Lebanon, Syria

The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant

In the discussion section of the last post (“Syria and the Lessons of Iraq”), my friend Joshua Landis made an interesting comment that I felt should be promoted to the main page. I publish it below with a few minor edits, and with Joshua’s permission. It is followed by some brief comments by me.

I’ll ask some friends and colleagues who work on these issues to see if they’d be willing to contribute their thoughts as well.

**

The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity &  the Future of the Levant

(Guest commentary by Joshua Landis)

I believe that the best historical European comparison to what is taking place in the Middle East today is Eastern Europe, which was multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Much of it was part of dynastic empires, much like the Levant: a multi-religious/ethnic part of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps the single greatest outcome of WWII in Europe was the creation of nation states that were more ethnically homogeneous than ever before. Tony Judt writes:

At the conclusion of the First World War it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: with one major exception boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead…. he term ‘ethnic cleansing’ did not yet exist, but the reality surely did — and it was far from arousing wholesale disapproval or embarrassment.

Poland was 68% Polish in 1938. By 1946 it was overwhelmingly Polish. Germany was nearly all German. Czechoslovakia, which was populated by 33% minorities, including Germans, Hungarians, Carpathian Ukrainians and Jews before the war, shed this third of its population. One can go down the line of Eastern European countries, Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and find the same ethnic cleansing and great sorting out. Thirteen million Germans were expelled or transferred from the Eastern European countries between 1945 and 1947. They had lived in these countries stretching from Poland in the north to the Ukraine and Romania in the South for hundreds of years.

Central European nation states were tidied up and their peoples rearranged according to nationality. Unlucky nationalities, such as the Jews and Gypsies that had no homeland, were in some cases exterminated. This is what is going on in the Levant. For example, the Jews, who used to be scattered throughout the Middle East, were driven out of their native cities (the Jews of Baghdad in 1918 were the largest religious community in the city). They have collected in Israel, from which they expelled the Palestinians.

Christians have all but disappeared from many countries of the region. Anatolia was 18% Christian in 1914. By 1922 they constituted less than 1% of Turkey’s population. In Palestine and Iraq, their populations have been decimated by nationalist foment and religious intolerance and discrimination. They same thing is happening in Syria to Christians today. I will not be shocked if by the end of troubles in Syria, the 20% religious minorities have been driven out and the 10% Kurds have joined their brethren in Iraq to form an independent nation. The Alawites today are behaving like the Germans of the Sudetenland during the first years of the war. But it is altogether imaginable that their time will come, when they will be treated like the guilty minority of Germans in Czechoslovakia.

It is easy to push the analogies between Central Europe between the two wars and the ex-Ottoman lands of the Levant too far. But I see a very clear process of nation building in the region. It is brutal to all, but particularly to the nationalities that do not find a home in one of the “artificially” created states. The problem with multi-ethnic empires is that there are no “natural” or “organic” borders. Whatever borders are drawn to make way for nation states, they will be unjust to many.

Because this is a “Lebanese” blog, it is only natural that I should try to fit Lebanon, where I lived 8 years of my humble existence, into this model. Lebanon has not built a better nation. Its three major ethnic groups – Shiites, Sunnis and Maronites – have not settled their national problem. Are they all Lebanese and one ethnicity, divided only by religion? Or are they three distinct ethnic groups? We don’t know yet. We hope they will resolve their differences, but it is not at all certain that they will. The balance of power between the groups makes ethnic cleansing impractical.

The Syrian occupation forced the Ta’if Accords on the warring factions, after taking their guns from them. What will the largely Sunni influx of Syrians do to the balance? Will the smaller minorities – Armenians, Alawites, Palestinians, Jews, Protestants, etc be driven out or assimilated? We must all hope that Lebanon figures it out eventually and provides a liberal model for the other Levantine states. So far it isn’t working out so well, despite the rosy predictions of some who believed that the Lebanese consociational model would catch on in Iraq and then the rest of the region.

In sum, we are witnessing the rearrangement of populations in the region to better fit the nation states that were fixed after WWI. Some new borders are being drawn, such as those around the Kurdish regions of Iraq and perhaps Syria, but mostly, what we are seeing is the ethnic cleansing of much of the region to fit the borders.

[End of Landis guest commentary]

**

Ethnicity is Not The Problem: (A Response by QN)

Much of what Joshua says here is very suggestive. I’m in favor of widening the aperture and re-framing contemporary ruptures within the context of broader historical forces, but I’m uneasy with many of the assumptions underlying the above commentary.

Let’s take, for instance, the concept of ethnicity. What intellectual work does this category do for us in explaining Levantine politics? In the case of Kurds and Armenians — two examples mentioned above — the parallel with the European experience after WWII strikes me as reasonable, but this is mainly because of the problem of language. In the other cases that Joshua mentions — Middle Eastern Christians, Jews, Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites — we are talking about something else entirely.

Joshua asks: “Are [Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites] all Lebanese and one ethnicity, divided only by religion? Or are they three distinct ethnic groups? We don’t know yet. We hope they will resolve their differences, but it is not at all certain that they will.”

I find this very puzzling. In what sense is it meaningful to distinguish, on the basis of ethnicity, between two people who speak the same language, eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes, share the same set of cultural references, and may even live in the same village, just because they happen to belong to different religious groups? Ethnicity is not a useful category here, and re-drawing the map of the Levant to sort its various minority groups into new nations defined by these sectarian identities is not going to address the core issues at the heart of the current uprisings.

Are the nations of the Levant “artificial”? I suppose so, but what does that mean, nearly a century after their borders were fixed by the Mandate powers? Nationalisms do not derive their emotional and political force from subterranean wells of ethnic or historical authenticity. They have far shorter memories, being made and remade sometimes in the space of a single generation. The Sunni students who marched in downtown Beirut after Hariri was assassinated, carrying “Lebanon First” placards and calling for Syrian troops to scurry across the border were the sons and daughters of the formerly reliable allies of Damascus, who felt more Arab than Mediterranean, more Greater Syrian than Greater Lebanese, etc. etc. So what happened? How was that they suddenly re-invented themselves as something other than what their ethnic or sectarian DNA dictated?

When the Arab Spring roadshow rolled into Egypt, I remember reading a great deal of commentary about how the mass protests were proof that Egypt was a true nation (unlike Syria or Lebanon) with a real identity rooted in its 5,000 years of history, and so on. Two years later, we’re hearing about how Egypt’s travails reveal the hollowness of the Egyptian national idea, and how it’s just a collection of tribes held together by an authoritarian state. Neither conclusion is correct, in my view.

The upheaval we have seen in the region over the past couple of years is a story of politics and economics, not ethnicity. It’s a story of the breakdown of certain social contracts and the emergence of new ones. The violence in Syria is not some messy centrifugal separation of an artificial state into its primordial ethnic or sectarian ingredients. Under the right economic and political conditions, there should not be anything inevitable about such affiliations. In the absence of real alternatives, however, people will revert to the most traditional networks — kinship, religious communities, etc. — to protect and organize themselves.

