A Liberal in Damascus


The New York Times Magazine – Encounter

When I first met Ammar Abdulhamid in Washington in the fall, the 38-year-old Syrian novelist, poet and liberal dissident had Damascus on his mind. He had received word from his wife back in Syria that the political situation at home was becoming more precarious for rights activists like himself. As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, he’d been meeting with leading figures in the Bush administration and writing articles in the Arab and Western presses that were sharply critical of the Syrian government; he simply didn’t know what to expect on his return. Now, sitting here in a Damascus coffeehouse in late January a week after his return, he is telling me that he had found reason for optimism about the country’s future in the least likely of places.

”When I arrived at the airport,” Abdulhamid says, ”I was told I had to go to political security. It took me some time to find out exactly which security apparatus wanted to speak to me, but then I met with them for two days in a row. I was very up front about my activities and even talked about things they didn’t know yet, like an article I had co-written with an Israeli. One of my interrogators told me that what I was doing would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and he’s right. I got the sense from even some of the security police that they see there has to be a new way of doing things in Syria.”

For the last half-century, the Islamist movement and Arab regimes themselves have pushed Arab liberals to the sidelines. As a result, the Arab world’s democracy activists and intellectuals do not enjoy the same advantages their Central and Eastern European counterparts did back in the 80’s: whereas the generation of Havel and Walesa was backed by the Catholic Church and its Polish-born pope, Arab activists enjoy no such solidarity with any established Muslim institutions. Indeed, while militant Islamist leaders have called for elections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they typically see liberal, secular reformers like Abdulhamid as a threat to the traditional foundations of their authority.

Even so, the liberals seem to be gathering a little momentum. Recently, intellectuals from Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia petitioned the United Nations for a tribunal to prosecute both terrorists and the religious figures who incite violence. In Egypt, two new publications, Nahdet Misr and Al Masry Al Youm, fault the region’s leaders and clerics alike for keeping Arabs from joining the modern world. The Iraqi election posed a stark challenge to regional autocrats. While Abdulhamid harbors mixed feelings about the United States’ decision to invade Iraq, he says he believes that the American presence in the region is vital to the prospects for reform. ”We are an important part of the world,” he says, ”and our inability to produce change on our own terms invites people in. The world is not going to wait for us.”

Political engagement is unfamiliar territory for a writer who grew up in an artistic milieu (his mother is one of the country’s most popular actresses) and describes himself as a reluctant activist. ”I got politicized in spite of myself,” Abdulhamid says. After the publication of his first novel, ”Menstruation,” a sometimes-surreal depiction of the sexual and intellectual mores of young Syrians, the foreign diplomatic community in Damascus identified him as one of the important voices articulating the rising generation’s disenchantment. ”The novel made it so that many embassies wanted to hear my take on things,” he explains.”I was frank before, but no one was asking.”

Abdulhamid’s outspokenness helped win him invitations to conferences abroad and grant money from European foundations, which he used to start the Tharwa Project, a Damascus-based group with a Web site monitoring the status of Middle Eastern minorities. Tharwa is a bold initiative in a country that’s sensitive about its minority issues, especially those involving the historically marginalized Kurdish population. Still, the ruling Assad family — which is itself drawn from the minority Alawite population — has looked kindly on Tharwa. ”We met with the president’s wife,” Abdulhamid says. ”She was interested and complimentary, but confused. She wanted to know if we were Kurds.”

Abdulhamid is actually a member of the country’s Sunni Muslim Arab majority. Indeed, he went through a brief fundamentalist phase, which ended with his disgust at the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. ”Without that period in my life,” he told me, ”I never would’ve been assertive. As a fundamentalist, it was my responsibility to preach and teach, and so I had to live up to this idea I invested in myself. It’s why I’m as inquisitive and self-inquisitive as I am today.”

In embracing first Islamism and then liberalism, Abdulhamid has played a part in the two main opposition forces in Arab politics. If today the two movements have little in common, they each did issue from the same 19th-century Muslim reform movement that emphasized how far the lands of Islam had fallen behind the West. In the early 20th century, liberal democracy appeared to be the future of Arab politics, especially in Egypt, where the country’s popular revolution won Egyptians their first modern constitution. But liberalism failed to take hold in the rapidly growing middle class. Religion was the language they knew, and organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood responded by dressing their criticism of the existing political order in Islam’s traditional message of social justice.

Even as Arab liberals look ambivalently to Washington for support, many American analysts warn against placing bets on them. ”We hail the liberals as authentic voices for change in the Middle East,” says Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. ”But what we don’t hear is that many of these people have accents when they speak Arabic as well.” In other words, the liberals are too Westernized to make an impact on the Arab masses. ”They won’t get anything done by talking to people like me,” Alterman says. ”They need to be at street rallies in the Arab world.”

Abdulhamid agrees. ”We need to go grass roots, and show some bravery,” he says. ”We need to build a constituency, and create alliances, because without a strong opposition there is no change that’s going to come at the top.” A key question, of course, is whether liberals would be wise to build alliances with the more popular Islamists. Would the victory of such a coalition bring liberals to power, or hasten their demise?

Right now, such questions are largely academic in tightly controlled Syria, where elections are not on anyone’s calendar. Abdulhamid himself says he hopes to spend the next year explaining the American viewpoint to anyone in Damascus who will listen.

”A lot of people are waiting to see if Ammar is going to get into trouble,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma who is spending the year in Damascus. ”Some want to see if this means they can advance their own agendas and stick their necks out. But there’s a lot of resentment as well. People here have spent their careers observing all the red lines and playing by the rules, and if Ammar gets away with it, they’re going to feel like fools.”

Lee Smith, who has written for Slate and Wired, is working on a book about Arab culture.