More on Levantine Sectarianism



Joshua Landis sent me a response to my post from a few days ago, which I publish below. I think we’re talking past each other in certain ways, but I’ll let the readership sort that out.


Dear Elias,

Please allow me to respond to your earlier post, entitled “Who is Right on Syria?. You write that I incorrectly place Syria in the larger context of minorities in the region. Let me re-iterate by original argument. The following is what will be published in an article for Middle East Policy in a week or two:

“Let us place the regime in regional perspective. The Asads stand atop the last minoritarian regime in the Levant and thus seem destined to fall in this age of popular revolt. When they do, the postcolonial era will draw to a final close.

Following World War II, minorities took control in every Levant state, thanks to colonial divide-and-rule tactics and the fragmented national community that bedeviled the states of the region. It is estimated that, due to their over-recruitment by the French Mandate authorities, Alawis already by the mid-1950s constituted some 65 percent of all noncommissioned officers in the Syrian military. Within a decade, they took control of the military leadership and, with it, Syria itself.

Unique among the Levant states was Palestine, where the Jewish minority was able to transform itself into the majority at the expense of Palestine’s Muslims. Neither the Christians of Lebanon nor the Sunnis of Iraq were so lucky or ambitious. Nevertheless, both clung to power at the price of dragging their countries into lengthy civil wars. The Lebanese war lasted 15 years; the Iraqi struggle between Shiites and Sunnis, while shorter, has yet to be entirely resolved.

The Alawis of Syria seem determined to repeat this violent plunge to the bottom. It is hard to determine whether this is due to the rapaciousness of a corrupt elite, to the bleak prospects that the Alawi community faces in a post-Asad Syria, or to the weak faith that many in the region place in democracy and power-sharing formulas. Whatever the reason, Syria’s transition away from minority rule is likely to be lengthy and violent.

Even though the Alawis make up a mere 12 percent of the total population, the regime continues to count on support from other minorities, who fear Islamists coming to power, and from important segments of the Sunni population, who fear civil war.

The Asads have been planning for this day of popular insurrection all their lives…..”

You write:

I don’t agree with his larger historical reading of why Lebanon and Iraq had sectarian civil wars in the first place. He finds the origins of those civil conflicts in the colonialist legacy. Broadly speaking, the Europeans came along and created these states that are not really states, and put certain sectarian minorities in charge of them. And the wars that eventually came about were the product of the masses revolting against those minoritarian elites.

That model fits Iraq better than it does Lebanon, whose civil war was the product of many different forces. Yes, there was a movement against Christian political superiority, but it was just one of the many factors that created and prolonged the conflict. Let’s not forget about the roles played by the Israelis, the PLO, the Syrians, Saudis, Americans, and others.

I am not sure if we really disagree. You suggest that I am blaming the sectarian strife in the region on the colonialists. I do only in part because it was the French and British who conquered the Ottoman Empire and had the thankless task of trying to turn a multi-ethnic empire into nation states. If the Russians or Germans had divided up the Ottoman Empire, I think they would have failed as well. This is because no “natural” borders and no “natural” nations existed. This process is not unique to the Middle East. European nations have emerged out of the collapse of multi-ethnic empires only after centuries of nationalist turmoil, ethnic cleansing, and compromise and integration. To a large extent, all nations have had to be constructed, as we all know.

Yes, the French and British tried to divide and rule. What other choice did they have?But the sectarian, regional, and family divisions that they exploited already existed. I do not subscribe to the argument that they were “constructed” by the colonialists. They manipulated but didn’t create them.

My intent was not to blame the present mess on the foreigners but on the difficulties of turning empires into nations, which has always been a violent process.

Of course there are many other reasons besides sectarianism for the Lebanese Civil War, as you rightly point out. There are many other reasons for the Syrian revolt than sectarianism. The regime failed to deliver enough economic growth, limit population expansion, limit corruption, etc. We could go on and on.

My point in underlining the common communal struggles of the Levant states is to argue why I disagree with the many analysts who have been predicting a short battle and early collapse of the regime. It took Lebanese Muslims 15 years to unseat Christian power and it still isn’t complete, seeing as Christians still have an undemocratic 50% of parliament preserved for them and refuse to push for a census. Sunnis in Iraq are still battling to get back power from the majority Shiites, eight years after having been flung flung power, which they so brutally abused. Palestinians are still killing Israelis to get back what they insist is theirs. I am simply underlining how difficult it has been for the various religious communities of the Levant to establish a common national political community, where they can work out their differences through compromise and consensus, rather than barbaric fighting. This is, of course, not unique to the Middle East. Americans are guilty of ethnically cleansing the Indians and stealing their land as well as oppressing black Americans.

I wish this process were “so twentieth century” but I fear it is not. I would argue that Lebanon was not so different from Syria. Yes Syria’s Baathist dictatorship resembles Iraq more than Lebanon’s lop-sided confessional arrangement before the Civil War, but I was not talking about political systems, I was talking about the difficulty in unseating the minorities, which had captured the lion’s share of political power in the Levant states. Didn’t Kamal Jumblat demand democracy and “one man, one vote” on the eve of the civil war, a demand which was not that different from those being made by Syrians today? Of course there are many differences between the two uprisings, but some similarities exist between the Levant societies that can help us understand why the present conflict seems so intractable and will probably be long and bloody. Back in May, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa stated that Bashar would fall “in the next few months.” The U.S. State Department has called President Asad a “dead man walking.” Israel’s defense minister insisted some time ago that Asad would fall in a matter of weeks.

I was simply trying to point out how absurd such predictions seem if compared to the time-frame for other sectarian power transfers in the Levant.


A quick comment from me (Elias/QN): I agree with a lot of what Joshua is saying here, but I think my original point still stands: We have to be careful about conflating Lebanon and Syria when it comes to the question of political sectarianism. Forty-two years of Baathist rule  is a different phenomenon from the situation that prevailed in First Republic Lebanon, and sectarianism has a different salience in these two contexts.

If the presence of minorities  mattered more to political dynamics than other historical factors (like the experience of authoritarianism) then one could imagine a very simplistic response to Josh’s argument: “Well, Syria is 75% Sunni, which is closer to Egypt’s 90% than Lebanon’s mix of Sunnis, Christians, and Shiites…” Obviously, that’s a  naive argument, which is my point. Sectarianism, in and of itself, should not be the primary lens through which we view a post-Assad Syria. It has, and will continue to have, political salience but to read Levantine political history predominantly through this prism risks homogenizing two very different contexts.

But what the hell do I know? I’m a medievalist. The forum is open for comment.

Click HERE to read more from Qifa Nabki.

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