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Torture is Commonplace in Arab Life… Rare in Arab Political Literature

Torture is Commonplace in Arab Life… Rare in Arab Political Literature

Wednesday, 3 June, 2020 - 09:45

In the late 1970s, the Syrian intellectual Yasin al-Hafiz wrote a few words that seemed shocking when they were published and remain, to this day, shocking to many: “With colonialism, for the first time in the modern Arab experience, Arab individuals could challenge the authorities without being killed or cornered into submission on the one hand, and could garner a sort of silent passive sympathy on the other. From here, it could be said that the colonial experience launched, without intending to, a politicization process in Arab society, which had lacked any political tradition, and that decolonization, which was followed by a modernized oriental despotism, signaled the start of a counter process, the process of clawing back the gains of ‘colonial democracy’ and depoliticizing society or forcing people to stay away from politics.”


And when Hafiz spoke about Beirut’s impact on him, after having recently been released from prison in Syria, he said: “I started to sleep with my eyelids closed all the way down, without being disturbed by obsessions of visitors of the night… From Lebanon, and only in it, my books were printed and my articles were published. More than this: thanks to Lebanon, I have become intimately attuned to modern culture. I learned how to treat my wife and children in a less and less oriental manner'.”


Within Arab Levantine political thought, Hafiz’s opinions were unique, especially when they appeared. Their singularity stems from his alternative prioritizations. True, he supported “Arab unity”, “anti-imperialism”, “the liberation of Palestine” and “building socialism”, but he was judging these principles and those who held them based on their position on freedom. Based on this metric, he was able to identify, with a courage that was unfamiliar at the time, the positives of colonialism, and he was able to confirm, with an unfamiliar integrity, the superiority of Lebanese model (a “reactionary”, “puppet” model) of the time to the region’s militaristic nationalist models.


In all of this, Hafiz was concerned with the surreptitious violence embedded in the process of depoliticizing society, and the direct, deliberate and systematic violence that results from it, attested to by the prisons and cells of the countries whose regimes insist on “liberating Palestine” and its accompanying slogans. According to Hafiz, the more accommodating to politics and the further away from cruelty and torture the regime, the more progressive it is.


In contrast, “mainstream” ideas were grounded in the marginalization of politics, freedom, cruelty and torture, and turning a blind eye to them when their perpetrators were among those who would say they wanted to “liberate Palestine” or “build socialism” or were “anti-imperialist”, regardless of whether or not their words translated to actions, or even said with sincerity.


Thus, although Arab life is brimming with cruelty and torture, the Arab political library is lacking in works about such practices. It is true that a few prison survivors have written expressive texts, some of them seminal, about their experiences and suffering, and it is also true that some writers took an interest in torture, forms of cruelty and their tools in earlier periods of Islamic history. But there are almost no texts that deal with cruelty and torture as a system or explain the link between this phenomenon and the prevailing ideological rhetoric, disregarding it in favor of other issues, considered sacred or semi sacred.


The Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya, in his book “The Republic of Fear”, published during Saddam Hussein's era, was perhaps the first to break this rule. Under a pseudonym, Samir al-Khalil, Makiya said that the key issue of Saddam’s regime is that it is a cruel regime that simultaneously destroys Iraqis' minds and bodies, employing masterfully creative and savage methods. As for imperialism, Zionism and other issues, they are secondary to that issue.


Indeed, insults were hurled at Makiya - Khalil, because he said “what Westerners say” about a regime “that is confronting imperialism and Zionism.” A few years later, defamatory attacks against him were launched on daily basis by Arab intellectuals because he had been critical of their priorities in his book “Cruelty and Silence”, and because he supported expelling Saddam from Kuwait in 1991 and considered the removal of the regime of cruelty in Baghdad more important than the identity of the Americans who would topple him, calling on the latter to “complete the mission.”


Indeed, there are a growing number of intellectuals who are changing that conventional hierarchy of priorities. This is especially true for Syrians, whose flesh has been subjected to the cruelest forms of torture, but whose ears have heard the most blustered of “sacred” slogans. In Syria, the comparison between the two extremes has been very revealing and indicative.


One of the most prominent of these writers is Yassin Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in prison. He recently wrote: “In Syria, almost none of those in prison had not been tortured first. Torture here is systematic, coordinated and not something that just happens by chance, meaning that humiliating prisoners is also systematic and coordinated. Among the defining features of Assad’s era, in addition to torture, are the marathon periods that many Syrians spend in prison, which run longer than the entire period in which the Nazis ruled (...) What the experience of the past few years tells us is that ‘Assad's Syria’ is a torture state, and that a Syria without torture can only be a Syria that is not Assadist.”


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