The Cultural Dimension of Syrian Conflict

From the American Revolution to the color revolutions, intellectuals have played a significant role in creating grand narratives and mobilizing the public. They constructed social theories that facilitated collective action, and their visions continued to serve the new regime after the revolutions succeeded. In the Arab Spring, however, intellectuals are marginalized and the ideological aspect of political change are downplayed. This article will first examine some alternative explanations for this phenomenon and then explore the contribution of intellectual silence to the failure of the Syrian revolution.

In the Arab Spring, however, intellectuals are marginalized and ideology as a general factor is downplayed.

The intellectual silence in the Arab Spring might result from a general distrust of political ideology, which was seen as a tool easily manipulated by dictators. Globally, communist revolutions have produced totalitarian regimes that prosecuted dissidents in the name of ideology; regionally, the Ba’ath Party in Syria, Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt all exemplify how rulers took advantage of slogans such as nationalism, socialism, and secularism to expand their power. For participants in the Arab Spring, bloated vision is associated with hypocrisy and oppression. Furthermore, ideologies are losing their strategic importance in post-Cold War revolutionary literatures. As more and more countries converted to liberal democracy, ideological debate seemed to have reached “The End of History.” One solution called democracy, despite the lack of specification and contextualization, seemed to fit every country. As ideology stepped out of the center of nation-building, modern revolutionaries developed a new framework that emphasized pragmatism. With liberal democracy as a general vision, pragmatists mobilize popular support from the unifying effect of uncontested issues such as employment and police brutality. This approach lowered the barrier for ordinary people to join the revolution and could spread the movement efficiently. Winning on simplicity, this approach nevertheless has a lethal flaw: it does not provide answers to contested issues, such as the conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni, or whether the use of violence in resistance is legitimate.

As ideology stepped out of the center of nation-building, modern revolutionaries developed a new framework that emphasized pragmatism.

Another potential cause of the intellectual vacuum in the Arab Spring is the intense state repression that forced many Arab intellectuals into exile, according to Robert F. Worth. Intellectuals who cared about the revolution were physically separated from it. Without first-hand experience and with censorship between them and their audience, their functions as reporters and opinion leaders substantially decreased.

Besides all the conditions that discouraged intellectual leadership in the Arab Spring, the Arab intellectual community itself might be too weak and divisive to create structure and formulate narratives for the revolution. In “The Arab Intellectual Is an Endangered Species,” Sami Mahroum argues that the Arab intellectual community is divided into two camps—a pro-Westernization camp that revered all Western thoughts, from capitalism to Marxism, indiscriminately, and an anti-Westernization camp that tried to revive the medieval tradition of religious thoughts. Neither camp captures the political and social reality in contemporary Arab nations, so Mahroum calls for the reinvention of Arab culture. His idea corresponds with that of an influential Arab thinker, the Syrian poet Adonis.

Adonis, or Ali Ahmad Said Esber, described himself as a “double critic.” Politically, he opposed both foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict and the use of violence by Syrian rebels; culturally, he criticized both western propaganda misrepresenting Arab culture and the conservative, regressive, and extremist component within orthodox Islam. His book, The Static and the Dynamic, seeks to identify creativity and spirit for change in Arabic literary tradition and to envision the modernization of Arab culture. The Arab Spring, he contends, fails to produce sustainable democracy because it does not reconcile the contradiction between the old and the new, the east and the west. Without a democratic culture, people, even after the revolution succeeds, tend to fall back to their ethno-religious factions and conventional biases, where a civil society composed of citizens whom together has enough leverage over the ruler can never take form.

His book The Static and the Dynamic seeks to identify creativity and spirit for change in Arabic literary tradition and to envision the modernization of Arab culture.

A cultural solution might sound too idealistic, because the current trend is to analyze politics by assuming every actor as a rational agent driven by self-interest. In fact, cultural factors into this analytical framework very well. Culture dictates how people imagine social relations and how they calculate individual and collective utilities. Without a significant change in the status quo, culture has the potential to start a revolution by changing the way people think, and ideology is the tool intellectuals invented to transform culture.

To date, the legacy of the Arab Spring has deviated from its original context. Some may contend that it is too late to advocate for intellectual leadership in the Middle East, because ideas cannot de-escalate an immediate danger, nor can they eliminate terrorists as efficiently as guns. This is a misunderstanding of the role of culture. People can live without guns, not without culture. When one culture is absent, an alternative culture would dominate. Intellectual leadership is therefore a necessity of all times for those who fight for sustainable freedom.

Yumeng Zou ‘20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at

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