On Dec. 11, 2016, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Syria’s most consequential public intellectual in the last half-century, died in Berlin. He was 82 years old. In his last conscious days, Azm, like numerous other Syrian exiles, watched from afar the slow, methodical massacre of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. For a man who struggled for half a century against Arab tyranny, intellectual vacuity, socio-economic injustice, and sectarian and ethnic bigotry, it must have been particularly cruel to see the victory of these forces in the physical destruction of Aleppo, the jewel of Syria’s ancient and famed cities. From the heady days of intellectual debates over the perennial question of “what went wrong” in the Arab world to his last deathbed moments of solitude and sober reflection, Azm was a critical witness to the Arabs’ long descent into the heart of darkness.
Fifty years after Azm and other Arab intellectuals started to mercilessly deconstruct their ossified political orders, reactionary and primitive religious structures, and stagnant societies, the Arab world has descended further into darkness. Physical, intellectual, and political desolation has claimed many of the once lively metropolises of the Arab region — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Mosul, Cairo, and Alexandria — with only Beirut still resisting, albeit teetering on the edge. For centuries, these cities constituted a rich human and linguistic mosaic of ancient communities including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and Circassians. In modern times, they were joined by Greek, Armenian, and Italian communities. A vibrant cosmopolitanism found home in the port cities of Alexandria and Beirut and the cities of the hinterland, such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad.
As a teenager roaming the streets of Beirut, I would hear a babel of languages: Arabic, French, English, Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish. Admittedly, that thriving cosmopolitanism had its drawbacks amid a brittle world of uncertainties and inequalities. The rural hinterland was populated by resentful peasants, who could see and envy from afar the shimmering lights of the forbidden cities and their hidden rewards.
As a young man, I witnessed the surprising outburst of enthusiasm that arose in the wake of the collective Arab disbelief and humiliation following the swift, crushing defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan at the hands of Israel in six days. The war allowed Israel to seize Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the West Bank and Gaza and eventually marked the death knell for the idea of Arab nationalism embodied by Egypt’s then-president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Initially, most Arabs sought refuge in denial, refusing to admit that their military rout was emblematic of deeper rotten cultural maladies and social defects and instead calling the disastrous defeat a temporary “setback.” Many wanted badly to believe that Israel’s victory was achieved only because of Western machinations and deception, since it was almost an article of faith among many Arab nationalists, leftists, and Islamists that Israel was an “artificial entity” — an extension of imperialism in the Arab East.
The belief among Arabs that their armies would prevail in the war was almost universal. I was 17 years old then, and I still vividly remember the searing pain I felt, mixed with unadulterated rage directed mostly against the self-appointed guardians of Arab patrimony.
Fifty years after the defeat, the brittle world the Arabs built is unraveling in civil wars fought with abandon by cruel men supported by equally cruel foreign and regional marauders. Ancient cities that survived many an invader now lay in ruins in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Schools and hospitals, places of worship, bakeries and pharmacies — all were repeatedly violated by governments and rebels. Millions of bereft souls wandered over large swaths of scorched earth before fleeing their countries, by choice or by force, forming rivers of refugees and spilling over into neighboring lands and then scattering across Europe. A tragic modern version of the “Middle Passage” has taken place in the Mediterranean, whose deceptively calm waves became the watery graves of many a refugee braving the sea on rickety, overflowing boats operated by greedy seamen, the slave traders of yesteryear. In the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, Arabs — who barely constitute 5 percent of the world’s population — burdened the world with more than 50 percent of its refugees.
Today, Arabs find themselves living in the shadow of more powerful non-Arab neighbors: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. In both Syria and Iraq, the concept of a unitary national identity has collapsed along sectarian and ethnic fault lines, thus deepening political, social, and cultural polarizations and making the reunification of both countries all but impossible. Egypt, once a regional power, has been thoroughly marginalized politically in the last few decades, remaining afloat economically only because of handouts from the Arab Gulf states. The vaunted Egyptian military is even incapable of imposing its total sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula. It finds itself reliant on the might of the Israeli Air Force — the same air force that decimated Egyptian air power on June 5, 1967 — in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and other extremists.
