In 1994, the American journalist Milton Viorst published a book based on his travels through the Middle East in which he stated, after repeated visits to Damascus, that President Hafiz al-Asad "shunned the creation of a personality cult."1 Likewise, the scholar Raymond Hinnebusch devoted a two-volume study to the Syrian system and, in Wedeen's words, "he writes as if Asad's cult [of personality] did not exist." If others are so obtuse, Wedeen is not; indeed, her study is singularly focused on deciphering this phenomenon.
Why, she asks, did the Asad regime devote such a substantial proportion of its meager resources to the ubiquitous celebration of Asad? Why promote such nonsense as calling him the "premier pharmacist" of the country or suggest that he is immortal? Though laded-down with the obligatory references to Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and poststructuralist theorythat any young scholar these days must sow through her writing, Wedeen actually writes in a cogent style and has a refreshingly simple answer: the cult of personality reinforced Asad's power by demonstrating that "his regime can compel people to say the ridiculous and to avow the absurd." If anyone happens to believe the drivel forwarded by the regime, that's a bonus; for all else who are compelled to take in and repeat the cult's platitudes, it serves as a powerful "mechanism of social control." The beauty of it is, the more skeptical a Syrian is, the more the cult oppresses him.
The only lightness in her morbidly interesting study comes in a long chapter where Wedeen offers up the jokes, cartoons, comedies, and rumors, both underground and tolerated, through which Syrians manage to express their hatred of the rulers. In all, she makes a convincing case that the "contemporary Syrian political history … cannot be understood independently of the cult of Hafiz al-Asad." With luck, her excellent study marks a turning point and from now on journalists and social scientists will deal with the realities of the Asad regime.
1 Milton Viorst, Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 139.