Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Butterflies in Damascus
By Uri Avnery
Arabs are revolting against the Zionist Empire and
its status-quo, which kept the Middle East in tyranny and dictatorship for
about a century.
Arabs are revolting against dictatorship, poverty,
and corruption, not because they want to go back to ethno-religious
entities, as Uri Avnery suggests in the following article.
DURING THE Spanish civil war of 1936, a
news story reported the deaths of 82 Moroccans, 53 Italians, 48 Russians, 34
Germans, 17 Englishmen, 13 Americans and 8 Frenchmen. Also 1 Spaniard.
“Serves him right,” people in Madrid commented, “Why did he interfere?”
Similar things could now be said about the civil war in Syria. Shiites
from all over the Muslim world stream into Syria to help Bashar al-Assad’s
dictatorship to survive, while Sunnis from many countries hasten there to
support the rebels.
The implications of this go well beyond the
bloody Syrian struggle. It is a historic revolution, region-wide and perhaps
AFTER WORLD WAR I, the victorious colonial empires
carved up the territories of the vanquished Ottoman Empire among themselves.
Since colonialism was out and self-determination was in, their new colonies
were dressed up as independent nations (like Iraq) or as nations-to-be (like
European-style nationalism took hold of the new Arab
nations. The ancient idea of the pan-Muslim “Umma” was pushed away. The idea
of a pan-Arab super-state, propagated by the Baath party and Egypt’s Gamal
Abd-al-Nasser, was tried and failed (as a result of external plots). Syrian
nationalism, Iraqi nationalism, Egyptian nationalism and, of course,
Palestinian nationalism won.
(The correct description is sovereignty, not nationalism, thus Syrian
state sovereignty, Iraqi state sovereignty, and Egyptian state sovereignty.
Still Arabs use the term Ummah (Nation) in reference to all Arab states
together - Al-Jazeerah Editor).
It was a doubtful victory. A typical
Syrian nationalist in Damascus was also a part of the Arab region, of the
Muslim world and of the Sunni community - and the order of these diverse
loyalties was never quite sorted out.
This was different in Europe,
where the national loyalty was unchallenged. A modern German could also be a
Bavarian and a Catholic, but he was first and foremost a German.
During the last decades, the victory of local nationalism in the Arab world
seemed assured. After the short-lived United Arab Republic broke up in 1961
and Syrians proudly displayed their new Syrian passports, the future of the
Arab nation-states looked rosy.
Not any more.
the immense significance of the present upheaval one has to go back in
Two thousand years ago, the modern idea of “nation” was
unthinkable. The prevalent collective structure was the ethnic-religious
community. One belonged to a community that was not territorially defined. A
Jewish man in Alexandria could marry a Jewess in Babylon, but not the
Hellenic or Christian woman next door.
Under Roman, Byzantine
and Ottoman emperors, all these dozens of sects enjoyed a wide autonomy,
ruled by imams, priests and rabbis. This is still partly the case in most
former Ottoman territories, including Israel. The Turks called these
self-governing sects “millets”.
The German historian Oswald
Spengler, in his monumental “The Decline of the West”, asserted that great
cultures were like human beings – they are born, grow up and die of old age
within a thousand years. Middle-Eastern culture, according to him, was born
around 500 BC and died with the decay of the Muslim Caliphate. Judaism,
which was born in the Babylonian exile around 500 BC, was just one sect
Arnold Toynbee, the British historian who espoused a
similar theory, claimed that today’s Jews were a “fossil” of this obsolete
What happened later was that European societies went
through many stages, the latest being that of the “nation”. In Europe, the
Jews were a sinister and hated anomaly because they clung to their former
existence as a homeland-less, dispersed ethno-religious sect. This was done
quite consciously: the rabbis erected a “fence around the Torah”, separating
Jews from everybody else, making it impossible for them to eat with non-Jews
or marry them. Jews originally congregated in ghettos because of their need
for a Synagogue they could walk to on the Sabbath, public bath (Mikvah) etc.
When the situation of the nation-less Jews in nationalist Europe
became increasingly difficult, Zionism was born. By a sleight-of-hand it
postulated that Jews were not only an ethno-religious community, but at the
same time also a “nation like other nations”. This was a necessary fiction,
until Zionism succeeded in creating a real nation – the Israelis.
