Bashar Assad and the Death of History


“Yaqtol el-qateel wa yamshy be janazatehy” – Arabic Proverb

He kills the victim and walks in his funeral: this Arabic proverb is not specifically concerned with the physical act of ‘killing.’ The word ‘kill’ is used as a rhetorical tool to describe things that include, but not restricted to, oppression, coercion, enforcement, treason, and sometimes actual killing. In addition to rhetoric, the reason for invoking this proverb is to highlight its significance as it does not merely reflect an indignance towards the shameless act of a powerful man attending the funeral of his defenceless victim, it also reflects very poignantly a frustration with a political and moral culture that has been imposed upon the Arabs against their will for many decades.

Despite this frustration one can see a silver lining. This frustration, internalized in the mind and heart of the Arab, and accumulated over a long period of time, generated a force that pushes him to pursue an emancipatory dream or goal the rids him of his affliction: the affliction of being in a social and political status inferior to that of a powerful man, whose morality does not rest upon a strong well-thought of or well-conceptualized paradigm, but rather a flimsy ideal predicated upon the notion that can be best described using Nietzsche’s words: “one lives in a community …, one lives protected, looked after, in peace and trust, without a care for certain forms of harm and hostility to which the man outside, the “outlaw” is exposed.”

From the perspective of the dictator, this concept, also internalized in his mind and heart, is unshakable. There are social and political structures in place, and these structures dictate moral conduct. The structures are meant to offer a semblance of protection (which is perceived by the dictator as real protection), and a semblance of peace and trust (with peace meaning the absence of war, unrest and opposition, instead of a self-sustaining and self-perpetuating formulation of what peace should look like). As long as the Arab understands this notion, thoroughly applies in his daily social interactions, and communicates it to his sons, daughters and grandchildren, he can expect ‘protection’ and life ‘without care for certain forms of harm and hostility.’ But if the Arab man dares to erupt in anger with demands for more freedoms and liberties, for more dignity and respect, for more agency and control, then he becomes the ‘man outside,’ the ‘outlaw.’

In a speech delivered on January 6th, 2013, Assad started with saying:
“I look upon your faces and those of my country’s sons, and they are covered with pain and sadness. I look into the eyes of Syria’s children, but I neither see an innocent laughter glowing from them, nor do I see the toys that plant joy on their faces. I observe the hands of the old ones, and I see them bowed up praying for the safety of a son, or daughter, or grandchild. (my translation)”

There is much to say about this paragraph: one can write a treatise that addresses his use of Arabic linguistic tactics as a tool to extract affection or sympathy from a disenchanted audience, or an article on this fake portrayal of sympathy towards a people that he caused extensive suffering to, and yet audaciously refers to as his “country’s sons.” However, what is of more interest is how the abovementioned Arabic quote (killing the victim and walking in his funeral) fits within the general claim that Assad, and his father, and their associates have created a culture that allowed them to exact punishment upon a people undeserving of this punishment, while at the same time portraying an image of a caring father and a wise leader. And the quote is fitting in this specific context because Assad embellishes his act of punishment with words that make it appear as though he should be absolved from guilt. His reason is: this absence of joy and laughter, and the old people’s act of desperate supplication are nothing more than the doing of these ‘outside men’ and the ‘outlaws.’

The dictator, does not restrict his action to merely killing the victim and walking in his funeral, but to him there is more. His punishment must be displayed and seen, it must learned from, and it must be understood that no deed which violates the moral paradigm that he put in place will pass unchecked and unaccounted for. Photographs must be taken, and traces of obvious torture must be left, and they must be communicated and disseminated to all those who might dare to commit an act or a violation. According to Nietzsche:

“With the help of such images and procedures one eventually memorizes five or six “I will not’s,” thus giving one’s promise in return for the advantages offered by society. And indeed! with the help of this sort of memory, one eventually did come to “see reason”! – Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over the emotions, the whole murky affair which goes by the name of thought, all these privileges and showpieces of man: what a high price has been paid for them! how much blood and horror is at the bottom of all ‘good things’.”

In this quotes, it appears that Nietzsche’s goal is not to just describe the objective of ‘such images and procedures’ (forcing the victim to memorize the things that he should not do, and forcing him to make a promise that he will not do them). He wants to connect the act of exacting and displaying punishment with the illusion of having reason. With this punishment comes a promise to abstain from violating the rules, and with this promise comes a certain set of advantages (which include being saved from punishment), and with that emerges a vague conception of ‘reason.’ ‘Seriousness’ and ‘mastery over the emotions,’ are qualities of ‘reason’ that emerge out of punishment. With this system of internalization, the unbearable punishment convinces the victim that the reasonable thing to do is to avoid punishment by accepting, begrudgingly, the moral principles forced upon him by the dictator.

It is not alway about reason (or the illusion of having reason). It is also about the notion that when a pledge made by the victim to the dictator is broken, the violation is not against the dictator only, it is also against the community at large. From Assad’s perspective, his regime offered the denizens of Syria protection and because of that they owe him allegiance, and anybody who deviates from this path is either a mokharreb (a ruiner) or a motatarref (an extremist).This eruption in mass protests with demands of reform and change are not only an aberration, they are also a betrayal of the community wherein these debtors reside.

In a 2012 speech, Assad questioned the moral and intellectual foundation of these protests:

“a revolution requires thinkers, and a revolution is built upon an ideal, so where is the thinker? Who knows a thinker in this revolution? A revolution requires a leader. Who knows a leader to this revolution? A revolution is built upon knowledge and thought, not upon ignorance. […] A revolution is usually that of the people, not of those who were exported from outside to revolt against the people. […] By God, is this a revolution, and are these revolutionaries? They are a bunch of criminals. (my translation).”

In this quote, Assad is criminalizing his victims. His conception of what a criminal is appears to be not only a person who deviated from the general paradigm that he and his father set, he is also a person who decided to attack and ‘bite the hand that fed him’. Assad’s father created a new state: a state born out of an imagined Syrian glory that exists only in the minds of those who fabricated it (and here I am referring specifically to the events that resulted with the ascension of Assad and his associates to power). From his perspective, if the Syrian man revolts against him, he is revolting against the “thinker” (his father, and those who preceded him from the founding fathers of Ba’athism) and the “ideal” (Ba’athism and pan-Syrianism). He is also revolting against the leader personified in his character, and the multitude of portraits and statues spread throughout the country. He is revolting against “knowledge” (a system of unchecked morality put in place by the Ba’athist regime and enforced by a formidable security apparatus) and a “thought” (a mode of thinking that requires unconditional submission and an utmost rejection of organized dissent). The word ‘revolution’ becomes synonymous with ‘betrayal,’ ‘treachery,’ and ‘collaborating with the enemy’

Assad’s speech does not represent mere rhetoric, but rather an ideal that he wants to force upon the people of Syria. Nietzsche provides an account of this mode of thinking in aphorism nineteen in his second essay of his genealogy where he talks about the relationship between the founders of the current society and its current members. Assad has the “conviction that the race,” which is the Syrian society in its pre-revolution form, “only exist[ed] by virtue of the sacrifice and achievements of the forefathers,” who are the thinkers, the leaders, and the people of knowledge and thought. And “[a]ccording to this kind of logic, the fear of the forefather and of his power, the consciousness of indebtedness towards him necessarily increases, as the race itself becomes ever-more victorious, independent, respected, feared … ultimately, the forefather is necessarily transfigured into a god” or a demigod in the case of Assad and his father.

“From Souq Hamidiyeh to the top of Mount Qassioun, there is hardly any public space that is not watched over by the face of an Asad.” (Caldwell, 2011)

This omnipresent, yet invisible, undetectable, and possibly indiscernible existence of Assad, is crucial to Assad’s project of control and superiority. In a Panoptical fashion as described by Foucault, Assad, as the creditor, must maintain this image of benevolence; he must make it obvious, that despite his inability to physically be everywhere, that he is, in fact, through his project, there, whether the Syrians like it or not. He is watching the citizen whether he is physically present or not. He is the jail guard, the prosecutor, the executioner, the legislator, and the source of morality. He is the one whose gaze commands both respect and fear, and through which he can ensure this unconditional subservience. And to him, he must make sure that his debtor, his slave and servant, knows that in the event that he does not repay his debt, Assad can do whatever it takes in order to return things to the status quo – even in that means the wholesale slaughter of entire communities and the destruction of cities, villages and neighborhoods.

But despite this spectacular display of power, omnipresence and formidability, and despite the Assad’s quest to ensure that he remains the undisputed ruler, the ultimate source of things, he must also ensure the continuation of history as envisioned by the creators of this history. A moral dependency on the notion of a glorious past, and a nostalgia to an imagined victory must exist. But does that not mean that the creditor will never, under any circumstance, be a true master (a man of great and unconditional power)? Because he has convinced himself that he is the master of the people, as well his own fate, Assad has failed to realize that his existence, and his moral supremacy at this historic juncture means nothing if it was not for a history that forms the basis of his legitimacy.

To Nietzsche, his atheist compatriots were not atheist enough because they never accepted the death of God. They continued to espouse moral principles that have a foundation in a moral structure that evolved through the belief of a metaphysical being. Consequently, these ‘atheists’ were not sovereign individuals for they were unable to fully realize what it is to be a person free of any dependance, and chose to be lazy pretenders. Similarly, the creditors of today are also lazy pretenders; and perhaps this drives their proclivity to exact punishment when none is necessary. As mentioned above, using Nietzsche words, for one to locate his relevance in history, and his legitimacy as a creditor, the dictator looks in history books or manifestos. His conviction of the legitimacy of his race must be solidified, he must transform his father into a God, and his ideology into a religion. And by this, the dictator forfeits his position as a truly sovereign and powerful man.

He has not accepted the death of history. To him, there must be an unconditional and unquestionable adherence to ideals that resembles the religious person’s adherence to metaphysics. This adherence has important fundamental qualities: 1) commitment, 2) unconditionality, 3) conceptualizing and probably eternalizing authority, and 4) exhibiting the illusion of a perspective that “denies its own perspectival character.” The Syrian regime did not attribute these qualities to a ‘metaphysical perspective,’ but rather to a fabricated history (which as mentioned above, is forced into the minds and hearts of the Syrian man and woman in a Panoptical fashion). So in this sense, the leader of the regime and its master, the creditor who enslaves, and punishes his debtors, is not a ‘sovereign individual’. He the slave, and the debtor. His master is not God, but history.

If the regime truly wants to be the ultimate authority, which is unconditional and eternal, and which finds expression in the commitment of its slaves to an unshakable master-slave relationship through promises and pledges, and which is conceptualized through a perspective that has no internal consistencies, and no internal contradiction, and is truly stripped from a ‘perspectival character,’ then the regime, must, by any means possible, kill history. And this is an impossibility.

-Omar Chaaban

Omar Chaaban is a Palestinian-Canadian writer based in Vancouver. He blogs here.

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