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memri
April 6, 2000 No.
84

A Syrian Debate Over Peace and Freedom of Expression

Criticism of the regime's political strategy is uncommon in Syria. Syrians who wish to express independent opinions about the peace process usually do so in the non-Syrian media. Recently a debate between Syrian intellectuals was conducted in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat.

The debate was initiated when Syrian-Palestinian author Hisham Dajani wrote an article supporting the peace process and normalization of relations with Israel. Dajani argued that the majority of Syrian intellectuals support peace with Israel and criticized their silence.

Dajani's statement provoked strong reactions from Syrian intellectuals. Dajani responded to the critics, particularly Syrian poet and author Mamdouh 'Udwan. Following are excerpts from the debate:

A Syrian Call for Peace and Freedom of Expression

On February 9, 2000, Hisham Dajani wrote: "The Syrian public's silence on a crucial issue like the peace process led US State Department Spokesman, James Rubin, to state, 'We do not consider Syria a democratic state. The [Syrian] regime is not democratic in any sense of the word' ...What Rubin does not grasp is that the public chooses to remain silent, though the majority supports the peace process! The minority that opposes the peace process does the same, but for different reasons...."

I cannot find any reason for the strange silence of the Syrian intellectuals; [they act] as though the peace process were conducted on Mars, or as though it is none of their business. ...The Syrian intellectual should express his opinion courageously on this issue that affects future generations. ...If the Syrian intellectual cocoons himself with silence out of 'caution' [so as not to weaken Syria's positions], I must tell him that the existence of an objective opposition to the peace process would strengthen rather than weaken the Syrian negotiating position. We have the example from Israel, which uses its domestic opposition -- which is a real opposition -- to extort concessions [from the Arabs]. We must show that we have an opposition also and that our people do not live on the fringes...."

"Some writers talk about the negotiations and the hopes for peace… within the official information apparatus. But public opinion in Israel and the world at large is not interested in hearing the official information, whose opinions are well known and repeat themselves daily. Public opinion outside of Syria is interested in the voice of the silent majority -- especially the intellectuals -- who in general support the peace process and aspire for a stable, lasting peace...."

Golan for Peace is Enough

"Due to the balance of power, we cannot regain our land unconditionally, and therefore, some concessions on the issues of water, security arrangements, and normalization of relations are unavoidable…."

"It is enough [if we] regain our land in its entirety. This will also mean the return of our pride. By now, there are no [more] illusions about the [possibility] of 'liberation' [of the Golan by force]. The only way to regain the Golan is through negotiations....

"Egypt's position in the Arab world stayed intact [after making peace with Israel], despite what all the alarmists said. ...The dialogue Egyptian intellectuals conducted with some Israeli intellectuals did not diminish their position or national identity. We could have a dialogue with Israeli intellectuals who support peace and its balanced implementation. …such a dialogue would strengthen Syria's negotiating position and remove the claim that there is no such thing as Syrian public opinion...."

"The worst thing is that those opposing cultural normalization have turned themselves into the guardians of Syria's and conduct ideological terror against their fellow intellectuals, claiming that normalization is the politicians' business, while culture is their private business! When I said, along with a group of Syrian intellectuals, that normalization is an inseparable part of the peace process, we where expelled from the [Syrian] Arab Writers Association. We do not deny their right to oppose normalization. Why do they deny our right to enjoy the freedom of speech?!"

"It is time we freed ourselves from any illusions. Israel will not swallow us after the peace just as it did not swallow Egypt, or even a small state like Jordan. The Syrian role in the region will be strengthened, not weakened after the peace. It is dependent to a large extent on our ability to succeed in the domestic battles: against corruption, for the modernization of legislation, for establishing civil society, and for the modernization of the political and economical infrastructure so that Syria becomes a state that moves ahead with time."[1]

A Response to Dajani's Call

In reply, Syrian poet and author Mamdouh 'Udwan wrote, "Peace I understand, but normalization I oppose, not only because I do not want to be in touch with the historical enemy… but also because I do not know how to be in touch with this enemy. These are murderers and nothing more. They -- including those among them who now seem sympathetic to peace -- are willing to treat us only as second-rate human beings that must be killed, or whose killing is not worth bothering about. They say: '…Let us stop the bloodshed. Let us rest for a while. We have tired of the killing. We have tired of killing you.'"

