Tag Archives: Istanbul

Constructed Social Phenomena: The Right Metaphor?

Recently I had the privilege to finally pick up a classic text in the social scientific study of religion, Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967).  Berger was an early leader in the development of sociological thought which took seriously the ways in which social phenomena are not “given” or “natural” but instead “constructed.”  His views have influenced sociologists and non-sociologists alike, and it is now common to refer to phenomena long regarded as immutable and natural (such as gender) as cultural constructs.  This theoretical move usefully highlights the contingency of phenomena widely, and perhaps necessarily, taken for granted.

Without diminishing Berger’s accomplishment, I found myself wondering whether construction was the right metaphor.  It was an obvious choice: in common English parlance the opposite of “natural” is frequently “artificial” (as in sweeteners), and the lack of a useful English verb corresponding to “artificial” might lead to considering related activities of making or building.  And constructions have the advantage of not also appearing in nature, so the opposition is immediate and readily intelligible.  On the other hand, there are four ways where I think the metaphor of construction can (and probably has) misled scholars when thinking about societies and cultures: deliberation, individuality, stability, and questions of origins. Continue reading

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The End of Christianity in Mosul

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its hold on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and is busy converting the metropolitan center to its own extremist brand of Sunni Islam.  Last week the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself Caliph Ibrahim, issued an order for Christians in the city to (a) convert to Islam, (b) pay the jizya tax on non-Muslims at an unspecified rate, or (c) be killed, although some awareness of the option to leave was displayed in the order as well.  Reports that a church was torched are of uncertain veracity (see a careful analysis of the photos circulating around the web at this blog), but images showing an Arabic ن (for نصارى, nasara, meaning “Christians”) spray-painted on various houses indicate that these houses were available to be seized.  Nor are Christians the only ones to suffer: reportedly some Shiite men have disappeared, Shiite families have been told to flee or be killed, and Shiite homes have been emblazoned with another Arabic letter, ر for رافضي (rafidi) something like “heretic scum,” while reports are also circulating that ISIS has destroyed the Sunni shrine and tomb of Nabi Yunus (the biblical prophet Jonah) in the ruins of ancient Nineveh to the east of the Tigris).  In this climate, most Christians chose to leave Mosul for the comparatively tolerant lands of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, although refugees have reported being robbed of all their belongings at the checkpoint leaving the city.

The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, who is presently the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of any denomination in Iraq, commented on the expulsion of the Christians, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” Continue reading

What is History?

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.

Needed: (Near-)Consensus on Legitimacy

When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi went on national television on July 2 to rebuff calls for his resignation, he repeatedly stressed his “legitimacy” (الشرعية), apparently using the word 56 times in this single speech.  His supporters are now protesting to demand his return to office using “legitimacy” as their watch-word.  His detractors insist that Mursi lost any legitimacy due to his divisive and economically damaging politics.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War continues because the diplomatic log-jam has not been broken between countries who consider Bashar al-Assad the legitimate president of Syria and those who reject his legitimacy (some of which recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”).

In the ebb and flow of promises of military support and the accusations of promoting terrorism, there are two easy errors to make on the subject of legitimacy.  One, all too common for observers from far away, is to ignore legitimacy entirely, regarding it as unimportant relative to the issues of people dying and suffering, and the question how to end the bloodshed.  The other, all too common for participants and observers near at hand, is to consider legitimacy as something obvious, so that my view of legitimate government is the one that all right-thinking people must hold.  On this view, anyone disagreeing with me over legitimacy is a terrorist, a propagandist, or a dupe for one.  These two errors are not mutually exclusive, of course, and probably most people unreflectively hold to both, to one degree or another.

Legitimacy matters.  In peace time, legitimacy is the difference between taxation and extortion.  It is the difference between “necessary measures” and repression.  Some degree of legitimacy for government is necessary to enable stable social functioning, since people do not wish to pay taxes to or register with a government they view as illegitimate.  A loss of governmental legitimacy in the eyes of people with power will lead to an attempt to change the government.  For that reason, legitimacy is a crucial part of any ruler’s staying in power.

