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Meet the Irreverent Activist, Syrian thinker Ammar Abdulhamid
‘To me, adherence to a specific political ideology is anti-intellectual.’
Ammar Abdulhamid used to be a radical Islamist.
Tall and thin, Abdulhamid has become a renowned defender of minorities in the Arab and Muslim world, a position he’s built over the past two decades. He was an early user of social media in defense of Muslim plurality and remains an online innovator and a Syrian activist with a great deal of cachet and a number of powerful enemies.
Abdulhamid is also one of the only—if not the only—Syrian dissident who both anticipated what would happen if the West did not back the right forces fighting Syrian dictator Basha al-Assad (the democratic, religiously ecumenical groups), and created the opportunities to say so to the United States Congress.
“At any given moment, we have to contend with less than we want in order to move on. Progress is a cumulative process.”
As a U.S. resident, Abdulhamid has recently returned to the arts as a platform for reconciling the chaos and grief of global conflict with the needs of the individual soul. His project, which he describes as “a digital deconstruction of Delacroix’s famous painting ‘Liberty Leading the People,” is a public exploration of the connection between individual political liberty and popular revolution. The project dovetails with the publication of his latest book, “The Irreverent Activist.”
We had the opportunity to speak to Abdulhamid about his ongoing work, his famous mother, and the path that led him from radical Islam to a leading progressive voice in the Muslim world. (Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Is there anything that is rarely touched on in your biography or in media coverage of you that you think is integral to who you are and what you have done with your life?
Ammar Abdulhamid: Yes indeed. I am autistic. To be exact, I have Asperger’s. Although the diagnosis is recent, I, of course, had to live with it without knowing what the hell it was for all my life. I experience it as a kind of social inadequacy and severe introversion coupled with a unique capacity for obsession and a habitually depressed mindset.
The diagnosis, which came in May of 2013, helped understand a lot about myself. But many of my friends and colleagues might find this surprising. After all, for years, I seemed like a maverick socialite, and my activism and public speaking abilities seem to bolster this impression. But having been raised by a family of actors and artists of all different sorts helped me acquire ‘a particular set of skills that make me a nightmare’ for psychiatrists trying to analyze me.
Your mother was a famous Syrian actress. What did she star in, and how was it to grow up with a well-known creative for a parent?
My mother is still a famous Syrian actress; she is still alive and working. And despite her sympathy with the pro-democracy protesters back in 2011, the regime after a period of harassment, decided to let her be. So, she is working and surviving still in Damascus.
My mom was already Syria’s superstar when I was born back in May 1966, and my father was already exploring a career in filmmaking after he established the Armed Forces Theater and briefly helmed Syria’s National TV. They both played important roles in my life. Being their son made me the center of attention, and naturally I, the little befuddled Aspie that I was, didn’t relish that at first, but, in time, I grew accustomed to it, I guess. I had no other choice. If the thing had its perks, they were balanced out with the disadvantages: Special attention from the teachers got me special attention from the bullies; special attention from neighbors and strangers was often good, but the few times it wasn’t… are better forgotten.
I grew up with the Classics. I read the works at home, first in special redacted versions made for kids, but soon I moved to the actual works, long before I was ten. I also watched the special productions of few selected works performed by members of our National Theater Troop, which naturally included my mom. In fact, my first memory of her is while she was playing Jocasta in Oedipus Rex. And from her lips I learned that “no skill in the world, nothing human can penetrate the future.” I begged to differ all through my life. My creative impulse and my longing were always future-oriented, always seeking to predict and determine its course. My life, in other words, has been a fool’s errand.
At one time you were a fundamentalist, correct? How did you get to that place?
Coming from a religious and ethnically diverse not to mention educated and mostly liberal family exposed me to a number of religious and cultural traditions, including non-Middle Eastern ones. Through my parents as well as my grandparents and uncles and aunts on both sides, the family itself as a mini Syria of sorts: we had Muslims (Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Alawite), Christians (Orthodox and Catholics) and even Jews; and, in terms of ethnicities, the family sported Arabs, Kurds, and Circassians. And as I grew up, a few more nationalities and religions were added.
