By Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
June 12, 2012
The conflict in Syria has recast the political fault lines in the Mideast. Divisions that were once demarcated by ideology and religion, are today centered around the issue of overthrowing the Assad government. Arab leftists, nationalists and Islamists are now divided between and amongst themselves over the Syrian question, and have borne yet another quasi-movement, the anti-interventionist “third-way” camp. Third-wayers, comprised of intellectuals and activists from academia, the mainstream media and NGOs, support elements in the home-grown opposition, reject the Syrian National Council (SNC) on account of its US-NATO-Israeli-Arab backing, and reject the Assad leadership on account of its repression of dissent and its alleged worthlessness to the Resistance project.
While the third-way camp is anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine in orientation, this hardly constitutes a political position. The Palestinian cause has become deeply etched in the Arab collective subconscious and has even become an increasingly pervasive slogan in western liberal activist discourse. Now the real litmus of Arab intellectuals’ and activists’ commitment to the Palestinian cause is no longer their support for Palestinian rights, but rather, their support for the Assad leadership’s struggle against the imperialist-Zionist-Arab moderate axis’ onslaught against it.
Supporting Assad’s struggle against this multi-pronged assault is supporting Palestine today because Syria has become the new front line of the war between Empire and those resisting it. The third-way progressive intellectuals are failing to see the Syrian crisis through this strategic lens. They have shown an inability to “take a step back from the details and look at the bigger picture,” to quote Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
The third-way campaign against Assad only serves the strategy and interests of the US and Israel, who have made no secret of the fact that his fall would help them achieve their wider strategic ambitions of weakening Iran and resistance forces in Lebanon and Palestine. Moreover, agitation against the regime on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes further incites sectarian oppositionists who identify the regime with Alawis, thereby indirectly fanning the flames of Sunni-Shia tension in Syria and the region at large.
The exigencies of the situation require Arab intellectuals to assume a more strategic and responsible position which is based on a recognition that despite its many flaws, the Syrian regime is actively resisting imperialist aggression and anything less than lending it full support — for the duration of this crisis at least — is tantamount to opposing its resistance to imperialist aggression. Although part of our duty as intellectuals is to call for political reforms and a greater inclusion of the homegrown, legitimate opposition in the reform process, this must be done in a manner which neither undermines the regime’s current position vis-à-vis our shared enemies, nor benefits the latter.
In fifteen months, third-wayers have failed to deliver a political solution for a conflict that now belongs entirely to larger geopolitical players. Instead, third-way proponents have taken a seat at the fringes of this conflict and satisfy themselves with pats on the back for “moral consistency” – all the while continuing to lend their legitimacy to a less sovereign and less secure Syria.
As Lenin observed regarding third-way politics: “The only choice is – either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms, there can never be a non-class or an above class ideology). Hence to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology. There is much talk of spontaneity. But spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology.”
Although the quote relates to class analysis, Lenin’s argument lends itself well to the Syrian case since he viewed imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. It is fully in line with Lenin’s logic to therefore argue that the geo-strategic balance of power and the political exigencies at hand leave very little room for such irresponsible and aimless rejectionism practiced by leftist intellectuals, when this only serves to strengthen imperialism both ideologically and politically.
It is not a coincidence that today’s third-wayers also have a misplaced faith in the ability of the Syrian masses to spontaneously resist imperial designs on their country independently of the Assad regime, despite the massive information war waged against them and the imperialist coalition’s firm grip on the uprising and its future direction. This assumption also ignores the sizeable number of Syrians — at least half of the voting population — who have entrusted the Assad regime to confront Empire’s hegemonic ambitions and lead them out of this crisis.
Indeed it is something of an irony that many ordinary Syrians who do not enjoy the same social function or profession as intellectuals have been far more successful than the latter in resisting the propaganda onslaught directed at them. While such an advanced level of political consciousness is in part the product of Syrian political culture, it has undoubtedly also been sustained by the Assad regime’s political identity as a resisting frontline state, and reinforced by the punitive measures imperialist powers have subjected it and its people to as a result of this identity. The history of struggle and sacrifice in neighboring Palestine and Lebanon, and the wider resistance paradigm in which they are anchored, have also contributed to this critical consciousness.
In effect, Syrian political consciousness has in large part been shaped by these challenges and the sacrifices the Syrian people had to make in facing them – in short, by their commitment to foiling imperialist-Zionist schemes. As defined by Marxist educator Paulo Freire, “critical consciousness” or “conscientization” doesn’t merely involve a deep understanding of oppression and domination, but also, the will and commitment to struggle against it: “Conscientization is not exactly the starting point of commitment. Conscientization is more of a product of commitment. I do not have to be already critically self-conscious in order to struggle. By struggling I become conscious/aware.”
Given that third-way intellectuals are producers and disseminators of knowledge and are hence responsible for their own conscientization as well as that of the Arab public, a dilution of their resistance consciousness can only mean that they are not sufficiently committed to the struggle, according to Freire’s logic.
This is largely due to intellectuals’ professional considerations as they relate to academia’s political standards and criteria for publication and promotion. However, politically correct liberal discourses centered on individual rights unconsciously seduce people further into auto-censorship. While the appeal of liberal ideology was less potent in the past, the rebranding of the Arab uprisings as a liberal democratic popular wave has rendered liberalism the new intellectual default position for many progressive Arabs who are keen to remain at the vanguard of regional political trends.
Although Empire has always engaged in a civilizing mission to implant liberalism in “authoritarian” cultures, its latest incarnation of liberal imperialism is less the overt cultural colonialism of the past, characterized by Orientalist tropes, and more a campaign which markets an attractive liberal ideology to more discerning intellectual consumers. Thus, unlike its cruder predecessor, which was easier to detect and hence resist, today’s intellectual imperialism works in far more insidious ways on account of its affected benevolence and seeming universalism, both of which facilitate its internalization.
Moreover, in contrast to more direct modes of imperial control, the new liberal imperialism is an exercise in hegemonic domination which is not imposed but afforded its consent by those its hegemonizes. As with the hegemony practiced within western societies, hegemonic imperialism is exercised by civil society actors like the mainstream media, academia and NGOs, even more so than by governments.
As acknowledged by a senior British diplomat who worked for the Blair government, Sir Robert Cooper, in his seminal essay “The New Liberal Imperialism,” wrote: “What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle… a framework in which each has a share in the government, in which no single country dominates and in which the governing principles are not ethnic but legal. The lightest of touches will be required from the centre.” While Cooper was referring to the laws of international and regional organizations, his logic can just as easily be applied to the supposedly universal rules and standards governing the media and academia.
None of this is to say that progressive Arab intellectuals are intellectually colonized; only that they remain imperialized by liberal hegemony. As in the Marxist-Leninist understanding of the term, colonialism is but one expression or phase of imperialism and as such, the two concepts are not synonymous. Colonialism involves the transfer of a population to a new territory, where they live as permanent settlers, whereas imperialism refers to the way one country exercises power over another, either by means of colonialism or through indirect mechanisms of control. By implication, intellectual colonialism can be seen as a direct Euro-American epistemological invasion which leaves a distinct ethnic footprint, while intellectual imperialism is an indirect form of epistemic control which appears culturally neutral when exercised outside the Metropole, and class-blind when administered within it. It is precisely because of the undiscriminating nature of this deeply entrenched and well concealed domination that de-imperialization is a much harder goal to achieve than decolonization.
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is an independent Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion”, and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.