For a little over 100 years, more precisely from AD661 to 750, the Umayyad Empire ruled over much of the Arab world from Damascus. An unprecedented expansion followed, even if administrative and cultural problems arose, in large part because few officials understood the values of freedom.
Though Arabic became a universal language under their rule, and some culturally significant contributions were made — most notably the Dome of the Rock in occupied Jerusalem as well as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus — the Arab renaissance came only after the Abbasid Empire (AD750-1258) ushered in an unprecedented period of creativity. Baghdad thrived because Abbasid rulers were somewhat tolerant. Damascus, regrettably, wallowed in fanaticism.
Still, the Syrian nation endured as scientists, writers, and artists, among others, refused to forego intrinsic capabilities to invent. Suppressed by the Ottoman Empire for nearly 600 years, Syrian heroes preserved the Arab ethos, churning out philosophers and thinkers galore.
Though few remember how influential Syrians were in various disciplines, it behooves us to note that Posidonius, for example, who was born in Apamea, located just north of Hama, shook the Greek world as a leading Stoic philosopher, politician, astronomer, geographer and historian.
Damascius, ‘the last of the Neoplatonists', was equally influential. A leading scholar of the School of Athens, this Damascene was persecuted by Roman Emperor Justinian in the early sixth century, on account of his pagan ideas. Ironically, Damascius sought and received refuge in the Persian court, where he authored three monumental commentaries on Plato.
Likewise, the Aleppo-born Abd Al Rahman Al Kawakibi (1849-1902) articulated a vision of Pan-Islamic and Pan-Arab identities, as he opposed Ottoman rule and called for sovereignty and freedom. His ‘mysterious' death — allegedly poisoned by Ottoman agents — silenced him, although two influential books survived: Tabai Al Istibdad Wa Masari Al Istibad (The characteristics of tyranny and the harms of enslavement) and Umm Al Qura (Mother of all cities).
Liberty and justice
There are, of course, many other Syrians, including Antun Saadeh, Sadiq Jalal Al Azm, Zaki Al Arsuzi, to name just a few, who made serious contributions to knowledge. More important, they established legacies that centred on liberty and justice, which matured under foreign occupations.
It is critical to recall that Syrian nationalism ripened in the Bilad Al Sham, which successfully expelled French and British occupiers. Interestingly, the so-called ‘Fertile Crescent' was and to a certain extent remains, the Arab world's cultural focal point even if shortsighted political ‘isms' weakened it. Just like predecessors who fought against tyranny and occupation, Syrians are now anxious to redefine their social contracts.
At least 1,200 were killed to date, while thousands more were either arrested or fled to neighbouring countries. Even more were ready to confront rogue elements in the state security apparatus. Young and old, and even teenagers, clamoured for basic human rights.
Throughout Syria, many engaged troops who, lamentably, fired on civilians. News that the army is threatened and may be involved in fratricide does not augur well for the country. Time will tell whether the Syrian military will restore order and, once again, become a respected institution.
In the meantime, Damascus is caught in an existential dilemma that was most pointedly displayed on a recent YouTube video, in which a soldier was beating his prisoner senseless while sarcastically asking: "Explain to me what is freedom?"
The answer, of course, came from the fearless and brave Syrians who stood defiant against attempts to crush the pro-democracy uprising, though the greatest challenge facing them was to secure the loyalty of the army.
This was critical because Turkey is quickly moving to create an enclave in northern Syria to allow opposition forces to set up shop there. While many dismiss this possibility, few should be under any illusions, since Turkey is on high ground. Inasmuch as the Arab silence is interpreted as acquiescence to massacres and the slaughter of civilians, Ankara can claim that it is acting in good faith, to prevent barbarism on its borders.
While newly re-elected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on his "good friend" Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to implement long-promised reforms in early May, he no longer expresses fears that Syria will be divided. Rather, Erdogan escalated his rhetoric, describing the latest crackdown as being "inhumane." Going even further, Erdogan concluded that the Syrian Army's 4th Division, commanded by Maher Al Assad, was "barbaric" and "not behaving like humans."
In the event, because it was not protesters who killed 120 soldiers at Jisr Al Shughour, we ought to be concerned about what could transpire in Syria soon. We can also see a rapidly growing refugee population pouring into Turkey. Needless to say, these are unsettling developments which could escalate into a Libya-type operation, especially if a liberated enclave is created in the north.
Such concerns aside, Abd Al Rahman Al Kawakibi would have approved of the desertions and the refusal of Syrian soldiers to shoot civilians. He would have pinned freedom medals on them instead of tarnishing their reputations, for he understood that his successors are confronting totalitarianism.
The challenge, nevertheless, is to explain what huriyyah means to the soldier who asked the question, so that Damascus can become, once again, the inspiration it once was.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 16/06/2011
-Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs