Revolutionary Culture by Robin Yassin Kassab
In ‘Assad’s Syria’, as the slogans at the borders and in the streets called it, schools taught by rote and intimidation. The universities were ideologically policed. Trade unions were controlled by the state and the Ba‘ath Party (these two inextricably intertwined). Beyond the Ba‘ath’s various paramilitary organisations and the closely monitored mosques and churches, there was no civil society under Hafez al-Assad. Later, the regime’s ‘quasi’-NGOs, run by Bashaar al-Assad’s wife Asma or other members of the ruling family, provided only a parody of civil society which aimed, in the words of dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, ‘to crowd out the real independent organisations’. State TV, radio and newspapers churned out pictures of the Leader and endless footage of grim-faced citizens shaking weak fists in ‘spontaneous expressions of love and loyalty’.
Hafez al-Assad went in for totalitarian culture of the North Korean variety – for example, choreographed spectacles in sports stadiums which effaced hundreds of people’s identities to spell out slogans praising the president. Grim metal statues of Assad stared down over university campuses and shopping streets. Stepped altars to the dictator’s image lined the inter-city highways. Like the Prophet Muhammad, the president was titled al-Ameen, as-Sadeeq (the Truthful, the Trustworthy). Syrians joked in muted tones about the oft-portrayed Holy Trinity of father (Hafez), son (Bashaar), and holy ghost (the eldest son Basil, known as ‘the role model’, killed while speeding on the airport road). In school Qowmiya (nationalism) classes, Qur’anic quotations (‘God, may He be glorified and exalted, said...’) were interspersed with the president’s words (‘President Leader Hafez al-Assad, the Struggling Comrade, said...’). After his death, Hafez was declared ‘the Eternal Leader’.
Most Syrians, of course, did not adopt the religion of Assadism, though its icons decorated their streets, shops and cars. Syria scholar Lisa Wedeen’s book Ambiguities of Domination asks why the regime invested so much money and effort in a propaganda structure which was so obviously ineffective, and finds that the intention was not to convince the public but to undermine the public space, to destroy the integrity of those forced into hypocrisy, and to debase the meaning of language itself. Syrians behaved ‘as if’ they loved the regime, even praising the president in front of their children out of fear the children might repeat the wrong thing in public. A culture of hypocrisy and opportunism spread, and nobody expected honesty. In this way, and by brute demonstrations of power (most notably the 1982 Hama massacre), Assad Senior achieved his kingdom of silence.