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.
Historians have a source problem. In order to talk about the past, we need sources. Anything else is just fiction. But the available sources are not neutral, evenly distributed, or representative. Sources that exist had enough going for them that they were created in the first place, and then available sources are the selection of all created sources which have survived the many possibilities for destruction over time. The first clause favors the creation of sources from the viewpoints of those who have power, wealth, leisure, and sufficient education. The second clause favors the preservation of sources which are continuously in use, well treasured, or buried in Egyptian sand. Both of these limitations affect pre-modern history more forcefully than modern: literacy rates were lower, so fewer people were able to preserve their viewpoints, and the acid of time has eaten away more of what was written. But even sources for modern history only represent the powerful enough and literate enough classes, and some modern sources still disappear before they can be copied.
The result is that dominant classes produce a disproportionate weight of source material. This is why, despite the fact that men and women have made up nearly equal proportions of almost all human populations, the vast majority of pre-modern sources were written by men (and were usually primarily about men). The majority of pre-modern sources were written by the ruling class (or by members of the educated class who wished to be ruling) or even more narrowly by government employees, and again, almost always about the ruling class or the state. The upper crust has never evinced much curiosity about how the rest live, and for much of human history the rest have been too busy trying to live to be able to preserve very much of anything in writing. The result is that, until the middle of the 20th century, almost all history being written was the history of the rulers. Since the mid-20th century, the mystery of the rest of the population has intrigued historians who have attempted to answer questions about the lives of women, children, farmers and other workers, slaves, ethno-religious minorities (such as European Jews), social deviants, and various other groups which are under-represented in the source materials which survive. History is the history of the society, not merely of those segments with the power to create and preserve source materials.
What does any of this have to do with non-Muslims in the Middle East?
Sources written by and for non-Muslims open up to historians viewpoints which are under-represented in Middle Eastern history. Almost all the widely known sources in Middle Eastern history, before the 19th C, were written by the ʿulamaʾ, the Islamic religious class who were experts in questions of religion and also almost always in the employment of the state (or wishing to be). They were useful to the state because they were literate (and state records require literacy, as do diplomatic correspondences) and because they could justify the state’s legitimacy to the ruled. But just like the preponderance of Medieval European sources being written by clergy, this shared religious class shapes the nature of the source materials. These ʿulamaʾ had very little interest in non-Muslims except when they got in the way (and thus the ʿulamaʾ wrote polemical treatises about how Muslim rulers should not employ non-Muslims, which only a few Muslim rulers in fact agreed with). Thus the “mainstream” sources in Middle Eastern history present a falsely unified picture of a dominantly Muslim society.
This mirage of cultural unity has not been interrogated by Middle Eastern historians, but in the magisterial work of Marshall Hodgson has been canonized as the “reality” of the medieval Middle East. (His Venture of Islam is truly a magnificent accomplishment, and half a century later is still a touchstone for so much scholarship, and he outdid most of his heirs in putting the Middle East in the context of world history. It’s just the assertion that the medieval Islamic world was “culturally unified” from Morocco to Indonesia is not only false; it’s preposterous.)
In medieval Europe, historians can turn to the Jewish sources and increasing numbers of vernacular sources to act as a check on the clerical sources, in order to attempt to counter-balance any clerical balance. Still, this is very difficult for the early and high Middle Ages.
In the Middle East, highly literate non-Muslim elites produced reams of sources ranging from the Cairo Geniza to the world chronicles of Bar ʿEbroyo, and they usually did so without large amounts of government patronage (often in a language which the government could not read, providing broader freedom of expression). These sources allow us to verify and check the court histories produced to flatter the rulers or the confessional bias of too narrowly religious histories. They are thus an invaluable resource for triangulating the past relative to the dominant religious discourse. Yet they remain under-studied, often considered the domain only of sectarian scholars and odd ducks who don’t deal with “mainstream” Middle Eastern history. But sources by non-Muslims, written in whatever language, are as much about the history of Middle Eastern society as any source from the ʿulamaʾ, and they provide perspectives which cannot be found among sources written by the ʿulamaʾ.
While the modern period provides a broader range of non-elite sources by Muslims, thus making non-Muslim sources less distinctive for the purpose of counter-balancing ʿulamaʾ sources, even in the modern period non-Muslim sources serve a distinctive function. As non-Muslims became a demographic minority, they often (though not always) experienced greater isolation from the resources of the state and what services it offered. Nevertheless, non-Muslims in the Middle East were frequently disproportionately literate, relative to Muslims with similar financial means and access to the government. Due to this greater downward penetration of literacy, non-Muslim sources can reveal a broader range of what was going on among the lower ranks of Middle Eastern society, and non-Muslims can act as a “canary in a coal mine” to reveal all sorts of phenomena which would be otherwise invisible to historians. Thus non-Muslim sources are especially valuable to Middle Eastern sources for providing a non-governmental perspective, and in modern times even a “view from below.”
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:
- Egypt’s Crisis Explained in 8 Minutes (Video) [very informative, sometimes funny, really good]
- John Esposito, a prominent historian of the Middle East, argued that Egypt’s democracy will best be served by calling it a coup
Also about Syria: