How we Syrians destroyed our home — with your help

The roots of the civil war are not just sectarian. Neighbourhoods were broken up by well-meaning Westerners long before the present conflict

Marwa al-Sabouni

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.

During the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, Western countries looked at the Levant and concluded that they could guarantee their commercial and strategic interests by dividing the region between conflicting powers. In the 1840s the middle core of today’s Lebanon (Mount Lebanon) witnessed growing tensions between the Christian Maronites and the Druze, the principal faiths in that part of Greater Syria. Under pressure from the Western powers, the land was divided into two districts subordinate to the feeble sultanate: a district for the Maronite Christians in the north (to be supported by the French) and one for the Druze in the south (to be supported by the British). The division wasn’t only a geographical one; it was an economic and social class one — between the Druze as feudal landlords and the peasant Maronites. The road between Damascus and Beirut marked the border between the two divisions.

This Western-imposed division exacerbated social and economic pressures, leading to a rebellion among the Maronites: the so-called Revolution of Keserwan. The conflict resulted not only in horrific crimes but also in the devastation of the silk crops. The result was the complete destruction of the silk industry in the whole of Greater Syria followed by general impoverishment and a further inflammation of the conflict. The ground for this had been prepared for a long time, as foreign missionaries from Europe and America flooded into the region under the cover of religion. Who can argue against building new churches, schools, and cultural centres? But in reality the new schools aimed to teach foreign languages and to create rival loyalties to those that had grown up indigenously. The incoming missionaries were in effect dividing economic opportunities and power networks by religion — their own religion being the privileged one. Thus the sect of Catholic Christians in Homs developed originally from economic leverage. In those times of political collapse the missionaries and their cultural affiliates opened the door for their converts to privileges that were hard to obtain by other means. So people from other sects, such as the Orthodox Christian, started converting into what was to be perceived as a concubine sect. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those were the adopted dynamics from the beginning of foreign interventions in the declining Ottoman Empire.

The trick was to apply pressure, while creating the terms that required just such pressure to be maintained. It was a strategy that facilitated penetration into the body of Syrian society, through building “special” commercial relationships with the Christians and Jews of Greater Syria. Loyal subjects who were taught to master Western languages and modern skills earned their positions as translators and commercial representatives for the Americans and Europeans residing on the shores of Lebanon, from where they could “protect their interests” while keeping an eye on “minority rights”. For such a noble purpose the foreign masters granted nationality and diplomatic immunity to their indigenous servants.

As today, you may hear of the massacres that happened to the Christians of Syria in the 1860s but you don’t hear in what contexts such horrible crimes were committed, who was behind them, who has stood up in the face of them, how the bloodshed was stopped and at what cost. Like the conflict today, it was called the Syrian civil war. And like today, people blamed the problem on its effects rather than its cause.

The riots in Mount Lebanon between the Maronites and the Druze spread into the capital, Damascus. But what appeared as religiously motivated violence was in fact caused by economic imbalance, itself the result of social injustice and social isolation.

From Beirut, the needle’s eye was opened and the thread was pulled into the targeted textile industry in the inner cities. Europe was going through a series of recessions, while local markets in Syria were being affected by the import of cheap foreign goods. The silk workshops were declining along with their local outlets, while the privileged sects maintained their power, feeding off their relationships with their foreign protectors. In no time they were able to play Monopoly with the whole market and with silk production. Consequently they became creditors to all the other players in the local market, who in the nature of the case were Muslims.

Thus the craft was monopolised, the main profiteers being foreign affiliates across the sea, while the land became endangered as the impoverished people started selling off their properties. This was the point of no return; the craft and the land fell into the hands of outsiders. There can be no recovery after such a fall, for the conditions for creating a self-sustaining economy will be left without their main ingredients: knowledge and location. Hence, there will be no home.

Simmering on that fire, Syria was left in anticipation, while the riots between the Druze and Maronites continued unabated. It wasn’t too long before violence reached Damascus, and a group, reportedly from two of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, launched a savage attack on the Catholic quarter, which was plundered and burnt with the loss of many innocent lives. After that, events moved quickly towards collapse. The Ottoman authorities, in a desperate attempt to regain control, organised mass arrests and public executions. But the foreign powers had found their long-awaited excuse to enter in force. Soon Greater Syria fell and was occupied, divided and devastated.

To understand the consequences of those events, the New York Times reports of the era can be of help. But while focusing on reciprocal attacks between the Christians and the Druze the reports largely overlook the role of the Bedouin. It is very important to know that the Bedouin helped in the massacres. By the nature of their way of life they had no home to lose and hence could be hired as militia to execute crimes against the person and property of settled people, which is what their recruiters required. The Bedouin are the main reason why cities in the Levant are protected by walls, and commercial relationships with the Bedouin have a history that reflects their nomadic and unattached character.

Another important fact is the locus of the fighting in Damascus. The attack on Christians in the 1860s didn’t take place at random, nor were all of the Christians of the city attacked. Specifically, the horrors of plunder and killing took place in what had become a Catholic quarter of the old city of Damascus, which thanks to foreign penetration had become a self-contained, isolated and wealthy place. Other Christians (mostly Orthodox) who were living among their Muslim neighbours were protected and saved. And those who committed the crimes weren’t from just anywhere in the city; they were from the most derelict and poor neighbourhoods. This indicates the economic causes on the one hand, and the connected role of urbanism on the other.

We must consider too that thousands of Christian families had taken refuge under the protection of Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairei, at his citadel, while Muslim families in the city offered sanctuary to their frightened Christian neighbours. This was not because they were less faithful or “moderate” in today’s terminology, but because all of them, Muslim and Christian, stood by what their religions commanded them to do, which is to treat their neighbours with compassion.

All of this is still relevant to the current reality of the war in Syria, because while the foreign powers were declaring that it had become impossible for Christians to continue living in such a country as Syria was in the 1860s, the reality proved them wrong. The Muslim-majority society in cooperation with the minorities from other religions had been able to heal (even if not completely), despite all the efforts that might have prevented it from achieving this.

The Christians had continued to live next-door to their Muslim neighbours, their churches and mosques side by side. But their cities were changing beyond their control. Syria as a country was moving into a continuous decline despite the resistance of its society, which can explain the mismatch between the brittle surface and the flexibility and adaptability of the once-settled communities beneath it.

The trajectory of decline continued with the decision of the international committee (consisting of Austria, Great Britain, France, Prussia and Russia) “investigating” the crimes of the 1860s to dispatch their foreign troops to reestablish order. Despite the realisation that the division of Lebanon in 1842 (the division they made way for) had been the main reason for the exacerbating of the events which had led to the civil war, the resolution of the committee was to further divide the region.

As a result Lebanon became isolated as a Christian territory, with an assigned tribal system of sects to “rule” it. Then came the Sykes-Picot accord, and the French mandate; and with the mandate the modern “rational” town planning that has shaped our cities and societies into conflicting tribes and brought with it a new kind of nomadism — a nomadism imposed by architecture that is cleansed of the aspect of home.

Things are not so different today: the West still looks on our region as in great chaos which needs to be put into Tupperware boxes. The problem is that the more categorisations there are, the further we drift from any real solution. Even inclusiveness is approached by tossing in “one of each” as in some big salad bowl. It seems to me irrational to unravel our social fabric thread by thread simply because it is showing wear and tear, and as a result to stand naked and unprotected.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not blame it all on the West; we are all complicit in this; we have to admit it is we who are refusing to get off the hamster wheel. It is we Syrians who have come to despise our faiths, our land, and our crafts because we are told that these are the root of our problems. And it is we who have surrendered to all kinds of corruption and self-interest in every possible field, so that we hardly recognise who we have become.

That’s why we watch the international community convening month after month and year after year to grapple with the vexed problem of Syria, but the truth is no one seems to be looking further than the constantly cracking surface. We forget one kernel of truth, namely that it is always those who haven’t built, those who have lost the sense of home, who are the first to revolt. When the business of war in this region has started to fade away, the business of reconstruction will be introduced instead. The ground is already being prepared by all of the parties and in different parts of the world, and the mood is shifting from emergency to investment.

But we have to ask ourselves, is this the kind of building that is going to solve our problems? Is it going to offer the home that we have so painfully lost? I’m doubtful, because nothing indicates that anyone remembers the process by which our home was destroyed. No one remembers the destruction of craft and property rights, or how the attack on religion was planned, or the stretching of economic rifts beneath false sectarian labels. No one remembers how the separation and urban isolation of competing territories was introduced, or how a culture of shame was used to suppress any possible perception of what really mattered to people.

Few still see any hope left in this apocalyptic place; yet many seem content with the few islands that could result for reconstruction. It doesn’t really seem to matter if it all “falls off the wagon” (and history shows it most definitely will) as long as there’s enough time for buildings to be erected and sold on. The only problem is that there can be no space for peace if we are to accept investment as a replacement for war, secularism for religion, division for cohesion, routine employment for craft and production. Because none of those improvised solutions will bring back the trust, neighbourliness and shared love of home that our communities once enjoyed.

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