Cairo has ceased to be the cultural mecca of the Arabs, with none of its universities, research centers, laboratories, publications, studios, or galleries producing meaningful science, knowledge, or art. Beirut, the imperfect liberal oasis of my youth, is meanwhile being suffocated by an ossified, corrupt, and feudal political system and by a predatory, cunning, and ruthless paramilitary force: Hezbollah. The group is among the most lethal nonstate actors in the world, serving effectively as Iran’s foreign legion — a Shiite version of the famed Ottoman Janissaries.
Israeli tanks roll in action on the Golan Heights in June 1967 during the Six-Day War. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)
From the ashes, a questioning
The Sadiq Jalal al-Azm I knew saw such developments as the culmination of his worst fears. I met him in 1968 after the publication of his seminal book Self-Criticism After the Defeat, a withering critique of all facets of Arab life. Published in Beirut, the book argued that only a radical dismantling of the entrenched structures of Arab society and culture, a total rejection of the myths and superstition that support them, coupled with sweeping social and political reforms, could transcend the defeat. It became a milestone in modern Arab intellectual history and caused a storm of contradictory reactions.
But Azm wasn’t done tearing down the Arab world’s sacred cows. In 1969, he published a collection of essays titled Critique of Religious Thought. This time, he directed his critical blows against the backward religious authorities and their abuse of religion to serve the political powers, which fostered fatalism and ignorance. He juxtaposed these atavistic notions with the values of rational thinking and scientific inquiry.
The reaction from the custodians of the status quo and the religious authorities to this “blasphemy” from the most prominent leftist Arab intellectual was swift and unforgiving. Lebanon’s Sunni mufti and a collection of hypocritical politicians urged the state to ban the book, and the government briefly arrested Azm and charged him with “inciting sectarianism” — a laughable charge since Azm did not spare the Christian religious establishment.
After Azm’s arrest, his legion of supporters among the literati, intellectuals, and activists in Beirut and beyond began to mount a counterattack. By 1969, Adonis, the greatest modern Arab poet — a Syrian by birth who spent his most productive years in Beirut — had established the literary journal Mawaqif (“Positions”), which became the venue for critical thinking and avant-garde literature and art. Adonis’s poems and trenchant essays in Mawaqif were magnificently evocative and prescient, the stuff that underpins a civilization. I was among the lucky few to be invited to his weekly salon, along with some of the mostly young and gifted Arab writers and artists who came to Beirut to join the good fight for enlightenment. The biggest thrill in my youthful years was seeing my name in print for the first time in Mawaqif above a few poems Adonis thought worthy of publication.
The agitation against Azm’s trial was mounting, and I felt emboldened enough to go to court along with a few friends to show solidarity with our hero. Azm was concerned about the safety of his family after receiving death threats, and as a precaution he sent his wife to Jordan. However, Azm’s ordeal was short: He was released from prison after two weeks, the case against him was dismissed, and his book was celebrated as a progressive victory against the forces of backwardness.
Of all the Arab intellectuals and artists who transformed Beirut after 1967 into the most lively and cultured city in the Arab world, the Syrians had the pride of place. In addition to Azm and Adonis, other Syrian literary luminaries — among them playwright Saadallah Wannous and poets Muhammad al-Maghout and Nizar Qabbani — displayed tremendous courage in exposing the entrenched taboos and sacred religious dogmas of Islam and the political myths of the Arab nationalist movement in its Nasserite and Baathist manifestations. Wannous’s gripping play An Evening Party for the Fifth of June — first published in Mawaqif and then produced in Beirut to critical and popular acclaim — was incisive in its deconstruction of the underlying political and social causes for the defeat. The play, in which some actors sat among the audience, helped revolutionize theater in the Arab world.
