Laudatory: Prof. Dr. Udo Steinbach

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Professor Udo Steinbach’s laudatory speech (Head of Governance Center Middle East / North Africa at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Berlin) at the ceremony on occasion of awarding the 14th Ibn Rushd Prize on 30 November 2012 to Razan Zaitouneh, Museum of Islamic Art, Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Laudatio on the occasion of the awarding of the 14th Ibn Rushd Prize on November 30, 2012 to Razan Zaituneh, at the Museum of Islamic Art, Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Prof. Udo Steinbach

We have to do without their physical presence among us today. It is not the first time that laureates are prevented from receiving an award in person. Usually this is a symptom of conflict between them and repressive rulers. So we take this opportunity to honor all the women and men of the Syrian revolt on this evening in her who must hide. We know her by name; we also know what she stands for: the struggle for human dignity, freedom and justice in her homeland Syria. At the same time, however, we see her as an activist of the revolt in Arab societies that have set out since December 17, 2010, to shake off the yoke of oppression and injustice. In an October 2011 interview on the occasion of the awarding of the Anna Politkovskaya Prize, she says: “This prize is like a prize for all Syrians and their revolution.”

The Syrians’ struggle in their revolt has many references. One is the Arab peoples’ quest for independence and freedom since the end of the Ottoman Empire. This first Arab revolt, which included Syria in the 1920s, was suppressed by the imperialism of European powers. The second Arab revolt began with the seizure of power by the Free Officers in Egypt and the overthrow of the monarchy. For nearly two decades, it changed the political map of the Arab region between Algeria and Yemen. In the end, the protagonists became entangled in the pitfalls of their oversized power-political ambition, the East-West conflict, the Israel/Palestine conflict, autocratic exercise of power, and a development policy that led to self-enrichment and cliquism as well as a dramatic intensification of economic and social antagonisms.

The third Arab revolt picked up the thread where the failed actors of the second revolt had dropped it. When Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself to death in the desolate spot of Sidi Buzid on December 17, 2010, out of despair over the degradation of his person, it was a beacon to millions of people to redefine the place of Arab societies in the 21st century. At the same time, it proved that the revolt finds its place and justification from history itself and that the awakening is irreversible. There is no place in the Arab world that has not been gripped by the movement.

Another reference of the Syrians’ revolt is given in their own recent history. When the Ba’th Party took power in Damascus in 1963 – in the midst of the second Arab revolt – it seemed for a moment to offer a promise of a new Syria. But the very manner in which the military seized power cast a shadow over this promise. At the latest with the coup by Hafez al-Asad in 1970 and the adoption of the 1973 constitution, which established the supremacy of the Ba’th Party, it was clear that the “socialist” path of development and the realization of human and civil rights would stand in irreconcilable opposition. Resistance to the dictatorship in the late 1970s/early 1980s was brutally crushed. Bashar al-Asad also adhered to the principle of the supremacy of the exercise of power over democratic legitimacy.

Almost a decade before the third Arab revolt and the storm through Syria could even be imagined, Razan Zaituneh began to resist – as a defender of political prisoners and later as a co-founder of human rights organizations. An appearance on this evening would probably have cost her her life.

But where do we stand in this historic event? Our commitment on this evening stands in all too obvious contrast to the inaction of Western politics. Nothing can be heard or seen other than empty words, muddled diplomatic evasions, questionable analyses of the “special nature” of developments in Syria. Sanctions are not effective measures, but window dressing. They are meant to give the impression that something is happening. In reality, of course, almost nothing is happening.

