Immeasurable loss

Obituary: Moshé Machover remembers Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, 1934-2016

I am deeply saddened by the death on December 11 of my dear friend and comrade, the Marxist philosopher and radical militant Sadiq Jalal al-Azm.

Although Sadiq was a scion of a family belonging to the Syrian Arab elite, his leftwing radicalisation is not unprecedented: his uncle, Khalid al-Azm, who was six times prime minister of Syria, was nicknamed ‘the red millionaire’. Sadiq (who belonged to a less prosperous branch of the family) took radicalism much further.

A distinguished scholar of modern European philosophy, he became known as a fearless critic of Arab reaction and clericalism. His 1968 book Al-Nakd al-dhati ba’da al-hazima (‘Self-criticism after the defeat’) mounted a sharp critique of the Arab regimes and Arab reaction, which he held responsible for the crushing defeat in the 1967 war. His 1969 book Naqd al-fikr al-dini (‘Critique of religious thought’) cost him his job at the American University of Beirut, and won him a spell in prison. In this book he does not attack ordinary believers, but rulers, religious leaders and the media who exploit the people’s religious sentiments in order to mislead and oppress the masses.

I met Sadiq in the early 1970s in Paris, when both of us were among the planners and founders of Khamsin, a journal of socialist revolutionaries of the Middle East - a joint venture of Arab, Iranian and Hebrew militants.1 It is in this journal that Sadiq published in 1981 one of his most important political essays, ‘Orientalism and orientalism in reverse’,2 a penetrating Marxist critique of Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism. This is a must-read classic, in which Sadiq deployed his profound knowledge of both western and Arabic cultures.

In the first part of his essay he criticises Said for his philosophical idealism and offers a robust defence of Marx, whom Said had lumped together with orientalist ideologues of western superiority. In the second part Sadiq turns his biting criticism against his ‘favourite’ target: Arab reaction. He shows how Arab ideologues (some of whom had regressed from left positions) use the very same conceptual approach of the orientalists to assert the exact opposite claim: the superiority of Arab culture and Islam. Here is one of the earliest critiques of the rising Islamic fundamentalism.

Although the style is respectful and courteous to Said, the latter took umbrage at being so robustly challenged, and broke off relations with Sadiq - who regretted the loss of a friend, but did not take back one word of his critique.

His death is a great loss for the left of the Middle East, and an immeasurable personal loss to me.


1. For details see www.matzpen.org/english/khamsin.

2. www.matzpen.org/english/1981-07-10/orientalism-and-orientalism-in-reverse-sadik-jalal-al-azm/#fnref-203-36.