The most challenging Ramadan since 1980 comes to an end this weekend, and not a day too soon. Based on a lunar calendar, the holiday comes eleven days earlier each Gregorian year. This year the Muslim holy month coincided, painfully, with the longest days of one of history’s hottest summers. For observant people in the northern hemisphere, that meant as much as 15 hours of daylight in which nothing passed their lips after a pre-dawn meal, and until the sundown fast-breaking. That also means 15 hours without water. In some warm places.
The Ramadan holiday has also been politically challenging in recent years, in a way it has not been for decades. The 1980 August Ramadan coincided with a crackdown in Syria by then-ruler Hafez al Assad, similar to this year’s efforts by his son, Bashar al Assad. Last year’s Ramadan also coincided with protests against the Assad regime, and a violent response.
The above video shows Bashar al-Assad speaking at a Ramadan Iftar, or fast-breaking banquet, apparently with Syrian religious leaders. Parts of the video surfaced last year and appeared in several international press reports. A translation of the entire speech into English, however, is less common; this copy has just over 1,000 views on YouTube, in a week when Syria’s escalating civil war has dominated international news. The account for the person who posted this copy links to a Facebook page that appears to be pro-regime. We’re awaiting a confirmation of some of the translation. It appears to be reasonably faithful.
If so, it tells us a few things about Assad’s state of mind. He’s very defensive. More of a rationalization than a traditional dictator’s rant, the speech talks about obstacles to state reforms, and claims he was forced to call in troops against protesters. His argument includes a defense of intimidation. (1:08) Rather than “deal with these events by weeping, crying, wishing it didn’t happen,” Assad directs that his nation:
“…Benefit from it [the attack] and convert it into an achievement that would benefit the living and future generation.” If Syria is “able to prevent spilling further blood through the blood already spilled, not to allow these bloods [sic] spilled to become a preface to spill more…then it will be a blessing.”
Things get far more interesting after the half hour mark, when Assad talks about the relationship of Syria to the broader Arab world. The speech dips in and out of the cosmetics of a promised constitutional reform, and takes a few half-jabs at his opposition. But Assad’s tone is nervous. Mussolini waving his arms, or even Castro building nine hour tracts, this is not.
Toward the end, Assad articulates a doctrine to his audience of Imams. It sounds like something cribbed from Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Wikipedia page:
“If we look at the Arab region, this entire area, all of the Arab society in its historic composition, lives on two large bases which are Arabism and Islam…the balance in this society is based on the balance between Arabism and Islam. When there was a fault in this region since the 1950s or since independence, it was when misunderstanding occurs between Arabism and Islam, and when they divided themselves into Muslims and Nationalists, and they became enemies at some stage in time. The reality is Arabism and Islam are inseparable twins.”
A year later, with another Eid dinner scheduled for Sunday, the speech—and Assad’s defensiveness— reads somewhat differently. He’s begging the religious leaders to stay with him. A year ago, he’s already begging to keep his head.
UPDATE: We’ve heard back from an Arabic translator in Cairo, who was nice enough to give a listen to the above video and confirmed it is a sometimes overly literal, but faithful translation. He also had a comment about the term “orthodox,” used in the post: in the Middle East/North Africa, our guy argues, it’s uncommon for someone to decide to fast, but still drink water. One abstains entirely, or one doesn’t. We’ve changed the reference.