By Sam Sweeney
On January 31, 2020 the French government arrested a Syrian known as Islam Alloush, real name Majdi Nema, which caused a bit of a stir among those who had paid close attention to Syria over the last decade. Alloush was previously the spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam, a jihadist group opposed to government of Bashar al-Assad, and he was arrested in France for his alleged participation in war crimes. He was in France on a student visa. Among other accusations, Jaysh al-Islam—and therefore Alloush—is believed to be behind the kidnapping of four Syrian activists in rural Damascus in 2013: Samira Khalil, Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi.
Alloush’s arrest was particularly jarring because it exposes an uncomfortable truth of the Syrian war. Jaysh al-Islam was never the West’s favored group in Syria, but neither was it a total pariah. When John Kerry mentioned the group among other “bad guys” in Syria, he got pushback from within the State Department, who were trying to keep them and Ahrar al-Sham from being associated with the “real” bad guys, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (then Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). Jaysh al-Islam is fairly mainstream for the Syrian armed opposition, in that it is openly Islamist, remained open to working with the West if that brought financial support, and now fights under Turkey’s banner in the north of the country after agreeing to evacuate its former stronghold outside of Damascus in 2018 as the Russians and Syrian army closed in.
I happened to be doing some research on Alloush for another project, and I came across his account on the website Goodreads, acquired by Amazon in 2013, where users can recommend or review books. One can glean a small amount of insight into this particular Syrian jihadist’s mind by reading through what he wrote. Alloush’s account on the site shows a fairly typical reading list for a Syrian of his age and background. He gave Achieve Your Dream of Memorizing the Quran three out of five stars because it was too spiritual and lacked practical advice. Perhaps most surprisingly he positively reviewed a book by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal el Saadawi. Otherwise his interests are fairly boilerplate Syrian Islamist reads: a treatise on the caliphate, a book on early Islamic morals, books on Turkish history and international relations, etc.
Spending too much time in the bookshops of intellectual hangouts like Hamra in Beirut, it is easy to forget how unrepresentative of reading habits in the Arab world these places can be. Stick to these circles and one would think that all Arabic literature is slightly revolutionary and heretical and hardly orthodox. A good reminder of the broader picture, however, is the annual book fair in a place like Beirut or Erbil, where publishers from across the region travel to buy and sell the latest titles, and where titles on balance largely reflect Alloush’s reading list. A few years ago I was walking through the Beirut book fair with the son of friends, a Lebanese Christian of early high school age, and he slyly noted: “All the books are about Islam.” That and a lot of self-help titles. Alloush’s Goodreads account would fit in pretty well at the book fair, but one review did catch my eye while I was flipping through his list: a review of Gibran Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.
Gibran Khalil Gibran is a giant in Arabic literature despite having lived a good part of his life in the United States and written much of his work, including The Prophet, in English. Arabic translations of his English work, and his Arabic originals, are found anywhere and everywhere books are sold in the region, and no doubt Alloush was well familiar with the author and title before he picked up the book. So what a surprise it was, apparently, when the titular prophet was not about the prophet of Islam or any real prophet at all. Perhaps Alloush was unaware that Gibran was Christian, though he was far from orthodox in any sense of the word; he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church and some of his writings are particularly critical of the Maronite Catholic sect he was raised in.
Writing in August 2019, a few months before traveling to France, Alloush stated frankly that the book is “shocking, and not at all what I was expecting.” It was the first time he had read Gibran, and he wrote that it is probably the last. “It is assumed that the book would provide the reader with philosophies of religion and the interaction between a prophet and his people, but in reality the bulk of the book is closer to unintelligible heresies.” He says the translation didn’t help. Despite these complaints, he gave the book two out of five stars.
I almost feel bad for Alloush. He had finally decided to read the great work of Arabic literature he must have heard of all his life. With a title like The Prophet he was hopeful for some spiritual enlightenment alongside the literary benefit. But instead he took a journey through the world of Almustafa, the fictional prophet of the people of the fictional city of Orphalese. Indeed, Almustafa’s views would be heretical to Alloush, just as they would be to an orthodox Christian. Asked about religion, the prophet responds: “Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.” Throughout the book the prophet Almustafa, the chosen one, lays out unconventional theories on the most important topics of life: love, death, children, good and evil, etc. Unlike Alloush, I would recommend it for an interesting read, even though I also disagree with plenty of what Gibran’s prophet had to say.
It seems unlikely that if Alloush had read The Prophet before the Syrian civil war that he would have taken a different path, becoming a radical advocate for democracy or secularism rather than a radical advocate for religious extremism. As he sits in a French jail, he might contemplate where the Syrian revolution went awry; how the groups claiming to fight tyranny became the new tyrants themselves. As Gibran said, “And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?” Reading Gibran alone can’t provide a path forward for Syria now, but to dismiss haphazardly his warnings about the despot within will pave the way for new tyrants like Alloush, and like Assad before him, who claim to have finally brought freedom to the oppressed Syrian people. Syria’s prisons have produced some of the country’s great intellectuals; France’s prisons continue to produce some of that country’s most committed jihadists. And Mssr. Alloush? The choice is his, whatever he’s reading these days.
Sam Sweeney has previously published in National Review, The National Interest, Dappled Things, Catholic Herald, New Criterion, and elsewhere. He lives in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, but travels regularly to Syria for a current book project. Translations in the piece are his own from Majdi’s profile; Gibran’s quote was in English in the original.
The University Bookman has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.