Ending – And Beginning – In Damascus
by Stephen Schwartz
Libya seems close to complete liberation from the dictatorial nightmare of Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhafi, although, in a matter for concern, Islamist ideological elements have surfaced in the revolutionary leadership. Egypt, meanwhile, appears to be undergoing a revival of confrontational attitudes toward Israel among its masses, and some observers believe the Cairo government soon may reinforce its emergency laws and military rule. Brightness has fallen from the air of the so-called Arab Spring.
But throughout this period, Western and other journalists and experts have, in the main, shown that they had no useful paradigm for assessing its unfolding chapters as they took place, or anticipating the challenges the Arab Spring would face. Analysts groped for answers, with U.S. Republican and Democratic promoters of popular sovereignty allied in cheering the Arabs on, while doubters warned that the Arab Spring would open a political void soon filled, once again, by dictators, if not by Muslim radicals. I admit that I, too, was caught unawares when the phenomenon began, although I tried to temper my commentaries by avoiding an excess of enthusiasm. Each development seemed unexpected: the collapse of prosperous Tunisia, the sweeping of Hosni Mubarak from power, the civil war in Libya, the occupation of Bahrain by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the unraveling of Yemen, and the horrors in Syria.
All of these countries, and the outcomes of rebellion within them, were understandable on their own terms: Tunisia because of its social disparities, Egypt out of resentment of an arbitrary and corrupt style of governance, Libya based on fatigue with the antics of its demented ruler, Bahrain in the context of its Shia-Sunni split, Yemen as a consequence of its lack of a real national identity. Above all, the effect of the revolt in Syria should have been easy to comprehend.
If the Arab Spring ends with failure in Syria, which has marked the conclusion of the sixth month of its insurrectionary movement, and where authoritarianism appears destined to endure, such an outcome was far from unpredictable. All Muslims of conscience, around the world, must sympathize with the martyred Syrian people, and condemn the Syrian regime. But at the same time, our prayers and positive sentiments cannot replace realities. The Syrian military, political, and police elite may not, at least now, be easily broken. As Alawites, members of a small, esoteric sect derived from Shia Islam, they have more interest in safeguards for each other than in joining the Sunni masses opposing them. The Al-Assad regime has also incorporated old-style leftists into its government and protected the Syrian Christian community, amounting to 10 percent of the population, as well as the Kurdish and Druze minorities.
While the Syrian conflict has hardened, so has the power of the Muslim Brotherhood expanded in Tunisia and Egypt. The neo-Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leading Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish initials), has tried to exploit the events in Libya no less than in Gaza to establish itself as a new power-broker in the Arab lands.
Syria may prove to be a bulwark of tyranny in the Arab world, for a much older reason than the distinction between Alawites and Sunnis. With the Arab Spring halted in a Syrian standoff, many commentators, especially non-Muslims, may be apt to write off the Arab lands – and the Islamic world in general – as incapable of successful modernization. But such cynics, no matter how justified their criticism of details seen in the chain of revolts from Tunisia to Syria, will look in the wrong places for explanations. A tragic conclusion to the Arab Spring in Damascus will more significantly recall that in that ancient city, reputedly one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, 1,300 years ago, Islam first adopted despotic political habits. The heritage of Damascus has left a deep impress of absolutism on Arab and Muslim governance.
In microcosm, Syria represents the tragedy of Islam caught between East and West. Islam is not, by origin, an Eastern religion. The revelation of Qur'an was not delivered to Muhammad in the interior of Asia. Rather, Islam began on the most extreme, western edge of Asia, in an area where Jews and Arab Christians lived and traded. Mecca is located in the green zone on the rim of the Arabian desert, with the southernmost province of Roman and Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Palestine directly north, Christian Ethiopia to its west, and Yemen, which had briefly had Jewish rulers, at its south. Unlike these territories, Hejaz, the region where Mecca lies, had no political state, and Qur'an does not specify or dictate how a government should be organized, aside from calling for mutual consultation.
The Prophet Muhammad, although little can be confirmed about his own biography, is known to have created an ideal political community in Medina, near Mecca. But after his death in 632 CE, the tribe to which he belonged – the Qureish – divided. The Arab Muslims consummated their subjugation of Byzantine Syria and Byzantine Egypt by 642, under the second of Muhammad's "four righteous caliphs" or successors in authority, Umar Ibn Khattab. Umar appointed Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan as a governor of parts of Syria, and Umar's successor, Uthman Ibn Affan – Muawiya's cousin – extended Muawiya's authority over the territory. Although Muhammad and Uthman both belonged to the tribe of Qureish, their clan identities were different. Muhammad was affiliated with the clan of Hashim, and Uthman with that of Umayya, an adopted relative of the Qureish, with no blood linking them.
