Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, a prominent Syrian intellectual, dies

Sunday 18/12/2016
Syrian intellectual and philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm. (Wilson Center)

London - Syrian intellectual and phi­losopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm died in a hospital in Berlin while undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour. He was 82.
Azm was one of the icons of what is considered the “Damascus spring” in 2000 that brought together pro-democracy intellectuals and opposi­tion leaders. He supported the revo­lution in the country from its start in 2011. The demonstrations soon turned into a civil war in response to oppression by President Bashar As­sad’s regime.
Azm died December 11th, his son told the Associated Press. His health had deteriorated in recent weeks be­cause of brain cancer.
Mulud Allak, an Algerian aca­demic and journalist who inter­viewed Azm last summer, said Azm “seemed to have lost enthusiasm and hope” since the Syrian revolu­tion had taken a bloody turn in re­cent years.
Azm, who left his homeland for Germany in 2012, led the League of Syrian Writers, which was formed by intellectuals and thinkers living in exile. A similar group carrying the same name — although loyal to As­sad — exists in Syria.
Azm produced a large number of notable books and articles, in which he tackled taboo subjects in philoso­phy, politics, culture and sociology and saw in the Syrian revolution a chance to free people from the shackles of dictatorship.
“The man who stirred up the sands of Arab thought after so many centuries of stagnation is gone,” said Syrian novelist Rosa Yassin Hassan. “His secular ideas made him one of the leading critics of an Arab world where the role of reason had reced­ed.”
Born in Damascus in 1934, Azm graduated with honours from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1957 with a degree in philosophy. He earned a doctorate at Yale Uni­versity in the United States in mod­ern philosophy. His dissertation was on French philosopher Henri Berg­son.
Azm taught in Syria, Lebanon, Europe and the United States. He taught philosophy and contempo­rary Arab thought at the University of New York and the American Uni­versity of Beirut and was editor-in-chief of the Arabic Studies Journal published in Beirut. From 1993-98, he was chairman of the department of philosophical and sociological studies at the Faculty of Arts in Da­mascus.
The government in Beirut ordered the arrest of Azm and his publisher Bashir al-Daouk in December 1969 for publishing views that were con­sidered blasphemous. Lebanon at the time was at the tip of civil war, and Azm’s book Critique of Religious Thought was denounced for provok­ing feuds among the country’s reli­gious sects.
He fled to Syria and then returned to turn himself in and was jailed in early January 1970. Student dem­onstrations broke out at AUB, pro­testing Azm’s arrest. The charges were dropped because the book was merely “a collection of scientific and philosophical research articles con­taining a philosophical critique”, a court ruling said.
Azm applied a Marxist-materialist critique to religion, not to discredit people’s commitment, but to expose how “Arab regimes found in religion a crutch they could use to calm down the Arab public and cover up for their incompetence and failure, laid bare by the defeat (of 1967)” Azm said in defence of his book. Such views, no matter how outra­geous, “need to be debated, tried before the court of history, using judgment of the human mind, and then either established or discard­ed”, he said.
Azm lectured as a visiting profes­sor at numerous universities, in­cluding Princeton and Harvard in the United States; Hamburg, Hum­boldt and Oldenburg in Germany; Tohoku in Japan; and Antwerp in Belgium. He was a member of the European Academy for Science, Arts and Letters and was consid­ered a major human rights defender in the Arab world.
Azm was the recipient of many international awards, the last of which was the Goethe Medal from the Goethe Institute in Germany in July 2015. He was awarded the Leopold Lucas Prize for excellence from Tubingen University in Ger­many and the Erasmus Prize from Holland.
Among Azm’s many books are Love and Platonic Love and Studies in Modern Western Philosophy. In Self-Criticism after the Defeat, he analysed the reasons behind the defeat of Arab armies during the 1967 war with Israel. In The Men­tality of Interdiction, he defended Salman Rushdie against an Iranian fatwa calling for his killing after he published The Satanic Verses. Azm wrote Orientalism and Reverse Ori­entalism as a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Azm also had many studies about the Palestinian cause, Zionism and class struggle published.
Ali Awwad, an Iraqi writer, said Azm’s contributions to Arab thought could not be erased by his death. His support of the Syrian revolution “was in line with his enlightening and revolutionary ideas”, he said.