Enough said by a scholar of the early modern Levant… If Josh responds, I’ll post his rejoinder along with thoughts by other readers.

Discussion

56 thoughts on “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant

  1. The Clean Break Neocon/ Zionist plan, with Netanyahu as a partner in crime, to secure the realm for Zionist Israel and more than likely it’s Wahabi patron, has been put into action in the region …look up Project for the New American Century…any discussion of what is going on has to be put in this context…your friend Mr. Joshua must be an apologist for it….

    Posted by Marion Mourtada | December 19, 2013, 12:48 am
  2. Dear Elias. I didn’t use the word “primordial” and I wouldn’t. That is your word. I do not argue that identities are primordial. I understand that much about identity is contingent, plastic, and a matter of choice. After all, very few today think of the Jews — Middle Eastern Jews, that is — as Arabs, but of course they could have been because they dressed like Arabs, walked like Arabs, spoke like Arabs, ate tabbouleh, and danced the debke like Arabs. But because the Jews of Palestine won the 1948 War, they got to be their own nation and nationality. It says so on their national identity cards. Of course, had they lost the war, they would most likely be Arabs today. The nationality and identities of Middle Eastern Jews – just like their European coreligionists – have been very contingent. As Elie Kedourie, the famous Iraqi Jew and British historian, insisted, Middle Eastern Jews were caught between “the hammer of Zionism and anvil of Arab nationalism.” He loved the Jewish community of Baghdad and hated its destruction. He remained nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire, just as most East European Jews continued to pine for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nationalism destroyed their lives and identities because they had no place in it. Many were unhappy to embrace Zionism, but what choice did they have?

    Lebanese Maronites lost their civil war. Thus, many of us laugh at Lebanese Christians who persist in defining themselves as Phoenician and not Arab. But had the Christians won the Lebanese civil war, chances are they would have defined Lebanon as non-Arab and perhaps Phoenician, and why not? If the Jews can do it, why can’t the Maronites.

    Yes money makes a big difference to identity. We don’t disagree there. If Syria were much richer, things would have been different, no doubt. Had Assad and his Baath Party been able to grow the Syrian economy by 10% a year as the Chinese Communist Party has been able to grow the Chinese economy, perhaps he would still have crowds clapping their hands and shouting bi-ruh, bi-dam….

    I don’t know whether the various religious communities of Lebanon and Syria will be able to compose their differences and settle into a happy single ethnicity as the Arab nationalist had planned for them. I doubt it. Some may, others not. I really don’t know. Lebanon seems the most hopeful, but even Lebanese are terribly divided today. You tell the heartwarming story of the Lebanese Sunnis shedding their pan-Arab identities to embrace Lebanese patriotism following the Hariri murder, but look at how Lebanese Sunnis are embracing Jihad and pan-Islamism today. I know you will make some remark about “lower classes” and the like, and you will probably be right — to an extent, but I am not convinced that the story of identity formation among Lebanese confessional groups is decided in favor of one ethnicity yet. Maybe I am too pessimistic. I hope so.

    The Assad government just started a new TV channel and named it “Arouba” or something similar. The Alawites and Christians of Syria are going ape. They cannot believe that Assad is dragging out such old chestnuts: “Arabism!” Who is he fooling? It seems like such a bad joke today.

    Posted by joshlandis | December 19, 2013, 12:50 am
  3. ” just as most East European Jews continued to pine for the Austro-Hungarian Empire”

    What? I’d like to see the source for that. The Polish Jews, who were the plurality of Eastern European Jews, never pined for the Austro-Hungarian empire, nor did the Russian and Baltic country Jews. All together these were the vast majority of Eastern European Jews. These Jews, except for the Jews in Polish Galicia, were never part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and never pined for it.

    http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005161

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 1:13 am
  4. Smart catch. I should have specified the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Merci.

    Posted by joshlandis | December 19, 2013, 1:17 am
  5. “I find this very puzzling. In what sense is it meaningful to distinguish, on the basis of ethnicity, between two people who speak the same language, eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes, share the same set of cultural references, and may even live in the same village, just because they happen to belong to different religious groups?”

    Come on QN, this constantly happened throughout history. The Jews of Poland who shared villages with Poles, were they not a different ethnicity? Have you not seen Fiddler on the Roof? The Amish in the US, are they not a distinct ethnicity? A difference in religion can very well define ethnicity even when there is almost no genetic difference between the populations.

    “In the absence of real alternatives, however, people will revert to the most traditional networks — kinship, religious communities, etc. — to protect and organize themselves.”

    Why did Czechoslovakia break up? Why is Belgium on the verge of breaking up? Why does Scotland want to be a separate country? Why is there a movement in Quebec to separate from Canada? There are very real alternatives in these countries. Your view is too optimistic. Real alternatives and functioning states are not enough. There are many Israeli Arabs who are very well off economically and don’t want to live in a Jewish state. There are also quite a few Israeli Arabs who want to live in a Sharia state. So ethnicity and religion play a role, not just economics and politics. It is true that the more states fail the more ethnicity and religion play a role and there is a downward spiral of death. But as Landis argues, sometimes founding a state on the basis of ethnicity gives it more chance to succeed, as in the case of Israel which clearly is the only successful state in the region because the Jewish majority allowed for internal unity and democracy.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 1:39 am
  6. Joshua,
    I know many Jews from Hungarian descent including family members and not once have I heard nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Perhaps a few do remember it fondly, but most? I don’t find that plausible.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 1:45 am
  7. In same cases there definately was a Jewish nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Simon Wisenthal might be a well known example (Tom Segev points that out in his recent autobiography).

    Posted by Tobias Lang | December 19, 2013, 3:40 am
  8. The civil war in Syria did not start because of ethnic tensions. If Assad was Sunni, people would still have taken to the streets. As QN said, Syrians’ discontent was driven overwhelmingly by economic and political factors.

    It is also intellectually blind to ignore the role of authorities and power centers in creating and shaping people’s identities. People start out with socioeconomic problems (lack of a job, lack of freedoms, oppressive governments) which animate them into action. This motivation is subverted by political actors to their own agenda by selling the people a solution that is simple, clear, and wrong: your problems are cause by some ‘other’ people.

    And this ‘other’ doesn’t have to be an ethnic other. It can be a racial other, a sectarian other, or even an economic other (see capitalist vs communist). Prejudice is very plastic.

    Media has played a huge and deliberate role in framing the Syrian civil war in sectarian terms. Saudi Arabia has played a huge and deliberate role in portraying its political struggle with Assad in sectarian terms. If Assad was Sunni, but still opposed to Saudi Arabia, some other difference would have been highlighted and portrayed as an eternal existential conflict.

    This picture is however complicated by the Islamist groups that have taken the lead against Assad’s government. If anything will break up Syria, it is they. But I don’t see those Islamist groups as ethnic Sunnis setting up a state for themselves, but as new a political ideology that aspires to destroy the existing nation state order, including the Sunni monarchies. Again, not an ethnic dynamic, but a political one.

