The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned. As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended. Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized. As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.
Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive. The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.
The past doesn’t change, right? So once we know what happened, what else is there to do? What do historians do, anyway?
The history profession has many critics, but even many of its fans cannot figure out what historians do, other than teach. I recently visited family and encountered these questions more explicitly than I had in the past. As a historian starting an assistant professorship, these are questions I expect to hear from my students, and to which I hope to provide them with an adequate answer.
We might grant that the past doesn’t change, but to do so we need some large caveats. While what happened does not happen differently (unless time travel is in fact possible, according to Back to the Future), our access to what happened is indirect. New sources are being discovered which reveal additional aspects about parts of the past which were unfamiliar. Discovery of new data is one of the important functions of historians. And if you wish to learn anything outside of the past 500 years or outside of that portion of the world dominated by English speakers, you will need trained experts to interpret the evidence and translate it into a language you can understand.
But discovery of new data is only a small portion of what historians do, although it is always exciting when it happens. A larger portion of the historian’s job is to interpret the data which is already known. Okay, so we know that in 1258 the Mongol general Hulegu (grandson of Chinggis Khan) conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph. So what? Why is that an important event? Who cares? The historian’s job is to answer these questions. This conquest put a final whimpering end to the myth of unity in the Islamic world. For three centuries already the caliph in Baghdad had been a puppet in Baghdad with little real power, yet Sunni thugs who wanted to appear as legitimate rulers would send letters to Baghdad claiming to ask for recognition from the caliph, which the caliph rarely if ever refused. And thus, at least for the region west of Libya, there was a notion that all Islam was united under one caliph. After the Mongol pagan Hulegu killed the last Abbasid caliph, a new Abbasid caliphate was quickly established in Egypt (whose successors continued, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, in Istanbul until 1923), which achieved recognition within lands ruled from the Nile valley. But to the north in Anatolia and to the east of the Euphrates, areas now ruled by Mongols, Muslims religious thinkers learned how to get along without a caliph in their political theories. The events of 1258 forced some rapid rethinking of the relationship between religion and politics in the Islamic world.
That’s the significance question, but historians also care about the causality question: why did the events of 1258 happen as they did? Why did the Central Asian steppe nomads conquer most of Asia and part of Europe, but not India, Palestine, Egypt, or Western Europe? It’s easy to say that they ran out of gas, but why then? Why there? Western European sources from the 1240s to the 1260s show clear concern that the Mongol juggernaut would roll over them next. And why did the events of 1258 have the particular effects they did, rather than some other effects? Why didn’t all Muslims in Iraq rise up in revolt at the death of the caliph and attempt to establish a new caliphate, as some are doing today in northern Iraq? Causal questions are difficult, because the phenomena involved are many-faceted, and there are many variables that we don’t have access to in the evidence that survives (and historians are bound to the surviving evidence; that is what distinguishes them from authors of historical fiction). Because questions of causality are difficult, they occasion much debate, as questions of significance also do, and historians debate these questions.
One might naively suspect that the causality and significance questions could be settled once and for all, and then historians would move to more recent topics. But this has not happened, and will not happen, for a few reasons. One reason is that we interpret the evidence of the past through our present understanding of the world. As we understand better, or perhaps just differently, “how the world works,” so our understanding of the evidence for the past changes as well. Historians are necessary to help sift out narratives about the past which depend on theories about the world which have been disproven. For example, a theory about the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th C which remains popular today is the environmental theory put forward by René Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes, according to which all Central Asian nomads grew up in a climate which forced them to be natural warriors with a desire to conquer the sedentary lands around them, and whenever the military of those sedentary lands degraded in quality, conquest from the steppe lands was inevitable. This is to say that the Mongol conquests did not depend at all upon what happened where the nomads lived, but was exclusively a function of what happened in the “civilized lands.” This is clearly wrong, and yet it remains popular, because it was written in a seductively clear narrative which was mass-marketed. Historians need to challenge this notion.
Another reason these arguments will never cease is that we investigate history to learn more about the present. As the present changes, so too does our view of the past; things that previously seemed very significant suddenly seem less so, or vice versa. When a descendent of Hulegu, Ghazan Khan, adopted Islam, this is seen as a significant event. (Personally, I doubt it was very significant). When Ghazan’s brother Oljeitu rejected Sunni Islam for Shi’ism, this is seen by some as a significant event, precisely those people who look at Middle East conflicts today and see them as sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, while others think the switch was largely cosmetic on Oljeitu’s part (how much did he know about Islam anyway?). Cultural forces which previous generations assumed were universal motivators, such as religion, have been considered in some recent historical scholarship to be just a front for “the real motives,” usually economic or sociological. Historical causality and significance are difficult and elusive topics, and hence historians are always attempting to come to a better understanding of them.
But I think the most important job of the historian is not these, precisely, although these questions play a role in it. The most important job of the historian is to help society come to terms with the quantity of the past.
There is a lot more information about the past than any single person can hope to understand, no matter how thoroughly she or he devotes a lifetime to the pursuit (and some people need to earn a living, and see friends and family). The abundance of information about the past creates the problem that no one can fully understand it. It’s also true that no one can know all the things that are going on in the world right now, so scientists create models of the physical world to enable us to understand why things happen a certain way, and to allow us to interact with the world around us. Much more has happened than is happening (because whatever is happening is past just as quickly), and so historians create models and frameworks to organize our understanding of the past. These mental models and frameworks are necessary to make sense of the past, to reduce the overwhelming details into stories which tell us about our world and what makes it the way it is.
People create mental models to understand their world somewhat reflexively; it’s one of the amazing things about being human. But these models are not necessarily correct, no more than any other explanation after the fact is necessary correct. So just as amazing, to my mind, is the propensity for people to create erroneous models of the past. And historians argue about these models, to see which is better. To come back to Hulegu’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258, we know it had an effect. But was that effect significant enough to merit distinguishing all that went before it in the Middle East from all that went after it? Or did the year 1200 have more in common with 1300 in most of the Middle East than either did with 900? Historians debate this. (I have debated this.) This is the debate about periodization: where should we put the pauses in our accounts of the past in order to make the most sense? And while historians rightly think that too much effort has been put into “getting the periodization right,” since different phenomena will inevitably have different natural stopping points, periodization is just one aspect of the question of which mental model makes the most sense about the past.
Many people continue to believe history is just a series of names and dates, and no doubt this is how history is commonly taught. Meanwhile, historians see history as a series of debates, where the dispute is not (usually) about what happened or didn’t, but about larger questions, such as why it happened, why it matters, and what is the best framework for understanding this event in the larger trajectories of human experience. Such questions transform history from a deadening litany of the dead into a living and changing collective attempt to understand better the world in which we live today.
The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor. But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty. This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.
The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses. This is true of political parties. Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians. Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties. The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales. Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure). Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.
This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War. On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’ida. commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend. In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime. The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime. This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War. On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.
On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime. This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups. This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them. They have reason to be alarmed. Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup. When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria. That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces. Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.
The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted. The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights. This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important. If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable. Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them. It is an interesting proposal.
The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way. Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force? Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society? If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime? Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?
With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side. But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime. The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers. When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle. This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces. If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime. On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support. The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.