The Need for an Inclusive Perspective
In Praise of Razan Zaitouneh, Winner of the Ibn Rushd Prize
Razan Zaitouneh is unable to be with us tonight. This is not the first time that the recipient of a prize has been prevented from accepting it in person. Usually this is a symptom of a conflict between the prizewinner and repressive rulers. So in honouring this evening someone who is forced to remain in hiding we take the opportunity to honour all the women and men of the Syrian uprising. Her name is well known to us, and we also know what she stands for: the struggle for human dignity, freedom and justice in her Syrian homeland. At the same time we also see her as an activist of the rebellion in the Arab societies that have risen up since the 17th December 2010 to shake off the yoke of repression and injustice. In an interview in October 2011, on being awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Prize, she said: ‘This prize is like a prize for all Syrians and their revolution.’
The three Arab uprisings
There are many points of reference for the Syrian uprising. One is the Arab peoples’ aspiration for independence and freedom since the end of the Ottoman Empire. This first Arab uprising, which in the 1920s also encompassed Syria, was suppressed by the imperialism of the European powers. The second Arab uprising began with the takeover of power by the Free Officers in Egypt and the fall of the monarchy. For almost two decades it changed the political landscape of the Arab region between Algeria and Yemen. Eventually the protagonists became entangled in the snares of their excessive desire for political power, of the East-West conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the autocratic exercise of power, and a development policy that led to self-enrichment and crony capitalism as well as to a dramatic intensification of economic and social differences.
The third Arab uprising picked up where the failed protagonists of the second left off. When Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in the bleak little town of Sidi Bouzid, in despair at his humiliation, it became a beacon to millions of people, urging them to redefine the position of Arab societies in the twenty-first century. At the same time it also proved that the uprising draws its significance and its justification from history itself, and that this awakening is irreversible. The entire Arab world was caught up in the movement.
Another aspect of the Syrian uprising is to be found in Syria’s own recent history. When the Ba’ath Party seized power in Damascus in 1963 – in the middle of the second Arab uprising – there seemed for a moment to be the promise of a new Syria. But the way the takeover was achieved – by the military – already cast a shadow over this promise. It was clear at the latest with the coup by Hafez al-Assad in 1970 and the passing of the constitution of 1973, which enshrined in law the supremacy of the Ba’ath Party, that there would be an irreconcilable opposition between the ‘socialist’ path of development and the implementation of human and civil rights. Resistance to the dictatorship in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s was brutally suppressed. Bashar al-Assad in his turn has held fast to the principle that places the violent exercise of power above democratic legitimation.
Almost a decade before anyone would even dream of the third Arab uprising and the turbulence that has spread across Syria, Razan Zaitouneh had already started to resist the regime – first by defending political prisoners, and later as a co-founder of human rights organisations. Appearing here this evening would probably have cost her her life.
But where do we stand amid these historic events? Our commitment here this evening is in all too obvious contrast to the inaction of Western politicians. We hear and see little more than empty words, carefully-expressed diplomatic evasion, and questionable analyses of the ‘special nature’ of the developments in Syria. Sanctions are not really an effective measure; they are just window dressing. They are intended to give the impression that something is being done. In reality, of course, almost nothing is being done.
And yet – a crass contradiction – doesn’t Europe effectively believe that it invented the concept of freedom? Indeed, many have reflected on the right to freedom and on rebellion against tyrannical power: the list includes writers and philosophers from Friedrich Schiller to Albert Camus, to name but two. ‘What is a rebel?’ asks Camus in his superb essay L’Homme révolté [The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt]: ‘A man who says no.’ Millions of Arabs have said ‘no’. Schiller too, in the play William Tell, which I consider to be the drama of the will to freedom, says ‘no’. ‘No, there are limits to a tyrant’s power / When the oppressed man finds justice is denied him, / When he can bear no more, then he will look / To Heaven at last with bold assurance, / And claim from Heaven his eternal rights, / Which hang there like the very stars themselves, / Inalienable, indestructible.’ There is no need for us to draw parallels with the outbreak of the Arab uprisings: they are all too apparent. Razan Zaitouneh, along with many others, set out to claim these inalienable rights, which are nothing other than human rights, for her own – Syrian – society. More than 50,000 people in Syria have since discovered that this can only be achieved at the price of their own lives. ‘As a last resort,’ wrote Camus, ‘he is willing to accept the final defeat, which is death, rather than to be deprived of the personal sacrament that he would call, for example, freedom. Better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees.’ In William Tell, the phrase is: ‘And sooner die than live in slavery.’