    Posted by RedLeb | December 19, 2013, 4:25 am
  9. “as in the case of Israel which clearly is the only successful state in the region because the Jewish majority allowed for internal unity and democracy.” – really, AIG?

    ‘successful state’ that is, if you don’t count the fact that it needs occupation forces, a dictatorial apartheid regime, a gigantic closed-off open air prison/concentration camp and regular repressive military actions against a large part of its own population which apparently is not so susceptible to this famed ‘internal unity’, not to mention constant financial, diplomatic and military support from its patron the US to keep up its constant aggressions towards neighbouring states, which are necessary to keep up this ‘internal unity’ even just among the jewish part of its population.

    If we’re going to consider Israel as ‘the only successful state in the region’, I think the region is better off staying as it is…

    Posted by Bart | December 19, 2013, 4:54 am
  10. There is an imagined identity, constructed by cultural forms (ethnicity, nationality, race, etc.) AND a historical imaginary, that is the historical backdrop of shared social meanings and values (social imaginaries or sets of practices, beliefs, significations, etc.). I think that the discussion is conflating these two different heuristic devices. Ethnicity, religion or sect is always a marker of the imagined identity that can de facto be changed and transformed. Historical imaginaries are more “primordial” since they are the foundations upon which any identity is imagined (for example, a druze or maronite lebanese, a sunni or an allawite syrian, and many other socially constructed identities are always immersed in what one could call with Mroueh an Arab-Islamic imaginary (a history of constantly shifting or contingent discourses, practices, affects, etc., that become necessary once they determine cultural forms across time and space). I know that it is easier to ignore what is “shared” when it is intangible while highlighting tangible differences, but the commonalities that create forms are belonging are not all equally significant.

    Posted by Parrhesia | December 19, 2013, 5:57 am
  11. Thank you for sharing this. Nabki rightly corrects the unfortunate idea that this is an ethnic or sectarian conflict. He also rightly points out the ease with which we use categorizations lightly and with deleterious impacts. If I were to try and understand what “ethnicity,” “sect,” “clan,” “religion,” etc. mean as categories based on material from the world-wide-web, I might go schizophrenic. More haunting than no one using those categories carefully any longer is the very fact that it doesn’t matter whether or not one does!

    Posted by Fawzia Harakat | December 19, 2013, 7:17 am
  12. Dear Joshua,

    Thanks again for permitting me to publish your very interesting essay. Here are some thoughts on your response:

    “Dear Elias. I didn’t use the word “primordial” and I wouldn’t. That is your word. I do not argue that identities are primordial. I understand that much about identity is contingent, plastic, and a matter of choice. After all, very few today think of the Jews — Middle Eastern Jews, that is — as Arabs, but of course they could have been because they dressed like Arabs, walked like Arabs, spoke like Arabs, ate tabbouleh, and danced the debke like Arabs.”

    Apologies for putting words in your mouth; I should stop doing that.

    “Lebanese Maronites lost their civil war. Thus, many of us laugh at Lebanese Christians who persist in defining themselves as Phoenician and not Arab. But had the Christians won the Lebanese civil war, chances are they would have defined Lebanon as non-Arab and perhaps Phoenician, and why not? If the Jews can do it, why can’t the Maronites?”

    Again, this sounds wrong-headed to me. The Lebanese Maronites didn’t lose the war; certain militant parties associated with certain traditional Christian elites were among the many losers of a terrible civil conflict that had many actors. There was never a possibility that “the Maronites” (or any other religious community) would “win”. I suppose we disagree on the salient characteristics of the combatants and what distinguishes them from each other.

    “I don’t know whether the various religious communities of Lebanon and Syria will be able to compose their differences and settle into a happy single ethnicity as the Arab nationalist had planned for them. I doubt it. Some may, others not. I really don’t know. Lebanon seems the most hopeful, but even Lebanese are terribly divided today. You tell the heartwarming story of the Lebanese Sunnis shedding their pan-Arab identities to embrace Lebanese patriotism following the Hariri murder, but look at how Lebanese Sunnis are embracing Jihad and pan-Islamism today. I know you will make some remark about “lower classes” and the like, and you will probably be right — to an extent, but I am not convinced that the story of identity formation among Lebanese confessional groups is decided in favor of one ethnicity yet. Maybe I am too pessimistic. I hope so.”

    My story was not meant to be heart-warming, just proof of the plastic nature of identity formation and political affiliation. You’re absolutely right about the pan-Islamist sympathies of some Mustaqbal supporters. But when we put the two examples together (Lebanon circa 2005 and 2013), we have to recognize that such constructs as nation, race, religion, ethnicity are all competing for space in the political sphere. Why do you feel that a common ethnicity is a guarantor of civil peace? And, again, how are you defining ethnicity?

    Arabism failed as a political project for many reasons, not just because the square sectarian pegs couldn’t fit into the round hole of a common Arab ethnic group. Once again, I think the underlying story is one about political economy.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 19, 2013, 9:55 am
  13. AIG

    Very good points. I will think about them as I prepare my house for a Christmas party (to which, you will all be gratified to learn, members of many ethnic groups are invited…)

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 19, 2013, 9:57 am
  14. What RedLeb said.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 19, 2013, 10:04 am
  15. AIG said: “Come on QN, this constantly happened throughout history. The Jews of Poland who shared villages with Poles, were they not a different ethnicity? Have you not seen Fiddler on the Roof? The Amish in the US, are they not a distinct ethnicity? A difference in religion can very well define ethnicity even when there is almost no genetic difference between the populations.”

    I don’t know what ethnicity means here. I suspect it means something like a “common culture and way of life”. Please clarify what you mean.

    “Why did Czechoslovakia break up? Why is Belgium on the verge of breaking up? Why does Scotland want to be a separate country? Why is there a movement in Quebec to separate from Canada?”

    The role of language and its monumental effect on culture is a key ingredient in each of these examples. Surely you can see that. If you want to make language constitutive of ethnicity, that’s fine, but then you have to recognize that Josh’s argument falls apart when it is applied to the Levantines, who speak the same language.

    “Your view is too optimistic. Real alternatives and functioning states are not enough. There are many Israeli Arabs who are very well off economically and don’t want to live in a Jewish state. There are also quite a few Israeli Arabs who want to live in a Sharia state. So ethnicity and religion play a role, not just economics and politics.”

    Everything plays a role. That’s all I’m saying. What I object to is the idea that the source of the problems in the Levant is some kind ethnic mismatch with the way that political borders were drawn. I don’t know what ethnicity means here, and I don’t think it matters nearly as much as Josh does.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 19, 2013, 10:11 am
  16. I think that, in general, modern states form nations (or attempt to form nations), and those people who are left out of the state-building project or who are marginalized by it typically will express their alienation in terms of ethnicity including religious difference. So there’s nothing primordial about any of this, and I think this process helps to explain what has happened in Syria (the result to a failed nation-building project on the part of the Baathists for the past half century).

    As for the land of my residence, Canada, the emergence of modern Quebec nationalism coincided with the demise of the older, Church-based authority that previously had accepted a particular division of power and wealth between anglophone and francophone elites. Again, language and religious background are important but they aren’t determinant for political purposes.

