Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, better known as Adonis, believes democracy begins by keeping religion separate from everything political, social and cultural. Image Credit: Shakir Noori

Adonis, whose real name is Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, is regarded as the grand old man of poetry, secularism and free speech in the Arab world, often employing intense imagery to drive home his sharp messages.

Born in 1930 in the Syrian mountain town of Qassabin, Adonis [pronounced ah-doh-NEES], like the ruling Al Assad family, is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiism that has controlled the Baath Party and political power in Syria for nearly five decades.

As an angry young poet, he saw Hafez Al Assad seize power and then bequeath it to his son Bashar, who is now facing the most serious challenge to the regime. In an open letter in the Lebanese daily As Safir recently, Adonis urged the president to end his crackdown on popular protest and accept people power.

The Paris-based Adonis, winner of this year's prestigious Goethe Prize and one of the most popular poets and essayists in the Arab world, has been controversial from the beginning of his career. A perennial candidate for the Nobel prize, he has remained a lifelong advocate of secularism, free speech and the separation of religion and politics — issues that have emerged on the front lines of pan-Arab debate following the Arab uprisings.

The past months have seen writers and intellectuals such as Jabber Asfour, Ebrahim Al Kouny and Taher Ben Jalloun take a stance in support of the revolutions.

The role of Adonis, however, was clear from the beginning, although his language has often been misunderstood. His surprisingly critical take on the revolution in Syria's streets is an example. Explaining it in his weekly column Al Hayat, he said he is "against the revolution that comes from the thresholds of mosques", as opposed to the revolt of his people. Not everyone is buying it, though.

Weekend Review met Adonis to discuss the Syrian situation and the unprecedented tsunami of hope that is sweeping across the Arab world today:

What do you think of the regime's violent response to the popular protests in Syria?

I think it is a systemic problem that cannot be immediately resolved in Syria, even after the fall of the existing system. I also do not believe the security system offers any solution. That is the dilemma: On the one hand there is a genuine push for democracy in Syria and a long struggle is on at present, even if it is realised within some harsh conditions and constraints. Whatever it is, it must start now, not tomorrow. On the other hand, without democracy, it will be catastrophic for the country, as we have seen.

Do you believe the concept of democracy appealing to Arabs in general?

Arabs have never experienced democracy, either in recent history or in the distant past. The concept has been outside their collective cultural heritage. However, this does not mean it is impossible to work on its foundation. In fact, that work started with the beginning of independence decades ago. It was courageous and constructive.

However, the evolution requires basic conditions on the ground. It is possible that Arabs can acquire it from the others and exercise it, as they have done with a lot of things in technology and modern lifestyle.

What are the conditions to achieve democracy?

The first of these conditions is to separate religion from state, the divine from this earth, culturally and politically. That means in terms of political and civil rights [of the citizen], it should be a complete separation between what is religious and what is political, social and cultural. Intellectuals have fought since the first centuries of the founding of the Islamic Arab state.

They continue fighting for this duality but they have not only failed but have been killed. Institutionalised religion is still largely dominant. A combination of religious and political bases is still at work across the Arab world.

What are the limits of freedom of the individual in contemporary Arab society?

How can democracy blossom in an environment that does not respect individual freedom and human experience, and rejects other civilisations? There is no democratic basis in religion — as within Greek Occidental culture with tolerance and openness. The Arab man does not want tolerance but he wants equality. Without equality, there are no rights, no recognition of the other. Until that arrives, democracy in the Arab society will remain just a word without meaning.

What do you think about the performance of the ruling Baath Party in Syria that trumpets its secular credentials?

As I mentioned earlier, the establishment of democracy begins with the complete separation of what is religious and what is political, social and cultural. This was not done by the Arab Baath Socialist Party, as had been expected, despite being in power for almost half a century. On the contrary, it is wearing the same old clothes. As a result, this hypocrisy turned it into a near-racist party in its approach towards the various minorities, especially the Kurds. In the process, it acquired all the structural qualities of religion. For example, affiliation to the Baath Party became a badge of privilege, which in turn yielded the party members political, social and commercial dividends.

What is your experience of Arab political movements in general?

Political pluralism among Arabs has failed at all levels, as has been the case with the Communist model. The Arab Baath Socialist Party is part of this failure. It did not succeed in Syria because of strong ideological foundations but through brute force and violence. History confirms that this hegemonic grip on power was very strong but subject to internal and external manipulations, and only managed to disintegrate and retard civil society, in addition to violating human dignity.

Security exists only in freedom. That is the paradox today. The party has ruled for five decades in the name of progress but it has only engineered the collapse of Syria and distorted the image of its civilisation. It is a farce played out by the Baath Party in the same way as the West's defence of human rights from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf, except in one category: the Palestinians. They have no rights in the eyes of Americans and other Westerners. The tragedy is that Arabs themselves, without exception, participate in one way or another in this charade.

Do you think that the long years of Baath Party rule are to blame for the present turmoil?

The truth is that the Baath Party's long hold on power would have naturally led to the situation we witness in Syria today. It survived by adopting old, traditional politics, subsumed by the broader religion-political context and tribal culture. It bred a culture of political horse-trading, monopolies and exclusions. The Baath Party was driven by one purpose: to stay in power. Such an establishment does not need a revolution to overthrow it; it carries the seeds of its own downfall.

In the case of Syria, Article VIII of the Constitution must be annulled, first and foremost, because it embodies the symbol of tyranny and disregard for human beings, reason and freedom. The people must ask today's leaders of the party to have the moral courage and historical perspective to open a new page of democracy for the building of a new nation in which all political forces and intellectual actors, especially women and youth, participate to achieve an open civil society.