In the early 1970s, new weekly and monthly publications came into being, joining established ones like the progressive periodicals Al-Talia and Al-Tariq, as well as the daily An -Nahar, whose weekly supplement, edited by the Lebanese poet and commentator Ounsi el-Hajj, featured pages brimming with exciting debates and profound soul-searching and introspection. The Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani, who lived in Beirut, produced some of his best literary work and his most scathing political commentary in those years. Beirut’s publishing houses, theaters, art galleries, and universities — including the famed American University of Beirut — were humming with creative activities. That moment of Arab enthusiasm was possible only in Beirut, at that time the freest, most cosmopolitan Arab capital.
There was a faint attempt by some Arab nationalist writers to resuscitate Arabism, but to no avail.
The great intellectual debate in the years after the June 1967 war raged mainly between the progressive current (Azm, Adonis et al.) and an assortment of Islamists from many Arab states, who saw the defeat, correctly, as the historic rout of Arab nationalism. There was a faint attempt by some Arab nationalist writers to resuscitate Arabism, but to no avail. I have always believed that it was only after the 1967 defeat that the Arab Islamists, who were mocked and dismissed by the left in previous decades, began to regroup and reassert themselves intellectually and politically as the only “authentic” alternative to Arab nationalism. None of us who were politically active in those years would have believed that the exclusivist and reactionary Islamists, mainly the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement and its various branches, and later the Shiite Hezbollah, would dominate Arab life and politics in subsequent decades.
A destroyed tank sits on the side of a road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in June 1967 during the Six-Day War. (Photo credit: PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)
War comes again
That historic moment of cultural and political ferment and renewal in Beirut began to dissipate in 1973, as Arab autocracy and the forces of the status quo got their second act. During the October War that year, Egyptian and Syrian forces breached Israeli defenses and performed relatively well, at least in the first few days of fighting. The war achieved its immediate political goal — to draw in American mediation — and allowed Egypt and Syria, having regained some of their territories, to claim that they had restored their credibility.
By that time, however, the Palestinian national movement, represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had failed to live up to its claim that it represented the genuine “secular” alternative to the humiliated Arab nationalists. The PLO’s blunders in Jordan and Lebanon — in which it intervened in the domestic affairs of both countries and intimidated local communities — deprived the leadership of the pretense that the movement was different from the rest of the Arab regimes. Finally, the civil war in Lebanon, which began in 1975, decisively killed the fleeting moment of hope and promise that was Beirut.
The forces of autocracy and reaction were back in control. But the world they maintained, even when it looked deceptively strong behind a fake veneer of stability and legitimacy, could not hide the fact that there was something rotten in the world of the Arabs. From the middle of the 1970s until the beginning of the Tunisian uprising in December 2010, several Arab states experienced spasms of violence, some of which could be qualified as civil wars (Algeria in the early 1990s; Syria from 1978 to 1982; Iraq, particularly in 1991), low-intensity civil strife, or limited, mostly peaceful uprisings. All of those upheavals were put down by brute force. In Syria, Iraq, and Algeria, the regimes used savage means to crush their armed opponents, including the use of chemical weapons in Iraq and the uprooting of people from their ancestral homes. Occasionally, such as in the case of Algeria, the armed opposition matched the savagery of the regimes.
In 1979, the Middle East was shaken to its core by three major political earthquakes: the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the violent takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. From the Iraqi port city of Basra to Beirut, these cataclysmic events brought in their wake long wars, invasions, mass killing of peoples because of their ethnic or religious backgrounds, and unspeakable and unprecedented sectarian Sunni-Shiite bloodletting.
