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"Heads" or "Chairs"?

In the Syrian intellectual environment, there are two opposing voices, each representing a certain point of view in the broad sense of the word: One voice proclaims that change means change in "chairs" first and foremost, that is, that the revolution should topple the existing regime, complete with its symbols, institutions and agencies; and the other declares that change means change of [people's] "heads" first (and perhaps only), meaning that actual revolution topples the prevailing culture and social configuration, represented mainly by the ideas, values and practices of political Islam.

The first view places culture between brackets and deems everything "cultural" an insult, while the second view does exactly the same, except with the "political."

These half-views of the "revolution" are partly the result of ideas and attitudes, but also the result of certain stances that have to do with social and sociological realities that are no longer difficult to infer. However, in all cases, they weaken revolutionary action as much as they reflect a certain underlying formative weakness.

Indeed, revolutions cannot be complete and cannot fulfill their purposes as revolutions if, at the end of the day, they do not shake the prevailing culture and social configuration. Yet, in the case of Syria, how can one achieve a goal as such without changing the regime that cannot survive without violence, and which blocks all paths to the most basic of freedoms? How can this happen without removing a regime that renders the smallest doubt a crime that "weakens the nation," while preventing individuals, who are supposed to question things and seek change, from living in dignity?

If one may cite the examples of Egypt and Tunisia following their revolutions against the "chairs," then it could be argued that the move to change the "heads" had to inevitably undergo a process of changing those "chairs." This is while bearing in mind that the violence perpetrated by the former regimes in the two countries, is but a drop in the ocean of violence that the Syrian regime has been scooping from.

But the fact of the matter is that only in this political fight, specifically through the struggle for power, nay in a climate in which the struggle for power could be launched, can the critiquing and political challenging of Islamism take place - to paraphrase Samer Franjieh in Al-Hayat's supplement Tayarat last Sunday.

In this sense, it is feared that overstating the theory of changing the "heads," and placing it ahead of other priorities, may lead to complacency over changing the "chairs," if not overlooking them and their occupants altogether. The truth is that this exaggeration, through its long-lasting accommodation of the "chairs," is partly responsible for political Islam being in the position of the victim first and then subsequently in the vanguard following change.

But the argument for changing "chairs," by contrast, should do more to prove that changing "heads" is indeed on the agenda. This view's weak credentials in this respect, is not very reassuring. This takes on many forms, including exaggeratingly repudiating culture and intellectuals, and a growing willingness to tolerate if not to glorify populist behavior, not to mention the tendency to turn a blind eye on extremist acts that must never be overlooked. Sometimes, these reactions go as far as condemning what is Western and advanced, because "the people" are not so.

Yes, there is no doubt that changing "chairs" comes first, but without embarking on changing "heads" too, we will sooner or later find ourselves facing "chairs" that are even heavier on the hearts and minds than their forerunners.

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Publication:Dar Al Hayat, International ed. (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Feb 26, 2013
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