The descendants of Umayya had originally opposed and fought against Muhammad and the Muslims, but then submitted to Muhammad and Islam. Still, once the Prophet died, while the Hashimites and the Umayyads were members of the same religion, rivalries between them increased. In 656 CE, Caliph Uthman was assassinated, and his successor, the last of the "four righteous caliphs," Ali, a Hashimite, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, moved the Muslim capital from Medina to Kufa in Mesopotamia. In 661, Ali was assassinated, and Muawiya, cousin of Caliph Uthman and the new successor to Muhammad and four caliphs as commander of the Muslim faithful, moved the Muslim capital from Kufa to Damascus. Thus the Umayyad dynasty, derived from Uthman's family, became the rulers of the Islamic global community, or umma.
In ancient Damascus, the Umayyads absorbed the habits of Byzantine despotism – the word "despot" is of Byzantine origin. Byzantine despotism, whether in Syria, Egypt, or elsewhere, was based on harsh taxation of the populace to support elaborate irrigation systems and an outsized state. The Medinite Muslims lived in conditions of minimal taxation, and the Kufans concentrated their energies, like the residents of the city of Basra, south of them, on commerce. But the Syrian Muslims under Muawiya adopted the imperial customs of their Byzantine predecessors, deriving state income from fiscal levies on agricultural and livestock producers. Despotic rule over the Muslims living in the former Byzantine provinces was reinforced by Uthman's appointment of his foster brother, Abdullah Ibn Sa'ad, to govern Egypt. The political culture of formerly-Byzantine Syria turned the caliphs from religious guides into monarchs, and that of Byzantine Egypt, where control of the waters of the Nile required extensive government works paid by taxes on the whole populace, transformed them into permanent despots.
As every Muslim knows, the sons of Caliph Ali, Hassan and Husayn, opposed the domination of Muawiya. Yet a treaty was signed between the two brothers and the Umayyad ruler, and Hassan and Husayn returned from Kufa to Medina. Still, intrigues between the descendants of the Umayyads and of the Hashimites, the two tribal rivals among the Qureish, did not end, and in 680, Muawiyah chose his son Yezid to succeed him as caliph. The Kufans, who had remained loyal to the legacy of Muhammad and Ali – forming the earliest part of the Shiat'Ali or "party of Ali" – rebelled against the regime of Muawiya, which they considered arbitrary and oppressive, deviating from Muslim norms, and inappropriate in its establishment of a personal dynasty. With Hassan dead in 669, the Kufans called on Husayn to lead a rebellion against the tyranny of Muawiya, the lord of Syria. Husayn travelled to Kufa with his family and a small armed force but were massacred at Kerbala – the episode that remains the focus of Shia devotion and mourning today.
Egypt and Syria had become suffused with an Arabocentric, despotic Islam that remained in power over the Muslim umma until 750, when the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids, who had established their capital in Kufa, but then moved it to Baghdad, a wonder city of the Muslim world from the middle of the eighth century CE until its devastation by the Mongols in 1258. Kufa, where Ali and Husayn had taken refuge, therefore were not within the same Arab ethnic sphere of concentration as Hejaz and Syria; theological and intellectual life in Mesopotamia was more heterodox. It is probably no coincidence that Sufism, or spiritual Islam, as we know of its traditions, emerged in Basra, which the great Indian Muslim poet and scholar Allama Iqbal described as "the play-ground of various forces – Greek philosophy, skepticism, Christianity, Buddhist ideas, Manichaeism."
In addition, Kufa was the birthplace of Abu Hanifah, the founder of Islamic jurisprudence and progenitor of Hanafism, the only one of the four schools of Sunni Muslim law that, unlike the Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali schools, does not depend primarily on the customs of the Arab Muslims, and is most open to differences of opinion. Abu Hanifah may well have been a Persian rather than an Arab. The whole of Mesopotamia was influenced by trade through Persia, which was conquered by the Muslims in 633-644, and had cultural links as far as China and India, producing a more expansive spiritual atmosphere than that in the Arab corridor from Syria through Hejaz to Yemen. If Mesopotamia and Persia were also eastern and despotic, such conditions were ameliorated by their extensive involvement in long-range commerce.
