Many years ago, when I was 12, I took part in a children’s summer camp in Switzerland, attended mainly by Lebanese, but also by a dozen Syrian kids. I remember a game where children were asked to declare who their hero was.
There were, of course, those who had been well groomed in Sunday school and promptly said: “Jesus!”
Other kids shouted out the name of some popular fictional character, such as Superman or Grendizer (remember him?). Still others, usually the girls, named their pop idol or favorite actor.
But I remember being slightly puzzled even as a 12-year-old at the choice of most, if not all, of our Syrian playmates, as they blurted out the name: Hafez al-Assad!
Reading the transcript of the speech that Syria’s president, and Hafez’ son, Bashar al-Assad gave on Jan. 6, 2013, at Damascus’ Opera House took me back to that childhood memory.
The speech was described by much of the media and world leaders as “defiant,” “delusional,” “disappointing,” “a serious setback.” Others praised it as “glorious,” “a victory,” “heroic.”
It all depends, it would seem, on whether you’ve been brainwashed by the “culture of globalization and affluence” or the “culture of resistance and opposition:” Grendizer or Assad.
It’s been raining heavily in Lebanon over the past few days. Snows have fallen at 300 meters of altitude (1,000 feet). It’s an unusual winter for Lebanon.
Somewhere, internally, I want cheerfully to hum a belated “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” and take my kids on a drive up the mountain to throw some snowballs.
But then guilt grips me as I think of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees freezing (often literally) in tents, fragile structures or even with no shelter at all; their children and elderly exposed to sickness and even death.
Running away from delusional powers at home, how will they endure their Lebanese exile without feeling that even heaven has unleashed its wrath against them?
So I am angry at the defiant speech that forebodes a bloody conflict that will continue to drag on, likely for a very long time.
The Syrian refugees in Lebanon will continue to suffer and their numbers will increase. Surely all efforts extended to them will remain a far cry from the tremendous needs of this humanitarian tragedy.
But then I also try to shift my mind from its “globalized” comfort zone to try and empathize with the “resistance” mindset.
To be honest, it is Bashar’s speech that was able to take me there. An over 40-year-old paternalistic regime struggling for survival – proud of its history of resistance and opposition to Western hegemony and neocolonial ambitions and happy to embrace global economics and technology, but unwilling to be subjected to the geopolitics defined by global powers.
But at what cost was this achieved?
The Assad regime built a fortress. They had to control their geographical and ideological borders to protect from external incursion. In their attempt to build a secularist Baathist state, they were up against a population and region heavy with religious ideology.
To do so, they had to construct a strong post-colonial, nationalistic pride, infused with this ideology of independence and resistance to Western hegemony so clearly reaffirmed in the “defiant” Jan. 6 speech.
Inside the fortress, the regime has had to protect itself against a large portion of its own people by setting up a powerful security apparatus that would support and enforce its countercultural ideology.
“Young Bashar,” as politicians and analysts often patronizingly refer to the man, who inherited a 20th-century Syria from his father, introduced many reforms over the past decade, but those were primarily economic in nature. Political reforms were much slower to come.
Bashar’s speech reflected that he clearly understood this gap to be his “Achilles heel,” and has tried to portray himself as a leader capable of reforms throughout the past year. Everyone, however, knows that it’s too late, probably even the man himself.
But with so many enemies both at home and abroad, he has few if any options left to avoid the fall of the “fortress,” which would likely lead to a terrible bloodbath among his Alawite community.
The tragedy is that a victory of the regime would also likely lead to a bloodbath against Assad’s enemies, which he referred to in his speech as “purify(ing) our society of disloyalty and treason.”
Dictators can easily be dismissed as villains, madmen, tyrants or megalomaniacs. Over the past two years, this region has been the stage upon which many such men have met their end.
One thing that many dictators do seem to share in common, however, is this firm and honest conviction that their country desperately needs them.
As “fathers” to their nations, they believe that their people are too juvenile to make it without them.
In a word, they believe they are their citizens’ greatest heroes. In fact, hearing them gives you the chilling feeling that they are their own greatest hero, in common with my little friends in Switzerland those few decades ago.
The fact is, the situation of Syria has become too complicated and too militarized on all sides for us sensibly to wish the victory of either side. No human or fictional hero will resolve this one.
Too many times in the history of Lebanon and the region, we have put our hope in human superheroes and every single time we were disappointed.
Too many times we have put our hope in revolution and popular uprising, and nearly every time this has ended up more like a coup leading to the next season of dictatorship, rather than as a true “peoples’ Spring.”
Could this be why Jesus said that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52)? Is that why he encouraged us to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17)?
Clearly, Jesus is not inviting us to give up our duties as citizens that serve our country or that participate in voting and paying taxes. We are to contribute courageously and faithfully to building a good and just society.
But I do believe he is discouraging us from supporting armed uprisings or from taking up human heroes.
The revolution of Jesus is self-giving and other-affirming; its participants are invited to embrace suffering upon themselves rather than inflicting it upon others.
As we enter this new year of 2013, we should consider that Jesus may be the hero worth following and that his way may be the best route to real change.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.