    Lebanon was designed to be a vehicle for competing confessional-based identities, which simultaneously strengthened these identities and guaranteed that the Lebanese state could not be effective. Add to this the vulnerability of Lebanon in its regional and international environment, and it’s no wonder that the state appears (and is) divided and paralyzed.

    I think that when we look at the formation of nations historically, it is usually because a strong political center has managed to consolidate its control over sufficient land and resources to propagate not only a myth of nationhood but eventually to make the myth a social reality (France, for example). Perhaps we need to come to terms with empires (formal and informal), since most human political projects have unfolded within empires or against them. Random thoughts here, to be sure, but as someone who regularly teaches about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement by the 20th-century map (and the implications of the 20th century map as we approach the centenary of the Ottomans’ collapse), I’ve found it necessary to combat primordialist assumptions that are very much “in the air” these days.

    These assumptions are “in the air” because Shi’i-Sunni antagonism appears to be a “key” for explaining contemporary Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and regional politics. But is it, really? And if it is not, how do we explain clearly, in ways that audiences will understand, the enthusiastic deployment of sectarian language by today’s political actors?

    Posted by Jim Reilly | December 19, 2013, 10:23 am
  17. Redleb.

    “The civil war in Syria did not start because of ethnic tensions. If Assad was Sunni, people would still have taken to the streets. As QN said, Syrians’ discontent was driven overwhelmingly by economic and political factors.”

    Superficially, that is correct, but it misses the point. The reason that Syria failed politically and economically is because the priority of the state for decades was maintaining an ethnic minority in power. Ethnicity or sectarianism led to a muchabarti state that was afraid of any democratic reform and that led to economic failure. For example, the “resistance” stance, though very costly economically, was necessary to bolster the credentials of the regime and gain Sunni support.

    Take the Israeli example again. Had the state been 50% Arabs and 50% Jews at inception, could it have been democratic? No, since the two communities would have been constantly at each other’s throat like in the worse days of Lebanon. This is the paradox Landis is talking about. Ethnic cleansing was essential to democracy, as strange as this sounds.

    So yes, the proximate causes of the Syrian civil war are economic and political. But these themselves were caused by the sectarian constraints posed on the state by the need for the regime to retain power.

    As for the media’s power, that is very much exaggerated. Please answer a simple question: For decades the Arab dictators had exclusive use of the media. Why couldn’t they forge an Arab identity using it?

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 10:47 am
  18. Apartheid Minds

    Very good points. I will think about them as I prepare my house for a Christmas party (to which, you will all be gratified to learn, members of many ethnic groups are invited…)

    QN,

    Your comment is the crux of this issue. YOU are inclusive. The non-democratic leaders of the Middle East and Europe are/were NOT.

    It is the lack of democracy and freedoms that has destroyed countries all over the world, whether it was the American Civil War, South Africa, Europe or the Middle East. When despots run countries, they almost always foment wars and sectarian divisions.

    Marion,

    If “Clean Break” was implemented (real pressure on the Assad regime), perhaps thousands of lives could have been saved. But in retrospect, Clean Break accurately portrayed the dangers of Assad, which, as usual, fell on deaf ears, especially in academic circles.

    http://www.iasps.org/strat1.htm

    If we’re going to consider Israel as ‘the only successful state in the region’, I think the region is better off staying as it is…

    Bart,

    Excellent post which exemplifies why the ME is as backwards as it is. Israeli arabs have more freedom in Israel than is any other place in the ME.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 19, 2013, 11:04 am
  19. Btw, being a Belgian myself, I see it as my regrettable duty to inform you all that according to the media and sundry and all commentators, Belgium has been ‘on the verge of breaking up’ since at least WWI. Don’t hold your breath, folks. It’s not about to happen. We’re about as close to breaking up as Iran is to ‘the bomb’…

    Posted by Bart | December 19, 2013, 11:04 am
  20. QN,

    ” but then you have to recognize that Josh’s argument falls apart when it is applied to the Levantines, who speak the same language.”

    I have heard this argument used the other way around when I stated in several discussions that since the people of the Levant have a common language it should be easier for them to form nations. People argued that the dialects of Arabic are quite different. Perhaps you can elaborate on this since you are the expert in the area. How similar is really the colloquial Arabic between regions in the Levant?

    But as the example of the US and the UK (“two countries divided by a common language”) show (Canada as well), language differences are not necessary to define ethnicity or sect. So this does not harm Landis’ argument at all.

    Landis’ argument is the following:
    Premise 1) Sectarian tension hampers state development and impedes democracy.
    Premise 2) The post-Ottoman borders were created to exacerbate sectarian tensions.
    Premise 3) The only successful state in the Levant is the one with a clear ethnic majority

    Conclusion: The ethnic/border mismatch is responsible for much of the problems of the middle east.

    The argument is not bad but is not complete. For example, why has Egypt failed despite the clear ethnic majority of Sunni Arabs there? I think that somewhere we need to fit in the Bernard Lewis views of the Ottoman’s Empire political and cultural legacies and give it the appropriate weight.

    Let’s not get hang up by definitions. Ethnic/sectarian/religious divides are just reasons people resist creating a nation with other groups.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 11:04 am
  21. Elias:

    I think there is a problem here with how you’re using the concept of ethnicity, which is a tricky one, since it’s sometimes bound up with differences in language, other times with race, religion or culture. Donald Horowitz, whose work is extremely helpful says, “Although comparison is impeded by lumping together ranked and unranked cases or cases of conflict at the center with cases of conflict in dispersed pockets, comparison is facilitated by an inclusive conception of ethnicity that embraces differences identified by color, language, religion, or some other attribute of common origin.” So for him, the important distinction is not what category of difference we’re talking about, but rather how those differences interact, whether one is higher than another (castes) or whether one is politically salient or not.

    We see that these differences are not as clear cut as your comments to Josh would have it. For example, the main difference between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks is really religion, since they “speak the same language, eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes, share the same set of cultural references, and may even live in the same village.” I would trouble the idea that all these groups have the same set of cultural references, since that’s a pretty broad category, and while they may (for the moment, but maybe Rahbani has changed that ) all listen to Fairuz, but the cultural references of Ashoura don’t really mean much to Maronites, or even other Muslim sects. These differences are probably even more salient in the Lebanese case than the Balkan one, since religiousity had been ground down by communist rule. Or if you prefer, we can take Hutus and Tutsis. They not only speak the same language, eat the same food, have the same cultural references and live together, but they also belong to the same religion. So what makes them different ethnicities?

    By attacking Josh’s comments as primordalist and making a distinction between culture, politics and religion, you’re using an understanding of ethnicity that’s been out of fashion for decades now and that I seriously doubt Josh subscribes to. More modern understanding of ethnicity rely on political and economic differences and institutions as much as they do on cultural difference. So it was possible for a Hutu to become a Tutsi at some points in Rwandan history so long as he had enough cows. Likewise, the perhaps tongue in cheek expression in Lebanon, recounted to me by Fawwaz Traboulsi, that a rich Muslim was a Christian.

