Growing up in Syria, I learned quickly what exactly constituted a political sin, or an error in one’s political reasoning. These were not only sins in the eyes of official Syria. They were equally sins in the eyes of popular culture, including my high school friends, all born like me, in post-1963 Syria, where Baathist indoctrination was constant. I knew I had committed a sin, not only because of the look I instantly got, the open eyes staring at me with disbelief, but also because of the lecture that was certain to follow. I also learned, that there were sins that could be forgiven, provided certain acts of atonement were carried out, and sins that branded you forever as suspicious and almost certainly an ‘agent’ of a hostile power.
Urban notables – minor sin: Urban notables are simply not very trustworthy. They are either wealthy or were wealthy in the not too distant past. Either way, their wealth was acquired from oppressing peasants. Where else could it have possibly come from? Educated urban notables, especially Western educated, are, needless to say, the most problematic. So, if you happen to belong to one of these families, you should try to avoid the subject. The worst thing you can do is to act proud of your legacy. If you happen to commit a sin of such sorts, first listen politely to the lecture that will follow, then atone for your sin by denouncing all such families as inevitably corrupt and historically of no value.
Hashemites – minor with cardinal potential: A more advanced version of the ‘urban notables’ sin is the sin of regarding the Hashemites as in any sense worthy of admiration. The Great Arab Revolt should never have happened, because the Ottomans, Sultan Abd al-Hamid in particular, was anti-Zionist. The British played the Hashemites then turned against them; end of the story! Any attempt to cast them in favourable light is a sin; a sin I confess, I proved capable of repeatedly committing, irrespective of the reactions it generated. The problem was that I grew up in a home that was fiercely pro-everything the Hashemite revolt attempted to achieve. Even my elder aunt would describe with pride the Syrian National Congress (1919-1920) and the enlightened constitution that it produced. And so, when I would share stories of Prince Faisal’s battle cry, ‘Death, in the cause of freedom, is sweet oh Arabs’, when I spoke with pride about the Arab state Sharif Hussein strived to create, I was quickly silenced. A long lecture would follow, as the heads of onlookers shook with contempt.
Peace Makers – minor with serious cardinal potential: I was eleven when the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited Israel, twelve, when the Camp David Accords were signed, and twenty eight when the Israeli-Jordanian peace deal was signed in 1994. As I watched these events, I always had a pleasant feeling. Not because I felt the treaties restored all of the ‘rights’ that should have been restored, nor because I felt they succeeded in correcting all the ‘wrongs’ that had been committed. I was happy rather because peace to me was intuitively superior to war, and hence all peace makers are worthy of respect, at the very least for the courage this required. I hated how Sadat was vilified in Syria after 1977, but I was wise enough to not share my feelings even with close family members. Later, when I was nearly thirty-four, I watched with sadness and disbelief as the Asad-Clinton meeting in Geneva (March 2000) failed to achieve peace. The sin here is to imply that compromise and peace are superior to pride and war. My eighth-grade teacher of al-tarbīyah al-waṭanīyah (national upbringing), would constantly repeat to me that in matters of national pride, only cowards compromise. My words were a sin of ignorance, but if I repeated them they would become something much worse. To share examples of any such ‘compromise’, regardless of who had enacted it, from the Prophet’s Treaty of Hudaybiyyah to Saladin’s Treaty of Ramla, is to share stories of loss and defeat. All such treaties are wrong and should be rejected on principle. My teacher and others seemed so addicted to the idea of war and conflict, that I often wondered if they could digest a peace treaty, even if entirely on their terms!
Freemasons – cardinal: Arab nationalists, and subsequently Islamists, have made the conscious, or unconscious, decision to adopt the entire Nazi approach to freemasonry which in turn had been adopted from earlier European anti-Semitic propaganda. Update and embellish, and you arrive at how most Syrians, even my teenage friends, regarded freemasonry - a global secret society created with the sole purpose of advancing the Zionist project in Palestine. As such, to be called a freemason, is to be stigmatized as treacherous. Do not waste your time pointing out that the zealot of all zealots, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (or Asadabadi), had joined freemasonry along with his disciple Muhammad Abduh, or that even Abd al Qadir al-Jazairi, and numerous other Syrian notables, were masons. At best, you will have them all cast as traitors and proto-Zionists. Mind you, your mere attempt to rationalize this idea is to evict you entirely from the realm of the patriots with no possible path for atonement.
The Glorious Past – cardinal: Syria was once a perfect country. Do not ask when exactly this was the case. Dates are not relevant here. The point is Syria was perfect before it was ‘messed up’ by foreign hostile powers. In fact, the entire Arab nation (do not attempt to define this in geographic terms or – again – try to designate a date for it) was in a glorious state before foreign powers conspired against it (see below for more details). It is a sin to imply that our past is anything short of glorious, and a very serious sin to imply that it was problematic because of what we did, rather than because of what others had done. In a recent conversation, I dared to point out that the Alawite community in Syria suffered from severe poverty in the 1950s (an indisputable fact), and that post-independence governments should have done much more to reach out to this community. My Syrian friends, Sunni and Damascene, made it clear to me that it was a serious sin to imply that our past was not perfect. The Alawites were treated perfectly, and everything that transpired in Syria in the 1960s and beyond is only because of foreign conspiracies that turned the Alwaites against the rest of Syrians, rather than an expression of a historic injustice.
The Ancient Conspiracy – cardinal: You might think that the Syrian regime’s talk of a cosmic conspiracy against it is a fascinating new product of a Machiavellian mind. Not in the least! The Syrian regime simply adopted an ancient tradition, one that I remember well from my teenage years in Damascus. A grand conspiracy of cosmic proportions is responsible for the break-up of the Ottoman empire, the borders dividing Arabs, the regimes that rule above them, their scientific and economic backwardness, and, last but not least, Israel and everything related to Israel. To be ignorant of this conspiracy is a sin that can be forgiven. Denying it, on the other hand, or daring to point out that even a fragment of it may not hold up to critical analysis, is a cardinal sin for which no atonement is possible. After all, what exactly would you be proposing? That we, Syrians and Arabs, are responsible for these sad realities? Or that we are capable of changing them, yet choose otherwise?
What is perhaps the saddest aspect of all of this is just how popular these ideas remain in contemporary Syria. They successfully transform most political discussions into a minefield. At any minute, your voice will be overwhelmed with emotional outbursts, and various types of proclamations. In my case, I’m quickly dismissed as an extension of my American mother. What else could possibly explain my stubborn inclination to sin? The words of my late Sufi teacher, Bashir al-Bani (1911-2008) come back to me, ‘tread carefully my son, God forgives all sins, but Syrians do not.’
*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.