The maverick thinker

At 75, maverick Syrian thinker Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm is still as sharp as ever. And while he is no neo-con, he certainly supports democracy in Arab countries and believes resistance movements have no future.
Azm began his illustrious academic career with a BA from the American University of Beirut in 1957. He then went on to receive a PhD from Yale in 1961. He has taught at AUB, the University of Damascus and a number of prestigious American universities, including Princeton.

Azm is famous for his books “Self Criticism after the Defeat” (1968) and “Critique of Religious Thought “(1969). He is also known for criticizing Edward Said’s theory on Orientalism, arguing that such a hypothesis “essentializes” – or stereotypes – the West, in the same manner that Said criticizes imperial powers and their scholars for stereotyping the East.

NOW sat down with Azm during the Middle East Studies Association’s annual conference in Boston last week.

You were among the first Arab intellectuals to write that Islamist movements would fill the vacuum after 1967 and the Arab defeat to Israel. This seems to be happening today. What are your thoughts?

Azm: Today, we see that armed resistance against Israel is an illusion, but at the time in 1967, we wanted to hang on to anything, and we thought resistance would play the role of an alternative and save the pan-Arab national project. But Palestinian resistance was a branch of the Arab liberation project, and when the project fell down, so did its branch.

So where does the Arab world go from here?

Azm: In my opinion, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the left, or the progressive camp, was divided. The bigger part of leftists retreated to the second line of defense, which consists of defending human rights, freedom and parts of democracy. Most importantly, leftists in various Arab countries worked to end emergency laws and courts. The smaller part of leftists, however, committed itself to fighting imperialism. This fight is led today by the Islamists like Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and [those in] Somalia.

I don’t see any future for these Islamist movements.

Their style and tactics totally ignore all the lessons that could be concluded from successful national liberation movements, such as in Algeria. There is a basic rule in liberation wars: You ought not to attack your own people. But current Islamist movements don’t care. We see them attacking their own people often on the basis that this is an infidel and that is a collaborator and so on.

Let’s apply these rules to Lebanon, for example. Notwithstanding all the faults with March 14’s performance, this alliance is the one fighting for human rights, freedom and democracy, and accordingly it enjoys the support of some leftists, whereas other leftists support the idea of liberating the land first, and maybe beating those Lebanese who oppose liberation as a priority on their way.

Azm: My perspective is that March 14 has the intention to implement the democratic principle that the majority rules and the minority opposes, while at the same time preserving freedom of expression and political activity for the minority. I think there is the intention to silence democracy in Lebanon, and I think the Islamic opposition in Lebanon, whether Shia or Sunni, if it ever gets to rule Lebanon, has nothing to say about minority rights. Democracy to them is tyranny of the majority.

If we apply this to the Islamic opposition in Syria, we see them calling for democracy because the Sunnis form 65% of the Syrian population. But if we hold elections and they win, there are no guarantees that minority rights will be preserved or that the minority in parliament would be given the chance to reorganize and try to come back to power as a majority after a new round of elections.

But the Islamic opposition in Lebanon says the issue of resisting Israel is a priority over other issues such as democracy and the implementation of international resolutions.

Azm: I think this is an excuse that the Islamic minority in Lebanon hides behind. Under the pretext of confronting Israel and resistance, we should suspend everything; we should suspend democracy, and we should suspend women’s [rights], and we should suspend social justice. Everything is suspended until we liberate Palestine first. This is an excuse, like the excuse that Arab countries used not to develop science because they thought it might contradict Islamic teachings. I think such excuses have been exhausted.

No matter how much Hamas and Hezbollah carry arms and enjoy the noise of arms, without a democratic project – and here I am referring to some kind of democracy – these movements have no future. In any country, Lebanon or Syria, if democracy was improved by 20 or 30 percent, that would be a big step.

What are your thoughts on Syria?

Azm: The best thing that could happen to Syria is to suspend the martial law imposed under the pretext of war with Israel. If 40% of these laws were suspended, that would be a huge leap forward.

Among the various Arab countries, which do you think has had the best democratic experience so far?

Azm: If you want me to give you a personal answer, I would say Lebanon. Most of my books are censored in the Arab world, and the only place where they are sold is Lebanon. The only place where serious debate takes place is Lebanon. This is a personal and not an objective response, since I am the son of both Damascus and Beirut. Beirut has always been the window through which we could say something, or present something, despite the war. Until today, Beirut remains the best city for an intellectual who likes to read like me. And it also has good libraries and bookstores.

My books are not censored in Lebanon only, thanks to court verdicts. In 1970, they went to court to censor my book “Critique of Religious Thought”, and they put me in jail. But during that time, the secular front was strong; parties, physicians and lawyers came to defend me. They did not necessarily endorse my book, but they defended the principle of free speech. The court dismissed the case.

If this same book was published today, do you think you would stand a chance of winning the battle for freedom?

Azm: Not a single chance. The battle of freedom cannot be repeated today… Today things are going backward in Lebanon and the Arab world. At the time [1970], a very wide debate took place across the Arab world about the book. As you know, the book was 250-300 pages, and there were 1,500 pages written in rebuttal. All the rebuttals were also published in Lebanon.

Today, those who are opposed to a book or an article you write might simply shoot you.

Are you saying that freedom in Lebanon is now facing restrictions?

Azm: Exactly.

  • Abu-Khalil

    I believe that Sadiq Jalal Al AZM is the leading and most audacious thinker in the Arab World. He has had the intellectual and moral strength to confront the escapism presented by the part of the Middle Eastern societies that expect a solution to the social, intellectual and economic misery prevailing in the Arab and Islamic Worlds from a diety in heaven. I proposed that the Ibn Rushd Foudation in Germany should give this yearly prize to Sadeq Jalal Al Azm

    August 12, 2010

  • i

    He is an outstanding scholar, no doubts about that. Nice to read again an interview with him. Concerning public intellectuals they are also dying out in the Western contemporary culture. And this tendency does not help the Arab world. To Nour: if I was you I would write "I was his student"... Just a friendly comment.

    December 9, 2009

  • nour

    He was my prof. when he visited Princeton! Great guy - an absolute gem with a wealth of historical knowledge. It's a shame that we are losing the figure of the public intellectual in the Arab World and in Lebanon especially. All we have now are bickering politicians and the sheep who follow them. This applies to both political factions in the country. I'm not sure I completely agree with him about March 14 though: they do seem more committed to democracy but Lebanon's confessional system is still far from democratic.

    December 3, 2009


    Thanks Now Lebanon for introducing us to Mr. Azm. Your insights are correct regarding both religious extremism and the growing restrictions on freedom in Lebanon. Trust us this will be reversed once the silent majority has its say in 2013 because freedom and democracy are ingrained in us and your warning is our call to action. We dream of a Lebanon that once again be the uncensored voice of all intellectuals from the region. We are honored that you choose Beirut to live and you have our promise that we will keep fighting for freedom, equality, environment, human rights and intellectual resistance.

    December 3, 2009

  • Anna

    Excellent interview. I wish his books were translated into English! Anna

    December 2, 2009