Common cultural foundations
Why this digression? To show that, for all our differences of history, culture and religion, we in the European and Arab countries are standing on common ground. For decades ‘the West’ looked down on ‘the Arabs’, ‘the Muslims’, with a mixture of arrogance, pity and pseudo-expertise. They were deemed more or less genetically incapable of democracy. The smarter ones among us said the Muslims needed to undergo their own ‘Enlightenment’: only then could they catch up with the modern world. The Arab revolutions, the Syrian uprising, have set us straight: we all share a commitment to the values of humanity. Freedom is the conditio sine qua non. The ideas of philosophers and authors like Friedrich Schiller and Albert Camus therefore occupy the same ground as the ideas and conclusions of Arab minds like Rifa’a Rafi’ at-Tahtawi, Mustafa Kamil, Abd ar-Rahman al-Kauwakibi and many others. This understanding must be the basis upon which we meet in future. It is the foundation for the prospect of a new mutual appreciation. The accepted clichés here concerning ‘the Arabs’, ‘Islam’, or ‘Muslims’ belong in the same dustbin as the potentates and autocrats who were toppled by their ‘subjects’. And as we sit here, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are rising up – the majority of them, according to deep-seated Western prejudice, ‘Muslims who are not in fact capable of liberal democracy’ – and demonstrating against the establishment of an Islamic dictatorship in Egypt.
We are confronted with a question that cannot be ignored: what should we do? How we should support this event which is, in a historical context, the culmination of many things that have happened in the past? If the Arab uprisings as a whole and in Syria in particular are viewed in the same context of freedom and human dignity that we in the West claim as our inalienable right, we cannot run away. The failure of Western politics in accepting the slaughter in Syria and doing almost nothing about it – slaughter of which, unfortunately, more and more people are guilty of perpetrating the longer it goes on – borders on cynicism: all the more so if one compares the conduct of the international community with its oft-cited ‘responsibility to protect’, which would provide easy justification for NATO intervention in Syria. Sanctions are being used as an alibi for forceful action. Here is a quotation from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, dated 16th June 2012: ‘The EU banned the export of goods to Syria that could be used to oppress the population … Now it has presented the list of goods affected. These goods included caviar, truffles and cigars with a market price of more than ten euros, wine and other alcoholic drinks with a value of more than fifty euros, as well as leather goods worth more than 200 euros and shoes costing more than 600 euros, the Commission advised.’ Syria is not Libya and a military intervention like the one in Libya should not – for numerous reasons – be repeated. However, as Razan Zaitouneh demanded in the interview to which I have already referred: ‘Syrians must be protected; new alternatives and solutions must be found to protect the Syrian people and bring an end to the regime.’ As things stand, though, protection cannot be provided by words alone, nor by sanctions that do not really hit the regime. Protection means getting involved, or providing those who need protection with the means to protect themselves.
