An Unthinkable Revolution The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Syrian Uprising

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An Unthinkable Revolution

The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Syrian Uprising

Yasser Munif

Emerson College

For a number intellectuals and scholars, the Syrian revolution is unthinkable, in part because they are not familiar with the situation on the ground, but more importantly because they use inadequate conceptual tools to examine it. Prominent intellectual Michel-Rolph Trouillot explains that the Haitian revolution was invisible and for a long time unthinkable for many historians because “[t]heir worldview wins over facts.” The following paper explores some of the ethical and epistemological questions one encounters when examining the Syrian revolution. It reevaluates the geopolitics of knowledge in the context of the Arab revolts. It does so on the premise that the Syrian revolution is a constitutive part of the Arab revolts that erupted in Tunisia and Egypt. It rejects its delinking from that larger context. At the same, it recognizes its specificity and singularity, which at times makes it more ambiguous and uncertain than other revolts.

Like other Arab protesters, the primary goal of Syrians who rose up against the regime was to reassert their humanity and uproot “the sense of nobodiness”1 from their minds and bodies. The process of challenging the despotic order opened spaces where people could end their dehumanization and regain their dignity.2 Frantz Fanon describes a similar process when he explores “the lived experience of the black man”3 and the dehumanization he endures due to European racism. He writes, “[t]here is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born.” It is primarily against the zone of nonbeing that the Syrian insurrection should be understood. The rebellion is creating spaces that allow Syrians to become human beings again. The slogan “Syrian people will not be humiliated!” so often heard throughout the protests, is a loud cry of freedom from within the zone of nonbeing. Reflecting upon the significance of the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas, John Holloway notes “[d]ignity [is] the refusal to accept humiliation and dehumanization, the refusal to conform.” In this context, dignity should not be understood as simply a slogan that arouses people against an oppressive regime. It signals a shift in the theoretical, epistemic, social, and political spheres that requires new attention. Holloway then adds, “[t]he whole relation between theory and practice is thrown into question: theory can no longer be seen as being brought from outside, but is obviously the product of everyday practice. And dignity takes the place of imperialism as the starting point of theoretical reflection.”4 The Syrian uprising and the Arab revolutions more generally are inviting us to reconsider the validity of the dominant epistemic and methodological frameworks.

Dignity cannot be ignored in the name of imperialism and geopolitics. Instead, it should guide our analysis in the vast political labyrinth of the Arab revolutions. Dignity should be understood as a hymn of national liberation as it provides Syrians with the conceptual apparatus and performative practices to move from a zone of nonbeing to multiple spaces of existence and resistance. The echoes of the slogans in the streets of Damascus and Daraa represent more than protests against an authoritarian regime: they represent an epistemic revolution. Many Syrians will testify to whomever wants to listen to their stories that hearing one’s own voice in the street, for the first time, is a transformative experience. Chanting “Syrian people will not be humiliated!” or “the people want the fall of the regime” is in itself a liberatory performance. The Syrian regime’s response was swift and violent; it declared war on dignity. From its perspective, there are no protesters who aspire to regain their dignity but only terrorists who conspire against the state. That’s how the regime justifies its bombing of bakeries, gas stations, and hospitals with warplanes. That’s why a crowd of more than a thousand people felt compelled to shout “Shabiha forever, for your eyes Assad” after Bashar’s speech in Damascus Opera House in January 2013. The cheering crowd was referring to the pro-Assad paramilitary militias who torture and kill Syrians, cut their ears, and mutilate their bodies. For the regime and al-moumana’a (resistance) intellectuals, the concept of dignity is only a smokescreen used by foreign agents to destabilize the state. For protesters, dignity is a transformative moment in their lives; it is the raison-d’être of their revolution. Dignity is the most powerful weapon in their hands as they struggle to overthrow the regime and decolonize their country from the authoritarian order. They follow an unmistakable trajectory that people in the Global South had initiated during their struggle for independence. Fanon explained that decolonization of body and mind, the process of regaining a dignified life, is necessary and precedes the independence of colonized nations.

Any attempt to understand the cartography of the Syrian revolution should have dignity as the point of entry. Ironically, the political repertoire used by many Syrian and non-Syrian intellectuals bypasses the concept. By doing so, these intellectuals render the revolution unthinkable. Dignity doesn’t have a place in a theoretical framework saturated with state-centric rhetoric that maintains and polices the boundaries of the nation. While concepts such as “sovereignty,” “state,” “nations,” and “American empire” have undeniable relevance and should be part of any analysis of the Syrian uprising, it is imperative to recognize the novelty of the context and adjust the analysis accordingly. Intellectuals trying to comprehend the anatomy of Arab authoritarianism need to question mainstream geopolitics as a modus operandi. The Syrian uprising and the ongoing Arab revolts require the creation of innovative conceptual tools that could grasp the newness in the emerging configuration in the region.

There are other reasons why using uncritically the nation-state as a unit of analysis would hamper our understanding of the Arab revolts. Firstly, for socio-historical motives, post-independence nations in the Arab World have not been able to build comprehensive political structures. Due to uneven relations of power between the West and the Rest, nation-states in the Arab World experienced a structural crisis since their inception. Arab elites who seized power after independence have not been able to propose viable or reliable alternative political systems to solve the economic and social problems. After decolonization, they increased the political, economic, and cultural dependency of their countries to the West. These post-colonial nations have experienced a long and profound crisis that is currently reaching its historical limits. Secondly, Western nations are experiencing the most serious economic and political crises since WWII. European and American social movements have exposed the weaknesses of Western liberal democracy. The Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados, and a multitude of other protests throughout Europe are symptomatic of a structural crisis that Western nation-states are experiencing and might not be able to overcome. The implications of the global crisis are tremendous on the Arab World. Like other Arab revolts, the Syrian uprising is in many ways not simply a response to the authoritarian order, it is also a response to the global crises of the nation-state, modernity, capitalism, and liberal democracy. Finally, the Arab revolts do not necessarily abide to the logic of the nation-state. They travel from one location to another without necessarily interacting with the logic of the state and its narrow nationalistic rhetoric. These translocal movements form complex networks that use emergent technologies and strategies to produce new practices and knowledges. “The nation-state,” as a lived reality and a theoretical apparatus, is being contested in various ways in the Arab world.

For these reasons, the Syrian uprising cannot be adequately examined nor accurately understood without a serious engagement with the concept of dignity and a problematization of the notion of “the nation-state.” Traditionally, the main function of modern states was the collection of taxes, the centralization of power, and the prevention of rebellions.5 Their historic mission was to create conditions that make rebellions impossible. The current revolts are not any different. Their dynamic is antithetical to the logic of the state. James Scott argues in his compelling book, Seeing Like A State that the state strives towards simplification and centralization while human communities tend towards the opposite. A quick overview of the Syrian revolt shows that a state-centric analytics is likely to fail to explain the situation in Syria. The challenge for researchers is to develop new conceptual tools that allow us to study the current revolution in Syria from a zone of nonbeing. Such a framework should put an emphasis on the concept of dignity without ignoring the material implications of a world-system where the nation-state is still a dominant political formation.

1 MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

2 For an important theorization of the concept of dignity in the context of the Arab revolts see Sami Hermez “On Dignity and Clientelism: Lebanon in the Context of the 2011 Arab Revolutions” in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. Vol 11 Issue 3.

3 Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann.

4 John Holloway, “Dignity’s Revolt”,

5 James C. Scott. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

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