Intellectual freedom in Syria

FAIFE is marking the 20th anniversary of the IFLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom. To understand where the debate on intellectual freedom stands today, we are talking with the members and expert advisors of the FAIFE Committee. Today, we’re getting the perspective from Inaam Charaf, originally from Syria, and who is now Assistant Regional Director at the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour of New Brunswick, Canada. 



For us, as librarians, intellectual freedom (حرية التفكير والتعبير) is the right to access and receive information it without any restriction. In short, it’s freedom of expression, thinking, providing, reading and receiving knowledge, ideas and information.

Intellectual freedom in Syria is seen and interpreted in many ways, depending on someone’s  political, social and individual status or orientation. However, the importance of this issue has led the general Syrian public who, for decades was deprived of this right, to revolt against the dictatorship and claiming a democratic system where people have the right to autonomy as well as the right to self-governance.

For this cause, since March 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives, hundreds of thousands more have lost their freedom and have been reported as cases of enforced disappearance, and have been either detained or died under torture and behind bars, in addition to the millions of Syrians who faced and suffered from forced migration, including myself and hundreds of other librarians.

For libraries, in a healthy and democratic country, intellectual freedom is a vital issue. In Syria, the level of awareness about the importance of this issue, is very high. However, on the practice front, libraries and librarians are deprived of the right to provide people with information and knowledge of all kinds, nature and intellectual content.

The biggest questions and controversies that librarians facing in Syria today are: “what is the future of Arab spring revolutions? What is the cost of intellectual freedom and how can libraries and librarians deal with these questions and controversies? How to be just a librarian?”

The answer to these questions, from a personal point of view and as a librarian, is to keep fighting for our profession and to deal with intellectual freedom as a vital historical process as well as a supreme goal to which we need to attend. Intellectual freedom has been associated, historically, with the claim to political freedom, and pursued with the aim of breaking the walls of intellectual exclusivity and other restrictions. The status of intellectual freedom was controlled by the state and the Church. These two authorities interfered in every aspect of life, faith, daily practices, art, science, etc.

“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco is a novel which takes place in the 14th century, but which is somehow linked with our era, with all of its social and political events. That medieval library run by young novice librarians, and where many monks were found murdered in mysterious ways, is the perfect example of the status of intellectual freedom, libraries and librarians in Syria today, but in different forms and tools.

In the novel it turns out, at the end, that all those terrible crimes were committed for a supreme ethical and intellectual reason: the second part of the ”Poetics”, a manuscript by Aristotle containing his theory of comedy and laughter, thought to be lost, had been found in the library. Somebody was willing to do anything – even kill – to prevent the circulation of this manuscript.

The many and different events in ”The Name of the Rose” reflect in a way or another the contemporary Arab spring revolutions and the severe repression of those revolutionary movements. Authorities have been ready to go to any lengths to prevent the emergence and spread of ideas.

The biggest challenges for intellectual freedom in the coming years in Syria could be briefly described in the following statements:

– A peace plan for Syria to put a stop to the spread of violence

– A drive to help a whole generation of Syrian children who were forced to displace with their families and living today either in displacement camps or European countries to make up for the lost years of education and literacy

I believe that libraries have a key role and very strong relation to intellectual freedom. By providing all information resources, in all formats and methods, and equally to all users in all their categories, without any discrimination based on cultural, ethnic, religious or sexual background, libraries could play a vital role in changing the status of intellectual freedom in Syria, in the next 10 years.

Libraries can also lead awareness and social mobilization campaigns to defend intellectual freedom and freedom of expression, as well as to advocate for individual freedoms and for others’ freedom and privacy, to limit interference in individual and daily life, and respect for personal choices.

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