    I subscribe to the idea that political institutions are instrumental in making ethnic or sectarian difference, and I’m not convinced that the type of difference that’s being politicized is important (although the jury’s still out on that one in my own research). In Lebanon, the political salience of sect is obvious and explicit, since parliament and top offices are still partitioned on the basis of sectarian quotas. In places like Syria and Iraq, the political institutions of sectarianism are less obvious, since they’ve been buried underneath a façade of secularism or pan-Arabism. As Madawi al-Rasheed recently put it:

    Equally, neither is the sectarian Sunni-Shiite schism in the dominant narrative about the region an inevitable destiny unfolding in every corner of the Arab world. Yes, sectarian tension and even killing are rife and tend to show their ugly faces in diverse societies such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain. Yet this sectarianism flourished specifically in those corners where either exclusion was entrenched or the regimes themselves were sectarian. Both republics and monarchies co-opted sectarian elites and rewarded them for their loyalty, but continued to exclude the rest of the communities. The regimes searched for token mediators rather than representatives, thus allowing grass-roots sectarian populist entrepreneurs to inflame the imaginations of their followers with utopias of identity politics that promise future emancipation, equality and power. Resisting exclusion from the corridors of power and the economy found a disturbing niche in the language of sectarian identity. Both Sunnis and Shiites adopted the discourse of mathloumiya, historical injustice inflicted on them because of their sect, to the detriment of seeing clearly the roots of exclusion that have grown under authoritarian rule. So sects were either indulged by the regimes in an attempt to use them against political rivals or suppressed to please their wider constituencies.

    So I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy here when you say, “The upheaval we have seen in the region over the past couple of years is a story of politics and economics, not ethnicity. It’s a story of the breakdown of certain social contracts and the emergence of new ones.” This is not an either/or proposition, and ironically, we’re seeing that regimes that manipulated sectarianism while professing a non-sectarian ideology (Syria and Iraq) have been equally vulnerable to sectarian conflict as ones that were openly sectarian, such as Lebanon. I’m convinced a lot of this has to do with patronage-based politics that operate on kinship ties, broadly defined. And while places like Egypt that are relatively more homogeneous have avoided sectarian warfare, Egypt has still seen more than its fair share of anti-Coptic and anti-Shi’a violence of late, when the authoritarian regime that manipulated and thus maintained those differences crumbled. Interestingly, we saw similar cases throughout Africa of nominally nationalist, post-ethnic regimes that still operated as ethnic entrepreneurs through patronage systems. With the exception of Tanzania, which was very successful in eliminating the political salience of ethnicity, we saw the resurgence of ethnic allegiances.

    This has little to do with primordial centrifuges, but rather post-independence governance and the constraints of shorter time horizons.

    Posted by sean | December 19, 2013, 11:05 am
  22. Ethnic cleansing was essential to democracy, as strange as this sounds.

    Ethnic cleansing was/is essential to create stability. Which is why were are constantly talking about a 2 state solution to the arab-israel conflict. But once stability is attained, democracy is what will hold Israel and other like countries together. A 50-50 arab-jewish split doesn’t necessarily mean Israel will fall apart in the future.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 19, 2013, 11:08 am
  23. Akbar Palace wrote: ‘When despots run countries, they almost always foment wars and sectarian divisions.’
    I love this old ‘democracies don’t start wars’ argument, which can only possibly be made by the most alienated academics in ivory towers.
    Unless you assume that France, Great Britain and the USA have been undemocratic countries run by despots over the last century or so, the large majority of wars and secarian divisions have clearly been ‘fomented’ by democracies.

    Posted by Bart | December 19, 2013, 11:12 am
  24. Sean,

    “This has little to do with primordial centrifuges, but rather post-independence governance and the constraints of shorter time horizons.”

    Yes, but the point Landis is arguing (and I am also) is that the post-independence governance was constrained because of the borders that exacerbated sectarianism. Would you say that if the former Yugoslavia would have not been formed, but instead Serbia, Croatia etc. etc. would have been formed, the path to democracy for the constituent states would have been faster and that they would have been more developed by now? (I know it is difficult to discount the Cold War, but such are the “experiments” history gives us).

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 11:32 am
  25. Well, luckily for us, we have examples of post-communist disintegration that involve violence (Yugoslavia) and relative non-violence (Czechoslovakia and the USSR). I agree with Valerie Bunce here that we can explain the breakdown to an interplay between the socialist state and federal institutions. The latter contributed to ethno-nationalism with the establishment of titular republics along with the distribution of (political and economic) resources from center to the periphery, thus allowing ethnic entrepreneurs the resources they needed to eventually challenge the failing state. And since socialist states were so highly dependent on the party, when that collapsed, it’s as if the glue that held these places together was dissolved.

    This leaves the question of why the breakup of Yugoslavia was so violent, but that of Czechoslovakia and the USSR was not. Again, I think institutional design here is key. Yugoslavia was the most decentralized of the federations, which lead to more competition between the titular republics. Likewise, the military played a different role in each case, with it being more involved in politics in Yugoslavia than the other cases. Finally, Serbia was the center of real institutional (economic and military) power in Yugoslavia while still being politically disadvantaged. It had institutional grievances with the other republics and the means to pursue them.

    In Czechoslovakia and the USSR, on the other hand, decentralization was much less complete, and while the Czech Republic and Russia were the political centers of their respective federations, they lacked institutional resources that were independent from the Federation like Serbia had. They were also politically in more powerful positions than the Serbs were.

    All that to say that in the story of the dissolution of the multi-ethnic republics of the eastern bloc, we can’t ignore the very particular institutional arrangements of the socialist state, which makes many aspects of those cases difficult to generalize to other areas of the world. Furthermore, even if we accept the idea that multi-ethnic states are doomed to disintegrate (which I don’t), then post-communist history shows us that that doesn’t necessarily entail violence.

    Posted by sean | December 19, 2013, 12:08 pm
  26. This all has a circular reasoning ring to it. The republics in the USSR and certainly in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were not titular. They were by and large based on sectarian/ethnicity lines.

    “And since socialist states were so highly dependent on the party, when that collapsed, it’s as if the glue that held these places together was dissolved.”

    Because one can argue that the only “real” glue was sectarian. So the core issue was that the borders were “fake” and not based on nationalities or ethnicity and that made the state weak in the first place and led to its dissolution later on.

    There is a chicken and egg issue here.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 12:24 pm
  27. I love this old ‘democracies don’t start wars’ argument, which can only possibly be made by the most alienated academics in ivory towers.

    Bart,

    Are you kidding? “Academics in ivory towers” were, and continue to be, the best supporters of totalitarian regimes all over the world. Please don’t call me an “academic”. I have a reputation to preserve;)

    Unless you assume that France, Great Britain and the USA have been undemocratic countries run by despots over the last century or so, the large majority of wars and sectarian divisions have clearly been ‘fomented’ by democracies.

    France, Great Britain and the US are some of the most stable democracies on the world because they are answerable to their citizens. The wars they have fought have been debated by their elected representatives and each society is very multi-ethnic and tolerant.

