He did this immediately after that war, writing two books, Self-Criticism After the Defeat (1968) and a Critique of Religious Thought (1969). These books instantly made him a highly influential thinker. His work focused on how there was in the Arab world, on the one hand, society’s strong desire for economic and political change and, on the other, unshakable resistance to any change among the superstructures obstructing the reforms needed for development and social progress.
Coming from a Marxist background in his youth, Al-Azm has developed a fully democratic, pluralist and secular perspective. In his intellectual development, which included an academic career that led him to teach at Yale, at the American University of Beirut, from Berlin to Hamburg and Washington and finally back to Damascus, he criticised the failure of the Nasserite socialist perspective, which he accused of having betrayed and deceived the masses. He also developed a critique of religion and religious thought, accused of being systems closed within themselves thereby obstructing secularism and scientific progress.
His coherent defence of democracy, added to his defence of secularism, attracted criticism both from religious extremists and those in power, which resulted in a prison sentence in 1970 as well as a variety of restrictions imposed on his freedom of movement. In 2004 he won the Erasmus Award together with Fatema Mernissi and Abdolkarim Soroush. He recently contributed to Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations’ 2010 Istanbul Seminars with an essay entitled “Turkey seen from Damascus”, in which he proved how the current Turkish political experience, combining democracy with Muslim inspiration, has resulted in the example set by Turkey becoming the most influential in all Arab nations.