Bloody future awaits the Middle East
By Uri Avnery
During the Spanish civil war of 1936, a news story reported the deaths of 82 Moroccans, 53 Italians, 48 Russians, 34 Germans, 17 Englishmen, 13 Americans and eight Frenchmen. Also one Spaniard.
“Serves him right,” people in Madrid commented, “Why did he interfere?”
Similar things could now be said about the civil war in Syria. Shiites from all over the Muslim world stream into Syria to help Bashar Assad’s dictatorship to survive, while Sunnis from many countries hasten there to support the rebels.
The implications of this go well beyond the bloody Syrian struggle. It is a historic revolution, region-wide and perhaps world-wide.
Nationalism and the nation-state
After World War I, the victorious colonial empires carved up the territories of the vanquished Ottoman Empire among themselves. Since colonialism was out and self-determination was in, their new colonies were dressed up as independent nations (like Iraq) or as nations-to-be (like Syria).
European-style nationalism took hold of the new Arab nations. The ancient idea of the pan-Muslim Umma [community] was pushed away. The idea of a pan-Arab super-state, propagated by the Baath party and Egypt’s Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, was tried and failed. Syrian nationalism, Iraqi nationalism, Egyptian nationalism and, of course, Palestinian nationalism won.
It was a doubtful victory. A typical Syrian nationalist in Damascus was also a part of the Arab region, of the Muslim world and of the Sunni community – and the order of these diverse loyalties was never quite sorted out.
This was different in Europe, where the national loyalty was unchallenged. A modern German could also be a Bavarian and a Catholic, but he was first and foremost a German.
During the last decades, the victory of local nationalism in the Arab world seemed assured. After the short-lived United Arab Republic broke up in 1961 and Syrians proudly displayed their new Syrian passports, the future of the Arab nation-states looked rosy.
Not any more.
To understand the immense significance of the present upheaval one has to go back in history.
The ethnic-religious community
Two thousand years ago, the modern idea of “nation” was unthinkable. The prevalent collective structure was the ethnic-religious community. One belonged to a community that was not territorially defined. A Jewish man in Alexandria could marry a Jewess in Babylon, but not the Hellenic or Christian woman next door.
Under Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman emperors, all these dozens of sects enjoyed a wide autonomy, ruled by imams, priests and rabbis. This is still partly the case in most former Ottoman territories, including Israel. The Turks called these self-governing sects millets.
The German historian Oswald Spengler, in his monumental The Decline of the West, asserted that great cultures were like human beings – they are born, grow up and die of old age within a thousand years. Middle-Eastern culture, according to him, was born around 500 BC and died with the decay of the Muslim caliphate…
The Syrian civil war has united the Shi’is – from Lebanon to Iran – in defence of the Alawite semi-Shi’ah regime. The Sunnis from all over the place rally to the cause of the majority Sunnis. The Syrian Kurds have already created a de facto joint state with the Kurds in Iraq. The Druze, more dispersed and customarily more cautious, are awaiting their turn.
The events in Syria indicate a similar process. Throughout the region the ethno-religious community is coming back, the European-style nation-state is disintegrating.
The colonial powers created “artificial” states with no consideration to ethno-religious realities. In Iraq, Arab Sunnis and Shi’is and non-Arab Kurds were arbitrarily put together. In Syria, Sunnis, Shi’is, Alawites (an offshoot of the Shi’ah), Druze (another offshoot), Kurds and diverse Christian sects were put into one “national” pot and left to stew. In Lebanon the same was done, with even worse results. In Morocco and Algeria, Arabs and Berbers are put together.
Now the ethno-religious sects are uniting – against each other. The Syrian civil war has united the Shi’is – from Lebanon to Iran – in defence of the Alawite semi-Shi’ah regime. The Sunnis from all over the place rally to the cause of the majority Sunnis. The Syrian Kurds have already created a de facto joint state with the Kurds in Iraq. The Druze, more dispersed and customarily more cautious, are awaiting their turn.
In the Western world, the obsolescent nation-state is being superseded by supra-national regional confederations, like the European Union. In our region, we may be reverting to the ethno-religious sects.
A bloody future?
It is difficult to foresee how this will work out. The Ottoman millet system could function because there was the overall imperial rule of the sultan. But how could Shi’i Iran combine with the majority Shi’is in Iraq, the Shi’i community in south Lebanon and other Shi’i communities in a joint entity? What about the dozen Christian sects dispersed across many countries?
Some people believe that the only viable solution for Syria proper is the disintegration of the country into several sect-dominated states – a central Sunni state, an Alawite state, a Kurd state, a Druze state, etc.
Lebanon was also a part of Syria, until the French tore them apart in order to set up a Christian state. The French created several such little states, in order to break the back of Syrian nationalism. It did not work.
The difficulty of such a “solution” is illustrated by the situation of the Druze, who live in two unconnected territories – in south Lebanon and in the “Druze mountain” area in southern Syria. A smaller Druze community lives in Israel. (As a defencive strategy, the Druze in every country – including Israel – are patriots of that country.)
The disintegration of the existing states may be accompanied by wholesale massacres and ethnic cleansing, as happened when India broke apart and when Palestine was partitioned. It is not a happy prospect…