This was understood well by Timur Lenk (d. 1405, better known in English as “Tamerlane”), the last great Central Asian warlord, who conquered from the borders of China to the Bosphorus Strait (in modern Istanbul).  In his society, to be a legitimate ruler required two ingredients: giving your soldiers plunder, and descent from Genghis Khan (d. 1227), the Mongol conqueror whose grandchildren ruled from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.  Unfortunately for Timur, he was not descended from Genghis Khan himself, so while he was effective in battle he could not rule in his own name.  To get around this, he took a no-name Mongol who happened to be descended from Genghis and made him a puppet Khan, ruling in his name.  When his Khan got uppity, he killed him and replaced him with one more docile.  To increase his own standing in this society, Timur married a princess descended from Genghis Khan, acquiring the prestige of being a “son-in-law” (kuregen).  On his last campaign rumors were even circulating that he himself was descended from Genghis, certainly fostered by the ruler, perhaps planning to dispense with the puppet khan and rule in his own name.  Timur died en route to invading China, and he never ruled in his own name, but his sons did, so apparently the rumor worked.

In this progression from royal “protector” to royal son-in-law to would-be Khan, victory was not enough.  These rumors were not to flatter Timur’s vanity but to assuage his worries about legitimacy, for he knew his troops would not fight in the name of a nobody, and anyone not descended from Genghis Khan was a nobody.  If Timur had not very carefully cultivated these successive steps of legitimate rule, he would have been abandoned by his own army, as other Mongol and Turkic princes were at key moments in their own attempts to rule.  Legitimacy is the glue that holds the state together.  Legitimacy matters.

But as Timur’s example also shows, there are different ways of claiming legitimacy.  So the opposite error, that of assuming that legitimacy is obvious to everyone, and every “right-thinking” person must agree with me, is also wrong-headed.  Just as in civil society people disagree widely on the best way to solve issues such as the failing Egyptian economy or the priorities for urban development in Istanbul, so legitimacy is usually a subject of disagreement.  Dynastic wars in medieval Europe and the Middle East occurred between rival family members who each claimed to be the “legitimate heir to the throne.”  When Genghis Khan began to conquer Muslim-occupied territories in 1219, there was a debate among the Muslim religious leaders about whether the new “pagan” rulers were legitimate or not.  A verdict of illegitimacy would entail a personal obligation upon every Muslim to resist the new government to the point of death.  (Needless to say, those in favor of Mongol legitimacy won the argument, by claiming that their victory was given by Allah as punishment for Muslims’ sins and religious laxity.)  In the modern period, civil wars happen precisely when large segments of the population disagree with each other about what is the legitimate government, and are willing to kill or be killed to make the point.

But legitimacy is also not a discussion where everyone gets a voice.  Some people matter rather more where legitimacy is concerned.  Timur was worried primarily about the opinions of the other Turko-Mongol military leaders who commanded the personal loyalty of their troops, who might turn against him and challenge him in battle.  In 20th-century Turkey, democratic legitimacy for many decades was arbitrated by the military, which deposed any prime minister the generals deemed overly (and therefore illegitimately) religious.  Legitimacy is argued by those who have the means to make themselves heard or the means to act upon their decisions, so while popular opinion often matters in civil society, it is never simply a matter of polling.  Minorities and marginalized populations such as refugees are not the ones determining the legitimacy of the government.

In those Middle Eastern countries experiencing instability today, legitimacy is a key issue which needs to be recognized and addressed on its own terms.  Legitimacy is not a war that can be won exclusively with funding or funneling arms, the favored strategies of Western diplomacy, and any country which wishes to intervene positively in the Middle East must engage with these debates directly.

