Hafez al-Asad and the Propaganda of Guilt

This week we’re back to my favourite subject: dictatorship, and more specifically, how does it work?

I’ve started reading Lisa Wedeen’s excellent book The Ambiguities of Domination, which is based on fieldwork she did during the 80s and 90s in Syria concerning the cult of Hafez al-Asad.  I am about halfway through and I am thoroughly enjoying it.  It is well-written, intelligent, and casually readable as well as academic.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in dictatorship or Syria.

Wedeen’s extensive interviews and conversations with Syrians form the basis for her argument, which is that although it would seem that the Syrian government mandates total fealty to the state, what it really mandates is the outward appearance of total fealty to the state.  People’s thoughts are more or less left alone as long as they are not publicly articulated.  Syrians know that Hafez is not immortal (he died less than a year after the book was published) and that he is not “the nation’s premier pharmacist”, and yet they still repeat it.  The whole construction is false: the citizens know it is false, and the government knows it is false.  So, she asks, what is the point of having a personality cult that no-one believes in? I will answer this in a small way at the end, although I encourage you to read the book.

Although it might seem minor, this question is actually extremely important.  It hinges on the difference between totalitarianism, which aspires to control all aspects of national life – politics, economy, art, culture, and so on – and authoritarianism, which aspires only to political control (this is of course a simplified explanation).  Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state, as was the People’s Republic of China under Mao, Hoxha’s Albania, the USSR for quite a lot of its history, the Central African Empire under Bokassa, and Saudi Arabia today.

Most modern autocracies are authoritarian rather than totalitarian: they aspire to total political control, but only wish to control the lives of their citizens inasmuch as they want not to be overthrown.  This particularly applies to the proliferation of personalist autocracies in Africa since independence – Biya in Cameroon, the Bongos father and son in Gabon, Jawara and Jammeh in Gambia, Mobutu then both Kabilas in the DRC.  Outward fealty is expected and criticism generally forbidden, but the government only aspires to control the political sphere.  Economic matters are left to the market, with occasional nudges by the government, and art and culture are left alone as long as they don’t encourage dissent.  There have been several, generally communist, African governments which were somewhat totalitarian but which have now relinquished state control despite being ruled by the same person.  José Eduardo dos Santos, of the (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola-Labour Party since 1979), and Denis Sassou-Nguesso (of the Congolese Labour Party, the only legal party between 1979 and 1992 and president again since 1997) are examples of this.

But back to Syria.  It’s often argued that a totalitarian government is authoritarianism with an ideology.  The Ba’th party has an ideology and was until last year an official one-party state, yet it is manifestly not totalitarian.  Ba’thist discourse about Arab unity (the party slogan is “one Arab nation bearing an eternal mission”) is essentially meaningless and has been since the split with the Iraqi Ba’th party and the country’s support of Iran in the 80s against Saddam Hussein.  Everyone understands this, yet the discourse continues even now.

In a way, the slogans of Ba’thist Syria function in the same way as the Arabic phrase insha’llah.  Insha’llah, as you may know, means “if God wills” and is generally used to convey hope or uncertainty about anything positive happening in the future, from statements as grand as “Insha’llah Ahmad Shafiq will not be elected President of Egypt” to “I will see you tomorrow for lunch insha’llah.”  In most cases it means ‘I hope that’ or simply has no literal meaning at all besides indicating that something is in the future.  In any case, its religious meaning has been stripped away, and except in particularly zealous society, it has no more association with God than the phrase “Oh God” does in English.  It’s a linguistic tic.  It’s sort of like when you get asked at an airport if you’ve been given anything to take in your luggage, and you scoff and snort and exclaim “how ridiculous!” even though your bag is heaving with other people’s presents: it’s ritualistic.

Ba’thist slogans – and, I suspect, the slogans of many other theoretically ideological governments – work in the same manner.  They function merely as signs of outward loyalty, shorthand ways of indicating that the speaker ‘belongs’ to a society which runs “as if” everyone believed it.  Oddly, it is far easier to adapt to empty slogans and shows of loyalty that mean nothing than it is to genuine widespread feelings of support.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe what you’re saying, the rationalisation says, because nobody else does either.  All you are doing is signifying that you are a functional member of society – nothing more is demanded of you.  To disentangle yourself from this only requires that you become depoliticised, whereas disentangling yourself from a totalitarian government means emigrating.  But of course, even in an authoritarian system you are still, secretly, complicit.

Rather than go any deeper into the theoretical functions of surface fealty, which I could never hope to do effectively unless it was by means of summarising Wedeen’s work, I will illustrate the effect of Ba’thist authoritarianism in Syria with two examples from when I lived in Syria.  Part of this has already been mentioned in this post, but I will go into more detail here.

I have perhaps already mentioned that during the year I lived in Syria, my friends and I became somewhat obsessed with Ba’thist propaganda.  I particularly recall three incidents, ranked here in order of severity.  The first took place after we’d been in Syria for about two months.  After going to one of the restaurants on Jabal Qassiun, the mountain overlooking Damascus, five of my friends and I walked along the road looking at the view.  We encountered a large poster of a smiling Bashar and, with the assistance of a Syrian friend of ours, crowded around the base of the poster to have our picture taken with it.  Already, after having been in the country for two months, the poster functioned less as propaganda and more as an attraction.  We had our picture taken with it in the same way you would take your picture next to the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, or the Great Wall of China.  It was an individual quirk of Syria, and signified that we were there – nothing more.  It was for this same reason I purchased two posters of Bashar (the ones which are displayed in shop windows and behind desks) and hung them in my room in Oxford when I got back – to remind me of Syria.  The people of Syria themselves were aware that the posters usually did not indicate any true strength of feeling towards the Ba’th Party, that they were just the price of wanting to work unhindered by the state.  This rendered them effectively meaningless, and after two months we were already prepared to subscribe to this view.  When, in April, we found ourselves chanting Ba’thist slogans on Withdrawal Day without really understanding how it had come to this, it became clearer how much conscious effort it takes not to become part of that system.

The second event is more uncomfortable.  I travelled to the Caucasus from Damascus, flying first to Qamishle on the Turkish border, then overland to Georgia and Armenia.  When I got back to Qamishle 10 days later and arrived at the airport to fly back to Damascus, I was stopped and taken to one side by the Syrian secret service, the mukhabarat.  This is because Qamishle is in the Kurdish region of Syria and the government was unbelievably touchy about foreigners going there.  The fact that the only reason they knew I was there was that I had just re-entered the country that morning from Turkey and therefore could not have spent 10 days in Kurdish Syria didn’t seem to make much difference.  I showed them my passport stamps, but they insisted to taking me somewhere to make photocopies.

Now, I had a plane to catch.  I was tired.  I had just travelled for two days on a bus and waited for 5 hours in a Turkish village for the border to open so I could cross on foot.  I was not happy.  Under the best circumstances I would have no desire to go anywhere with the mukhabarat, particularly not in Qamishle when no-one knew I was there.  So I said, with as much conviction as I could muster, “Allah, Suriya, Bashar w bass!” This slogan, which means ‘God, Syria, Bashar, and that’s it!’ was and is a frequent element of Syria’s cultic vocabulary.  I had learned it at the Gaza protests earlier that year.  I said it as a sort of charm, and it worked.  I got my passport back and they left.  They didn’t even laugh or mock the fact that some Englishman had just quoted their propaganda back at them.

This is why a cult conducted “as if” everyone believes it can still be remarkably effective: it makes everyone in society complicit in maintaining the charade.  It is the ultimate form of peer pressure.


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