Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Struggle for Syria’s Body & Soul!

According to Shaaban Abbod of An-Nahar, the struggle between Islamists and secularists in Syria is intensifying. The recent sign in this regard can be seen in the open Letter to the President sent by Syria’s foremost Islamic scholars and Imams proclaiming the existence of an official conspiracy against Islamic education in the country. The leaders of this conspiracy seem to the secular forces in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Religious Endowment (?), where the new Minister has just issued an edict against admitting students into religious schools at the preparatory level.

But the existence of such a conspiracy is very dubious indeed, and the main reason for the edict seems to be the poor quality of education provided in preparatory religious schools with regard to math and science, which limits the choices of students when it comes to high school level education. Attending regular preparatory schools, on the other hand, affords more choices to students at a very critical time in their life. Moreover, the country definitely needs more scientists and technicians then they do religious scholars.

Of course, the educational system in the country needs to be revamped, and greater emphasis and respectability should be assigned to vocational training, but that’s a different issue really. In this regard, the desire of many of us (check the recent discussion on Syria Comment) to put greater emphasis on civil, democratic and liberal values will come in full confrontation with the desire of religious forces, of all stripes, to put greater stress on traditional values, be they Islamic, Christian, Druze, or what have you.

As such, the question regarding whether education is a key ingredient in the ongoing processes of democratization seems to beg the point that we are hardly going to agree on certain very critical details pertaining to freedom of conscience, academic freedom, gender equality, etc. etc. – issues that go to the heart of a democratic education and run in the face of existing traditional and religious norms. The reality is that both the regime and the society are against the sorely needed civic education that most liberal activist crave and advocate.

But, can we, alternatively, impose democratic values on our people? Can democratic values, considering their very nature, come as a result of imposition?

Some might say that Turkey did it. Indeed, but the price was enormous, and Turkey was helped by the fact that, having been the center of empire for a very long time, it still retained many of the needed and qualified technocrats and administrators to help Mustafa Kemal manage this necessary transitional period, and to take over the entire process after his passing. Turkey had also had quite the head-start over the periphery in terms of its efforts to modernize and, to an extant, secularize, their society, perhaps as long as two centuries worth. Evading a direct experience with colonialism must have helped as well, as the nationals struggle against the invaders was a very brief affair, relatively speaking, and, as such, it did not divert attention from the cause at hand and did not stain it by having associated so directly and manifestly with foreignness. The experiences of the past two centuries have afforded the Kemalist experience a certain historical background and context. Modernity and Secularism were not introduced as a completely new experiment, rather they were presented as a continuation of previous efforts in this regard.

Well, we, in Syria, do have a century of experimentation behind us now, albeit of the failed variety, but, then, one could argue, so were the Turkish experiments. Still, the nature of our recent history as well as that of the current ruling regime have served to alienate and decimate the traditional professional and technocratic classes on all levels, and have, more importantly, failed, for the most part, to produce any suitable and qualified alternatives.

So, who is going to champion the cause of change in our midst, and who is going to be responsible for the education, especially that much coveted, by some, and loathed and dreaded, by most, liberal education?

Our struggle as liberal reformers at this stage should be to simply create a niche for ourselves in the constantly shifting sands in our country and region in the hope of riding out the oncoming onslaught of illiberal mayhem in order to reemerge at some pointing the future, near or distant, and manage the mess that everybody else is bound to leave us.

But, in order to reemerge, we should never disappear, we should continue to make our presence felt and accepted in our environs, no matter how begrudgingly and no matter how dangerous things might become. This is easier said than done, of course.

Meanwhile, and while pragmatism is always needed, can we say that all is fair in the struggle for Syria’s body and soul? Well, I’d say there is one redline here: violence. We should never advocate violence no matter how tempting the situation might be, for once unleashed, violence tends to be uncontrollable. We should even avoid, as hard as we can, the temptation to respond to violence in kind, if not for reasons of principle, then for reasons of strategy, seeing that we, the liberals, are the weakest party out there, and, as such, are not in a good position to win a violent battle. Still, we can potentially “embarrass” the other side into ceasing its violent attacks when we opt for nonviolent tactics of confrontation. Otherwise, we’re fucked.

But while we survive, we need to work on everything at once. We cannot wait until we educate everybody in the proper manner, because we don’t even agree on what is proper. Furthermore, if I am willing to wait 40 years to see some of my values clearly implanted in our soil, will the world?

Multitasking is the key to success. We have to work on education and be involved in politics and work as technocrats and professionals of various sorts and stop trying to over-intellectualize the problem at hand. The real solutions to such problems in life as authoritarianism and oppression, both social and political, have always been stumbled upon as a result of trial and error rather than thought out and charted beforehand.

And so, we plod on, with no guarantees of anything, not even a good night’s sleep. The ravages of the struggle for our country’s and our world’s body and soul will have to be borne by our own bodies and souls, which are the only real currency that we have in this world.