The Philosopher: Iconic Syrian academic on freedom, oppression and the origins of the war

One month after Dr. Ahmad Barqawi fled Syria, the University of Damascus announced that he had been fired from the department of philosophy after 30 years as a professor.

During his career, Barqawi published more than a dozen philosophical texts and poetry collections that address a range of topics including philosophy in the Arab world, the development and oppression of the self and the brutality of authoritarian regimes. His writings form a bridge between modern European philosophy and intellectual circles in the Arab world.

Barqawi was born in 1950 to two Palestinian refugees in the Damascus countryside and went on to study philosophy at the Leningrad State University in St. Petersburg.

After the outbreak of the Syrian war, the government security apparatus called Barqawi in for interrogation on what they considered to be the pro-revolutionary themes in his work—the brutality of authoritarian governments, violence perpetrated in the name of nationalism and the necessity of calling for freedom.

The philosopher fled the country for Dubai in 2013, fearing for his own safety.

“At a late age, it is tortuous to leave one’s place,” Barqawi, 67, tells Syria Direct’s Ghardinia Ashour. “However, philosophy gives life a logical nature.”

In the first of a two-part interview, the philosopher isolates the war from the sectarian context through which it is often framed. Barqawi then discusses the inevitability of the Syrian revolution as an outcome of individuals developing an awareness of freedom, even within the all-consuming confines of totalitarianism.

Q: How can philosophy help us understand what is happening in Syria? Is it still possible to conceive of Syria now as a revolution rather than a civil war, considering its sectarian nature?

An individual or community can have a multiplicity of relationships with what is happening in Syria: belonging, partisanship, neutrality, indifference, justification and understanding.

To understand reality—theoretically, intellectually or scientifically—is the task of philosophy. However, understanding does not mean taking a stance. Rather, philosophy and its understanding of the Syrian reality provides the foundations [to form a stance] in my mind.

Philosophy tells us that what is happening in Syria is the result of a fundamental contradiction between the power structure—oppressive, restrictive, dogmatic and fixed—and the society it imposes itself on through a series of primitive methods for the sake of self-preservation.

Society develops spontaneously. Its structure becomes wider and richer than the power structure. This then leads to the explosion of the societal structure that is no longer able to coexist with the power structure. This is to say that what happened and what is happening [in Syria] is a revolution in the precise meaning of the word.

Philosophy, revealing the possibilities encompassed in revolution, reinforces the active, rational will that helps one practice truth.

Q: How can we historically situate present day Syria? How can we understand the war through the nation’s historical context? Where is Syria heading?  

You are asking me where Syria is going: to a new world.

[Ed.: Barqawi’s following explanation of the political and military power structures in Syria previously appeared in a March 2017 article he published for the online Syrian politics and culture magazine Geroun.]

After the catastrophic coup in 1970, Hafez al-Assad built a regime that was structured around three core and functionally interrelated elements: the presidency, the army and the security forces.

The secondary, more ornamental elements included the Baath Party, which, according to the constitution, leads ‘society and the state,’ as well as a ‘patriotic and progressive front.’

[Ed.: Barqawi is citing Article 8 of the 1973 version of the Syrian Constitution.]

Other secondary elements include the appointed People’s Council, a forged, forced election process, and a series of institutions dominated by key members [of the ruling party]. 

The three core elements [presidency, army and security] monopolized power, wielding it without any moral or legal justification. No societal powers could deter them.

But when these core elements grow weak, those in power establish their own special militias. The militias are almost independent in their power, not subject to the authority of the collapsing army and security forces.

International powers are invited [to the country] through proxy militias due to the governing authority’s desire for survival. At this point, he loses more and more of his monopoly over power, becoming an instrument of the new powers [domestic and international militias]. 

It becomes a power struggle. The core structural elements collapse, no longer functioning within the formerly cohesive structure. The ornamental elements also lose their function because they are firmly related to the [three] core elements.