    Then there is the ME a few miles down on the totem pole…

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 19, 2013, 12:33 pm
  28. That’s what titular republic means: Serbia’s title came from the Serbs, Croatia from the Croats, Slovakia from the Slovaks, etc. You’re missing the point: it’s partially the fact that borders were not “fake” (whatever that means), but rather because they were based on institutionalizing ethnicity through federalism that led to the breakup of those federations. One could argue that Ottoman institutionalization through the millet system has played an important rule in making sect or ethnicity politically salient in a way that was not inevitable. Nyerere’s Tanzania is a good example of an ethnically diverse society in which institutions were used to depoliticize ethnicity rather than increase its political salience.

    While I don’t agree with all of his points, this article by Posner gives a very concrete example of how political institutions can affect the salience of ethnicity.

    Posted by sean | December 19, 2013, 12:39 pm
  29. I thought “titular” meant that only by title Serbia was actually Serb, and not actually contained Serbs. My mistake.

    “One could argue that Ottoman institutionalization through the millet system has played an important rule in making sect or ethnicity politically salient in a way that was not inevitable.”

    I think a stronger argument would be that if the republics or the millet system would not have been based on ethnicity then the Soviet Union and the Ottoman empire would have been much less stable. They survived as long as they did because of this.

    The link to the Posner article isn’t working. Please repost it.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 2:12 pm
  30. Thanks, Sean, for your very interesting comments.

    As I said, I’m in full party-prep mode, but in between making my Roman pizza dough and chilling the white wine, I thought I’d just ask this one question:

    How does your more robust and complex definition of ethnicity (which I like) make Josh’s case more reasonable? If anything, it seems to support what I’m saying, albeit in a more thoughtful way. If ethnicity is far more complex and capacious a category than the one circumscribed by language/food/”culture”/etc., how could it possibly be co-extensive with something like the term “Maronite” or “Sunni” or “Shiite”?

    Let’s take someone in my family as an example. This person is, legally speaking, a Maronite. But he hasn’t set foot in a church in 30 years, has had serious relationships with women from most other religious communities, sets his clock by Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches, and whose best friends are Sunnis who vote for Saad Hariri’s MPs. Would this person feel at home in a Maronite state? I would say not. Are there many other Lebanese like him? I would say so.

    AIG, the differences between the Levantine Arabic vernaculars are very limited. They constitute a single dialect group and are as mutually intelligible as dialects of American English.

    You said: “Let’s not get hang up by definitions. Ethnic/sectarian/religious divides are just reasons people [resort to in order to ] resist creating a nation with other groups.”

    Let me ask you this. The U.S. is a multi-ethnic/sectarian/religious/cultural state. What is the ingredient that makes such states (and others like it) “successful”?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 19, 2013, 2:28 pm
  31. Dear all, Thanks for your very interesting and challenging remarks. I find this discussion smart and productive. Sean, I don’t know who you are, but I like you :-).

    Let me give you two examples that I hope clarify my argument.

    1. Turkey: One can argue that ethnic cleansing of Christians was been good for Turkish nation building and helped smooth the way for a democratic transition in Turkey. Of course, ethnic cleansing is hateful, etc. but it is done sometimes for a reason that fits into the nation-building logic.

    Turks either killed or expelled their Christians during the process or War and national revolution. In all 3,000,000 Christians, half Armenians and half Greek Orthodox and some others were done away with. The Armenians were accused of being traitors and helping the Russian enemy during WWI and the Orthodox were accused of helping the Greeks in their invasion of Anatolia following WWI, during which Greece hoped to resurrect the Byzantine Empire. It is unimportant whether these communities were actually serving as fifth columns to undermine the Turkish war effort or not. What is important to my argument is whether we can make an argument about today’s Turkish transition away from military Kemalist rule toward parliamentary rule – a process which is not complete but which has been shockingly soft and civilized. Had Turkey had a 18% Christian voting block today, those Christians would in all likelihood have voted for the Kemalists and military dictatorship. They would have looked on the AK Party and Erdogan as Khomeini – a Muslim coming to make their women wear headscarves and the like. The chance that Turkish transition to democracy would have been thwarted is high. This could have well led to the growing resort to political violence and a breakdown of the Nation-building project and civil war. Of course, this is counter-factual history and speculation. But that is precisely what has happened in Syria. The fact that the Alawites seized power and the 20% religious minority community, backed by a segment of the Sunni population have been able to thwart any and all efforts by the Sunni majority to take power has led to political breakdown and an explosion of political violence and civil war. Their is not enough trust along “ethnic” or sectarian lines.

    I would support AIG’s assertion that Alawite distrust of the Sunni majority contributed significantly to Syria’s terrible economic growth rates and ultimate national failure. I think AIG called it a “death spiral”. There are many ways that the sectarian distrust led to economic and political failure, primarily because loyalty almost always trumped merit in hiring and staffing decisions.

    One example. In the millions of wikileaked documents purloined from Assad regime emails, one stood out to me. A few years before the Arab Spring, Assad was contemplating decentralizing authority and introducing municipal elections. Everyone understood that reform was going too slow and part of the problem was centralization, corruption and stagnant bureaucracy. But the wikileaks turned up an email from security officials to the President warning him that if he went through with the reforms, “radical Islamists” would be the beneficiaries in almost all provincial cities. Their success at the polls would be very hard to reverse and would give them too much of a political opening. They advised the president to shelve the reforms. He did shelve them. We know who it ended up for Syria. The lesson of this is that sectarian distrust thwarted necessary reform and led to political paralysis. The Sunni majority continued to be marginalized and discriminated against. Eventually political violence broke out, as it was bound to because politics, which might have cured the situation, was dead in Syria.

    Obviously, if one wanted to draw a simplistic and unfair comparison between Turkey and Syria, one would say; “Well, the Sunni Arabs should have ethnically cleansed the minorities from Syria.” Well, that is exactly what the leader of the new Islamic Front is proposing. Fancy that. Read this article, “Zahran Alloush: His Ideology and Beliefs”

    http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/zahran-alloush/

    Here are some choice Alloush quotes: “You people of Sham are carrying the banner of Islam today, so be worthy of holding it, and raise it high (ارفعوها بحقها) like the prophet asked. Majous, from Rafida and Nusayris, besieged al-Ghouta, they claimed, to prevent the creation of a state, such as that of the Banu Umayya. …the Shia, wearing servility and shame, bringing in the Tatar to Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria), bringing in the Mongols to Bilad al-Sham, wearing servility and smallness, and then the Muslims come back and cleanse Bilad al-Sham from their filth and their uncleanliness…..We are proud of the Banu Umayya state, the capital of which was Damascus. So go (هبوا) O mujahediin to support your brethren, go to support your brethren, we, in Liwaa al-Islam, welcome the mujahediin from all over the world to be an aid and support for us, to fight in our ranks, the rank of Sunna, the Sunna of the messenger of Allah, which raise the banner of tawhid high, until the humiliation and destruction is upon the Majous, the enemies of Allah. Until we cleanse the Sham (Damascus and Greater Syria) from their filth and uncleanliness (?ادناسهم) so go (هبوا) to support you brethren O believers, go to support you brethren O believers, and heaven will await you, and Allah is with you…..7:41″

    This is classic preparation for ethnic cleansing. Demonize the enemy as foreigners who have served as a treasonous filth column for foreign occupation in the past and who are dirty, evil, and hated by God…

    Who can blame the Sunnis for becoming an “ethnic commuhnity” in their own right and describing the Alawites and Shiites as “Majousi” (Zoroastrian Persian) foreigners who are neither Muslim nor Arab and who deserve to be cleansed from Syrian soil?