In Egypt, supporters of Muhammad Mursi contend that legitimacy is granted exclusively through the ballot box, and a military deposing a president elected by even a narrow margin is necessarily a coup.  Opponents of Mursi contend that democratic legitimacy requires “playing well with others” rather than playing “winner-take-all,” and Mursi’s decision to rush a constitution through a rump parliament consisting only of his party members and boycotted by other groups cost him whatever legitimacy was conferred at the ballot box.  (They also often point to his presidential decree last November which made his actions above judicial review, which he eventually retracted in light of continued pressure, but only after the constitution was pushed forward.)  Both sides have accused the West of betraying its democratic principles by siding with the other party, either by refusing to call the military’s ouster of the elected president “a coup” or by refusing to call Mursi “illegitimate.”  To avoid increasing bloodshed, Egypt needs a nation-wide dialogue, involving supporters as well as detractors of Mursi, to establish the criteria for legitimate government.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him contended that legitimacy was measured in social stability rather than political participation or particular freedoms.  (This is actually a very ancient defense of a ruler’s legitimacy, from the days when monarchs were considered to be the bridge between the gods’ favor and the prosperity of the land and its people.)  But his attempts to enforce social stability by military force have progressively alienated those segments of the Syrian population who identified more with the people being killed than with the government.  The rebels contend that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy due to the deaths of around 100,000 people in the civil war.  Meanwhile the increasingly prominent role played by jihadis within the rebel forces have caused Assad’s supporters to believe his claims to be the bulwark between them and social disintegration, blaming those 100,000 dead on the rebels instead of the regime.  The Assad regime, along with Russia and China, have viewed the West’s threats to arm the rebellion as illegitimate foreign trouble-making against the legitimate government.  Meanwhile the rebels have felt betrayed by the West’s failure to provide greater firepower against the illegitimate regime.

Legitimacy also plays a vocal role in the protests in Turkey against the Erdoğan government’s development plans in Taksim Square.  Supporters of Erdoğan insist on his electoral victory at the ballot box, labeling the protesters looters and trouble-makers, while his critics call him the prime minister of the 51% who voted for him, namely not the legitimate prime minister of all Turkey.

The lack of revolutions in a generation in Western Europe, and longer in North America, has made westerners complacent about government legitimacy.  Sure, there are a few quacks on the far right and the far left who are trying to bring down the government, but most westerners feel these fringes are not much of a threat, and are amply dealt with by the police structures in the various countries.  But the lack of serious challenges to government legitimacy in the West should not obscure analysts’ engagement with the issues around the presentation of legitimacy in the various Middle Eastern conflicts.  In each case, a plausible account needs to be given within the cultures present as to how a legitimate government is to be instituted and maintained.  This has not been done, but a lasting peace requires it.  The conflicts in the Middle East will not be won by force alone.  They will either be won with words, or postponed for later.

Also about Egypt:

Also about Syria:

Found: Dialogue or Trap?

Today Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to soften his tone toward the protests which have rocked Istanbul, Ankara, and other major Turkish cities for the first time.  His prior remarks concerning the “looters,” as he has termed the protesters, have most commonly been termed “defiant” as he called for an immediate end to all protests without concessions.  But according to Vice-Prime Minister Bülent Arınç today, he will meet with protest leaders on Wednesday, as reported by the BBC.  The question is what Erdoğan intends to get out of this meeting.

On the one hand, Arınç indicated that the government would abide by court rulings with regard to the Gezi Park development, in response to protesters’ complaints that the government was violating a court ruling.  Thus it could be that Erdoğan is extending a conciliatory hand to the protesters in a move to broaden his appeal ahead of next year’s presidential election.  It is being widely speculated that Erdoğan may run for the presidential office after this term as prime minister is finished, since he has reached the constitutional limit for election as prime minister.  In the last Turkish presidential election in 2007, protests against a possible Erdoğan candidacy for president drew millions of people, and although he was not a candidate, he pushed a constitutional amendment to make the president elected directly by popular vote, rather than indirectly through the parliament.  The current president Abdullah Gül, formerly of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since Turkish presidents must renounce party affiliation, will be Turkey’s last indirectly elected president.

On the other hand, Erdoğan has consistently taken an aggressive stance against the protesters and has insisted that he is the legitimately elected Prime Minister of Turkey, so that the protesters have no legitimate grievance.  In the BBC report, Arınç promised, “All necessary actions against illegal acts will have been completed, and we will see this all together, by the weekend.”  So Erdoğan is expecting these meetings to be the end of the protests entirely.  His popularity has often been expressed in light of his being a strong leader who does not back down, and making Turkey strong through an improving economy, for example.  Could it be that instead of extending a conciliatory hand to the protesters from a position of political strength, he hopes to separate the leaders of the protests long enough to deal with the leaders and the rest of the protesters independently?  Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks that a forceful unyielding response to the protesters is the best way to bolster his popularity, rather than courting secularists who are likely to remain suspicious of him.