I was raised in a Maronite nunnery for few years, and, growing up, Christian holidays had as much significance as Muslim ones. In my early teens, I dabbled with Buddhism and Catholicism, but, and by the time I graduated from high school in 1983, I decided to stick with my father’s religion: Islam. After all, it was the one officially given to me since my father is a Muslim (Sunni to be specific). The fact that my parents were not religious and were pretty secular left me in charge of deciding this issue by myself. My decision to adhere to Islam was more formal than real in the beginning, and I didn’t take religion seriously until I went to study in Moscow in 1984-5.
“My life, in other words, has been a fool’s errand.”
Life in a Russian Soviet dormitory, with students from all over the world, and having to share a room with four Lebanese from different factions (a Sunni from Tripoli, a Shia who supported Amal, another who supported Hezbollah, and a Christian who was a Communist, the only one amongst us), raised the question of identity to a hyper level. This was a nightmare situation for a person like me, even though I liked my roommates. But coping was still quite difficult for me, and, to complicate things, Big Brother was all around, and my autism has always translated into a healthy disrespect for authority, especially the overt unjust exercise of it. Things were insufferable.
But the hair that broke the camel’s back was the day the leader of the Syrian students group in our dorm took us to the Syrian Embassy to vote in the presidential referendum. The President of Syria at the time was Hafiz Al-Assad, and, naturally, I abhorred him. It was my first time voting, and I wanted to say ‘no.’
But, to my chagrin, it was an open ballot. (This was against the Constitution, but modern Arab constitutions are intended more as decorative pieces than practical instruments of governance). To boot, the Constitution was suspended anyway, since the country was technically in a state of emergency since 1963. As soon as we entered the embassy’s premises, security agents surrounded us, they took our passports, while smiling of course, and gave us the ballots and stared at us while we fidgeted for a pen and marked the yes circle. They then allowed us the dignity of stuffing the ballot into the box by ourselves. I felt humiliated by this experience. I stopped going to classes soon after that. Then, I began quizzing my Hezbollah-supporting roommate about Shiism, and a few days before my birth in May, I returned to Syria. My parents were not happy, of course—the first of many disappointments to come.
My experiment with Shiism didn’t last long. After reading the few books my roommate had recommended, I realized that there were slightly too many authority figures in the Shia tradition for my autistic taste. By the time I went to study in Wisconsin, I was a committed Sunni, but still, not too much of an extremist.
Even though depression was a way of life for me, I had occasions when it became too acute to handle. In times, like those, I just drop everything [I was] doing without a second thought as to consequences. By mid-1987, and mere days after the start of the Spring semester, I dropped out of college. A few months later, I emerged in Los Angeles, from which I was planning to fly to Pakistan, then onward to Afghanistan to join the mujahidin. But an encounter with few people who just came from there changed my mind. They told me that after the Soviet pullout, the mujahidin were just busy fighting each other over turf and spoils. There was no cause to fight for anymore. Soon after this disappointment, I became a makeshift imam in a small mosque in the Lomita area. I had memorized the Qur’an as well as thousands of sayings attributed to the Prophet (hadiths), so the people there felt I was qualified enough to fill the position until they recruited a trained Imam from overseas.
How did you change your mind about religion and move in a different direction?
The mosque in Lomita was attended by both Sunnis ad Shia, and, naturally, I was swept into the unfriendly debates that took place. But, and while in the midst of writing my anti-Shia tract that was meant to settle that 1,400-year-old dispute once and for all, it dawned upon me that both sides suck and that I had better things to do with my life than spreading hate and cater to mindless prejudice. Around that time, the Salman Rushdie affair broke out, and, as the imam of the mosque, I was contacted by the Los Angeles Times to speak my mind.
“My defiance simply befuddled my interrogators. … I was deemed to be an agent of the CIA or Mossad.”
Having read the controversial aspects of The Satanic Verses, I was willing to condemn the work, but, when it came to Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s death fatwa, my liberal artistic roots finally kicked back and made me condemn the whole decision as ‘ridiculous.’ Next day, the mosque was filled with people asking for my ouster; with some asking for my head, I struck my ground for a few weeks, while the mosque council debated my future, then, having made the point that I am not afraid of anyone, I decided to resign. I dedicated the following year of 1989 to reading about American history, especially the foundational period.