But – blatant contradiction – doesn’t Europe see itself as a spokesman when it comes to freedom? Indeed, the arc of reflection on the relationship between freedom and revolt against tyrannical power spans poets and thinkers such as Friedrich Schiller and Albert Camus – to name just two names. “What is a man in revolt?” asks Camus in his grandiose essay L’Homme révolté (Man in Revolt). “A person who says no.” Millions of Arabs have said “no.” And Schiller in the drama William Tell, which I call the drama of the will to freedom, also says “no.” “No, a limit has tyrant power,/When the oppressed can find no justice anywhere,/When the burden becomes unbearable – he reaches/Up to heaven with confident courage,/And fetches down his eternal rights,/Which hang above inalienable/and unbreakable as the stars themselves/”. There is no need to draw a parallel to the outbreak of the Arab revolt. It is all too visible. Razan Zaituneh, among many others, set out to bring these inalienable rights, which are nothing other than human rights, down to her – the Syrian – society. The fact that this can only happen at the price of risking one’s own life has now been experienced by 40,000 people in Syria. “At the utmost,” says Camus, “he accepts the last decay: death, if one should rob him of that exclusive recognition which he now calls his freedom. Better to die upright than to live on one’s knees.” “Better to die than to live in servitude,” says William Tell.

Why this digression? To show that we in the European and in the Arab countries – despite all differences of history, culture and religion – stand on common ground. For decades, “the West” has looked down on “the Arabs,” “the Muslims,” with a mixture of conceit, pity and pseudo-expertise, claiming that they are genetically incapable of democracy. The very clever demanded that the Muslims first have to undergo an “enlightenment”; only then could they catch up with modernity. The Arab revolt and the Syrian uprising have taught us otherwise: We are all committed to the values of humanity. Freedom is the sine qua non. The thinking of philosophers and poets like Friedrich Schiller and Albert Camus stands on the same ground as the thinking and conclusions of Arab minds like Rifa’a Rafi’ at-Tahtawi, Mustafa Kamil, Abd ar-Rahman al-Kauwakibi and numerous others. This insight must be the basis of our encounter in the future. From it grows the perspective of a new mutual perception. The clichés cherished in this country about “the Arabs,” “Islam” or “the Muslims” belong in the same garbage as the potentates and autocrats who were overthrown by their “subjects.”

The question of what we do, how we support this – taking place in historical contexts – is unavoidable. If the Arab revolt on the whole, and in Syria in particular, is located in the very context of freedom and human dignity that we here in the West claim as binding for us, we cannot avoid it. The failure of Western policy, the almost inactive acceptance of the slaughter in Syria, for which unfortunately – the longer it drags on – there are more and more guilty parties, borders on cynicism. This is all the more so when one compares the attitude of the international community to the much-invoked “responsibility to protect,” with which the NATO mission in Libya was lightly justified. Sanctions as an alibi for pressured action. A quote from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of June 16, 2012: “The EU banned the export of goods to Syria that are used to repress the population…. It now presented the list of affected goods. The goods include caviar, truffles and cigars with a retail price of more than ten euros, wine and other spirits worth more than 50 euros, as well as leather goods costing 200 euros or more and shoes costing more than 600 euros, according to the Commission.” Syria is not Libya and a military operation like the one in Libya should not be repeated – for numerous reasons. But – Razan Zaituneh demanded in the interview quoted earlier – “the Syrians must be protected; new alternatives and solutions must be found to protect the Syrian people and bring the regime to an end.” But protection – as things stand – cannot be provided by words; nor by sanctions, which do not really shake the regime. Protection means intervening or providing the one to be protected with the means to protect himself.

We know that many people in Syria are reluctant to join the revolt, indeed are afraid of the future. There are many reasons for this. The fact that not everyone is born to revolt was also known by Albert Camus, who placed a special responsibility on people in revolt. “Freedom has not increased in the same measure as the consciousness that man has acquired of it. From this observation we can deduce only one thing: the revolt is the act of the instructed man who has the consciousness of his rights. But nothing allows us to say that it is only about the rights of the individual. On the contrary, it seems that it is a more and more extended consciousness that the human race gains of itself in the course of its adventures.” The revolt becomes for Camus a “first self-evidence”; as elementary as “thinking” (cogito) as a fundamental self-experience in Descartes: “I think therefore I am”. In a variation of this elementary finding, Camus formulates: “I revolt, therefore we are” The human being in revolt thus acts at the same time for others; his protest reaches beyond the individual – himself. This is how we understand Razan Zaituneh’s words already quoted at the beginning: “This prize is like a prize for all Syrians and their revolution.”

