Lessons for Bashar Al-Assad From Nicolae Ceausescu
by Stephen Schwartz
As I write these words, Syria moves closer to the collapse of the Baath party regime headed by the feckless Bashar Al-Assad. The essential precondition for a successful revolution has been fulfilled: the Syrian army is turning against the dictatorship, with soldiers refusing to fire on demonstrators in the insurrectionary center of Deraa. The split in the armed forces, previously held together by allegiance to the heterodox Alawite sect of Shia Islam as well as by family ties and political patronage, reflects the deep disaffection of the Syrian people with the Baathists.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network, has broadcast graphic images of wounded Syrian soldiers shot by their own uniformed compatriots, reportedly for repudiating orders to kill protestors. The injured received medical care from the Deraa insurgents. Syrian military personnel refuse increasingly to murder their neighbors and relatives. Some officers have defected to the opposition, along with hundreds of Baath party officials. Most hearteningly, Syrians are marching with the slogan "We are not 'Salafis,' we are not terrorists, this is the revolution of the young!"
"Salafi" is, as every Muslim knows, a term unjustly appropriated by the Saudi-financed Wahhabi sect, the most extreme, violent, and fundamentalist trend ever to have claimed the legacy of Sunni Islam. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as it grew obvious that the Ottoman empire was doomed, groups of reformers appeared among the Muslims. The most important of these critics of Islam from within became known as "Salafis," but were the diametrical opposite of the Wahhabis. The Wahhabis prefer to be called "Salafis" because Wahhabis know that most Muslims despise them, and they flee from their correct name in the same way that Stalinist Communists called themselves "progressives."
The 19th-20th century Salafi reformers and the Wahhabis became prominent in Muslim affairs at the same time, along with Muslim reformist and fundamentalist movements in India. Both the 19th-20th century Salafi reformers and the Wahhabis call for emulation of Muhammad and his Companions and Successors in the first three generations of Muslims, known as the salaf or "predecessors" (aslaf in its Arabic plural form.) But the 19th-20th century Salafis represented a modernizing movement in Islam, led by three key figures: the Iranian Sayyid Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh, and the Syrian Rashid Rida. Although, as is typical in any religion, this group sought inspiration from the personal examples of Muhammad and the Companions and Successors, they wanted to learn from the West. They criticized aspects of Islam thirteen centuries after its appearance in terms similar to those employed by Westerners: that Muslims had become too dependent on the established rulings of clerics and had neglected the role of reason in religious discourse.
The 19th-20th century Salafis sought an ameliorative reform, by attempting to harmonize Islam with Western attainments in science and other intellectual endeavors; they looked back to Muhammad and the aslaf because they believed the Islamic outlook of the aslaf could encompass modern, Western attitudes, including rationalism and the scientific method. Al-Afghani, a wild adventurer, advocated pan-Islamic unity in the face of Western domination, and opposed Sufi spirituality as a diversion from the demands of daily life, but did not call Muslims to jihad against the West. Abduh absorbed Western concepts of nationalism and urged the Egyptians and other Muslim-majority nations to adopt unifying identities, but did not agitate for rejection of Western intellectual gains, and even appealed for continued British rule over Egypt (where he served as Grand Mufti or chief Islamic cleric), the better to educate Muslims in Western achievements. Rida was a deeply contradictory figure who, while conservative and sympathetic to Saudi Wahhabism at the end of his life, favored the training of Muslim clerics in international law, sociology, world history, and Western science, as well as Islamic law or shariah. None of the three advocated jihad against Western society, killing of non-Muslims, or other concepts visible in present-day radical Islam.
Most importantly, the Salafi movement of the 19th-20th centuries did not arrogate to itself the right to decide who was or was not a "real Muslim" or claim that Muslims as a whole had left their religion. These allegations – especially the charge that nearly all ordinary Muslims living in the past three centuries, and even before, have been apostates – are peculiar to Wahhabism and the other movements like it, including Pakistani Deobandism, which inspires the Taliban, and another South Asian variety of extremism, that of the Jama'at-e Islami, founded by the 20th century writer Abu'l Ala Mawdudi.
Takfir, or expulsion from the body of Muslims, and condemnation to death of those whose Islam the Wahhabis and other radical fundamentalists find insufficiently rigorous, was previously rare in Islam. It was seldom applied to large numbers of people, and almost never over differences in doctrine or practice, except in sectarian conflicts such as those between Sunnis and Shias, and other large-scale intra-Muslim wars.
Syrians have a long history of resistance to Wahhabi fundamentalism, and the impending fall of the Al-Assad dynasty is unlikely to herald a contamination of the country by Islamist radicals.
But as I have watched the YouTube and other internet videos from Syria, I have been reminded of a chapter from history that has relatively little to do with Islam. Over the last weekend, the San Francisco International Film Festival screened a documentary on the life of the Romanian Communist autocrat Nicolae Ceausescu. The film, titled The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, was directed by the Romanian Andrei Ujica and released last year in Europe.
If I had any advice for Bashar Al-Assad, it might be this: watch the Ceausescu documentary, and take heed.
The cinematic life of the Romanian tyrant, a modern Dracula, will not be popular in theatres or among the internet film audience. It is almost three hours long, entirely composed of film footage compiled at Ceausescu's order and excerpted by Ujica, as if to present a meditation on his life during Ceausescu's military trial, with his wife Elena at his side, in 1989. Much of the film is silent, and it has no explanatory narration. When I saw it, the audience seemed to consist mainly of elderly Romanians. Some of the people Ceausescu flattered, and was flattered by, are still easily identified: Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth. But in the West, aside from Romanians, a few specialists in Communist history, and other people with long memories, it is doubtful that many will recall the faces, or even the names, of the Communist leaders of the 1970s whom also Ceausescu frequented. These included Kim Il-song from North Korea, the Russian Leonid Brezhnev, the dissenting Alexander Dubcek from former Czechoslovakia, and the East German dictator Erich Honecker. Only the image of Mao Zedong, whom Ceausescu emulated, remains familiar. All of them died in their beds.
