DAMASCUS, Syria -- This week, in the aftermath of Syria peace talks in Geneva, at least one good omen arose. One of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad’s main patrons, Iran, might finally be turning the corner on Damascus.
The Islamic Republic is concerned that Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war, fast approaching its fourth year, is starting to backfire against Tehran instead of preserving Iranian influence in the region. At least this is the word from Nasser Hadian, a Tehran University political science professor, in a letter published this week by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
But to push Syria’s stalemate in the direction of a stable and democratic post-Assad era, other world players must also pitch in, or butt out.
The part that I really look forward to, though, will unfold from within Syria, or within Arab culture in general. It will overcome the fundamental disconnect between authority and citizen, and shatter that frustrating sort of tone-deafness that has characterized life in the Arab world for as long as I can remember.
Take as recent examples the peace talks in Geneva, where delegates of the Syrian government ignored the real issues on hand, and instead concerned themselves with petty things. They insisted that a journalist say “President Assad” instead of just Assad during a press conference, and mocked an exiled Syrian opposition figure for his American accent when he spoke Arabic. At no point did they attempt to really listen to the other side, to genuinely address government abuses like arbitrary detention and deadly air raids on civilians.
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This tone-deaf arrogance by those holding power was all too familiar to anyone who grew up in the Arab world. Personally, I have encountered it even in childhood, many times, and in various Arab countries. Sometimes religious teachings were to blame, other times it was political indoctrination. In all cases, we had no way of conveying our point of view to indifferent authorities, even when the adults were on our side.
I was in the seventh grade when my religion teacher in Saudi Arabia announced that taking photographs would send us to hell.
“Yes,” she insisted, half-heartedly, as if she did not quite believe it herself. My classmates and I kept protesting, because it was so hypocritical it made no sense.
“But how come the king’s photograph is all over our school if photography is forbidden?” we asked. “And how come the shopping mall has lots of cameras for sale?”
“And what about TV? How come that’s allowed if pictures are not?”
Such was (and still is) the state of religious education in Saudi Arabia. It adheres to the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam on one hand, yet ignores blatant contradictions to those teachings on the other. No one bothers to explain the hypocrisy to perplexed children. Adults who disagreed with these teachings, like my parents and the parents of most of my classmates, had little recourse but to comfort us in private, telling us things like: “Oh don’t worry about it. This isn’t our tradition. Just memorize it and get a good grade.”
I later discovered that most of our teachers, including our religion teacher and our school administrators, also did not take the curriculum seriously. Yet none could challenge the Saudi authorities for mandating us by law to have to learn it. Everyone knew such dissent would fall on deaf ears.
It took years for me to recognize exactly how the education system in the Arab world cultivates this disconnect between the authorities and citizens. (I imagine it is similar in, say, North Korea or in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, so I know it’s not uniquely Arab.)
Granted, in a place like Saudi, where religion rules all aspects of life, one “cannot argue with God," as someone once put it to me. But even in self-professed “secular” countries such as Syria, things were no different.
I remember second grade, which I spent in a Damascus public school. The Syrian curriculum stifled us kids with similarly frustrating taboos. None were religious, and it was nothing like the cult of Mohammed Abdulwahhab, founder of Wahhabi thought. Rather, it was the cult of Hafez al-Assad, current President Bashar al-Assad’s father.
We were barely eight years old, and we marched single file every morning through the school yard, saluting “Our Leader Forever, Hafez al Assad”. (It rhymes in Arabic.) I did not mind the marching per se, or singing the national anthem. But in retrospect, I do resent that no one dared point out the obvious: That nothing, certainly not a person, could possibly last forever, so how could “Our Leader?"
My cousins who were in high school donned military fatigues and combat boots, the mandatory uniform of the time. They crawled on their belly during midday recess, and learned to disassemble a Kalashnikov by ninth grade. There were more chants about “Our Leader” in their nationalism class, a mandatory two hours per week during which kids dared not question their textbooks.
Perhaps this also explains the bizarrely visceral reaction that many Assad loyalists exhibit at the slightest insult to their idol. In Geneva, there were fistfights over this. But I have also personally witnessed government loyalists fly into fits of rage after watching a TV commentator list Assad’s crimes against humanity. It is as if any affront to Assad’s idolized image is something of a personal injury to his fans.
Every now and then in government-controlled Damascus, two Hummers painted with Syria’s flag -- a symbol for government loyalists these days -- drive around blasting music on roof-mounted speakers. The audio is so loud that it is difficult to decipher the words sung in the pro-Assad chants. Except for a few diehards who applaud at the sight of these Hummers, most Damascenes in the street keep stoic faces and ignore the noise. Any less ambiguous show of dissent will land them in prison, or worse.
Don’t get me wrong. Syrians exchange a ton of subversive jokes about Assad, but only in private, or inside rebel areas, or in exile, where they know the long arm of Syria’s intelligence branches cannot harm them.
But a stable and democratic Arab world is inevitable, and at least one country seems to get it. Tunisia.
Last month, Tunisians voted on a groundbreaking constitution hailed as the most progressive yet in the Arab world. It protects the rights of everyone and sits well with the people’s perceived identity as a Muslim country. But most importantly, it passed by an overwhelming majority in the assembly without a drop of blood in the streets. The Islamist party in power knew better than to shut out dissent and turn a deaf ear.
Tunisians heard each other. It is a good omen indeed.