The attack in Mecca, an apocalyptic Sunni attempt to herald the coming of the new Mahdi, arose from an intolerant religious fanaticism that has a modern parallel in the Islamic State. The reaction of the Saudi monarchy to that attack could not have been worse. The austere Islam preached by the extremists who stormed the Great Mosque was the same Islam that the Saudi state sponsored and embraced with renewed vigor after 1979, as if to prove that no Sunni Muslim could be more puritan or more exclusivist than the Wahhabism it spread across the Muslim world. The Islamization of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan initially helped the Saudis, but today they and the rest of the world are reaping the apocalyptic wrath that the self-appointed custodians of puritan Islam in Riyadh began sowing decades ago.
A Palestinian worker prays at a housing project in the Jewish settlement of Har Homa on Sept. 7, 2009 in East Jerusalem. (Photo credit: DAVID Silverman/Getty Images)
The war for Islam
These are the roots of the current Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict — not any theological dispute or ancient hatred. The foot soldiers who are doing the killing may believe that they are defending what is sacred in their sect, but those who mobilized them know the struggle is at its core a recent political phenomenon. It is a conflict that pits Iran and its Shiite allies in the region against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni allies over political power and tangible strategic interests.
The revolution in Iran brought the country’s Shiite ethos to the fore. Meanwhile, Sunni identity in the Arab world was undergoing a revival after the defeat of “secular” Arab nationalism. In Syria, the majority Sunnis had been chafing under Baath rule since the 1960s, where the levers of real power were in the hands of the Alawite minority, an offshoot sect of Shiism. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran unleashed the monsters of sectarianism on a massive scale — but it was the American invasion in 2003 that pushed the country into a Sunni-Shiite civil war that is likely to continue for years to come.
There is also an undercurrent of economic and class resentment at the heart of the current upheavals in the Arab world. After World War II, the first waves of young, ambitious, and misguided military officers who hailed from the upper classes but claimed to be representing the resentful rural hinterland took over power in the cosmopolitan cities of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus. The regimes they overthrew were not full democracies but were relatively open and tolerant systems that embraced diversity and wanted to maintain good relations with the West. They had allowed for the formation of political parties and lively if not fully free media. Certainly, the monarchies in Egypt and Iraq and the Syrian republic never engaged in the gratuitous violence the petty military officers visited on their people in subsequent years.
For decades, these new Arab regimes imposed on their peoples a political version of a Faustian bargain: The state will provide social and educational services, government employment, economic subsidies, and other forms of state patronage, provided that the population not agitate for real political empowerment. In the states that espoused Arab nationalism — such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq — part of the authoritarian bargain was that citizens should postpone their demands for democracy until the so-called battle for national economic development had been won and until victory in the struggle with Israel and imperialism was secured.
Many intellectuals accepted this diabolical bargain; those who resisted were persecuted or sought refuge in the sanctuary of Beirut. But after decades of atrocious governance, rapacious authoritarianism, predatory economic monopolies, and the hollowing out of civil society, the rickety scaffolding of those new nation-states, built over ancient civilizations like Iraq and Syria, began to fray and disintegrate. Even the homogeneous states with clear cultural identities and a sense of permanency like Egypt, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, could not escape the storm of discontent that swept the region in 2011, ushering in a new open era of constant sorrows and lamentations.
The unraveling of Syria may well drag into its maelstrom the fractured country of Lebanon or even Jordan.
In the June 1967 war, three Arab states were defeated and lost territories to Israel, but their very existence was not in jeopardy. Today, the multiple wars raging in Syria and Iraq, as well as those in Libya and Yemen, are more dangerous, as they grind at the weak foundations of the states. The unraveling of Syria may well drag into its maelstrom the fractured country of Lebanon or even Jordan. The local combatants and their regional and international sponsors appear to have no vision for the future and thus condemn these lands to continue their slow unwinding.