What are the ways to achieve democracy?

Democracy is founded on two fundamentals: First, an irrevocable acceptance that the citizen [man and woman] is an indivisible unit of the community, irrespective of his or her affiliation to any religion, sect, tribe or ethnic group. Second, to accept plurality, that the other is different, with his or her rights and freedoms. This requires that the opposition, too, should be clear, comprehensive and accurate in its pursuit of political goals and alternative plans, and seek transformation through civil means.

Is there a real opposition to the present regime in Syria?

There are many voices — intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, young men and women — all with their aspirations for a fair system. But they have not gotten together even symbolically to forge a document of their ideas or to clarify their goals beyond the existing system. Without them providing a unified front, what we witness on the streets is a cacophony of demonstrations, clashes, agitators, looters and militants.

What are the challenges faced by the individual in Syria?

The challenge is twofold: First, the president should not consider himself the head of a party but rather [the head] of all the people of the country. The president has to pave the way for the devolution of power without preconditions. As long as people are the source of power, no party or leader would be able to monopolise the hold on power or to act in a partisan manner. Only such a distribution of power can confirm the legitimacy of a government.

Second, we must learn to look beyond the confines of security and governance. The survival of the party leadership, in accordance with Article VIII, no longer satisfies the vast majority of Syrians. No military might can suppress this popular belief. The leaders of the party have to acknowledge with courage and objectivity the gaping fault-lines in the party's relationship with the people today and set about repairing them. It is no longer an issue of saving the system but a struggle to save Syria itself. Without it, the party will be the first to implode and take with it our nation as a whole.

What is the way out of this crisis?

Today Syria needs, more than ever before, a leadership that does not mix power and the party or drives a wedge between itself and the people. This way of thinking is tyrannical.

Syria is far more precious than anything else and it is humiliating to be reduced to this single-party state, isn't it?

Arrogance, force and violence are counter-productive. Prisons can accommodate individuals, not an entire population. Political prisons reflect the system's failure. The Baath Party, in exercising political power over the past many years, often abused the cultural identity of Syria.

It established a one-dimensional culture, propped up by an equally blinkered society. Arabism has replaced theology. Opponents were rejected, dismembered and killed. Thus, after 40 years of rule, the party has transformed Syria from a diverse, multicultural nation into a single, closed and oppressed society.

What is the status of cultural activities in Syria, in your view?

Syrian culture has been transformed, with a few exceptions, into a propaganda machine for state security and policies. It is trapped between two closed mindsets: cult, in the name of religion, heritage and history, and the Baath Party, in the name of Arabism, oppressing all freedoms and the most basic human rights.

On the contrary, pluralism is the real strength of individual Syrians. I know, as many others do, that the West, and especially the United States, does not defend the Syrian people or their human rights but their own strategic interests in the region.

Is there a similarity between what happened in Iraq and what may happen in Syria?

Even if the Baath Party were able to stop the revolt in its tracks now, it may not be able to save Syria from being pushed into a long civil war that may be more serious than the one in Iraq. It will lead to the rupture of this beautiful and unique land.

You have said that you are against any revolution that comes from the thresholds of the mosques …

That is true. I believe civil society cannot be built with the tools of the past or through tribal and sectarian affiliations. The fundamental cause in any revolution is its ambition to build a modern society. But that does not mean that I stand against religion or the individual's right to practise his faith. What I reject is the use of religion as a cultural institution and a socio-political community driven according to its ideology and vision, imposing itself by force.

What is your opinion on what happened in Tunisia and Egypt?

In fact, the demolition [of the old regimes] is the easy part; the harder task is to build on it. Serious problems are confronting both Tunisian and Egyptian societies. The most difficult challenge was, and still remains, the building of civil society with modern and contemporary foundations. My faith in modern society stems from respect for the Arab people, who must live with dignity. And this can be provided only by a modern society.

How do you see the developments in Yemen and Libya now?

Always, I ask the same question, what are we building? Are they working to build freedom and progress, and to restore respect for human rights?

Adonis in the mirror of Arab culture

- Adonis adopted his pseudonym early in his career, crystallising in the name the idea of spiritual renewal. Adonis is in Greek mythology a handsome young man, Aphrodite's lover; his story also includes the theme of resurrection.

- A Syrian-Lebanese poet, literary critic, translator and editor, a highly influential figure in Arabic poetry and literature today, Adonis combines in his work a deep knowledge of classical Arabic poetry and revolutionary, modernist expression. Like a number of Middle Eastern writers, Adonis has explored the pain of exile — "I write in a language that exiles me," he once said.

- Adonis was born Ali Ahmad Said Asbar in Al Qassabin, near the city of Latakia, in Syria. His father was a farmer and imam; he died in 1952. The village teacher taught Adonis to read and write but he did not attend school, or see a car or listen to a radio until he turned 12. From his father, an influential figure in his life, he received a traditional Islamic education. In 1944, Adonis entered the French Lycée at Tartus, graduating in 1950. In the same year he published his first collection of verse, ‘Dalila'. Adonis studied Law and Philosophy at the Syrian University in Damascus and served two years in the army. Harassed for his political views, he spent part of his service in jail. After leaving his native country in 1956, he settled with his wife, the literary critic Khalida Said, in Lebanon.

With his friend, Yousuf Al Khal (1917-1987), he founded the poetry magazine ‘Shi'ir', which introduced modernistic ideas into Arabic poetry. Its first issue was banned in several Arab countries.

Shakir Noori is a writer based in Dubai.