Stoicism in Syria?

Last winter I had the opportunity to hear and interact with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States. This preceded the beginning of the unrest in that country, and the recurring violent response of the Assad government. Since that opportunity last winter, I have periodically checked the ambassador’s blog (simply google “Syrian ambassador” if you want to find it), just to see if he has been able to write anything new for public consumption.

His last entry– and it has been his last entry for awhile now– is dated March 25th, 2011 (just after the initial government crackdown on protesters in Daraa). In it, Imad reflects on the teachings of the 8th-century Muslim thinker Al-Kindi. Islam grew in the early centuries after Muhammad; in its openness and confidence it was able to engage Hellenistic ideas, and Al-Kindi’s thought reflects that engagement. Al-Kindi’s teaching on suffering– to which Imad gives his approval– is to cultivate a detachment to the world of ephemera. This detachment is to be cultivated in response to the old wisdom that everything of this world will rust and rot and pass away. What is permanent (a la Plato) is the world of ideas: consequently, intellectual contemplation is the way around suffering. The world of the intellect– from this perspective– is unchanging, and endures.

Yesterday the Assad regime received a rebuke from the U.N. Security Council. According to some human rights organizations, 2000 citizens have been killed by Syrian security forces. Apologists for the regime counter that such a response has been necessary for two reasons: first, Syrian security forces themselves have been violently attacked, and therefore need to defend themselves; and second, radicalized Islamic groups have infiltrated the protesters and are taking advantage of the unrest to promote deeper instability.

While those mitigating factors are probably true to some degree, it’s not clear that they would justify the kind of force that the government has used. And further, even the Syrian ambassador admits that the Assad regime has made mistakes in its response to the events of the last 5 months.

The choices of the Assad regime are not straightforward. What is straightforward, however, is that a regime that cannot be in solidarity with the suffering of its people is not just. It may survive through the use of overweening physical and psychological coercion, but it risks reaping what it has sown.

Here is an excerpt of Imad Moustapha’s reflections on Al-Kindi:

Al-Kindi rightly argues that it is not rational or natural to expect permanence and endurance of things. If we want to acquire and keep sensible things without them perishing, we are expecting from nature something that is unnatural and does not exist.

However, al-Kindi is not advocating a life of asceticism to avoid sadness; he is suggesting that we should be stoic about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in life. Thus we should accept good things graciously when they arrive, but never break our hearts when they depart. This is not nonchalance, it is a rational moral position that needs vigorous mental training and inner-self discipline ‘mujahadat al-nafs’. Unnecessary sorrow can be avoided by cultivating moral courage and detachment. The reasonable person is content to enjoy temporary things but does not grieve over what is lost.

Al Kindi wrote that stability and constancy, by necessity, only exist in the world of intellect, which we can contemplate. Therefore, if we do not want to lose the things we love and do not want to be frustrated in obtaining things we seek out, we must contemplate the intellectual world and, from our conceptions of what we love, possess and want from that intellectual world. Hence, he refers to those who are able to resist grief over the loss of cherished things as men of intellect, while those who do grieve are described as men of weak intellect….

via Weblog of a Syrian Diplomat in America.

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