Razan Zaituneh’s resistance did not begin with the outbreak of the revolt. She was already involved as a human rights activist long before the protest became a collective cause in March 2011. But it is at this point – in the transition from individual to collective protest – that the mysterious essence of the revolt in Syria – and in the other Arab countries where people have risen up against oppression – lies. Time and again, the importance of social media in this context has been pointed out. That is true, of course. But these media are only the instrument through which a determination, effective in its depths, is articulated to overcome an order that is no longer acceptable, an order that has outlived its usefulness. It is the certainty that a time has run out, even if those in power strive at all costs to set the clocks back. Unlike the upheavals in the 1950s and 1960s in Arab countries, however, which were unleashed by individuals and/or specific groups, especially military officers, the recent revolt is a movement from the people. “We are the people”; this motto, familiar to us, has united men and women, members of all denominations and ethnicities in protest in countless variations. What keeps them together? What gives them the strength to oppose rulers who are determined to use all the tools of repression against the people with the utmost severity? Razan Zaituneh has given the answer: ” No doubt that the protesters and the revolution will eventually win. If we did not believe that we will win, we would not be able to continue against this brutality of the regime. We would not bear all this crime against our people. I am sure that each and every one among Syrians believes that the revolution will be victorious in the end.” The people feel that history is on their side. Their struggle has broadened from an individual protest to a cause on behalf of all.

Again, the question at this point: have we – and by that I mean: our European neighbors – realized the scope of what is taking place in our Arab neighborhood? I have already referred to the common origin of the quest for freedom. What new form of encounter between us and our neighborhood corresponds to this insight? History is not encouraging. Ever since Europe and the Arab peoples confronted each other at the end of the 18th century under the auspices of European expansion, this encounter had a name: “the white man’s burden”; or “la mission civilisatrice”. Even after the First World War, the Arab peoples had to be protected or mandated in order to lead them from civilizational lowlands to the heights of European standards of modernity. And the Mediterranean policy of the last decades degenerated into a fearful administration of the status quo. Preservation of the existing regimes was prioritized over support for the forces of democratic change. In Palestine, Europe watched as the rights of the Palestinian people were persistently ignored and violated. Even 48 hours before his fall, the French Foreign Minister offered to assist Ben Ali with the “proven” French security forces. The people who rose up in the Arab countries since December 17, 2010 did not ask Europe; they did it without Europe. If they had asked Europe and asked for support, they would probably have been turned down. Becoming credible again is therefore an important first step in the direction of redefining our encounter. Is the West squandering this opportunity in Syria, as it continues to do in Palestine?

In any case, the recent conflict over Gaza also fuels doubts that Europe’s determination to renew relations with its neighbors on the basis of credibility has grown stronger with the transformations in Arab societies. It is almost irrelevant who started the shooting and killing in recent days. And it goes without saying that a state can defend itself when it is attacked. But if politicians have emphatically stated that Israel has “every right” to defend itself, then in the same breath and with the same emphasis they must state that Israel has every obligation to respect the rules of international law and the precepts of humanity. Not only has there been no progress in this regard over the years; rather, the practices of occupation and land grabbing, as well as the contempt for the people of Palestine by the settlers, protected and supported by the current Israeli government, have become more systematic. Again, Europe has looked the other way. But violence gives birth to violence. Hopelessness and degradation were the breeding ground for the uprising of the Arab youth between Morocco, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Hopelessness and degradation are also the breeding ground for violence by the Palestinians against a power that respects the law as little – or rather as selectively – as the Arab autocrats. That there is a connection between the struggle against autocratic oppression and violent occupation by a foreign power was brought home to us for all time by Friedrich Schiller in the introduction to his “History of the Apostasy of the United Netherlands from the Spanish Government.” “The despairing citizen, given the choice between a twofold death, chooses the nobler one on the battlefield. A prosperous opulent people loves peace, but it becomes warlike when it becomes poor. Now it ceases to tremble for a life that shall lack all why it was desirable.”