Whichever way his plans turn, he is likely to risk losing some of his followers.  A conciliatory approach might lose precisely those staunch supporters who admire him for never bowing to opposition, while setting a trap for protest leaders might lose some of his followers who want him to be a role-model of democratic dialogue.  (Are there any of these latter?  This Washington Post article quotes one at the end.)  In any event, how Erdoğan deals with these protesters will set a precedent for how political dissent will be handled in Turkey, either through silencing others’ voices or through encouraging dialogue.  We will have to wait until Wednesday to see what the Prime Minister has in mind.

Who is George Sabra? (part 4)

The final installment of the series on George Sabra in Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper was published on Saturday, 17 November, 2012 (Arabic text here).  As acting president of the Syrian National Coalition he recently called upon the Free Syrian Army to save Qusayr from being recaptured by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies.  Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul to decide on its response to the US-Russian-backed call for peace talks with the regime, which it has previously rejected in calling for the ousting of the regime as a precondition for talks, and to choose the next president to succeed Mu’adh al-Khatib, since Sabra’s position is only acting (temporary) president of the Coalition.

Here is my English translation of the al-Watan article:

Tales of George Sabra (4)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra continues his tales, saying, “During the period when I was arrested after the outbreak of the revolution in Syria – and I have been arrested twice, once for a month and once for two months, as I have already indicated – the prison was full of all parts of Syrian society, accused of participating in the revolution, and the majority of them were ordinary people.  And because we do not mingle with the ordinary people in normal life, we are ignorant of the valuable metal in them, and I was taken by surprise with the level of morality, humanity, and courage, and the bravery and valor which belonged to these ordinary people among the uneducated.  And I was taken by surprise with their humane character when they find someone to lead and direct them.

“Our number in the ward was three hundred and fifty prisoners, and we had one bathroom.  You can imagine that with this number of prisoners using one bathroom, they were standing in a long line and registering their names so that they could get a turn simply to wash their faces or to go to the bathroom.  And the ward’s capacity was only a few dozen people, so we were stuck together and could hardly move from the force of the overcrowding.  And I was like them when I wanted to go to the bathroom, I would completely surprise those who were ahead of me, and one of them would shout, ‘Make way for the professor, you guys!”  Then they all with generosity and agreement and preference were allowing me to bypass the queue, and all of them offer me respect and appreciation.  And I still remember that in my life I never thought that three hundred and fifty people could exist in this narrow space and use one bathroom.  And despite this they were accommodating one another.

“I remember that when I was convicted this past September, 2011, on the charge of trying to found an Islamic emirate in Qatana, and I am actually a Christian from the Communist Party, my family was attending the trial from the beginning of the day until its end, and they observed the presence of three people who were attending the court in a continual manner.  At first they believed they were from the security forces belonging to the regime.  Then my brother asked them after one of the sessions, ‘Do you have someone inside being tried?’  They said to him, ‘Yes, Mr. George Sabra.’  Then he said to them, ‘Do you know Mr. George?’  They said to him, ‘We know him, but he does not know us.’  So he said to them, ‘I am his brother.’  So they insisted on taking my brother with them to their homes, and they were from a nearby village named Kanakir, and all of them were Sunni Muslims.

“I remember that when I came out of prison, there came women all wearing the veil and with them were men all bearded, and they insisted to me that they should take me to their homes.  This revolution has embodied the national unity in Syria in a deep and unprecedented way.  It is true that the ‘Alawites have made a deep and large problem between them and Syrian society, but the rest of the sectors of the people and specifically the Muslims and the Christians have held together in what they share in an unprecedented way.  Just as the churches have been a target for bombing and destruction from the ‘Alawite regime, so the mosques have likewise been a target.  It has demolished dozens of mosques and churches which reflect the historical, cultural, religious, and social identity of Syrian society for thousands of years, and it is as if the regime is not only killing people and terrifying them, but it is also wiping out the historical and social identity of Syria and its people.  This is one of the greatest crimes in history.”

I asked George Sabra about the strangest thing which happened to him during his time in prison, and he said, “The prison was full of ordinary young men, and I had discovered the inherent metal of these people.  When one of them learned that my charge was the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana although I am a Christian, he was in a state of confusion.  And when he had been around me in the prison he frequently approached me and his astonishment was continual that I was not a Muslim.  And twenty days into our knowing each other, he came with the simplicity and boldness and good-heartedness of ordinary people, and he said to me, ‘Sir, I am amazed.  How I could have been with you twenty days and not been able to bring you into Islam, so that you would become a Muslim?’  So I laughed and said to him, ‘You remain Muslim and I will remain Christian so that this national revolution may continue in which the whole people has risen up.’  Our relationship remained good and we did not stop laughing.  And when they summoned me to release me after international and internal pressure, the young man came up to me in a hurry and said, ‘Reasonable master George, you are about to leave prison before our Lord should guide you to arise and pray two rak’as!’  [Ed. note: a rak’a is a ritual prostration in Islamic prayer.]

“These are the hearts of the Syrians, whom everyone used to believe that the injustice which has been inflicted upon them for decades had killed in them courage, valor, self-sacrifice, and the fight for freedom.

The End.

In this final installment, there are some very important details.  He paints a picture of the naturally noble Syrian people which has, one and all, risen up against the tyrant.  It is certainly true that the Syrian Civil War is the greatest uprising in Syria against the Assad regime.  Sabra is at pains to present a Syrian people united in virtue, and specifically united across the sectarian lines which are being emphasized by jihadi rebel groups and Syrian state media.  This non-sectarian paradise is no doubt conjured for the benefit of potential Western backers, for whom a sectarian civil war is a grim specter.  The reference to the destruction of historical monuments, even before the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque fell late last month, is also probably intended to evoke Western outrage against the regime.

Nevertheless, these accounts do not necessary reflect well on Sabra himself, as they reveal his classism and lack of prior connection with “ordinary uneducated people.”  Sabra also engages in his own sectarianism, blaming the ‘Alawites as a whole rather than the Assad regime (indeed, labeling it “the ‘Alawite regime”) for any sectarian tensions.  It is true that most ‘Alawites have sided with Bashar al-Assad, but a pre-revolution fear of post-revolution sectarian reprisals from other sectors of Syrian society is no doubt part of the calculus for many of them.  Rather than attempting to woo the ‘Alawites away from Assad, Sabra here seems content to emphasize the ‘Alawite-Sunni Muslim sectarian divide in order to downplay the Muslim-Christian divide which is rather more dangerous to him personally.

Nor does he quite succeed in dispelling all fears of Muslim-Christian sectarian hostility.  There is no reason to doubt the stories he tells of being the recipient of kindness and hospitality from Sunni Muslims, but his final anecdote about the “confused” Muslim in prison with him was probably a relatively tense moment, despite or perhaps indicated by the report of laughter.  Sabra as a non-Muslim could not respond with any negative statement about Islam in order to explain his allegiance to a different religion without jeopardizing his politics and perhaps his physical safety, depending on the views of the other people in the room.  Notice that he entirely dodges the issue by postponing any changes of religion until after the revolution is successful.  He was probably not as entirely at ease as his narration presents it.

I hope this series of articles on George Sabra has supplemented the scant data available in English online with additional information, in his own words, indicating his character, some of his background, and his contentions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  This additional information will, I hope, allow non-Arabic readers to form a more accurate and nuanced picture of the Syrian Christian who is currently president of two of the more important rebel organizations in the Syrian Civil War, both the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coalition.

Who is George Sabra? (part 2)

The second installment of the Qatari al-Watan‘s series on George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, was published on November 14, 2012 (Arabic here).  I thought it would be useful, even seven months later, to make this available to an English-speaking audience, in order to hear George Sabra in his own words.  Here is my translation:

Tales of George Sabra (2)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra finishes the story of his escape from Syria across the border with Jordan, saying, “The crossing of the raised earthen embankment at the border, which represents the final stage of the journey of escape, was the divider between life and death.  It is possible that someone will die by a sniper’s bullet while he is crossing the embankment where he is exposed, and it is possible that he will pass it to the other side, so that life is ordained for him and he comes out into freedom.  And this is what tens of thousands of Syrians have done, among them women, children, the elderly, and whole families.  I clutched the end of my son’s clothes and hurried behind him, and I was counting my breaths.  And I felt that we were running with super-human energy to escape from death, and our leap to the other side of the earthen embankment was a new life for us.  I felt my body and my son’s body and said to him, ‘Are we still alive?’  Yes, we were still alive.