With the multitude of active forces—both internal and external—rebuilding the old structure becomes nearly impossible, especially since the sources of manpower, the impoverished classes, are nearly depleted. A dependence on outside sources [of manpower]—e.g. the impoverished in Lebanon and Iraq—emerges. But this is unsustainable if the conflict goes on for a long period of time.

From here, the demise of a historical structure is inevitable. It is not history’s natural disposition to restore life to a structure that has collapsed, and we do not know of such cases.

Q: Can philosophy give strength to someone bracing for an army raid or awaiting death in a prison cell? Is their freedom worth more than their life, their existence?

Philosophy puts the human being at the center of the world—they are the highest of the high. Moral philosophical discourse, specifically, provides humans with a consciousness of their value and existence.

Philosophy looks at war from two angles: a moral perspective (defending human life) and an epistemological perspective (explaining the war’s causes and effects).

Philosophy does not advocate for killing and war. It does not see anything more valuable or precious than the individual. Freedom is not something that stands alone; it is the individual.

To ask if freedom or human life is worth more implies that one can imagine freedom without man or man without freedom.

Q: You say that there is this unbreakable link between man and freedom, but I’d like to pose an analytical example, one that I’ve grappled with for a long time. Is the relationship between the individual and freedom more important than any other relationship—for example the relationship between a mother and her child? What does freedom mean to a mother who has lost her child? 

The ego exists under various forms of oppression. Any authority is a form of oppression. The relationship between those who hold power and the ego can be defined as oppressive power, and I will here map out the creation of authoritarian oppression.

Every individual lives under what we can call a hegemonic regime, meaning that the individual is subject to a sort of subordination. Individuals harbor a tendency toward liberating themselves from the hegemonic structure that controls the ego.

The world of ethics is a structure of hegemony, one that is historically constituted. These ethics, or values, try to prevent me from overstepping the bounds of the structure. Transgressions [against the structure] result in punitive measures—moral and, perhaps, physical ones as well.

Therefore, the ethical structure in all of its forms—in a traditional society in particular—is oppressive and imposes submission, for instance through the concept of chastity, the concept of honor, religion, etc.

Conflict arises when the individual grows and reaches the point of desiring liberation from the hegemonic structure. In doing so, he feels free from this hegemonic structure.

Religion, for instance, is a hegemonic structure. It is a strong authority and includes behavioral and moral imperatives. My belonging to religion as a being makes me subject to this hegemonic structure that has both concrete and theological forms of punishment. Therefore, it is more dangerous and problematic than a [nonreligious] ethical system because [religion] supports its dogma through a divine mandate. When I feel that this structure is a burden on my behavior, I feel my freedom.

The state—a strong, tangible body which enacts laws—becomes a repressive, hegemonic structure if there is incompatibility between that state and society. The state oppresses the ego to an extraordinary degree. However, we do not see this distinction clearly, as we live our lives under a fully formed oppressive state.

So, the idea of freedom emerges only from feeling one’s freedom denied. Whoever does not feel their servitude does not feel their freedom.When the slave becomes aware that he is a slave, this is the first step toward an awareness of freedom.

In Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, there is chapter entitled ‘The Master-Slave Dialectic’ [also translated as “The Lord-Bondsman Dialectic”].

[Ed.: Barqawi’s argument is grounded in a dialectic posed by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The passage from Hegel’s 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit uses the myth of a master and slave to explain the development of self-consciousness, or consciousness of freedom. At a juncture in history, two independent entities enter into a master-slave relationship in which both rely on the other for recognition of each other’s consciousness. However, the master comes to the realization that he is dependent upon the slave for his life and the recognition of consciousness. Conversely, the slave realizes the master’s dependence on him, and the roles of master-slave continually invert, or synthesize, in the dialectical tradition. Hegel’s dialectic was a major influence on Karl Marx’s theories of history and class struggle.]

This is before Marx proposes the development of the slave and the master, portraying them as two individuals with the spirit of life and the spirit of adventure, respectively. The slave did not venture, pleased to remain a slave, while the master was pleased because he did venture and became a master.

