I have always been interested in role models. Whenever I conduct a personal interview with famous Syrians, I always wrap up with one question, “Who are your inspirational figures; who are your role models in life?” A role model by definition can be a friend or a family member, a living celebrity, or a long gone iconic figure. I have gotten a colorful variety of answers over the years. Most people usually say “my father.” Duraid Lahham, however, said; “my mother!” Ambassador Imad Moustapha said it was his great-grandfather Abdul Rahman Kawakbi, among others, and Maestro Sulhi al-Wadi. Mohammad al-Maghhout said it was Mohammad al-Maghout.
I once administered a survey to my students at the University of Kalamoon in the Syrian midland; three different classes in two consecutive semesters. These were well-to-Syrians, students at the Faculty of International Relations, born in the mid to late 1980s. I then expanded the same survey to include Syrians of a different age group and different social strata. One question was, “Who is your inspirational figure in life?”
This was shortly after last summer’s war in Lebanon and I expected them to say, “Hasan Nasrallah.” It was a surprise to me when over 60% came out with “None! We don’t have any inspirational figures in our life.” Their parents’ generation would have probably replied, “Gamal Abdul-Nasser.” These young people, however, did not have motivating figures to look up to—nobody to view as a role model.
I then asked them to name their favorite former non-Syrian, Arab leader. Sheikh Zayed of the UAE came in first, with 24%. The favorite non-Arab leader was Mahatir Mohammad, who is to Malaysia what Zayed is to the UAE. He got 36%. Lagging way behind were revolutionary leaders like Gamal Abdul-Nasser and Yasser Arafat. These young Syrians were more impressed by a leader who could attract investment, create jobs, and build a success story for his country from scratch, like Malaysia and the UAE, than one who preached revolutionary socialism and promised to defeat the State of Israel.
Respondents were then asked to name their “Best Political Memory.” 40% said it was the liberation of South Lebanon in 2000. 30% said it was the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In a landslide victory, George W. Bush came in as worst foreign leader, with 84%. Coming in second—again with little surprise—was then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with 10%.
Respondents were then asked to think hard and come up with a list of people they thought would qualify as inspirational figures, people who they respected and looked up to. The Prophet Mohammad ranked #1. Other names ranged from Hasan Nasrallah, Antune Saadah, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, to Amr Khaled, Saladin, and Omar Ibn al-Khattab. Somewhere in between came people like Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Karl Marx. The list did not contain a single artist, writer, poet, or woman figure. It also, not surprisingly, did not have a single American icon, not even an entertainment or sports celebrity (although David Beckham was on the list!). Strangely enough, however, and in testimony to how un-secular society was becoming, not a single person wrote, “Kamal Ataturk.”
These results, measured by what I am getting from different interviews with famous Syrians, were surprising and alarming. They bring to mind an old story when Galileo was asked by one of his students: “Unhappy are those who don’t have heroes!”
Galileo replied, “No, unhappy are those who still need heroes!”
Forward Magazine, December 2007