We know that many people in Syria are hesitant to join the uprising, that they are afraid of the future. There are many reasons for this. Albert Camus assigned a particular responsibility to ‘man in revolt’, but he also knew that not every man is born a rebel. ‘Actual freedom has not increased in proportion to man’s awareness of it. We can only deduce from this observation that rebellion is the act of an educated man who is aware of his own rights. But there is nothing which justifies us in saying that it is only a question of individual rights. (…) it would rather seem that what is at stake is humanity’s gradually increasing self-awareness as it pursues its course.’ For Camus, rebellion becomes a ‘first piece of evidence’: elementary, in the same way that ‘thinking’ (cogito) is the basis for self-awareness for Descartes – ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Modifying this elementary assertion, Camus writes: ‘I rebel – therefore we exist.’ Man in revolt, then, is also acting on behalf of others: his protest goes beyond the individual, himself. This is how we understand Razan Zeitouneh’s comment that I quoted at the beginning: ‘This prize is like a prize for all Syrians and their revolution.’
Determined fighter for freedom
However, unlike the upheavals of the 1950s and ’60s in Arab countries, which were initiated by individuals and/or specific groups, especially the military, the recent rebellion is a people’s movement. ‘We are the people’: this now familiar motto has united men and women, people of all denominations and all ethnicities in protest. What binds them together? What gives them the strength to oppose rulers who are determined to use all the instruments of repression with the utmost severity against the people? Razah Zeitouneh has provided us with the answer: ‘There is no doubt that the protesters and the revolution will ultimately be victorious. If we did not believe that we will win, we would not be able to continue against the brutality of the regime. We would not be able to bear all these crimes against our people. I am sure that each and every person in Syria believes that the revolution will, in the end, claim victory.’ The people sense that history is on their side. Their struggle has grown from individual protest to become a common cause.
Here too we must ask the question: have we – by which I mean Syria’s European neighbours – acknowledged the momentousness of what is happening in the neighbouring Arab countries? I have already pointed out the common origins of our pursuit of freedom. What new form of encounter between our neighbours and ourselves would correspond to this insight? History is not encouraging. Ever since Europe and the Arab peoples confronted each other in the late eighteenth century in the context of European expansion, there has been a name for this encounter: ‘the white man’s burden’, or ‘la mission civilisatrice’. Even after the First World War, the Arab peoples had to be – in the eyes of the Europeans – protected or mandated, in order to conduct them from the dregs of civilisation to the height of the European standards of the modern age. The Mediterranean politics of the last few decades deteriorated into fearful maintenance of the status quo. The preservation of the existing regimes was prioritised over supporting the forces of democratic change. In Palestine Europe stood by and watched as the rights of the Palestinian people were persistently ignored and violated. Just forty-eight hours before [Tunisia’s] Ben Ali was toppled, the French Foreign Minister offered him the assistance of ‘tried and tested’ French security forces. The people of the Arab countries who have rebelled since 17th December 2010 did not turn to Europe: they did it without Europe’s help. If they had turned to Europe and asked for support, their request would have been dismissed out of hand. Re-establishing our credibility is therefore a first important step towards redefining the way we encounter one another. Is the West now squandering this chance in Syria, as it continues to do in Palestine?
Certainly the most recent confrontation over Gaza is also fostering doubt as to whether the transitions in Arab societies have increased Europe’s resolve to renew its relationships with its neighbours on a basis of credibility. It is almost beside the point who started the shooting and killing in the last few days. And it is self-evident that a state is entitled to defend itself if it is attacked. If, however, politicians emphatically state that Israel has ‘every right’ to defend itself, they must then state in the same breath and with the same emphasis that Israel has every obligation to respect the rules of international law and humanitarian imperatives. Not only has there been no progress in this regard over the years; instead, the practices of occupation and land appropriation and the contempt for the people of Palestine displayed by the settlers, defended and supported by the current Israeli government, have become increasingly systematic. Once again Europe has looked the other way.
