Introduction to Anatomy of a Defeat by Sādiq al-‘Azm

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:56

This article is the introduction to Anatomy of a Defeat


5 June 1967: a thirty-year-old Sādiq al-‘Azm, Professor of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut, is woken by a phone-call from the Syrian poet Adonis. “War has broken out,” his friend announces him, repeating the news he has just heard on the radio. “Israeli planes are dropping like flies and the Arab armies are advancing on all fronts.” The reality is the exact opposite and the Arab forces are annihilated within six days. “I do not believe that anyone from my generation truly recovered from this sudden fall from the dizzying heights to the bottom of the abyss of the crushing defeat,” al-‘Azm writes in 2007.[1]


Whilst others do everything in their power to raise the Arab morale, al-‘Azm turns the military collapse into an opportunity for an exercise of Self-Criticism after the Defeat, the title of the essay that will make him both famous and abhorred. In a language still hurting for its harshness, al-‘Azm denounces the bankruptcy of the progressive regimes that, beginning with Nasser in Egypt, had taken the ideational lead of the Arab world. A convinced Marxist, he argues that they failed not out of personal inadequacies but because they attempted the impossible task of reconciling socialism with the traditional Arab values. The implications of this thesis were to be further developed in Critique of Religious Thought (1969), which was to earn him a trial in absentia in Lebanon and a two-week detention.


Born in 1934 into one of the most important Syrian aristocratic families—his ancestral palace in Damascus, transformed into a museum, could still be visited before the last war—and educated at the American University of Beirut and in Yale, al-‘Azm is certainly a controversial thinker. In the passages we are presenting, for example, readers will easily notice both the Manichean understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, depicted as a struggle between good and evil (although his position on this point underwent some later evolution), and his exaltation of work as “the sole measure of human value.” Intellectual honesty requires to acknowledge that his criticism of the political exploitation of religion is only one aspect of a wider criticism of religion per se, from an atheistic standpoint. Furthermore, al-‘Azm does not see the typically Marxist contradiction between calling for universal values (equality and social justice, for example) and considering them historically determined and, therefore, ultimately relative. However, it is also true that the Syrian philosopher has the courage to do away with a blend of superficial concordism which demands easy answers to difficult questions (see the text on science), while at the same time overtly denouncing victim syndromes and conspiracy theories, still so widespread in today’s Middle East.


The passage on the “clever personality” is naturally open to accusations of essentialism, to which al-‘Azm would, however, have replied that he was essentializing absolutely nothing, as he adhered to historical materialism. While Oasis does not identify with this ideology, it nevertheless remains true that proceeding by way of abstractions is unavoidable for anyone wishing to move beyond the pensive remark that reality is “very complex.” And certainly, the “clever personality” has something to do with the incredible mass of underestimations and negligence that led to the Beirut port explosion, only a few months ago. What is more, to avoid even the slightest suspicion of partiality, history has provided abundant evidence that the Arab world cannot claim any sort monopoly on this omnipresent breed of humankind.


The exact opposite of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Self-Criticism after the Defeat chooses not to blame “the enemy, colonialism, deception, luck and everything that occurs.” It is a bitter, vehement and merciless book (see its pointed portrait of the committed youth), politically incorrect but always valuable for its lucidity, even in the passages one does not agree with. It ushered in a new style in Arab prose, just as Nizār Qabbānī’s Marginal Notes on the Copybook of the Setback initiated, during the same period, a new season for poetry (“Farewell, friends, to the ancient language / and to the ancient books / farewell”).


After the 1967 defeat the Arab world did not follow the course envisaged by al-‘Azm (and which would have actually led to a Marxist dictatorship). The nationalist regimes tightened their authoritarian grip (Saddam Hussein, Assad and Gaddafi…), whereas dissidents embraced, for the most part, the categories of political Islam. The Middle East of the “progressive republics” got stuck in a blind alley, as al-‘Azm experienced himself. Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Damascus University from 1977 onwards and increasingly interested in Kant and the universalism of human rights, he signed the Statement of 99 during the brief Damascus Spring in 2000. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war he became an implacable critic of Assad; forced to take refuge in Berlin in 2012, he died in exile in 2016.


Fifty years after the defeat in the Six-Day War, the Arab world is shaken by popular unrest. What can this book teach, which has by now become a classic, though still banned in some countries? That revolution is a serious matter: it requires a realistic programme, leaders, spirit of sacrifice, an objective evaluation of the forces on the ground and a comprehensive critique of society. It’s something different from a protest; it’s something more than a well-chosen slogan.


[1] 2007 Preface to the Arabic edition, p. 8 (= English translation p. 18).