On the bright, clear morning of 5 June 1967, a young Syrian philosopher awoke to a phone call from the poet Adonis. Israeli and Egyptian troops had started mobilising on the border of the Sinai Peninsular, and would shortly clash in what became known as the Six Day War. Gamal Abdel Nasser, then president of Egypt, was increasingly committed to the project of Arab nationalism, and to the idea of retaking Palestine. And Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm, the Syrian philosopher in question, who died this week, had by then completed his PhD at Yale, written his first book on Kant, and taken up teaching at the American University in Beirut. That morning, Adonis told him war had broken out between the Israeli and Arab armies; they spoke with optimism about an Arab victory that would prove to be premature.
Early radio broadcasts seemed to confirm the two men’s initial confidence. There were reports of Israeli planes falling around a rapidly advancing Arab army. Yet on the following Sunday, not even a whole week later, a ceasefire was signed and the Arab forces were defeated. It cost them East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and around 18,000 casualties.
How did people get it so wrong? The first responses to the defeat were theological, with some arguing that the Arabs lost because they were too secular — they had left God, and so God had not led them to victory. There were arguments that the defeat was caused by ‘remoteness from religion and faith’, and folkish, idiotic claims that the war was not between Israelis and Arabs, but rather between ‘the Jews and Jesus Christ’. Much of this was taken seriously in intellectual circles. What was unacceptable at the time, and indeed profane, was to suggest that perhaps this defeat demanded some self-criticism among Arabs.
Sadik Al-Azm changed all this. He published Self-Criticism after the Defeat in 1968. There were 10 consecutive printings of it, to keep up with the demand among Arab publics, despite the fact that it was officially banned in most Arab countries. It was a necessarily contrarian essay, stressing the need for society to liberate itself from supernatural guarantees; to see science as a social good; to liberate women; and to modernise culture. It propelled Al-Azm into the public and intellectual arena.
Following its publication, Al-Azm was dismissed from his position at the American University in Beirut. Not only had he written this controversial book, but he had also signed a petition urging the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. This and other censorious responses to his book only helped to prove his initial claim: that the regimes and intellectuals of much of this part of the world were not prepared to think critically about themselves, or even to accept criticism from others. Later, the University of Damascus thankfully appointed Al-Azm as professor of modern European philosophy – a position he held for over 20 years, during which time he wrote extensively on Kant and critiqued the increasingly popular theory of Orientalism. Later, in 2010, he was effectively exiled to Berlin after falling out of favour with the Syrian authorities.