Syria is not exceptional: interview with Joseph Daher | Part 1

Syrian Civil War socialist revolution
A regime flag flies over Bab Amro, Homs, in late 2012 | Freedom House / Flickr

Last summer, in Rabat, a friend explained the Syrian families begging from the passing crowds, five minutes from Parliament, as a warning from al-Makhzan, the Moroccan state – ‘they leave them here, to show us’.

Piling rubble on rubble, the counter-revolutionary phase of the Arab Spring is approximately in its fifth year, being now long and deep enough that both the revolutions and indeed their counterings appear, at least, over. Even retrospectively, 1851 in France and 1907 in Russia seem, as ‘post-counter-revolutionary’ periods, quite hopeless (‘I have a feeling I have come here to buried’, Lenin wrote of his second exile, in the winter of 1907); and if ‘1871’ and ‘1917’ are ‘in’ those two dates, then so is 1933 ‘in’ Germany’s post-revolutionary 1920s.

Despite the failure of Europe-based radical groups to meaningfully affect the Arab Spring (at least, self-consciously), the same process has clearly affected many of us. To focus only on the more positive change, the fact of the Middle East and North Africa’s modernity – that the region is of classes and unions, states and parties, bound by accumulation and dispossession, as generative of tribes, sects, and faiths – has come to be better appreciated, albeit after decades of insistence from the region. Developing on this appreciation, through discussions with those same unions and parties, may be of some importance as – or rather, if – not only Rabati promenades, but the widening gyre of world politics, ‘Syrianize’.

Joseph Daher is a Syrian-Swiss socialist, who has written for New Socialist, Socialist  Worker (US), Jacobin, and several French- and Arabic-language publications. His 2016 book Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God was published by Pluto.

In the first part of the interview, Joseph and I discuss the histories of social class, sectarianism, and secularism in Syria; in the second part, published a week from now, we discuss Kurdish-Arab relations in the country today.


JH: In his essay The Class-Against-Class Basis of the Syrian Uprising, Michael Karadjis wrote that, in 2012, the Syrian revolution was ‘the sharpest class against class in the Arab Spring’, and, very recently, he’s written about relations between civil society groups, and the various armed rebel factions, in Ghuta.

Against this, there have been, I think, two evasions of social class as an explanatory concept in left analyses of Syria.

First is the understanding of Syria as a national unity, against which the US, or NATO, or ‘the West’, are aggressing – a Michael Moore-like geo-political view, in which, in some versions, the Russian Federation is, if not the USSR itself, then at least its ‘anti-imperialist’ epigone. If I remember, Ziad Majed has said there’s a ‘Pavlovian’ aspect to this anti-Americanism.

Second, there’s the view that the conflict is primarily one between ethnic-religious groups, a sub-type of which is to see conflict as between ‘jihadis’ – in its more vulgar rehearsals, a metonym for all Arab Sunnis – and Alawite or Kurdish secularists, as they’re perceived.

Could you give a sense of the Syrian state’s relation to working-class organising prior to  the revolutionary period?

JD: The despotic nature of al-Assad’s rule since 1970 prevented any political opposition. No immunity was granted to any sector of society – no popular organizations, professional associations, feminists associations, and so on. Nothing on university campuses, in any way, either from teachers or students. Security agencies arrested students inside lecture halls, and expelled many.

This despotic rule included, of course, the repression of trade unions, and also peasants’ unions. Following the 1970 coup, the trade unions were denatured, and made to assist the regime, rather than defending working class interests. The 1972 conference of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) characterized the role of the unions in the Ba‘athist state as ‘political’ – it abdicated responsibility for any autonomous role for the unions, and subordinated any demand to a higher imperative: to increase production. The major political role of the GFTU evolved towards mobilizing their membership for constant productive efforts, and to produce support for regime policies amongst the working class.

Similarly, peasant unions and co-operatives increasingly served the interests of their wealthier members – the peasants with medium-sized holdings – whereas the landless peasants, and smallholders, were left without organisations defending their interests. Thanks to their position in the co-operatives, the Peasant Union and the party, middle-class peasants became the leading class in the countryside, speaking politically, without becoming its wealthiest stratum.

Hence, in the years prior to the uprising, due to decades of repression, the independent trade unions or other organisations that might have helped in the development of class consciousness were not able to be established. It was different in Egypt, with the independent trade unions there, or Tunisia, with the UGTT [the ‘Tunisian General Labour Union’].

Syrian revolution solidarity
Funeral and protest against the Assad regime, 2012 | Freedom House / Flickr

JH: What were the class bases of the revolution?

JD: The most important components of the Syrian uprising were the economically marginalized Sunni rural workers, and both self-employed and employed urban workers, who have borne the brunt of the implementation of neoliberal policies, especially since the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad.

The geography of the centres of revolt – in northwest Idlib and southwest Dara‘a, and other medium-sized towns, as well as more rural areas – shows a pattern: all were historical strongholds of the Ba‘ath Party, having benefited from the policies of agricultural reforms in the sixties.

There has been a continuous impoverishment of these rural areas since the 1980s. The droughts from 2006 accelerated a rural exodus. This situation was exacerbated by a national annual population growth rate of around 2.5 percent, one that particularly affected small- to medium-sized towns in rural areas, in which populations have increased by five or ten times, since the 1980s. Public services provided by the state in these towns did not increase – on the contrary, they even diminished, with the neo-liberal policies, leading local populations to witness a deterioration of living conditions

The Damascus suburbs, and the towns surrounding the capital, where protests were important since the beginning of the uprising, were called the ‘poverty belt’, while pattern of opposition-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, from the summer of 2012, was nearly exactly that of impoverished, working-class Sunni neighborhoods. They were all densely packed, poorly planned recent urban growths. Western Aleppo, on the other hand, with its better service provision, was composed mostly of middle-class public employees, some sections of the bourgeoisie, and some minorities.

It wasn’t only Sunnis. Some forms of dissent and protests did occur in Salamiyah, which is majority Ismaili, and Suwayda, populated mainly by Druze. Many activists from Christian backgrounds were also engaged in anti-regime activities. They faced some difficulties in the Christian neighborhoods of Damascus, however, where they were more cautious. And, we cannot forget the massive participation of Kurdish and Assyrian youth, of the popular classes, at the beginning of the protests, or the involvement, on the side of the revolution, of section of the Palestinians of Syria, especially in Damascus

Although the Syrian uprising was mostly composed of the popular and working classes, the majority were from the Sunni sects – it failed to include popular classes from religious minorities en masse. And, it failed to translate its class bases into class politics, in other words, failed to go from a ‘class in itself’ to  a ‘class for itself’ – an important difference for Marx, who knew the distinction between the mere fact of class position – a matter of sociological description – and conscious mass struggle, by working people, acting for themselves.

JD: I’ve also read about a student section of the revolution, at least in 2011 and 2012. Could you say a little about them?

JH: Yes, another important part of the uprising, one which was more ‘cosmopolitan’, was the university students, young graduates, and sections of the middle-class, in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Raqqa. The number of students in further and higher education had increased massively since the 1970s: enrolment figures for Syrian tertiary education went from around 7% in 1970 to 26% percent in 2010. Students represented a significant and distinct social force within society. Students were not directly exploited in the way that workers are, but with the mass expansion of education, they are not a privileged section of society, either. They would be a particularly important section of the protest movement at the beginning of the uprising.

The Union of Free Syrian Students (UFSS) was established on 29 September 2011, to struggle against the regime, and for a civil and pluralistic democracy, treating all citizens equally. They grew in numbers rapidly, and most Syrian universities with activists had established a branch. They faced the repression of the official, pro-regime student union members, and of the security services. By July 2012, university students were a quarter of all the individuals killed since the beginning of the protest movement, in mid-March 2011, according to the UFSS.

JH: It seems clear then that the working class in Syria was weak, in organisational and political terms, long before 2011, and wasn’t able to sustainably cohere across sects after spring of that year.

There’s a danger in mistaking that lack of coherence as the result of some primordial distance. But, I think, we need to the appreciate the contingent, and rather effective division of the working class, via sectarianism.

On this, Saleh’s essay The Neo-Sultanic State claims sectarianism as a ‘revenue’ for the state – the wages of authoritarian stateness, if you like. To develop this, could you give us a sense of the history of the Ba‘athist state’s relationship with Sunni Islam, or rather the varieties of Sunni Islam, in their various organisational expressions since, say, 1970, after al-Assad’s coup?

JD: In Syria specifically, the Islamic fundamentalist forces, led by the Brotherhood, represented the most significant menace to the Syrian Ba’ath regime, from 1976 up to the Hama massacre in 1982, when between 5-10,000 people were killed. Hafez al-Assad had tried to co-opt some sections of the Brotherhood throughout the 1970s – tried to find some form of understanding with the movement – although combined this with violent repression.