Under the Abbasids, the Islamic intellect produced some of its greatest achievements, although the legacy of Abbasid Islam remains contested. The Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun, as the patron of the Mutazila school of philosophy, during the 9th century CE, inaugurated the "Islamic inquisition" known as the mihna or "ordeal," in which the "rationalist" view of Qur'an as created by God, and not as an eternal scripture, became the ideology of the state. All government functionaries and religious scholars were interrogated, forced to sign oaths affirming their belief in the "createdness" of Qur'an, and punished if they refused. Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, founder of Hanbali jurisprudence, considered the most rigid form of Islamic law and falsely claimed as a predecessor of latter-day Wahhabism, was nonetheless heroic in his resistance to theological dictation by the Abbasid caliph.
In his free-handed spilling of blood, the Syrian dictator Al-Assad continues the despotism associated with Umayyad Damascus, although he belongs to a sect, the Alawites, that is considered a branch of Shiism, and therefore devoted to Caliph Ali and his son Husayn in their opposition to injustice. The ferocious repression of the Syrian opposition has provoked censure even from countries and leaders that had previously served as close allies of Al-Assad, including Erdogan in Turkey and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. Both of the latter are clearly motivated by pragmatic considerations rather than humanitarian principles. Erdogan fears a refugee exodus across the Turkish-Syrian border and Ahmadinejad is anxious lest the overthrow of Al-Assad revive the Green opposition in Tehran.
What must end in Damascus is what began in Damascus, centuries ago: the corrupt, arbitrary, and despotic rule of a privileged clan. The cruelties in Syria demonstrate that the tragedy of Islamic history, since early in its development, has been its assimilation of a despotism that it did not need to adopt, but which was, one may argue, forced upon it by its identification with the Arab core area and its Byzantine heritage. It may be argued that from that moment on, Islam was trapped between West and East. Indeed, when the Abbasids hunted down and killed the Umayyads, one survivor of the latter, Abdurrahman, fled to Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) in 755 CE, and established the Umayyad emirate of Córdoba. Umayyad Córdoba came to rival Abbasid Baghdad as a center of learning, interfaith dialogue, and impressive monuments.
The Umayyad emirate in Al-Andalus is identified today not only with the Grand Mosque of Córdoba, one of the finest Islamic architectural creations, but also with its noble inhabitants, including the 12th century Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës) and his contemporary, the Jewish jurist and philosopher Maimonides. The habits of the Umayyads in Al-Andalus seem, in retrospect, entirely different from their tyrannical manners in Damascus – but that may be credited to the brief influence of Byzantine despotism in Spain. Still, it is a different chapter in Islamic history, which is nothing if not paradoxical at many points of reference.
Muslim Spain has been idealized by many scholars from all three monotheistic traditions as a cultural hive, yet its virtues may be ascribed less to its Islamic identity than to its location in the West. Had Islam kept a foothold in Western Europe, even if limited to the southern region of Al-Andalus – Córdoba and Granada – it might have continued to experience enlightening interactions with learned Jews and Christians. But Córdoba was doomed by another variant of Islamic extremism – that of the so-called Al-Muwahiddun or "Unitarians," typically called the Almohads by Westerners. Believing their inspirer, a Berber fundamentalist named Ibn Tumart, was the mahdi or Islamic messiah, the Almohads invaded Al-Andalus in 12th century, in an attempt to enforce strict religious orthodoxy. They sacked Córdoba, drove out many of its Jewish and Christian inhabitants if they did not accept compulsory Islamization, and moved the capital of Al-Andalus to Sevilla. The result of Almohad fundamentalism was to undermine the power of Islamic Spain and enable conquest of its remains by the Christians.
If Al-Assad and his minions believe they are protecting Arab power by the mass murder of their citizens, they should look back to Islamic history and to the cautionary lessons afforded by the excesses of the Umayyads of Damascus, the Abbasid inquisition in Baghdad, and the Almohad devastation of Al-Andalus. It is not Islam that is problematical, but its historical seduction by despotic methods of governance and by radicalism. For Islam to survive, despotism must be extirpated, once and for all, from all the lands where Muslims form a majority. If the Arab Spring has failed to accomplish this great task, then the cause of political and intellectual freedom may be taken up once again by those with whom Ali and Husayn had contact in Kufa – the Persians, with their traditions of knowledge and commerce. Let the Arab Spring, then, give way fully to a Muslim Spring, renewing the challenge to the clerical state in Iran, the country where the recent cycle of radical Islam commenced in 1979, and where it, too, should end.