We award Razan Zaituneh the Ibn Rushd Prize. Are we doing so – as in the case of so many political prizes – primarily to reaffirm our lofty values to ourselves once again? If a prize award has any meaning at all, it is only if it is an act, and not just a word. When we ourselves commit ourselves to act in the spirit of the prize and of the person(s) being honored. If we honor Razan Zaituneh, then we ourselves must want to be Razan Zaituneh. Then we can no more stand aloof in the Syrian people’s quest to end illegitimate rule than we can stand aloof in the Palestinian people’s struggle to end illegitimate occupation.

How can Europe gain credibility? The answer is: We have to change our perception. What is called for is an inclusive perception; that is, we must recognize that the future of Arab societies and the Middle Eastern neighborhood is part of the future of Europe. Europe’s position in the international system of the 21st century will depend largely on the quality of its relations with the new orders emerging in the Arab region, including Palestine. Long enough we have allowed ourselves an exclusive perception: The Arab peoples, they were the others. Our interaction was marked by our phobias: of instability, irregular immigration, violent Islamic radicalism; militancy against Israel. The solution to the Palestinian cause fell by the wayside. The new – inclusive – perception requires turning to and dialogue with those who give legitimacy to political leaders; and these are the people. For too long we have cultivated relations with those who claimed legitimacy for themselves – without or against the people.

For Syria’s immediate future, everything depends on the ruling regime coming to its end soon. Each additional day of its rule not only increases the death toll, but also deepens the rifts and hatred among Syrians. The people of Syria need the prospect of a new order in which they can find themselves together. The emergence of this order must be accompanied by reconciliation. Let us quote the poet once again. Thus Friedrich Schiller in “Tell”: “Let each man tame his righteous rage/ And save for the whole his revenge/ For robbery commits on the common good/ Who helps himself in his own cause.” Reconciliation is the indispensable condition of a new beginning.

That the people of Syria will put the “whole” and the “common good” above their “own cause” is our hope this evening. It attaches itself to people like Razan Zaituneh, whom we honor tonight. For many years of her life, she put the “common good,” the right to human dignity and freedom, above concern for her own person. Tonight she cannot be with us because she must hide in this struggle for the common good. If she comes out – and with her all those who also had to hide – then this will be a signal: that a new era has begun in Syria. But also that the future of all of us rests on the same fundamental values, which are indivisible and for whose validity we are all equally obliged.

Udo Steinbach

(30. November 2012)
Prof. Udo Steinbach is the Head of the Governance Center Middle East/North Africa at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Berlin          

Prof. Dr. Udo Steinbach

Prof. Dr. Udo Steinbach

Udo Steinbach was born in 1943 in Pethau/Zittau and is considered as one of the most renowned scholars of Islam and experts on the Middle East. In 1965 he started to study Classical Philology and Islamic Studies in Basel and Freiburg i. Br., where he later earned his doctorate degree in 1970. He was director of many institutes, such as the Middle East Department of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 1971-74), the German Orient Institute in Hamburg (1976-2006), the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) (2007), finally the Governance Center Middle East/North Africa of the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance (since June 2012).
Since 1991 he is honorary professor at the University of Hamburg and from 2007 until 2010 he taught at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the Philipps-University of Marburg.
His main research fields are for example: political and social changes in the Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, forms of political Islam, the Near East in the international context of system, the relationships between the Middle East and Germany and Europe as well as the central Asian states, the future of the Middle East regarding democracy and religion and also political, social and religious aspects of Islamic communities in Europe.

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