These relationships synthesize: the master owes his existence to the slave, because, in reality, his life is not possible without the slave and the slave’s work. The master becomes the slave, theoretically and dialectically.

The slave, simply through becoming aware that master is indebted to him, begins to feel that he is not enslaved. He begins to feel free. 

‘The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom [sic],’ says Hegel.

[Ed.: The Hegel quote comes from Lectures on the Philosophy of History, a series of lectures delivered by the author at the University of Berlin and published in 1837.]

Let us set aside those terms and move to a discussion about the inability to become conscious of freedom in the Arab world. Building off of what I said about the relationship between the ego and the hegemonic structure, the definition of freedom is the disappearance of the gap between the manifest ego and the latent ego.

The hegemonic structure strangles the true self, coercing the true ego to disappear. The false ego—the one adapted to the demands of a compulsive, oppressive force—then appears.

Under a dictatorial regime, the true ego is always in hiding. It cannot show itself, while the false ego—the one the tyrant demands—can manifest itself.

If freedom is the disappearance of this gap between the latent ego and the manifest ego, every oppressive power forces a being to conceal what he fears. From here, we derive the link between freedom and fear, as well as courage. European society is a courageous society because there are no lies, there is no fear, up to a certain point. There is no latent ego or manifest ego.

How then can we, the Arabs, become conscious of the idea of freedom?

The word ‘freedom’ does not exist in the Arabic lexicon—only the word “free” which is the opposite of slavery. But freedom as a concept is absent.  We cannot return to history [for a precedent] because [Arab] societies have suffered under a hegemonic regime.

How can we raise an awareness of freedom, ideologically and discursively, considering that we have only as of late become aware of the importance of a consciousness of freedom in our speech? It is critical that we are aware of the importance of speech in ideology.

The nationalist ideology [championed by the Baath Party] tethers the idea of freedom to the idea of ‘the freedom of the homeland’—freedom from the Other, from colonialism. The idea of colonialism gave birth to this method of thinking: ‘The freedom of the Arabs and their independence from the Other.’

As a result, the individual does not see himself through the lens of freedom, but rather through his relationship to the ‘free homeland,’ which has achieved its freedom from the control of the [colonial] Other.

All totalitarian ideologies go against individual freedom.

[Ed.: Al-Baraqawi’s reference to “totalitarian” ideologies, or regimes in Arabic, not only evokes the idea of authoritarianism, but also the concept of a “totality.” A main feature of a totalitarian, or “totalizing,” ideology is its all-encompassing nature. A totalizing ideology aims to subsume everyone and everything into its structure.]

The freedom of the homeland does not trickle down to the individual whatsoever—it is the complete opposite. Oppression of the individual is linked, or becomes a requirement, to defending the freedom of the homeland.

Individual freedom becomes constricted alongside freedom of the homeland, and as the freedom of the homeland narrows, so does the freedom of the individual. The individual is no longer a ‘self.’

Nationalism and Marxism are ideologies which can be rebelled against, rejected and demolished. But when we look to a religious movement, we find an absolute servitude to God in the text, in the text’s explanation, exegesis and interpretation, all being fully subservient to this hegemonic system.

There is nothing deeper than the slogan “the people want,” because it is linked to will.

[Ed.: Barqawi is referring to the slogan, “The people want the downfall of the regime,” which protestors in Syria, Egypt, and several other countries chanted during the early Arab Spring protests.]

If you want, then you are free. Servitude is the dispossession of one’s will, whereas freedom is assigning will.

There’s no doubt that for a mother, her son is more important than all the freedoms in the whole world.

But freedom for the people—those who “want”—is not a question of whether the torturous struggle for freedom outweighs the price of freedom. 

Ghardinia Ashour

Ghardinia Ashour is from Moadamiyat a-Sham neighborhood in Outer Damascus. She graduated from Damascus University with a degree in translation. Ghardinia moved from Syria to Lebanon in 2012 and then to Jordan in 2013. She worked as an English teacher in Moadamiyat a-Sham before leaving Syria.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.