The hostility of the Brotherhood towards  the state was deepened, through the years, by this repression, and also by the increasing domination of Alawi personalities of the regime’s institutions. Leading figures of the regime, from the President, to the heads of security services, were largely Alawi. The Brothers increasingly concentrated their attacks on the Alawi identity of the regime, rather than, as in the 1960s, on its ‘atheist’ features.

Syrian revolutionary protesters in 2012 | Freedom House / Flickr

In 1979-1980, the Brotherhood called for an armed revolt, to overthrow the regime, and establish an Islamic state. They presented themselves as the natural spokesmen of the Sunni population in the country, and described and characterized their fight with Syria’s rulers as a struggle between Sunnis and Alawis. The Brotherhood sought to generate a form of Sunni solidarity, cutting across class and regional divisions. They committed sectarian massacres and assassinations. Then, the Hama massacre broke them, organisationally, for a generation.

Despite periods of rapprochement in the 1990s, including liberation of their prisoners and the return of some of their members from exile, and attempts by the Brotherhood in 2009 to seek a formal reconciliation with the regime, they remained a forbidden organization in Syria. Their members were repressed.

Yet, the regime developed a religiously conservative discourse, in total contradiction with the secular image the regime has claimed since Hafez al-Assad’s arrival to power.

During a speech to the Syrian ‘Ulamah [religious council] in 1970, Hafez al-Assad affirmed that a ‘Corrective Movement’ was necessary to preserve the Islamic identity of the country, against the Marxist drifts of his predecessors. In 1973, al-Assad ordered a new printing of the Qur’an, with his picture on the cover, which became known as the al-Assad Qur’an. The regime further encouraged that conservative Islamic establishment, the ‘Ulamah, to channel Islamic currents, as a means to legitimate the regime.

The regime started, sponsored, and institutionalized various non-Brotherhood Islamic groups. The Naqshbandi Kuftariya Sufi order, under Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, and Sheikh Sa’id al-Buti’s group, expanded considerably in the 1970s. Since then, the Qubaysiyyat, an autonomous female branch of the Naqshbandi order, established by al-Sheikha Munira al-Qubaysi established numerous schools – they were around 200 prior to the uprising. The authorities also encouraged the activities of Sheikh Saleh Farfour and its al-Fatih Islamic Institute.

In 1973, following criticism and protests from various Sunni religious personalities and Islamic fundamentalist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad amended the constitution to say that ‘the religion of the president is Islam’. This article was retained in the March 2012 Constitution, which also says that ‘Islamic jurisprudence is a source of all legislation’, re-enforcing the Islamic credentials of the regime.

These changes were accompanied by censorship – attacks on literature criticizing religion, and literary and artistic works. Self-declared atheist writers were asked to respect the sensibilities of Muslim believers. The regime promoted a religious literature, filling the shelves of libraries, and Islamised the field of higher education.

Feminist activists and groups were publicly accused by religious conservative movements, close to the regime, of heresy, and of seeking to destroy society’s morality – of propagating Western values, and the notion of civil marriage, and the rights of homosexuals and lesbians, and total sexual freedom. For example, on 11 April 2005, pro-regime cleric Sheikh al-Buti waged a violent attack on women’s rights and feminist activists, describing them as ‘dirty agents’, ‘traitors’, ‘dwarf’ and ‘slaves whose masters seek to eradicate the Islamic civilization from its roots’.

JH: There was brutal anti-Brotherhood authoritarianism throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and, also an enduring state promotion of several types Islam, both Sufi, and its own non-Brotherhood version of Sunni Islam.

The state expanded its rosta of co-opted religious groups, into the 2000s, I believe?

JD: After the invasion of Iraq, a vast recruitment and facilitation network, for the express objective of supplying the jihadi insurgency in Iraq, was allowed to be established in Syria. Syria’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaru, issued a fatwa [edict] making it farad ‘iyn, or an obligation for all Muslims, both male and female, to resist the occupying forces using any possible means, including suicide bombings.

The Syrian regime’s collaboration with jihadis served a particular geo-political purpose – the aim was to normalise their relations with the US, by pressuring Washington to collaborate with Damascus on the Iraqi file. So, this collaboration with jihadis then stopped, at which point Syria became the target of their attacks.

There was a revolt of Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist prisoners in July 2008, in the Sednayya prison, close to Damascus. Then, for the first time in several years, Syrian security services began a campaign of repression and arrest against jihadi networks within the country. These networks and experiences from Iraq served the development of various groups during the 2011 uprising.

Similarly, at the beginning of the uprising, there was a clear strategy by the regime to favour the creation of Islamic fundamentalist and salafi-jihadi organizations, to discredit the uprising, while repressing democratic components of the protest movement, and the democratic Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces. The regime also wanted to create fear among sections of the population, afraid of these kinds of forces. The Syrian regime opted for the strategy of allowing the development of these organizations, including Da’esh, in order to present the opposition as Islamic fundamentalist extremists, as its propaganda has done since the beginning of the uprising, and increase division within the opposition.

Syria Assad dictatorship solidarity
A member of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Tabqa near Raqqa, 2017 | Mahmoud Bali – Voice of America / WikiCommons

JH: It’s hard to imagine two more different left-wing intellectuals than Aziz al-Azmeh and Yassin al-Haj Saleh.

Al-Azmeh was educated in the UK, and is, by all appearances, a ‘pure’ scholar – he doesn’t seem one to join groups, or give interviews, or sign petitions. But, there’s an analytical depth to his writing, which, with the breadth of his themes, is astonishing – it might be on the archaeology of early Islam, on contemporary ‘culturalism’.

Saleh though was a dissident communist, imprisoned for years, a decade or so, by Hafez al-Assad’s regime, and has become one of the pre-eminent Marxist writers of the Syrian revolution. Much of that writing was done in hiding between 2011-2012, and in exile, in Turkey, thereafter. Like al-Azmeh, he writes in Arabic and English, but is in no sense professorial.

Al-Azmeh is an avowed secularist, with a strong preference for a ‘secular state’ ( الدولة العلمانية; al-Dawla al-‘Alamaniyya) over a ‘civil state’ (الدولة المدنية; al-Dawla al-Madaniyya). Saleh has, I believe, suggested this preference as ‘propagating an authoritarian form of secularism, one obsessed with monitoring the role of religion in public life’. Could you give your sense of the those words’ meanings?

JD: The notion of a ‘civil state’, instead of ‘secular state’, is very often adopted by some democrats, liberals, and former leftists, as a political move, to ally with Islamic fundamentalist movements, such as the various Muslim Brotherhoods, who themselves refuse the notion of secularism, which is characterised as atheism by these forces.

But, the various iterations of the Muslim Brotherhood, across the region, do not have the same understanding of a ‘civil state’, which is considered as a first step to an Islamic state, or a state based on Shari‘a. They generally talk about a  دولة مدنية بمرجعيّة إسلامية (dawla madaniyya bi-marji‘iyya Islamiyya), that is, a ‘civil state with Islamic reference’.

For example, the former deputy Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Khairat al-Shater declared in March 2011, following the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak:

The Ikhwan [the Brotherhood] are working to restore Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people, and they believe that this will only come about through the strong society. Thus the mission is clear: restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God; the Islamization of life, empowering of God’s religion; establishing the Nahda [Renaissance] of the ‘Ummah [religious community] on the basis of Islam (…) Thus we’ve learned to start with building the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, the Muslim society, the Islamic government, the global Islamic state.

The adoption of a ‘civil state’ was, concretely, a concession of a key demand from democratic groups to the politics of reactionary groups, for opportunistic reasons. We have seen similar  concessions regarding women’s rights, and challenging sectarianism, when it came to justifying alliances, or collaborations with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is why I believe that it is not sufficient to speak of a ‘civil state’ – with its use, lots of questions remain unanswered. Of course, I make a difference between political groups that adopted the ‘civil state’ rhetoric to justify and seek an alliance with reactionary groups such as the Brotherhood, and those popular youth groups that emerged during the uprising, using this notion, while not abandoning other courses.

In my opinion, the secularism progressives should defend is not separated from the struggle for democracy, social justice and equality. The secularism we promote does not differentiate between the different sects and ethnicities. Indeed,  a secular state – in other words, the separation of the state and religion – is key to challenging sectarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia. There should be equality for all before the law, and there should be no laws based on religions that discriminate against women in terms of their personal status, or against people on the basis of their sexual orientations, and so on.

I don’t believe that a state established on religion or religious institutions can be free and democratic, that it won’t discriminate against some populations. Religious institutions will try to impose their own understanding of religious laws, instead of the rule of democratic, human-made law, and the sovereignty of the people’s choice

The Middle East and North Africa is not ‘exceptional’ – nothing prevents it from struggling for the same things that other parts of the world want, such as democracy, social justice, equality, secularism.



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