Cult of personality: Syrians worshiping fear and idealizing al-Assad
Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas
For over 50 years, statues and posters of the ruling al-Assad family have spread in every corner, street, and city of Syrian provinces, serving as optical means designed specifically to reinforce the power of these authoritarian figures and idealize their image in the society’s collective subconscious on a daily basis.
In Syria, the zero political freedoms country, fear and intimidation are the ruler’s legitimacy sources. The concept of politics has gone beyond power struggle to become a planned approach aiming to control Syrians’ visuals, symbolic values, and subconsciousness.
This relationship between the governing power and society nourished with coercion and built on obedience for fear of losing fundamental human rights comes into play at any national event or entitlement. At such times, a significant segment of the Syrian society has their national sense centered around the ruler’s figure, while the country, its culture, institutions, and identity become matters of little to no importance to them.
Recently, supporters of the Syrian regime’s president Bashar al-Assad took the presidential elections campaigns as an opportunity to renew their allegiance, chant slogans, and express their support, and on many occasions, they went as far as idealizing him.
A video of one of al-Assad’s support rallies showed a group of young men chanting “Bashar Is Our God,” while on 13 May, on the Eid al-Fitr’s sermon at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, attended by al-Assad, prominent Syrian Cleric Hussam al-Din Farfour said that al-Assad “has the same merits of God,” after the latter issued a general pardon of crimes committed before 2 May.
Factors contributing to a cult of the ruler in Syria
The idea of placing a ruler in a divine status has security, social, cultural, and economic factors behind it, not to mention the society’s responsiveness to the concept.
Syrian social researcher Hussam al-Saad told Enab Baladi that the deification of rulers is a quality of societies controlled by dictatorial regimes. These regimes build obedient subordinates who view their governing authority or ruler as a one-of-a-kind model. Such a belief can be traced back to different reasons, including society’s rule by the same governing power for long periods or decades, pushing people to believe that the established authority or ruler is ideal for the country.
In Syria, public historical figures are celebrated but not glorified, for any glorification must be attributed to the ruler only. Thus, the symbolism of famous people from Syrian history is appreciated within the time periods they have lived in but not glorified in modern-day Syria.
Al-Saad said that this social phenomenon first emerged when the ruling power in Syria produced political rhetoric glorifying the everlasting sanctity and heroism of the “leader.” In Addition, certain groups of people, sects, or influential individuals sought to reinforce the authority’s political propaganda to protect privileges given to them by the same governing authority.
The sects or groups of individuals profiteering from the ruling power realize that the demise of the authoritarian ruler necessarily means the disappearance of their advantages, and they fear retaliation in the event of political change. According to al-Saad, these fears are mere justifications for continuing glorifying the ruler and are not necessarily true.
When Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, many people from the Alawite sect immigrated from the countryside of the coastal and central regions to Syrian cities to strengthen their positions curled around the ruling power, al-Saad said. He added that Hafez sought to promote a secular rule to win over other minorities’ support and loyalty.
Al-Saad added that the profiteering class surrounding the ruler is largely responsible for creating a holy aura around the ruler within the Syrian society. He also blamed Syrian cultural symbols, who see their interests in the survival of the governing power and political structure.
The ruling power in Syria has worked on wooing and luring influential community leaders, who constituted the backbone to the ruler deification project through expressing reverence to the leader in the media, spreading disinformation, falsifying facts, and repeatedly breaching professional standards.
By investing in the community leaders’ allegiance, the ruling authority in Syria guaranteed biased subordinates who would promote the authority’s deceptive narrative of being a true representative of people and democracy, the watchful eye of national unity and Arab national aspirations, and an epitome of steadfastness against western imperialism and Israeli expansionist ambitions.
Cult of personality prevails when rule of law is absent
Authoritarian servitude in Syria obliterates all forms of freedom or liberation; it demonizes all those who oppose it and works on alienating Syrian society from the umbrella of international human rights laws to achieve a power-aligned state nowhere near the rule of law and human rights respect.
The rule of law is far from being established in Syria, as the intelligence mindset has suffocated this principle since the al-Ba’ath Party became the leader of the Syrian society and state in the 1970s. This mindset has seriously undermined Syrians’ access to human rights through implementing a state of emergency following the 2011 uprising prompted mainly by the non-application of the rule of law to safeguard individuals’ rights and liberties.