It was while reading Madison’s Federalist Paper #10, that I was by a strange realization: The Founding Father of the United States had a dim view of human nature, and suspected both, the “mob” and the “elite.” They feared both ignorance and power and sought to construct a system that was meant to protect all from all, without shackling the posterity and impeding future generations from making their own creative contributions to governance. The result was a forward-looking culture, one that allowed itself to appeal to history on occasions, but without sanctifying it. Its relationship with the past was critical and inquisitive, just as is its relationship with the future. Abrahamic faiths, Islam included, were all past-oriented. Religions are all past-oriented, hence their seemingly boundless offerings of shackles and chains. With that realization in mind, I went back to school in Wisconsin, but I switched my major from astronomy to history. My head was no longer in the clouds, or at least my gaze was not. It suddenly became important for me to find my own footing and chart my own path on Earth, before heading back to the stars, one day.
By the time I graduated college, I had become an atheist.
Can you talk a bit about the activism you took part in, and then led, in Syria, including work in defense of minorities in the Arab world?
I went back to Syria in 1994 and, after years of Bohemian living as a heretic and a poet, intersected with a couple of years of teaching social studies at a diplomatic school, the time came for me to put the rest of my body where my mouth was. After all, and though my audience was limited to those who spoke English, who naturally included many diplomats and returning expats, my poetry was still quite “dangerous.”
My criticism of the social mores and the political system were vehement and unrelenting, and my disdain for Hafiz Al-Assad, who, naturally, was still the president, was all too clear. Whether my attitude was brave, foolhardy, selfish, or simple a form of autistic fixation didn’t matter really. That was me, expressing my thoughts openly and honestly as I felt I was entitled by virtue of being human being. People who were asking me to be quiet, or ‘considerate,’ or ‘thoughtful,’ were asking me to stop being who I am and be more like them. Was it selfish on my part to speak freely about what I feel and think, and not selfish on their part to ask me to be quiet for fear of repression that could admittedly touch them and not only me? Does their sense of security trump my sense of humanity? Is security a higher value over freedom? I didn’t think so then. I don’t think so now.
In February 1999, it was time for another presidential referendum. But this time, I decided to redeem myself. And though security agents were watching, I marked “no” and stuffed the ballot in the box, and a few days later I wrote a poem about it. Those were days full of dread. My parents expected me to be arrested at any time. I did, too. But, surprisingly, nothing happened. When the official results came out, mine was only one of 219 ‘no’ ballots vs. eleven-some million ‘yes’ ballots. I was, it seems, deemed as irrelevant as my vote was. Good, I thought. Now I can do more.
Over the next few years, my friends, my wife-to-be, and I proceeded to build a large network of activists from all different ethnic and religious background. Our plan [was] to facilitate democratic transition by building bridges of trust and understanding between the country’s different community, something that transgressed a long-establish redline in the country. I, also, sought to connect with international and regional scholars and activists, including American-Jewish scholars, and even Israeli nationals. I simply decided that red is not a color that belongs in political activism.
I attended conferences all over the world, took foreign funding, and communicated openly with diplomats and journalists, including Israelis. Moreover, when interrogated, I spoke freely about what I was doing. I didn’t hide any of it. My defiance simply befuddled my interrogators, as well as my activist and oppositionist colleagues. I was deemed to be an agent of the CIA or Mossad. Some even believed me to be an agent of our new president, Bashar Al-Assad, Hafiz’s son, who I actually hate with equal vigor.
According to this lot, which also included both security agents and opposition members, I was quietly working with Bashar to enact some reform agenda. Naturally, I never bothered to confirm or deny anything and left each to their favorite theory, and went on with my work, alongside the few who agreed (some reluctantly others wholeheartedly) with my defiant in-your-face approach. That is, until that infamous day in 2005, when I was told to leave the country. After that point, our network of activists went underground. But their activities on the inside, and my and my wife’s activities in the U.S., in cooperation with a wonderful team of supporter in D.C., played an important role in paving the way for nonviolent protest movement in 2011.
Had I not had international connections and some visibility—in February 2005 I was profiled by the New York Times, and in July 2005, I was named as the only Syrian in Newsweek Arabic Edition’s list of 43 Arab figures making a difference in their country—I would have been treated differently by the heads of our ‘wonderful’ security branches.
How did online tech and social media become a part of your world?
As the Internet began to make more headway in Syria in the late 1990s, it became a way for me and my colleagues to seek out and communicate with like-minded people and mentors from across the world. Our interests focused on nonviolence and humanist ideals. Personally, I was particularly interested in diversity issues, democratization, and peace-building.