Ceausescu did not. He and his spouse were executed after their trial, on 25 December 1989, and their corpses were exposed on Romanian and international television.
The Romanian Communist party-state had much in common with the Syria of the Al-Assad dynasty. Inhabitants of the former Ottoman dependencies of Moldavia and Wallachia, the Romanians had a disposition toward the east, reflected in their Orthodox Christian religious affiliation. The name Ceausescu may be of Turkish origin, based on the title "chavush," meaning a servant, emissary, page, or sergeant in the Ottoman state structure. Ceausescu's Romania trained and helped finance the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, fighting against Turkey, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasir Arafat.
Like Syria under the Al-Assads, Ceausescu's Romania walked a narrow line between Muscovite power and involvement with Western institutions. Romania refused to participate in the 1968 Warsaw Pact occupation that removed Dubcek's reformist Communist leadership from the Czechoslovak government. I was a young Communist in 1968 and remember the great excitement some of us felt at the emergence in Prague of a "Communism with a human face." As a youthful aspirant in literature, I was especially heartened by the abolition of censorship in Czechoslovakia and publication of modernist classics – including the works of Prague's great Jewish son, Franz Kafka (who wrote in German). I broke with the Soviet-oriented Communists in 1968, in protest over the Russian-directed invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The only uplifting moment in the Ceausescu documentary comes when the Romanian dictator proclaims his defiance of Moscow's intervention in Prague, with flaming idioms and gestures. But even then, some of us wondered if Ceausescu was not simply manipulating the world public, in the hope of moving his country closer to "neutral" but Communist Yugoslavia, under Tito.
The Prague Spring suppressed by the Russians and the Muslim Spring ongoing today are similar, with the possibility of greater success in today's Muslim lands for an immediate opening to democracy. The 21 years between the Prague Spring in 1968 and the end of Eastern European Communism in 1989 seem to have been telescoped in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and now Syria. Because of innovations in communications technology, political change is more rapid than in the past. But we may also observe that the tempo of social transformation has accelerated, as the periods between the onset of protests and the fall of dictatorships shortens. The time required for gestation of an entrepreneurial class that can lead a bourgeois, rather than a communist, fascist, or Islamist revolution, has also diminished.
This may be explained by a theory of uneven and combined development. That is, as countries come from despotism and corruption into the world of enterprise, accountability, and popular sovereignty, they do not have to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. As I wrote in 2004, "the past century and a half have seen a speedup in the rate at which countries become stable, prosperous, democracies. It took 150 years for Spain, once the richest country in Europe thanks to the gold and silver of the New World, to become what it is today, and the true 'new Spain' did not emerge, bright and beautiful, until the death of Franco in 1975. Germany required 75 years, from 1880 to 1955, and the presence of American troops; Japan needed 60, from 1900 to 1960, also with direct American help. But for South Korea the process took only 34 years, from 1953 to 1987, and suddenly the country was ripe for transformation into the democratic state we see today. In 25 years from Pinochet's seizure of power to his resignation from the army, in 1998, Chile was equally transformed… I will not deny that bloodshed accompanied all these processes: Spain suffered two civil wars and countless rebellions, over two centuries, and Germany and Japan fought in both world wars; South Korea was devastated by aggression from its northern neighbor; Pinochet was hardly an admirable figure."
Romania, like Syria, accommodated both the West, symbolized by De Gaulle, Nixon, and Queen Elizabeth, and the East, as represented by Brezhnev, Mao, and Kim. But the double (not a parallel) path could not be pursued forever, and Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were swept away in the collapse of Communism. Similarly, Syria has maintained diplomatic relations with the U.S. while allying with Iran. This duplicitous policy also cannot endure. Washington is now under pressure from Americans as well as Syrian dissidents to recall our ambassador from Damascus.
When Ceausescu's army turned against him, he was tried before his summary execution in the company of his feral wife. A transcript of the trial reveals that the Romanian usurper was
charged with many crimes for which Bashar Al-Assad may also be accused. In the words of Romanian prosecutor Gica Popa, Ceausescu "always claimed to act and speak on behalf of the people, to be a beloved son of the people, but he only tyrannized the people all the time." He and his wife "carried out acts that are incompatible with human dignity and social thinking; they acted in a despotic and criminal way; they destroyed the people whose leaders they claimed to be… This situation is known. The catastrophic situation of the country is known all over the world."
The prosecutor asked, "Who ordered shooting into the crowd? There is still shooting going on," the prosecutor said. "Fanatics, whom you are paying. They are shooting at children; they are shooting arbitrarily into the apartments. Who are these fanatics? Are they the people, or are you paying them?... You have never been able to hold a dialogue with the people. You were not used to talking to the people. You held monologues and the people had to applaud." The prosecutor declared that the Ceausescus "not only killed children, young people and adults in [the cities]; they allowed [secret police] members to wear military uniforms to create the impression among the people that the army is against them. They wanted to separate the people from the army… You should have stayed in Iran… The crimes against the people grew year by year. They were only busy enslaving the people and building up an apparatus of power."
Every word of this indictment applies now to Bashar Al-Assad, and with every minute that passes, in which he retains control over the Syrian state, a similar fate approaches. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were machine-gunned to death by soldiers who refused a servile loyalty to them.
Bashar Al-Assad: remember and ponder their fate, as it may very likely be yours.