The current Syrian Constitution, which was adopted in 2012, has allowed the authoritarian governing body to propose and enact legislation without controls, standards, or any consideration for other political or community forces. It entitled the state’s executive power to dominate over the judicial power and control all spheres of life in Syria through a feared security apparatus known as intelligence services.
A pathological condition, What is the treatment?
Social researcher Safwan Mushli told Enab Baladi that the cult of personality phenomenon in Syria is a pathological social condition taking place when public freedoms are ensured worldwide. It is one of the neurotic psychological disorders triggered by immense fear and leads to personality disorder and psychological imbalance.
This disorder includes the mythologization and sanctification of the ruler and power symbols to satisfy unconscious psychological motives.
Mushli added that cult practices triggered by fear or some kind of pathological attachment to the ruler are a clear symptom of a neurotic psychological disorder that affects groups or individuals in a society. A person exhibiting such symptoms suffers from profound fears developed since early upbringing and reinforced by an environment of repression or intimidation.
Besides, any environment characterized by high economic and social pressures is a helping factor in developing a collective neurotic disorder. Under similar pressures, individuals lose their ability to adapt; they lose their sense of self-control and worth and collapse under fear of destitution, marginalization, and the absence of social recognition. Thus, they resort to creating delusions and made-up heroic images for dictator figures in whom they see a savior to their neurotic personalities.
Neurosis may affect a whole community sharing the same level of political oppression and economic deprivation. In this case, a desperate society would create a myth around a figure or the power that the figure represents and wait for the mythical savior to end the suffering just like a drowning man will clutch at a straw, Mushli said.
The more repression there is, the more individuals will be inclined to adopt mythical delusions around the ruler to compensate for the deficit caused by political repression and pressures of impoverishment by authoritarian powers, hence, drowning in a spiral of inferiority, failure, and loss of self-worth.
Individual and collective neurosis causes people to get lost in a spiral of emotions, according to Mushli; it creates a mental disorder that is a product of political and security oppression and tyranny and leads to submissive and obedient individuals unable to match the status of the authoritarian figure that they deem a godlike ruler.
According to Mushli, the sadistic nature of the dictatorial authority in Syria grows bigger every time it commits heinous crimes against people, which is considered an extreme deviation of the role of authority in society.
Powerful figures in Syria who constantly demand praise and appreciation to satisfy their pathological narcissism also suffer a psychological disorder. They seek admiration and glorification whatever they say or do and are completely disconnected from reality. They see themselves as godlike humans, and “Syria is the perfect environment for the production of godlike individuals,” according to Mushli.
Ever since the al-Ba’ath Party dominated the political scene in Syria, Hafez al-Assad has focused his efforts on being the center of power. He planted within Syrian society the idea that Syria’s fate and the regime are intertwined until Assad’s name became associated with the state’s identity, verbally and in reality as “Assad’s Syria.”
During the rule of Hafez al-Assad, Syrians marched in support rallies that chanted, “Step aside, God! Hafez came to take your place,” and even after his death, people chanted at his funeral, “Be joyful, God! Hafez will accompany you and leave us,” in reference to Hafez al-Assad as an “immortal human on earth.”
The cult of personality is the necessary alternative to any authority that has lost legitimacy within a social environment of oppression and tyranny, Mushli said.
Society bears the responsibility to set individuals free from this pathological condition by raising awareness and recognition of this disorder and electing a democratic governing system because all undemocratic regimes resort to dictatorial practices without exception under different pretexts.
At the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, statues glorifying Hafez and Bashar al-Assad were brought down, symbolizing society’s upper hand over political symbols that once dominated Syria’s past. Those who opposed the regime tried to shape a new political, economic, and social reality; they started to exist as separate individuals from the authoritarian ruler image and to be liberated from a past painted with coercion and fear.
Still, the ruling authority in Syria represented by Bashar al-Assad continues to establish the hegemony and sanctity of its political symbols in the Syrian society to export the cult of personality notion to new Syrian generations.
For example, when the Syrian regime forces re-captured some of the destroyed cities once controlled by the opposition, the regime started re-erecting statues amidst destroyed houses and empty areas in a scene best compared to the great Ozymandias, the king of kings, standing alone in the empty desert.
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