“I am trying to chart my way back to the stars by returning to my artistic roots.”
In time, we established a number of websites and began publishing articles and essays in Arabic and English. Some were written by us and our friends in Syria and across the world; others were translations of important works on the philosophy of nonviolence, secular humanism, Gnosticism, etc. We also conducted interviews with a number of Western scholars on related topics. By 2002, we had parsed ourselves out into independent teams, each focusing on the issues that mattered most to it. Again, I focused on inter-communal relations, democratization, and outreach to Jewish and Israeli scholars by way of trying to build a nongovernmental peace process and combat various stereotypes about Jews in our society. I believed that if we want to effectively fight against ethnic and religious discrimination, we cannot single out one particular group as an exception; we cannot claim to be all equals except the Jews.
Naturally, these activities were quite dangerous and ran completely against the norms and sometimes even the laws enforced by the Baath Party and the Assad Family. Many of us, especially yours truly, ended up getting regularly interrogated by all different security branches. Consequently, some of us decided to tone [our] rhetoric, but I became more assertive and combative, even as the regime tried to appeal to and appease me in various ways, including a direct outreach by the first lady, Asmaa Al-Assad, with whom my wife and I met a few time on her invitation to discuss our work. At one point, we even presented her with our own study on the Kurdish situation in Syria, focusing especially on the plight of the over 300,000 denaturalized Kurds. We were promised that something will be done, but of course, nothing happened.
The Tharwa Project, our unofficial NGO focusing on democratization and intercommunal dialogue was officially launched at that time, 2003, as a regional project. We had built teams and established contacts in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Gaza, Morocco, Darfur, Iran, and elsewhere in the region. We had an international board of directors and advisors, and established partnerships and cooperation agreements with a number of international NGOs. We were operating above-board, doing anything we wanted as though we were already living in a democracy, and no one knew what to do about it. And everything started with a few emails, and a website.
In early 2005, and after spending six months in Washington D.C. as a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institution, which by itself constituted a violations of the Assads’ redlines as it involved direct and overt contact with Israelis. During that period, I published many articles highly critical of the regime, and Bashar Al-Assad. So, when I returned to Syria in January 2005, I was immediately slapped with a travel ban and a new round of interrogations began. Things were more serious this time.
You have testified in front of U.S. congressional committees as a Syrian dissident and activist. Have those appearances resulted in anything positive?
In short: no. My most important testimonies took place in 2008, a time when no one wanted to believe that Syria could witness a popular revolution. As such, my assertion that we were about to witness an explosion ran against popularly accepted wisdom about the recalcitrance of the Syrian people and the strong control that the Assads had over Syria.
You have sometimes been the target of the ire of other opposition activists and groups. Why?
For Syrian opposition members and intellectuals, I simply came from the wrong class and the wrong circles—circles that, by the way, only existed in their minds. I was not Leftist or Islamist; I was not nationalist, neither of the Kurdish or Arab variety. I was not anti-American or anti-Semite. I was an outsider, an outsider who preferred epithets like ‘heretic’ and ‘liberal’ than any of the traditional ones. I was never imprisoned, and the way I managed to flaunt all redlines established by the regime and get away with it befuddled all and angered many.
At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, those in D.C. who were familiar with my work called me the Face of the Syrian Revolution, but knowing how the opposition would react to this, and knowing that I lacked the means to fight back in a constructive manner, I realized that trying to play a too overt role would create unnecessary hostility and prove to be a distraction, both for me and the others. So, I began shying away from the spotlights, and dedicated myself to the same quiet activism I am used to, and tried to support the revolution through a special new blog, SyrianRevolutionDigest.com, which was quite popular from the start and until I suspended [it] in June 2013.
You have been a poet for many years. What inspired you to start writing?
According to my parents, I have been writing, or at least composing poetry, since childhood. They often told me that during my childhood, and after we came back from a specially inspiring evening at the theater or a social get together with our artistic friends, I used to burst into the hallway, as soon as our old apartment door was open, and begin delivering some improvised monologue about some heroic search for glory amidst the ruins of battle or while ‘soaring like an eagle, delving deeper and deeper into some ancient, yearning skies’ (محلقاً كالنسر، متوغلاً في أعماق سموات عتيقة ومفعمة بالحنين). And you wonder why I was not popular in school? I spoke like this for most of my life. That’s the only line I remember from those days when I was 5-7 years old.
