Syria's 'heretical dissident' blasts his 'stupid' president

The once Islamic fundamentalist turned pro-democratic liberal becomes outspoken gov't critic.

assad 88 (photo credit: )
assad 88
(photo credit: )
His parents have brought fame and pride to their country, Syria. His father, Muhammad Shaheen, was a film director and his mother, Mona Wasef, is not only a popular actress across the Middle East, but also a UN goodwill ambassador. But Ammar Abdulhamid, 39, is bringing his country to the headlines for very different reasons. Most recently, he has called his president "stupid," his country "decrepit" and his people "shit-peddling flies." What's more, he predicts the regime will collapse "by the end of the year" and he has no problem talking about it to an Israeli newspaper. From his home in Damascus, the short-time Islamic fundamentalist turned pro-democracy liberal became one of the most outspoken critics of his government. His mouth just cannot be shut. He speaks to whoever speaks to him and just to make sure that he is heard, he uses the Internet to spread his word in a brazen Web blog. He hoped that his government would listen, "but instead of taking my advice they paint me as a non-patriotic element," he told The Jerusalem Post. Welcome to the world of Syria's self-described "heretical dissident," as often expressed on his blog at But even the son of Syrian superstars has limits to his untouchability. While his attitude of openness - the antithesis of the regime where he comes from - has brought him fame among Arab intellectuals and liberals, it made him increasingly unpopular in his own country. As the level of pressure on Syria's regime increased, so did the level of pressure to shut up people like Abdulhamid. In September he took his wife and two children and left Damascus for Washington, and he does not plan to return till the regime collapses. "Personally I don't want to put my family in a position where we can be harmed, especially since I have been so outspoken," he said by phone in his first interview with an Israeli newspaper. Talking to Israelis is not an issue for him. "The reason I speak to Israelis is because I speak to everybody," explained Abdulhamid. "I believe we should speak to Israelis. We missed a lot of opportunities to make bridges. When you have problems it's exactly the time you need to speak up to facilitate an agreement." But if talk between the Syrian and Israeli governments has been a problem in the past, it may not be in the near future. According to Abdulhamid, the regime is "so brittle it could collapse at any moment." And he fears that if preparation is not made the result will be "catastrophic." Because for some 30 years Syria has been ruled by one family from one minority sect of society, the Assad dynasty of the Allawite community. During this period the simmering conflicts between the country's various ethnic and religious groups - Kurds vs. Arabs, Allawites vs. Sunnis, and Druse vs. Sunnis - have been more or less suppressed. But once the tight lid of the present Assad regime is off, the biggest challenge, said Abdulhamid, is to avoid civil war. "If you don't think about this now, it can be chaos like an Iraq-type situation," he said. So unlike Syrian oppositionists who are actively working to bring about the regime's collapse, Abdulhamid is more a combination of a human rights activist and a conflict resolution manager as he focuses on "finding ways to help the Syrian society get past the point of potential violence and safely into the other side of the dividing moment." The young Arab intellectual is now working on a transition plan with like-minded Syrians. "There is a small group of us who have been brainstorming on issues such as the type of discourse that needs to be employed at this stage, the symbols that need to be deployed, and the methods that should be followed," said Abdulhamid, who also writes novels and poems. The group plans to issue a "guiding document" very soon. The solution, he said, lies in dialogue. "Trying to create dialogue on a grassroots level is paramount to evade conflict," he said. "It all boils down to addressing the sectarian taboo," continued Abdulhamid, who is accustomed to crossing taboos. He is currently growing back his ponytail, something looked down upon in the Arab world. "How can a country with so many communities peaceably address the issue of minority-majority relations and establish a formula for coexistence based on mutual understanding and not on one party imposing its will on others," he asks. The problem, said Abdulhamid, is that Syrians are scared to discuss sectarian issues. "Syrians take the ostrich approach - with your head in ground and your buttocks in the air they pretend the problems don't exist," he says. But Abdulhamid already knew this - he has been working in the field of dialogue before arriving in Washington. In 2003, he and a number of young Syrian professionals and intellectuals from various religious and ethnic backgrounds established Dar-Emar, a publishing house which turned into an organization devoted to raising civic awareness among Arabs. Now Abdulhamid continues to work on Dar-Emar's Internet research forum, Al Tharwa, from his office at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution in Washington, where he is a visiting fellow. Despite all his dedication to improving his country, Abdulhamid is pessimistic. "We need discourse but it's hard to sell to a people who have been brainwashed over decades," he said. What's more, working for the benefit of his country and his people is a difficult, thankless task. "It's going to be a tough struggle for Arab liberals who every step of the way are going to be accused of selling out to the US, to the Mossad, to the CIA, to whoever," he said, then paused and added hopefully: "But someone out there is bound to understand. At least our kids are likely to understand." Abdulhamid noted that talking to an Israeli paper would not help his image. "They won't see it as a sign of openness, they will see it as betrayal - that's what they've been taught for so long," he said. At the end of the interview, Abdulhamid gave an ominous prediction for the Middle East. "It will be plunged into an age of darkness that will last a few decades," he said, then paused before adding his seemingly impossible objective. "My work is to find ways to plant seeds so that we can one day come back - back to the world - and shrug off the remnants of the old mentality and realize that change is good."