    Or read this article, “450,000 Christian Syrians displaced in long-term crisis” .. “In the interview, Laham said “there are 85 churches that have been destroyed, sabotaged, burnt and subject to systematic desecration by the Takfiri groups.”….

    You get the picture. Something horrible is going on in Syria in terms of “identity” formation. Identities are changing like the wind – and not for the better. It is hard to see a “cosmopolitan” outcome to this. Assad may “win” in the short term, but in the long term, he is doomed. So probably – but not necessarily – are Syria’s minorities. If I belonged to a minority community in Syria today, I would consider packing my bags.

    Posted by joshlandis | December 19, 2013, 2:30 pm
  32. QN,

    “Let me ask you this. The U.S. is a multi-ethnic/sectarian/religious/cultural state. What is the ingredient that makes such states (and others like it) “successful”?”

    How many other states like the US are there? Canada, Australia, New Zealand and? I think the main ingredient is self selection. The people who migrate to these states have self selected themselves to the ideas governing these states and the people born there are already born into a much less sectarian culture. But let us not kid ourselves, these states also were very sectarian and abused the native populations and slave populations. Jim Crow is gone just 50 years.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 3:11 pm
  33. Dear QN,

    What happens when the political and economic issues are primordialized and expressed in terms of ethnic identity?

    Posted by GEORGE SAGHIR | December 19, 2013, 4:01 pm
  34. Is an argument being made here that ethnic cleansing (and worse) has been “necessary” for democracy to take root in otherwise multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious societies? In lands of immigration (the US, Canada) ethnic cleansing was, of course, directed against the indigenous “other.”

    If ethnic cleansing (and genocide) have been prerequisites of democracy in many places, should we begin to rethink our shibboleths about how democracy is great, how we value democracy, and how the highest political value is democracy, etc.?

    Posted by Jim Reilly | December 19, 2013, 4:19 pm
  35. Jim,

    The argument is not that it is “necessary” but that it makes democracy easier. They are definitely not pre-requisites. You of course can have democracy without ethnic cleansing.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 4:52 pm
  36. Jim,

    Just to add one more thing, to make your argument against democracy you would also have to show that if there were no democracy, the ethnic cleansing would not have happened. This is clearly not true. The Native Americans would have suffered no matter what the form of the future US government would have been. Same goes for the Palestinian case. They would not have been allowed to return to their lands in 48, at the end of the war, also in the case that Ben-Gurion would have been a dictator. So democracy is not the cause of the ethnic cleansing but if it happens it helps democracy.

    Posted by AIG | December 19, 2013, 5:00 pm
  37. The people who migrate to these states have self selected themselves to the ideas governing these states and the people born there are already born into a much less sectarian culture.

    AIG,

    Sounds like another “gray area” to me. This goes back to when the Israelites migrated to Egypt to avoid famine.

    Then, after a few hundred years, the Israelite population grew large enough that the Egyptians turned on the Israelites to make them second class slaves.

    Did the Israelites go to Egypt because they “selected themselves to the ideas” of the ancient Egyptians? I think not.

    Do Middle Easterners migrate to Europe because they “selected themselves to the ideas” of the European community? I doubt it. Did the Jews “select themselves to the ideas” of Europe when they migrated there over 1000 years ago?

    There are many different reasons why people migrate: avoid hardships, war, etc.

    And in most cases, a welcoming nation can get suddenly caught up in turmoil and violence, and the Common Thread is throwing out rule-of-law, democracy and freedom to justify crimes against minority citizens, etc.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 19, 2013, 6:16 pm
  38. “The Clean Break Neocon/ Zionist plan, with Netanyahu as a partner in crime, to secure the realm for Zionist Israel and more than likely it’s Wahabi patron, has been put into action in the region …look up Project for the New American Century…any discussion of what is going on has to be put in this context…your friend Mr. Joshua must be an apologist for it….”

    Where were you dregs of the Iran-Syria axis including Nasrallah when Iran’s Afghan and Iraqi poodles were collaborating with the Neocons and the Americans?!

    Posted by M. Hadeed | December 19, 2013, 8:57 pm
  39. “This is classic preparation for ethnic cleansing. Demonize the enemy as foreigners who have served as a treasonous filth column for foreign occupation in the past and who are dirty, evil, and hated by God…”

    Which Bashar has been doing from the first months of the Syrian uprising, those who are playing the minority card, which is totally understandable, should also be supporting the Zionist state as no one has been oppressed as much as the Jewish people in the 20th century, and many of these minorities who have been oppressed by the Sunni rulers over the centuries are themselves drenched in blood and oppressive rulers including the Alawis and Shi’ites. We never see the hypocrites of the Iran-Syria axis utter a single word at how the Iranian regime treated the Iranian leftists and secularists.

    Posted by M. Hadeed | December 19, 2013, 9:01 pm
  40. Bart

    “I love this old ‘democracies don’t start wars’ argument, which can only possibly be made by the most alienated academics in ivory towers.”

    The theory is not that democracies don’t initiate wars, but rather that they don’t initiate wars with each other. With the possible exception of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, it seems to have some substance, although some view it less as a consequence of the democratic nature of these states and more to do with the fact that the democracies tend to fall within the pax Americana

    Jim Reilly

    “If ethnic cleansing (and genocide) have been prerequisites of democracy in many places, should we begin to rethink our shibboleths about how democracy is great, how we value democracy, and how the highest political value is democracy, etc.?”

    Perhaps rather than democracy, it is the value we attach to ‘national self-determination’ which needs to be reconsidered, and conversely, we might also reconsider the commonly-held negative connotations relating to the question of empire/imperialism (in its more traditional form).

    I’m surprised to see Elie Kedourie mentioned above, is his work ever assigned reading in American academia anymore? J Landis has obviously been reading his famous article ‘Minorities’ lately, an excerpt from the conclusion to that essay is worth quoting here (if for no other reason than that Kedourie, whatever you think of his approach, is a delight to read):

    “The process of change from one arrangement to another in the middle east could not be easy, and the manner in which it was initiated ensured that this process bore with extreme harshness on the populations affected. The improvement of conditions in the east needed knowledge, good-will and patience; the statesmen and diplomats who undertook the task were, for the most part, ignorant, indifferent and in a hurry; or if not indifferent then seized with unwholesome passions for Ottoman or Armenian, Arab or Zionist. Hence the atrocities incident to national self-determination, the destruction of these frail communities with very limited political experience, who were unable to deal with such new and terrifying manifestations, and the origin of these perverted commonwealths of the east to which no good man can give his loyalty. The measure of the failure is that today the west should be exhorted to build in the east nations where ‘Moslems, Christians and Jews can and wil live in harmony’. The Ottoman state was organised in such a way as to fulfil precisely this requirement.”