“Most of poems that I have in my possession today date back only to 1992. I have thoroughly destroyed everything else.”
Still, I could never accept myself as a genuine poet, and I periodically tore up everything I wrote. Most of poems that I have in my possession today date back only to 1992. I have thoroughly destroyed everything else. In fact, the destructive trend continued until I went back to Syria in 1994. One of the first thing I did when I woke up in my room for the first time in nine years was to forage through my old stuff, destroying every piece of writing I had, the few drawings I ever made, and the dozens of cassettes containing the tunes I hummed, inspired by classical music naturally, hoping that one I will be able to transform them into real music.
Once that was done, I began compiling the poems I had written in the U.S. since 1992, and in 1997 I published my first volume of poetry, The Voidman (now out of print). Soon after, I began writing poems about life in Damascus which imbued many of my poems with critical social and political overtones, and revealed the depth of my continuing alienation.
Then, I ventured once again into writing in Arabic, and published a few of my poems on one of the websites run by my friends. I also wrote a few novels in English, but I published only one, Menstruation, as I noted earlier.
I distributed my poetry and some my early novels within the small English-speaking circles in Syria, which naturally included many diplomats and expats, and that won some notice, and notoriety, and helped me establish many of the contacts that enabled my eventual transition into activism.
Poetry is my only form of real communication, be it with myself or the world around me. If I ever had an autistic talent, it’s probably in the way I use words. Some think in pictures, but I think in terms of words. My recent foray in the visual art comes as a surprise for me. Words are failing me these days, at least when they stand on their own, so, I am finally looking for images to accompany them, to represent what remains otherwise ineffable for me.
I wrote little in terms of poetry during my activist years, it was difficult for me to retain my focus on such two immensely engrossing fields. This might be a reflection of the way my autistic brain works. Lucky for me, these days, my brain seems to be embracing the artistic side of things again. Now I can make a living out of that! What are the chances, I ask with a sardonic smile painted on my lips?
What work are you doing now?
I am trying to chart my way back to the stars by returning to my artistic roots.
On the first track, and in the summer of 2014, I published a book, called The Irreverent Activist, consisting of short poetic and philosophic reflections written in the course of 20 years. This was the first book I published since my first novel, Menstruation, which had been published back in 2001. I am now hoping to publish a novel I wrote back in 1999, which, considering the current tragic developments in Syria, seems quite relevant.
I am also working on a digital arts project exploring the themes of liberty and popular revolutions. The project consists of a series of digital deconstructions of Delacroix’ famous painting ‘Liberty Leading the People,’ attempting to explore the darker side of things. The project is naturally inspired by the Syrian Revolution and my own involvement in it through our Tharwa network of activists. I hope that I can get to exhibit some of these works soon. But I have not ventured into the arts scene in D.C. or anywhere in the U.S. before, so this is terra incognita for me, and I am slowly trying to maneuver my way into it.
On the educational end of things, I am trying to the best of my abilities to ensure that the narration about the Syrian Revolution in the American school systems remains objective and sympathetic to the early ethos of the revolutionaries, which focused on their desire to lead a dignified life free from fear and want. I am trying to accomplish this through a new organization called I Am Syria in cooperation with a wonderful team of social studies teachers.
Finally, I am also trying to peddle a new peace plan for Syria, one that involves painful concessions by all sides. I have already circulated the plan among many opposition members still based in Syria; talked about the plan in a recent conference as well as on Orient TV, a Syrian opposition network; and sent copies of the plan to the Russians and to the office of United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistoura.
With over a decade of using social media in the service of justice, seeing both what it can do and where it fails, what is its future for activism?
From my experience, the results are mixed at best, and I believe this is how things will always be. At any given moment, we have to contend with less than we want in order to move on. Progress is a cumulative process. So is the pursuit of liberty and justice, not to mention happiness. That’s why the fight is always worth it. Social media and future advancement in communications technology will have a role to play. It’s up to us to make it positive and not to be disheartened by repeated failure and/or mixed results.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai
Curt Hopkins has over two decades of experience as a journalist, editorial strategist, and social media manager. His work has been published by Ars Technica, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. He is the also founding director of the Committee to Protect Bloggers, the first organization devoted to global free speech rights for bloggers