“This was the first time I left Syria since 1979, and I am sorry that I left it in this manner, fleeing from the hell of the regime, when I had been arrested twice since the outbreak of the revolution.  The first was after I participated in the first demonstration which broke out in Qatana, on April 10, 2011, and I was arrested right after it with dozens of the people of Qatana.  Fourteen other Christians were arrested with me who had participated in the demonstrations.

“I wish here to allude to the historical bond between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  So for us Christians, our culture is the Arabic Islamic one.  John of Damascus was the keeper of the treasury in the time of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan and al-Walid bin ‘Abd al-Malik, and he was a Christian.  Similarly, the poet al-Akhtal al-Taghlibi was a Christian, and he was one of the companions of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan also, and dozens of others.  And in the modern period Fares al-Khoury was the prime minister of Syria.  Just as there were Christian ministers here in Istanbul, and the Muslims appointed Fares al-Khoury the minister of endowments (wazir al-awqaf) in the process of independence. 

“I remember, when I was pursued by the regime in the period between 1984 and 1987 I was hidden in the houses of acquaintances and friends from among the Muslims.  And when I was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Supreme State Security Court in 1987 on the accusation of undermining the regime, I spent the time in Saydnaya Prison, including four years in solitary confinement when my relatives didn’t know anything about me.  And when they transferred me to the wards, I found in the prison some prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood whose relatives didn’t know anything about them for fifteen years, and their relatives believed them to be among the dead!  When my wife was permitted to come to visit me after four years, I sent messages to their houses to let their relatives know that they were still living and well.  Some of the families were afraid and worried, and families sought for signs to prove that their sons were among the living and in the prison.  So we were sending them to them. 

“Some of the opposition at that time had the view of the Muslim Brotherhood that they were beasts with fangs and claws, and the Brotherhood was looking at the opposition, both Communists and others, as if they were immoral beasts!  When some of the Brotherhood were transferred from other prisons to us in Saydnaya Prison, they came half naked.  We were dividing our clothes and food with him, and we drew closer together to each other as humans, and we discovered that we are sons of one nation.  We are one, even if each of us has his opinions in the search for how to get out of the nation’s crisis.  But it was our human drawing near to each other at this stage which had a role in the mutual understanding which happened in what came afterward.  The Brotherhood discovered that we have values and that we do not resemble the image which was circulating about us.  And from our viewpoint we discovered the human and national aspects in them.

“And here I will mention one of the oddities which I will not forget, that when I was arrested for the second time after the revolution, in July 2011 in Qatana, and I passed two months in prison before they released me after pressures both internal and external, when I was prosecuted before the judges there were two charges of the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana.  I said to them, ‘Have the Muslims died in Syria and not one of them is left, so that a Christian must lead them in the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana?’  Indeed, this reflects the magnitude of the farce that this regime practices and the current corruption of the judiciary system that it arrests a Christian and prosecutes him on the charge of establishing an Islamic emirate in Qatana!”

He will finish tomorrow.

Again, “tomorrow” for the original may be next week before I get the translation done, but this account already reveals additional details of Sabra’s periods in prison.  He particularly credits the time in Saydnaya Military Prison with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, for enabling the cooperation between Islamists and secularists in the current revolution.  This is an important point and bears further examination.

The historical narrative is also interesting, especially the combination of ancient figures (John of Damascus, al-Akhtal) and the modern Fares al-Khoury.  As a minor detail, it was not the famous Christian theologian John of Damascus but his father who served the Umayyad caliphs as a civil servant in Damascus.  But this slip does not change the force of Sabra’s argument for historical cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  This is an argument he needs to make both to encourage Christian support for the Sunni rebels as opposed to the regime and to attempt to ensure a tolerable state for Christians in post-war Syria if the rebels win.