Syria: The lost world (II)

This second article on Syria explains the origins of Arab nationalism and the situation in the country after eleven years of civil war.

Gerardo Ferrara-August 7, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo: ruins of Palmyra. ©Aladdin Hammami

Arab and Islamic nationalism: the root cause of conflict in the Middle East

It is impossible to talk about Syria, especially in light of the tragic events of recent years, without mentioning the ideology behind the regime and the Baath Party, which has been in power in the country for decades: Arab nationalism. This current of thought saw the light of day at the end of the 19th century, at the same time as the birth of European nationalisms (by which it is influenced).

In fact, until the nineteenth century, that is, before the Tanzimat (a series of reforms aimed at "modernizing" the Ottoman Empire, also through greater integration of non-Muslim and non-Turkish citizens, protecting their rights by applying the principle of equality before the law), the Ottoman State was founded on a religious and non-ethnic basis: the Sultan was also the "prince of the believers", therefore caliph of Muslims of any ethnicity (Arabs, Turks, Kurds, etc.), who were considered citizens of the country. The Sultan was also the "prince of the believers", therefore caliph of the country, who were considered first class citizens, while the Christians of the various confessions (Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Catholics and others) and the Jews were subject to a special regime, that of the millet, which provided that any non-Muslim religious community was recognized as a "nation" within the empire, but with a status of legal inferiority (according to the Islamic principle of the dhimma).

Jews and Christians discriminated against

Christians and Jews, therefore, did not participate in city government, paid exemption from military service through a poll tax (jizya) and a land tax (kharaj), and the head of each community was its religious leader. Bishops and patriarchs, for example, were thus civil officials immediately subject to the sultan.

It is therefore at the time of the Tanzimat that we find the birth, precisely between Syria and Lebanon, of pan-Arab nationalism, or pan-Arabism, whose founders included Christians: Negib Azoury, George Habib Antonius, George Habash and Michel Aflaq. This ideology was based on the need for the independence of all united Arab peoples (language was identified as a unifying factor) and for all religions to have equal dignity before the State. It was, therefore, a form of secular and ethnically based nationalism, and in this, very similar to European nationalisms.

Pan-Arabism vs. Pan-Islamism

Arab nationalism (or pan-Arabism) was immediately opposed to its Islamic counterpart, pan-Islamism: also born in the same period, at the hands of thinkers such as Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, it proposed instead to unify all Islamic peoples (not only Arabs) under the banner of a common faith. Islam, therefore, was to have a preponderant role, greater dignity and full citizenship rights, to the detriment of other religions. Salafist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda or ISIS itself are based precisely on this last doctrine and seek the formation of an Islamic state, in which the only law is Muslim law, the Sharia.

Pan-Arabism, then focused on the independence of each country, triumphed almost everywhere in the Arab world (except in the absolute monarchies of the Persian Gulf) but since then, due to the corruption of its leaders and other factors, it was always opposed, even violently, by movements born of the pan-Islamist ideology which, especially in the last 30 years, has increasingly taken hold in the Arab-Islamic world, culminating in the birth of ISIS in 2014.

Christians in Syria before and after the war

Before the civil war, Syria was a country of 24 million inhabitants, in which Christians represented approximately 10 to 13% of the population (more than half were Greek Orthodox and the rest were Melkite Catholics, Maronites, Syriacs, Armenian Catholics, Chaldeans, etc. or Armenian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox). Armenians, in particular, both in Syria and Lebanon, were the community that experienced the greatest increase, especially after the Armenian Genocide (the forced marches that the Turks forced the Armenian population of Anatolia to undergo ended in Deir ez-Zor, in eastern Syria, where the few survivors arrived after hundreds of miles of hardship and where, in memory of the 1.5 million victims of the same genocide, whose bones are scattered throughout the area, a memorial was built, later destroyed by ISIS in 2014).

In a country with an Islamic majority (71% of Sunnis, the rest belonging to other sects such as the Druze and the Alawites, a branch of the Shiites), Christians constituted the tail of the population, a fundamental factor for national unity (and this was known even at the level of the Baathist regime, to the point that Assad protected them in a special way). In fact, they were spread all over the country and, as in Lebanon, they lived side by side and in harmony with all the other communities.

Christian works

The Christian missions and schools (especially the Franciscan ones) were and still are present everywhere, providing assistance, formation and help to all sectors of the population, to all ethnic groups and to all creeds. It is also important to note that some Christian shrines in the country were and continue to be the object of pilgrimage and devotion by both the Christian and Muslim populations.

In particular, we are talking about monasteries such as Mar Mousa (restored and refounded by Jesuit Fr. Paolo Dall'OglioThe remains of which were lost during the war), that of Saidnaya (a Marian shrine whose foundation dates back to the Byzantine emperor Justian) and that of Maaloula, one of the few villages in the world, along with Saidnaya and a few others in the same area south of Damascus, where a form of Aramaic is still spoken. All these places have become infamous in recent years for having been besieged and conquered by Islamist guerrillas, who kidnapped and then freed the Orthodox nuns of Saidnaya, devastated the village of Maaloula and its precious churches, killing many Christians, and tried to destroy those same centers that were the beating heart of Syria, because they were loved by all Syrians, regardless of their creed.

However, the Christian villages of Saidnaya and Sadad (in Homs province), besieged by groups close to Al Qaeda and ISIS, respectively, with their energetic resistance to the Islamists helped prevent major centers such as Damascus and Homs from falling into ISIS hands, thanks also to the formation of Christian militias that fought alongside the regular army, the Russians, the Iranians and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The present

The current situation, however, is dramatic. After 11 years of war, in fact, the social and economic structure of the country is destroyed, not least because of U.S. sanctions that continue to prevent Syria from recovering from the conflict, sanctions, moreover, opposed by the Vatican.
The suffering inflicted by the current economic situation is, as the UN reports, perhaps more appalling than that caused by the long civil war that has resulted in some six hundred thousand deaths, nearly seven million internally displaced persons and another seven million or so refugees in neighboring countries.

Moreover, the fact that Syria is no longer being talked about, due to the emergence of other international emergencies, such as the Lebanese crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, means that the millions of people in need of assistance, including health care, are helped almost exclusively by Christian missions and NGOs linked to them.

Loss of unit

What makes the scenario even more dramatic is the disintegration of the unity between the different communities, which was sustained, as we writeThe Christian population, which often acted as an intermediary between the other components of the population, is now in a critical situation, geographically (entire regions now completely devoid of Christians, such as Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor), demographically and economically (the sectors in which Christians predominated are obviously in crisis due to the massive emigration of this part of the population).

It is therefore crucial that we all keep in mind that the Church has "two lungs," one in the West and the other in the East (according to a metaphor proposed a century ago by Vjaceslav Ivanov and later widely taken up by John Paul II) to remind us once again of our mission as Christians, recalled by the Letter to Diognetus: To be "Catholic," not to think small and only in our little garden, but to found that "civilization of love" so longed for by Paul VI, in the wake of Eastern and Western monasticism, and to be the soul of the world.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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