sec­tion is the strongest part of the book. The third sec­tion explores fur­ther iter­a­tions of the sav­age. In the fourth sec­tion, the author reit­er­ates the same litany of the Syr­i­an mias­ma: what he takes as fur­ther dis­fig­u­ra­tions of the psy­che, such as self­ish­ness and vengefulness.

Chahin insists that in expos­ing the soci­etal ills beset­ting Syr­i­ans, the likes of which, in his opin­ion, guar­an­teed the rever­sal of the rosy promis­es of their rev­o­lu­tion, his aim has nev­er been self-fla­gel­la­tion as an Arab or  Mus­lim. Accord­ing to him, there are enough pseu­do-thinkers around who engage in such a prac­tice. His inten­tion — he keeps not­ing — is to pro­vide crit­i­cism that uncov­ers the sub­ter­ranean caus­es for the fal­ter­ing of the rev­o­lu­tion and its mil­i­ta­riza­tion. Who­ev­er thinks that respon­si­bil­i­ty lies only with Assad, his clique, or even the cor­rupt polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment as a whole is fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong. Accord­ing to Chahin, Assad and Assadism only for­mal­ize an exist­ing Syr­i­an cul­ture that leads to repres­sion and the sav­age denial of the human­i­ty of the oth­er. Only in teas­ing out the minute com­po­nents of this mon­strous cul­ture, ele­ments of which include male chau­vin­ism, com­plex igno­rance, nos­tal­gia for nos­tal­gia, and an endem­ic inca­pac­i­ty for trust and team­work, will one be in a posi­tion to unseat the Leviathan and build com­mon human­i­ty from scratch.

Syr­i­an Amer­i­can author Abdul­lah Chahin.

There is no doubt that Chahin’s inten­tions are pure. Nev­er­the­less, in mis­ery he sees only mis­ery. And despite his claims that he is exam­in­ing the deep caus­es of the Syr­i­an moral col­lapse, he remains unable to scratch the sur­face of what he pur­ports to exam­ine. Chahin does not draw viable dis­tinc­tions between the vis­i­ble and the invis­i­ble — the sub­ter­ranean deter­mi­nant or what Hegel calls the Geist. This cre­ates much con­fu­sion when it comes to try­ing to under­stand the com­plex­i­ties in Syr­ia. Mate­r­i­al real­i­ty and liv­ing con­di­tions dic­tate the life choic­es and think­ing of indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties, not the oth­er way around.

It is not like noth­ing is inter­est­ing in the book, but Chahin’s approach ruins the few insights he has. The way these insights are inter­spersed through­out rumi­na­tions and lita­nies in the first and third sec­tions reduces them to a hotch­potch of half-digest­ed and bor­rowed ideas from junk sci­ence, folk wis­dom, moti­va­tion­al psy­chol­o­gy, and self-help lit­er­a­ture. Chahin’s trust in intel­lect as a seat of real­i­ty togeth­er with the pri­ma­cy of the mind turns him into a depres­sive reformist, unable to seize the rad­i­cal logos in the Syr­i­an upris­ing of 2011. How else to account for his over­look­ing the revolution’s sub­lime ear­ly days, the excep­tion­al work of the tan­siqiyy­at/local coun­cils, and the fact that rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies would have tipped the bal­ance of mate­r­i­al forces in their favor had the Rus­sians not inter­vened in the autumn of 2015?

Even with the sit­u­a­tion in Syr­ia hav­ing degen­er­at­ed into mass slaugh­ter, the rev­o­lu­tion still holds out hope. The people’s readi­ness to sac­ri­fice what was dear­est to them explains why ordi­nary actors are light years ahead of intel­lec­tu­als report­ing on the rev­o­lu­tion. The kind of think­ing espoused by Chahin and the so-called intel­lec­tu­als like him turns them into coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies by default because they seem to say that not only was the rev­o­lu­tion des­tined to fail, but that its fail­ure was the result of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’ in-built defi­cien­cies. While read­ing Chahin’s rumi­na­tions over the degen­er­a­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion, I could not shake Hegel’s remarks in the pref­ace of Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of Spir­it (1808) or the notes on evil con­scious­ness lat­er in the book. Hegel points out that ego, when embraced as a mode of analy­sis, is destruc­tive. Chas­ing the lime­light, arm­chair intel­lec­tu­als over­look the real move­ment of his­to­ry. As such, they only uncov­er the depres­sive and neu­rot­ic parts of them­selves. True under­stand­ing begins with humil­i­ty before those peo­ple who are bet­ter placed to offer insight, if not razor-sharp analy­sis. Real­i­ty is not what a far-off intel­lec­tu­al sim­ply imag­ines it to be.

In dog­mat­i­cal­ly preach­ing that the core of the Syr­i­an self is ill — even rot­ten, hence the unbound­ed cat­a­stro­phe — cul­tur­al­ist approach­es of the kind cham­pi­oned by Chahin freely serve the Butch­er of Dam­as­cus. Over­look­ing the Syr­i­ans’ logos, as instan­ti­at­ed through move­ments such as Al-Shaab Al-Souri Aref Tariquh (The Syr­i­an Peo­ple Know Their Way), frames the upris­ing as a cul­tur­al quest for some mys­te­ri­ous­ly lost iden­ti­ty. Yet the upris­ing remains an expres­sion of a his­tor­i­cal propul­sion for total and uncom­pro­mis­ing eman­ci­pa­tion on the part of a long-oppressed people.


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