Israelis chant slogans while waving flags at Damascus Gate on June 1, 2011 during a Jerusalem Day parade in the city’s eastern sector to celebrate its capture during the Six-Day War. (Photo credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
To the victor go the spoils
The Arab defeat in June 1967 instantly transformed Israel, the little Sparta, into the region’s military superpower. Fifty years later, Israel has a first-world economy with a high-tech industry capable of competing with other corporations from technologically advanced states. But Israel is a country of paradoxes: It is a democracy for its Jewish citizens, a partial democracy for its Arab citizens, and a mean occupier of the Palestinians of the West Bank while keeping the Gaza Strip in its grip. Israel is at home in the 21st century, but it is also home for Jewish groups that wallow in religious atavism, intolerance, and anti-modernity and that are not dissimilar from the like-minded Muslim groups plaguing Arab lands. Regardless of what Israeli leaders say publicly about possible land compromises with the Palestinians, their actions — in the form of unabated settlement building on Palestinian land — speak of their conviction that Israel should maintain enough territories in the West Bank to make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible.
Despite what U.S. President Donald Trump might wish, there is no incentive for Israel to strike a historic bargain with the Palestinians now or in the near future, since the balance of power is not likely to change. The Palestinians, in turn, have grown dependent on the kindness of strangers from Europe and the United States. The Palestinian leadership exists in stagnation, after wasting many opportunities to pursue a comprehensive and protracted strategy of creative peaceful resistance to occupation that could draw the necessary support from Israelis who don’t want their country to be an occupier in perpetuity, one that gives off a whiff of the old American South.
The absence of a peaceful way out, and Israel’s insistence on maintaining control over a captive nation, will force the occupied to embrace nihilistic violence such as that promoted by Hamas. But this will not lead to liberation or reconciliation, but to more pain and resentment to the occupied and the occupier alike. The recent phenomenon of Palestinians knifing Israeli soldiers and civilians should not be surprising to Israelis familiar with the history of Jewish resistance to Roman control. The group within the Jewish Zealots known as the Sicarii (Latin for “dagger men”) waged a campaign of stabbing against the Romans and their Jewish sympathizers in the first century. The Sicarii Jews wanted to create a Jewish rebellion against the Romans, but their campaign backfired. It was a nihilistic endeavor — but occupation, and the desire to end it, was at its core.
It may be difficult for the Arabs of today to seriously reflect on the meaning of the defeat they suffered 50 years ago, given their current calamitous predicament.
It may be difficult for the Arabs of today to seriously reflect on the meaning of the defeat they suffered 50 years ago, given their current calamitous predicament. A half-century ago in the free sanctuary of Beirut, Arabs engaged in introspection and self-criticism, seeking to answer the central questions of their political life: What went wrong, and how did we reach this nadir? That unique moment of guarded hope and promise lasted but a few years.
Fifty years later, there is no equivalent to Beirut in which to ask the hard questions about why and how the moment of enthusiasm that followed the 2011 Arab uprisings lasted for only a few months before the peaceful protest movements gave way to violence and civil wars. And in the last half-century, the Palestinian movement — along with its numerous Arab allies — has failed to become a transformational force, just as the uprisings of recent years never became transformational revolutions.
But the fundamental questions asked by Azm, Adonis, and their supporters 50 years ago are as relevant today as they were then. What is radically different today is that things have been falling apart for years and are likely to continue on this trajectory of death and desolation for the foreseeable time. Cairo has lost its greatness, Baghdad is on its way to becoming almost exclusively a provincial Shiite capital, Aleppo was sacked for the first time in 600 years, and Damascus is a city in fear. Geographically, Alexandria is still on the Mediterranean, but in reality it has become a desolate hinterland. Beirut keeps fighting — but it is getting old and tired and feels abandoned. We now know that there are many ways to pillage great cities.
Singing about his harsh world in the Mississippi Delta of the 1930s, Charley Patton, to my mind the greatest bluesman in the classical era, belted out: “Every day seem like murder here.” Fifty years after the defeat, it is still the time of assassins in the Arab world. But there are many young Arab voices in politics, the arts, academia, and business who are not willing to give up the good fight. They constitute thousands of points of light keeping hope alive. But the reality is that for years to come, these flickering embers of enlightenment will continue to be engulfed in that endless, thick darkness.
(Top image credit: PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)