    Posted by Conormel | December 20, 2013, 7:22 am
  41. Dear Conormel. Thank you for this wonderful Kedourie quote. It underlines his nostalgia for the Ottomans, his horror of nationalism, and his elitist views. “The West should be exhorted to build in the East nations where Muslems, Christians and Jews can and will live in harmony.”

    Perhaps, the one of the more dramatic changes that has taken place over the last 100 years is that “Imperial Powers” are no longer interested or capable of “building” much in the Middle East. The new regional powers – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey will bear the burden and responsibility of shaping the intellectual and military forces of the Middle East.

    Posted by joshlandis | December 20, 2013, 10:31 am
  42. And some still think the arab-Israeli conflict is the core ME issue NewZ

    Professor Josh,

    Usually when I think of a “regional power”, I think of a country’s military might and their ability to use it.

    Saudi Arabia is no regional power to my mind, unless bankrolling jihadists is the new definition of “regional power”.

    It seems to me, the biggest regional power in the Middle East have been hired and indoctrinated domestic and international Islamic jihadists, both Shia and Sunni.

    State actors and their armies don’t stand a chance against them. Like a surfer riding a large wave, you either go with the flow and enjoy riding this jihadist wave, or you wind up getting tossed around like a Lotto ping pong ball.

    Arab moderates? They won’t come out to play until the game is over.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 21, 2013, 2:44 pm
  43. As a non-academic just trying to make sense of what is going on in Syria, my contribution to this discussion can only be very limited. However, I would like to introduce the idea that, instead of comparing Syria and the wider Middle East tumult of today to post-WWII Eastern Europe, perhaps a better analogy would be the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe. In a piece about Reza Aslan’s views on religion, I recently wrote:

    “During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Muslim community was forced to rethink the role of faith in a rapidly changing world, responding to colonialism with some pushing to develop ‘Islamic alternatives to Western secular notions of democracy,’ while others completely rejected Western cultural concepts and pushed for the Islamization of every aspect of society. And here, Aslan offers an interesting insight into the socio-political events that are reshaping the Muslim world today, when he states that ‘at the center of the debate over Islam and democracy is a far more significant internal struggle over who gets to define the Islamic Reformation that is already under way in most of the Muslim world.’

    “This is interesting because equating today’s Muslim struggles – between movements such as the pan-Islamists, pan-Arabists, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic socialists, radical Islamists, and Wahhabists in situations such as destabilized Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring of North Africa, and the civil war in Syria – to the Protestant Reformation highlights the colossal scale of the process involved in coming to consensus on how diverse peoples can meaningfully interpret the myths and rituals of Islam, a religion that is centered around building communities, in today’s world.”

    Although it may seem like this framing is stating that the turmoil is, at its core, about religion, Mr. Aslan’s philosophy actually aligns more with that of Qifa Nabki in this discussion, that is, that one cannot separate out any individual identity issue from the complex fabric of social context into which it is woven.

    Posted by Julie R Butler | December 21, 2013, 2:54 pm
  44. AIG
    “For example, why has Egypt failed despite the clear ethnic majority of Sunni Arabs there?”

    One reason, not the exclusive reason – the role of Islam in society, similar to what Julie writes above. The Arab-Muslism world has to my knowledge not had a development similar to that of Christianity in Europe. The Concordat in Worms of 1022 was of immense importance in this regard.

    QN
    “Let me ask you this. The U.S. is a multi-ethnic/sectarian/religious/cultural state. What is the ingredient that makes such states (and others like it) “successful”?”

    My two cents. The US is an idea more than it is a nation-state. Compare the US to Finland. How long time do you think it takes for an immigrant from the ME to be considered Finnish. Ask the immigrant’s grandchildren if they are considered Finnish. The equivalent time in the US? The day you become a citizen.

    This is why a development to nation-states in the ME is perhaps a bad idea. But it is difficult to jump one step in the evolution of nation building. It was easy enough in the US as there was no nation that was built upon (Indians killed and pushed aside).

    Europe, due to various reasons, will need to stop thinking in terms of homogenous nation-states and start thinking in terms of societies based upon values. No matter your background, if you espouse the fundamentals of society you are welcome. This is not yet the case, and there are important movements trying to keep the homogenous idea of a nation-state, and silly countermeasures saying that everyone is welcome.

    I fear that divisions are too entrenched in the ME to be able to build a society based upon values. A multiethnic/religious society is a long shot. The best thing I can think of is that nation-states, according to religion and/or etnicity, are created and that visionary politicians start creating a common space, just like in Europe after WWII. But I haven’t thought it through properly yet.

    Posted by Pas Cool | December 22, 2013, 10:49 am
  45. Pas cool,

    I like your idea of basing society on values. But unless societies develop socially intelligible ways of interpreting their texts and traditions (I am speaking as a Muslim), any “fundamental” will be based on universalizing visions that serve power or the market. The common space must be found within the nation itself, and it is a mark of authenticity as well as a condition for being shared. In other words, you can only share what is amenable to interpretation, what you feel you have the power to interpret. Only that can eliminate the fear of mixing, which is a fear of pollution or dilution.

    For me, the gulf women trailing their robes in ABC Achrafieh are already existing in a common space, but it is not one that I like. There is nothing “visionary” about it. But we cannot depend on politicians for the alternative. They are just managers, all of them in Lebanon are. Except maybe the Hizb, despite all my reservations. I can’t put my finger on it, but they are the only ones who are not “just” managers. (I say this as a Sunni).

    Posted by melmakko | December 22, 2013, 2:54 pm
  46. i think the difrence between america and multi identity me states(lebnon ,syria ,iraq ) is a crediable popular political project the slogan “land of the free and the home of the brave” is true in the eyes off enough americans to supersede religios and ethnic divisions
    in the middle east only ethnic and or religios identity is a crediable popular political project
    at least so far :
    israeli zionism
    turkish camelism
    iranian “islamic republic”
    none of the arab states has created a crediable popular political project
    side note : arab nationalism was a fasade for rule by miletery force was never truly poular and had skin deep idiology i wish you luck we will all need it

    Posted by lone wolf | December 22, 2013, 4:47 pm
  47. This interesting report could provide some tiny clues to the puzzle?

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/23/us-syria-oil-idUSBRE9BM0RI20131223

    Posted by Human Breeds | December 23, 2013, 4:37 pm
  48. Josh, your arguments are bizarre to say the least. And the comparison to present day turkey has me scratching my head.

    Posted by Gabriel | December 27, 2013, 5:01 am
  49. Long (Almost 4500 words) with some redundancy, but worth trying to read. I think this is OTW answer to the debate.

    http://7ee6an.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/the-experts-lense/

    Posted by SYRIAN HAMSTER | January 1, 2014, 7:32 pm

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