The controversial Syrian author, academic, and political activist Sadiq Jalal al-Azm passed away Sunday at the age of 82 in Berlin after a battle with illness, according to a statement released by his family.
Known especially for his pathbreaking, influential works Self-Criticism After the Defeat (1968) and Critique of Religious Thought (1969), the latter of which landed him a jail term in Beirut in 1970, al-Azm was a leading light of the secular, leftist and pan-Arab current that enjoyed widespread prominence across the Middle East in the latter half of the 20th century. Much of his writing remains banned in many Arab capitals to this day.
Initially a hardline Marxist, he migrated over time to a somewhat more liberal position, falling out publicly along the way with other eminent intellectuals including Edward Said and the poet Adonis. In the early 2000s, he was active within the nascent Syrian opposition movement known as the Damascus Spring, adding his voice to calls for democratic reforms and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon.
When the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011, al-Azm was quick to side with the demonstrators, despite reservations about what he would later describe as the “Islamic face with which the Syrian revolution presents itself [to] the world.” He called on the opposition to exercise “extreme caution and utter vigilance” against the emergence of Islamism within their ranks, which would, he said, constitute a “return of despotism […] cloaked with religious creeds, jurisprudence and sectarian extremism.”
In a 2015 profile, fellow Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who has been called Syria’s ‘voice of conscience,’ lauded al-Azm as “a non-conformist intellectual firmly focused on the values of freedom, justice, reason and globalism.”