Some people whose interest in the Middle East is recent think that Assad is a uniquely Syrian phenomenon. I think the excessively harsh despotism and the equally excessive ability to cruelly exterminate your own population while believing yourself to be setting your nation on the road to modernity are quite unique in terms of their degree and intensity, but Assadism is nonetheless a more widespread political disposition in the Arab world. It can even be described as a mode of being. How do you recognise an Assadist? Here are some helpful suggestions for the newcomers:
• An Assadist is anyone who pretends that the tension between a local population’s aspirations for freedom, justice and dignity and geo-political anti-imperialist posturing (i.e., being ‘against’ the US, ‘against’ Israel, etc…) does not exist, and does not need to be negotiated. Assadists believe that they have ‘solved’ this problem, or that geo-politics is all there is. Assadism is above all the dictatorship of geo-political discourse, which, to be sure, does not necessarily have to be geo-politically rational.
• An Assadist is anyone for whom ‘resistance’ functions as an institutionalised ideology of national/state legitimisation. Assadists are those who clearly see themselves sliding into a reality where ‘resistance’ entails more ‘resisting anyone who resists you’ than ‘resisting anyone who oppresses you’, but it doesn’t bother them.
• An Assadist is someone who believes in the ‘dictatorship of the seculariat’. They think that the ‘secular’ bit in the concept of ‘secular dictatorship’ far outweighs in importance the ‘dictatorship’ bit. An Arab Assadist usually combines this excessive modernist adoration of secularism with an excessive modernist usage of eau de cologne — not to mention a particular adoration of this other great modernist artifact: the sun glasses — which can help you identify them even if they don’t say much.
• A western Assadist is someone whose belief in the power of radical western thoughts’ ability to ‘analyse’, ‘dissect’ and ‘capture’ the political essence of a situation anywhere in the world remains unshaken by the failures of radical western thought to do anything of the sort throughout the twentieth century, and who gives you top-down lectures about where the right path towards genuine anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics lies with the same arrogance his or her colonialist ancestors gave your ancestors top-down lectures about where the right path towards western civilisation lied.
I am sure there’s more but I hope this helps.
Ghassan Hage is Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne.