Just three weeks following my release after 16 years in prison in Syria, I started translating a book into Arabic. The book was “Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order,” by Noam Chomsky. It had taken me some time to realize that the leading linguist and the harsh critic of American imperialism was the same person. I saw this as a remarkable and much-needed example of the social and political responsibility of scientists and intellectuals. His active participation in the civil rights movement and mobilization against the Vietnam War were impressive, along with his prolific written works about both linguistics and politics. In the book I translated, there were two essays on linguistics, one about the intellectual’s responsibility and five on politics.
For former communist political prisoners who had spent long years in detention and had experienced the fall of communism while still in prison, this American bellwether was important. He told us that the struggle for justice and freedom was still possible, that we had partners in the world and we were not alone, and that the fall of the Soviet bloc could be emancipatory rather than a backbreaking loss.
The second book I co-translated with another former political prisoner was Robert Barsky’s “A Life of Dissent.” It was about Chomsky’s life and politics. Even at that early stage, we had some criticisms of Chomsky’s rigid system of thought, limited by U.S. centrism, which is only partly helpful in analyzing many struggles, ours included. We were ourselves dissidents in our country and on two levels: opposing a regime that was showing blatant discriminatory and oppressive tendencies, and expressing critical views about the Soviet Union and its communism. One main principle of the party I was a young member of was “istiklaliyya” (independence or autonomy), which meant that it was we, and we alone, who decided the right policies for our country and our people, not any center abroad. So, we were not orphans looking for a new father, nor were we driven by a want to replace Marxism-Leninism by a Chomskian catechism of sorts. However, we always thought that our cause was one: fighting inequality and oppression everywhere, and on an equal and brotherly basis.
But time revealed this to be an illusion, for which we alone must bear responsibility. In the 11 years since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, Chomsky has not written once about Syria to inform his many readers about the country’s plight. His scattered comments reveal that he views the Syrian struggle — as with every other struggle — solely through the frame of American imperialism. He is thus blind to the specificities of Syria’s politics, society, economy and history.
What’s more, his perception of America’s role has developed from a provincial Americentrism to a sort of theology, where the U.S. occupies the place of God, albeit a malign one, the only mover and shaker. [Continue reading…]