With the founding of the Israeli state, the Zionist doctrine lost its
purpose and should have been dismantled, like the scaffolding of a finished
building. Everybody expected this to happen in due course – Hebrew Israelis
would be a “normal” nation, and their connection with the Jewish world would
TODAY WE are witnessing a kind of Jewish
counter-revolution. In Israel there is a comeback of the world-Jewish
connection, while separate Israeli nationhood is denied. It is a reversal of
The events in Syria indicate a similar process. Throughout
the region the ethno-religious community is coming back, the European-style
nation-state is disintegrating.
The colonial powers created
“artificial” states with no consideration to ethno-religious realities. In
Iraq, Arab Sunnis and Shiites and non-Arab Kurds were arbitrarily put
together. In Syria, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawis (an offshoot of the Shia), Druze
(another offshoot), Kurds and diverse Christian sects were put into one
“national” pot and left to stew. In Lebanon the same was done, with even
worse results. In Morocco and Algeria, Arabs and Berbers are put together.
(In America, people from all over the world live together, while
practicing their own separate religions - Al-Jazeerah Editor).
the ethno-religious sects are uniting - against each other. The Syrian civil
war has united the Shiites - from Lebanon to Iran - in defense of the
Alawite semi-Shia regime. The Sunnis from all over the place rally to the
cause of the majority Sunnis. The Syrian Kurds have already created a de
facto joint state with the Kurds in Iraq. The Druze, more dispersed and
customarily more cautious, are awaiting their turn.
IN THE Western
world, the obsolescent nation-state is being superseded by supra-national
regional confederations, like the EU. In our region, we may be reverting to
the ethno-religious sects.
(Isn't that the result of implementing plans of the invaders, "Divide and
Rule" - Editor).
It is difficult to foresee how this will work out.
The Ottoman millet system could function because there was the overall
imperial rule of the Sultan. But how could Shiite Iran combine with the
majority Shiites in Iraq, the Shiite community in south Lebanon and other
Shiite communities in a joint entity? What about the dozen Christian sects
dispersed across many countries?
Some people believe that the only
viable solution for Syria proper is the disintegration of the country into
several sect-dominated states – a central Sunni state, an Alawite state, a
Kurd state, a Druze state, etc.
Lebanon was also a part of Syria,
until the French tore them apart in order to set up a Christian state. The
French created several such little states, in order to break the back of
Syrian nationalism. It did not work.
The difficulty of such a
“solution” is illustrated by the situation of the Druze, who live in two
unconnected territories – in South Lebanon and in the “Druze mountain” area
in Southern Syria. A smaller Druze community lives in Israel. (As a
defensive strategy, the Druze in every country – including Israel - are
patriots of that country.)
The disintegration of the existing states
may be accompanied by wholesale massacres and ethnic cleansing, as happened
when India broke apart and when Palestine was partitioned. It is not a happy
Toynbee, by the way, did not only consider the Jews as a
fossil of the past, but also as the harbinger of the future. In an interview
he granted my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, he expressed the hope that the
nation-state would be superseded by world-wide ideological communities, like
the Jewish diaspora. He may have been thinking of the communists, who at the
time seemed to be turning into a world-wide supra-national community. That
experiment failed, too.
AT PRESENT, a war is raging among Israeli
historians. Prof. Shlomo Sand is maintaining that the Jewish nation was
invented (like all nations, only more so), and that the concept of Eretz
Israel (the Land of Israel) is a Zionist invention as well. Now he also
asserts that he is not a Jew, but an Israeli.
heresies, a whole phalanx of Zionist professors is in full cry.
Since I never even finished elementary school, I wouldn’t dare to stick my
head out and get caught up in the battle of the professors. I will, however,
remark that I, too, object to sliding back into a world-wide Jewish sect and
advocate the recognition of the new Israeli nation in Israel.
WE are an Israeli nation, a nation whose existence is bound to the fate of
the State of Israel.
This does not mean that those of us who are
Jews have to disown our Jewish past, its traditions and values, and our
connections with the world-wide ethno-religious Jewish community. But we
have reached a new stage in our development.
So, perhaps, have the
Arab and other Muslim peoples around us. New forms are in the making.
History shows that human societies are changing all the time, much as a
butterfly develops from an egg into a caterpillar, from there to a chrysalis
and from there to the beautifully colored adult.
For the butterfly,
that is the end. For us, I hope, this is a new beginning.