With the passing of Patrick Seale (1930-2015), it might become difficult to read more “authoritative” personal-political biographies of members of the Assad family. Assad the son demonstrated little trust in the past decade, even for the British scholar in whom Assad the father frequently confided. Will anyone else step onto the stage of political biographies about Syria’s elites in order to offer us a stronger grip over the character of Bashar al-Assad? Not certain, at least as of now.
Having studied and taught political science, I became fascinated long ago with social psychology, to the disappointment of my progressive friends and colleagues, for whom the dialectical-materialist remained their only method of analysis, an approach that insisted upon ignoring personal factors in the personalities of those making decisions. Without visiting the arcane debates of different theories and approaches in political science, I still maintain that psychology offers some clues into one’s personality and political behavior. Human beings can never be considered totally rational, and even the most intelligent people – certainly Assad does not number in this category – fall victim to misperception, erroneous attributions, and faulty judgments.
A book review of Jay Nordlinger’s “Children of Monsters,” by Christine Smallwood, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine (September 2015 Issue), provoked me to discuss this question. Nordlinger, a conservative intellectual, whose treatment of the subject the reviewer describes as “sketchy,” believes his book in part to be “a psychological study.” The book’s title has revived an old interest in discovering what influence Assad the father (or the “monster” to use Nordlinger’s term) exercised upon his child, Bashar. Daniel J. Flynn of Breitbart.com cites Nordlinger as stating, “It’s a strange fact that Bashar Assad has killed many more than the old man, Hafez Assad, killed or probably dreamed of killing” (the number of the Syrian dead today borders on half of a million). Nordlinger adds: “Bashar has kept the family business going, so to speak. He has killed as many as necessary to remain on the throne, to keep that family business going. I suppose his father would be proud.” A word of clarification: the subject of Nordlinger’s book does not focus upon one specific monster, but rather concerns the children of many 20th and some 21st century dictators, which includes Bashar al-Assad.
While Franco and Pol Pot had one daughter each, and Hitler may have had a son, Hafez al-Assad fathered four sons, two of whom still live, Bashar and Maher. Of the other two, the first — Basil al-Assad (known as a playboy) — died in a car accident in 1994, while his brother Majd al-Assad suffered from emotional problems and died mysteriously in 2009. As for the surviving two sons, President Bashar and his brother Maher, the commander of the Republican Guard, both have surpassed their father’s brutality. In fact, Maher might have outpaced the lot of them. As for the other Baathist leader, Saddam Hussein, whose followers in Iraq purportedly included important players in ISIS, his two sons, Uday and Qusay, also developed rather shady reputations. Many suspected Uday, an alleged rapist and torturer, of the murder of his two brothers-in-law. The review cites an analogy with Benito Mussolini, who also had his son-in-law killed. The third Arab leader, Moammar Kaddafi, had a son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who attempted to give lip service to liberal and reformist positions, but participated in the slaughter and persecution of regime opponents when the Arab Spring reached Libyan shores in 2011, and threatened his father’s reign.
According to Ms. Smallwood, the book offers interesting features, including insight into the similarities between the children of dictators and their lives. “Being a dictator’s child seems a bit like being the child of any rich workaholic — nanny, boarding school, travel and/or exile.” She adds that many possess advanced degrees, true in the case of both Bashar and Maher (Bashar studied Ophthalmology while Maher studied business administration); although no evidence exists for the case of Saddam’s sons except that his son Uday shared an interest with Valentin Ceausescu (son of the late deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu) in that “both oversaw soccer organizations.” One of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons, Al-Saadi Gaddafi, a professional football player, captained the national squad.
Interestingly, “Children of Monsters” reveals no apparently monstrous daughters. “Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un inherited the family business, though smart and politically savvy daughters — Marie-Denise Duvalier, Bushra al-Assad, and Kim Sul-song — were denied succession.” I do not know much about Bushra al-Assad except that she had no blood on her hands and rumors indicate that her brother and the circles close to him allegedly had something to do with the murder of her husband, the then Deputy Minister of Defense, in 2012 (although no definitive information exists). So, does being a female child of a monster preclude that child from becoming another monster? Hard to say. Consider Saddam’s two daughters — Raghad and Rana — who both remained ardent and loyal supporters of their father, even though he ordered the brutal murders of their husbands after returning from exile in Jordan in 1995. An immediate answer would indicate that the patriarchal and patrimonial system in Iraq, and for most of the Middle East, has been the most effective deterrent to women’s ascendancy to power, and thus, perhaps, has shielded female dictatorial offspring from fulfilling their horrific potential.
Ms. Smallwood’s conclusion remains problematic: not a psychological study, Nordlinger’s book does not clearly answer a central question: “Are they [dictators] doomed to reproduce their own small fascisms, training the younger subjects to desire absolute power over others? Or can they — somehow — rear individuals capable of truly democratic relations?”
A difficult question indeed. I am inclined to think that even if Hafez Assad or Saddam, for some strange and unexpected reason, had decided to socialize their offspring in “democratic” ideals, they would still have encountered insurmountable obstacles, such as their past socialization of those children, as well as the prevailing political cultures, political systems, and economic interests — forces that sustained the fathers and inevitably impacted their children’s psychology. In short, the utopian wish of rehabilitating the children of monsters may be possible, but can only be achieved through the absence of those monstrous fathers and their authoritarian systems which thrive on brutality.
This essay is from Elie Chalala's "'Children of Monsters': Doomed by Nature and Nurture?" which appeared in Al Jadid Magazine (Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016).
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