17 April 2018

Why Syrian Christians loved Hâfiz


Hâfiz al-’Asad

A common response – sadly too common – to the recent statement by the Christian churches of Syria condemning the American attack on their country, was that the hierarchs of these churches were displaying their sycophantic opportunism and currying favour with the government. As one of my gentle readers commented a couple of days ago: ‘Disgusting statement by bishops who could not care a damn about the suffering’ of Syrians. With respect, this sort of response is sadly mistaken, historically-illiterate, and – in the context of our day and age, right now – remarkably dangerous.

In due time, I will follow up with a contemporary look at the attitude of Syria’s Christians toward the current president, Baššâr al-’Asad. For now, however, I will focus on his father. I am currently reading From the Holy Mountain, a work of remarkable travel literature rich with historical detail, written by the Scottish Catholic journalist William Dalrymple. It is worth reading for its own sake, of course, and at this point I’m only a third of the way through. It is Dalrymple’s attempt to follow the pilgrimage route of the seventh-century Byzantine monastic and spiritual ‘novelist’ Ioannes Moskhos, who travelled from Mount Athos into the Egyptian desert, keeping a record of his travels which was eventually published as the contemporarily-popular devotional ‘novel’ The Spiritual Meadow. (Guess what I’ll be reading next?)

In any event, in our own modern time, Dalrymple journeys from Greece through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel and ends up in Egypt – along the very route that Ioannēs Moskhos took, or at least something as close to it as he could manage. Like Moskhos, he describes the living environment – the villages, the cities, the countrysides and the ruins – that he passes through, as well as the sites of historical interest that would have dated back to Moskhos’s day. As he enters Syria, he visits the (now-kidnapped) Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo. In the office, Dalrymple recounts, ‘I was shown to a gilt armchair beneath a huge photograph of a beaming President ’Asad, and a fractionally smaller portrait of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.

Why such love for such a ‘repressive’ and ‘ruthless’ dictator? Unlike those of his host, Dalrymple’s sentiments toward the senior al-’Asad not positive. He hints darkly at the sinister reputation of the mukhâbarât (al-’Asad’s Cheka-style secret police) and asides on the corrupt policies of the Syrian government with a characteristically-understated British distaste. He also relates some amusing anecdotes and Soviet-style black humour he heard from his hosts about al-’Asad. But his host is voluble about the situation in Syria, and gives a different take, to say the least, situated in the local context.
We have always thought of ourselves as citizens, not refugees… Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim – and Lebanon, of course, has many other problems. In Syria there is no enmity between Christian and Muslim. If Syria were not here, we would be finished. Really. It is a place of sanctuary, a haven for all the Christians: for the Nestorians and Chaldeans driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians driven out of Turkey, even some Palestinian Christians driven out of the Holy Land by the Israelis. Talk to people here: you will find that what I say is true.
What Dalrymple discovers is that the Christians of Syria really do think highly of Hâfiz al-’Asad and his government. The Armenians who fled genocide and repression in Turkey found a haven in Syria, and the Arabs who met them treated them with hospitality. Aleppo became, in the period between the First World War and the Syrian Revolt, a kind of ‘Noah’s Ark’ (in Dalrymple’s words) for the different Christian communities that were being massacred and displaced by the Turks – and of course, the Mandatory government saw these recent Christian arrivals as ready allies (which was, as Michael Provence’s book makes clear, not always the case).

The socialist Arab Ba’ath, a progressive, egalitarian and sæcular current within the broader stream of Arab nationalism, was heavily Christian in character from the beginning – just as Arab nationalism itself was. Michel ’Aflaq, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian, was among the first forerunners of Ba’athism. And the Ba’athist coup d’etat in 1970 was largely welcomed by Syria’s Christians. As Dalrymple puts it, ‘the period of uncertainty for Syria’s Christians came to an end’ with Hâfiz al-’Asad’s rise to power. The Alawites – the branch of Shi’ism to which al-’Asad belonged – had long had close and friendly ties to Syria’s Christians, to the point where Sunni Muslim fundamentalists disparage them as Nusayrîyyah (literally, ‘little Christians’). