Academic journal article Arena Journal

The Beast of Syrian Modernity: The Prison in the Writings of Yassin Al-Haj Saleh

Academic journal article Arena Journal

The Beast of Syrian Modernity: The Prison in the Writings of Yassin Al-Haj Saleh

Article excerpt

It's not always easy

to face the animal

even if it looks at you

without fear or hate

it does so fixedly

and seems to disdain

the subtle secret it carries

It seems better to feel

the obviousness of the world

that noisily day and night

drills and damages

the silence of the soul.

Jean Follain

For Syrian dissident thinker Yassin al-Haj Saleh (YHS) (born 1961), modernity is at once 'a common, universal, and necessary good',1 and a specifically liberal, Western system of meaning that has been violent in its opposition to Arab self-determination.2 We might add that it is a common good because of what James Ferguson calls 'the expectations of modernity'.3 We take this as a stark reminder that one ought to expect more from modernity than a free-market economy, industrialization, urbanization and the like. As a common and universal good, modernity, first and foremost, rests on intellectual prosperity; freedom of expression, the protection of civil liberties, and the capacity for a society to take epistemological leaps and make cultural revolutions in the interest of a plurality of claims to knowledge. Yet accompanying modernity is also a set of 'consequences' - to borrow the term from Anthony Giddens;4 totalitarianism, 'civilizational' conflict, regional warfare, the threat of environmental fallout, the disenfranchisement and displacement of large sections of the human population, not to mention the pervasiveness of neoliberal economics in almost every domain of social life. This tension in definitions points to the fact that the idea of modernity is the subject of no little doubt and dispute. Whether in the context of a 'West', 'East', 'Global South', 'Orient', 'developed', or 'developing' world - I use these terms for convenience - efforts to understand modernity, to locate it, describe it and define it, are predicated more on assumptions than on findings. 'Modernity' is itself an approximation, a shorthand term for a foreboding spectre that hovers above us, uncertain in its relationships with our traditions, and relentless in its building of our social institutions. In attempting to resolve the specific tension in YHS's understanding of modernity's expectations and consequences, we turn to his understanding of Syrian modernity as the result of the interplay between three dominant forms of violence: Assadist, Islamist and imperialist.

It is with the abovementioned consequences and expectations in mind that YHS places the anti-Assadist struggle at the centre of the Syrian political agenda, as a part of his commitment as a Syrian intellectual to emancipation and democratization. He views the prison as emblematic of Syrian modernity and its culture under the Assads and has written prolifically on this subject. An advocate of critique as a form of agency and social responsibility, he maintains that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation and argues for active discursive intervention as a primary way to incite social change. When Syrian protesters eager for change challenged the Assad dictatorship in March 2011, YHS promptly followed suit and became one of the protest movement's most astute participantobservers and critical chroniclers. This has cemented his position as the hakim ('sage') of the Syrian Revolution, and the conscience of Syria.5

Since the early 2000s YHS has audaciously argued for civil society, and political and religious reform, and against authoritarianism, imperialism and theocracy, which he views as mutations of modernity. Today, as he writes from his self-imposed exile in Turkey, these mutations have combined to produce Daesh6 - or ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), as it is more commonly known. His explicit commentary on the circulation of power under the Assads, his writings on political Islam, and his analysis of Western policies in relation to the Middle East inform the way in which he thinks about the political dynamics of the Syrian revolution and the subsequent impasse. …

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