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Loss of home: Women walk through a devastated neighbourhood in Homs (©LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Why do people in the Middle East kill each other? The ready-made answer in the Western media and experts’ reports is that “those people are too sectarian to be able to live with each other”. Whatever the coverage — whether it mentions foreign power-games, the inner conflicts fuelled by economic pressures and the prevailing corruption, or even the background of colonial history — in the end it all boils down to one explanation: sectarianism. But are people of the Middle East so very different from the rest of the world? Is religion (or the excess and variety of it) the real reason for all their problems? What kind of place are we going to build which can encompass all the conflicting backgrounds? Is it even possible? These are critical questions for any future that we may envisage for my part of the world.

Contrary to that mainstream perspective, I would argue that it is in fact religion that has safeguarded peace (or what is left of it) in my country, Syria, and that religion has been manifested in a shared way of life, a coherent social and urban fabric, and a self-sustaining economy. Not until those conditions were attacked did we witness the collapse that is now so wrongly diagnosed. The causes of Syria’s sectarian divide were partly economic, but they were also exacerbated by the systematic hindering of three main conditions necessary for building what I call “home”: religion, production and the built environment. Although I write very little about the latter here, it is still crucial to see its role in bringing peace, both in the past and in the future.

That said, the events of the 1860s, often described as the original Syrian civil war, are alarmingly relevant to the current conflict. Some see the present situation as a revolution against a tyranny that has lost its way, or was even kidnapped; others perceive it as a war on terrorism. Some call it a third world war, others a humanitarian crisis that exceeds every attempt to contain it. With much less hesitation than the Syrians themselves Western commentators analyse the conflict in sectarian terms and therefore as a plain case of civil war. I don’t find it hard to accept the term but only if it is understood as describing the consequences of the events, rather than their roots. Indeed, people are polarised, and their polarisation is largely defined by the name of their religions — but religion is not the source of their positions. It is here that Western commentators seem to me to have a blind spot.

Our world is challenged by serious threats to peace and stability, such as the refugees’ crisis, the Syrian war, Islamic State and global terrorism. In my view these phenomena have something in common — the destruction of home. The loss of home didn’t happen overnight, and had no one reason, no one factor nor one player. It has a story but it also has a history, both of which I see as relating to urbanism and the built environment, as well as to religion and the resulting social and economic mechanisms. We in this region have suffered the consequences of the attacks launched on both our land and our traditions. We are not innocent in the matter, but we are also not alone in our guilt. Perhaps I can provide two factors which I believe can solve the mystery for those Western commentators who blame sectarianism: first, we don’t have to go far back to discover the origins of the conflict; and second, you were there.

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An Gíogóir
September 4th, 2017
2:09 PM
Talk about a one sided account. It is indeed true, that in some cases, Christians were protected by their immediate neighbours. But it was solely because of Western intervention that the Christians of the area weren't exterminated, as they were in Anatolia.

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