"…I do not want to be like some of those who are dirtied by filthy politics, and satisfy myself by saying: 'how can I shake the hand of someone who occupies my land?' [Because it is like expressing] readiness to shake that hand once the occupation is over. I want to say clearly: even if the land returns, I will not shake a hand that remains soiled with my blood. I will not normalize relations with someone who is not ashamed of my blood on his hands and who extends this hand in order to shake mine, assuming that I deserve to be slaughtered whenever he wishes...."

"This peace will solve the problem of anyone who thinks that since the Nakbah [The Arabic term for the Arab defeat in the 1948 war] the purpose of the conflict is to muster sympathy for those 'poor [Palestinian] refugees' because --oh dear -- they lost their homes. These refugees already found half a solution when UNRWA turned their tents into clay houses. They will find the other half of the solution in their resettlement [in the Arab countries...] Why? Because they are ashamed to talk about how the Palestinian born in a village near Haifa or Jaffa has the right to return and kick out those living in his house...."

"[You ask about] the land? Whoever wants it can take it. The land is not my problem…. [As far as I am concerned,] the Palestinians and the defeatist Arabs can take as much land as they can get; they can make the concessions required by the political and international situation..."

"But I do not want to forget that Palestine in its entirety is Arab.... Some would say that this is the rhetoric of the 50's and 60's. I don't care if it is the rhetoric of the Stone Age. This is what I believe from the bottom of my heart. ...Therefore, I add that even if all of Palestine is returned [to the Arabs] I will go on resenting them personally, one by one, for all the blood spilt and for all the tortures in the last century. Let the politicians persecute me for saying that; let those intellectuals who pretend to be civilized persecute me ...I am already accustomed to the fact that executioners always have 'objective' reasons to oppress..."[2]

Stop the Bloodshed

Focus on Internal Reform:

Dajani Responds to 'Adwan

In response to 'Udwan, Dajani wrote "...['Udwan] speaks in the emotional language of a poet, and I, on the other hand, as a political publicist, cannot think in this way, because it is purposeless and it turns us into a nation that lives in dreams... I deal with politics, the art of the possible, the art of the pragmatic...."

"The historical enmity will subdue gradually, especially if Israel keeps the terms of the peace. Germany invaded France twice, murdered, slaughtered, and then was defeated. Today, Germany and France are allies. Some would say that France does not have land [occupied by Germany.] Okay, but the two countries have forgotten the historical enmity. Another example is Japan. There is no country in the world that suffered like Japan. Two large cities were wiped out… and there were hundreds of thousands of casualties. ...Today, Japan and the US are allies. Why? Because the political leadership in Japan has dealt with politics and not with emotions. It left the emotions to the poets and turned to progress until it invaded the American and international markets."

"The enmity [between Arabs and Israel] will dissolve with time. Your son is not as enthusiastic [to hate] as you. He did not witness the Nakbah or the 1967 defeat, and your grandson will be even less enthusiastic than both of you. This is the logic of time. In reality, there is no such thing as eternal enmity. Just like there is no eternal friendship, only interests are eternal. ...True, our generation at least cannot forget, but we cannot fight forever against those who are stronger than us and are supported by the entire West."

"My desire for peace derives, first from the need to stop the bloodshed. ...Even if the peace is uneven -- as some are fond of claiming -- it will end the daily humiliation [in Lebanon] and the quarrelsome Israeli behavior -- it is sufficient. Instead of sending our forces to lose the battle, let us turn them inward: to the battle for political and economic reform...." [3]


[1] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 9, 2000.

[2] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), March 2, 2000. 'Udwan was rewarded for this article by being permitted to write in the Syrian daily Tishrin, again after several years.

[3] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), March 21, 2000. Dajani has answered some other writers who criticized his article. To the Syrian Author and Former MP, Mahmoud Salameh, who claimed (Al-Hayat, March 1, 2000) that the most Syria can offer srael is stopping the state of war, Dajani answered that the forming of the four Shepherdstown negotiations committees proves that "Syria and Israel negotiate on peace according to the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli models, and not just to stop the state of war." To a reader who asked whether Arab countries should be seen as extremists if they declare that they will liberate the land through war if liberation through negotiations fails, he answered: "Yes. They should be seen as extremists. There is no one single Arab state that wants or is capable of fighting. The sole meaning of war has been more and more catastrophes and defeats Saddam style. Yes, peace is our strategic option and I do not say that only because it is the higher interest of the country, but also because I feel the pulse of the public."