Violence, however, begets violence. Hopelessness and degradation were the breeding ground for the rebellion of Arab youth from Morocco in the West to Yemen and Bahrain in the East – as they were in Syria, too. Hopelessness and degradation are also the breeding ground for the violence of Palestinians against a power that respects justice as little – or, to be more precise, as selectively – as the Arab autocrats. The fact that there is link between the struggle against autocratic oppression and violent occupation by a foreign power is something Friedrich Schiller showed us once and for all in the introduction to his History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands Against Spanish Rule: ‘The despairing citizens, to whom the choice of deaths was all that was left, chose the nobler one on the battlefield. A wealthy and luxurious nation loves peace, but becomes warlike as soon as it becomes poor. Then it ceases to tremble for a life which is deprived of everything that had made it desirable.’ It is shameful that the government of Germany, of the people of Friedrich Schiller, is not actively supporting the Palestinians on the only path to freedom and statehood that remains open to them: the path of approval by an overwhelming number of states throughout the world in the plenary assembly of the United Nations. This is a blemish we will carry with us in the eyes of all peoples and societies who strive for freedom, not least in our predominantly-Muslim neighbouring countries.
The significance of the award
We are awarding the Ibn Rushd Prize to Razan Zeitouneh. Are we doing this – as is so often the case with political prizes – primarily in order to reaffirm to ourselves our noble motives? In order then to scuttle away, our pathetic nakedness concealed by the figleaf of having bestowed a prize? If a prizegiving has any significance at all, it can only be as deeds, not just words: if we commit ourselves to act according to the principles of both prize and prizewinner. If we honour Razan Zeitouneh, then we ourselves must want to be Razan Zeitouneh. It will then be just as impossible for us to stand apart from either the Syrian people’s efforts to end illegitimate government, or from the struggle of the Palestinian people to end illegitimate occupation.
How can Europe win back credibility? The answer is: we have to change perspective. What is needed is an inclusive perspective, meaning: we must recognise that the future of the Arab societies and our neighbouring countries in the Middle East is part of the future of Europe. Europe’s status in the international system of the twenty-first century will depend substantially on the quality of its relationships with the new orders that are coming into being in the Arab region – including Palestine. We have for long enough allowed ourselves an exclusive perspective: the Arab people were the Other. Our interaction with them has been shaped by our phobias: of instability, irregular immigration, violent Islamic extremism, militancy against Israel. The resolution of the Palestinian question fell by the wayside. The new – inclusive – perspective requires the orientation towards and dialogue with those who legitimate political leaders, i.e.: the people. For too long now we have cultivated relationships with those who lay claim to legitimacy – without, or in opposition to, the will of the people.
As far as Syria’s immediate future is concerned, everything depends on the current regime quickly coming to an end. Every further day of its rule not only increases the number of dead, it also deepens the growing rift and hatred between different elements of the Syrian population. We condemn the sordid agenda of those who, in the name of freeing the Syrian people, are tormenting this same people with bloody acts of terror. But they will not determine the course of history. The people of Syria need the prospect of a new order in which they can rediscover themselves, together. Reconciliation must go hand in hand with the establishment of this order. To return to the poets, Friedrich Schiller wrote in William Tell: ‘Let every man control his own just rage,/ And nurse his vengeance for the public wrongs; / For he whom selfish interest now engage / Defrauds the commonwealth of what to it belongs.’ Reconciliation is the essential prerequisite for a new beginning.
It is our hope this evening that the people of Syria will prioritise ‘public’ need and ‘the commonwealth’ over ‘selfish interest’. We are pinning that hope on people like Razan Zaitouneh, whom we honour tonight. For much of her life she has placed the ‘the commonwealth’, the common good, the right to human dignity and freedom, over concern for her own person. She cannot be with us tonight because her fight for the common good has forced her into hiding. When she comes forward – and with her all the others who have also had to go into hiding – it will be a signal: that a new era in Syria has begun. But also that the future, for all of us, will finally be based on the same indivisible fundamental values, which we are all equally bound to apply.This is the text of Udo Steinbach’s laudatory speech given in praise of Razan Zaitouneh on 30th November 2012 in Berlin.
is a member of the editorial board of Fikrun wa Fann / Art & Thought, and was for many years the director of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg. He is currently Director of the Governance Center Middle East / North Africa at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Berlin.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to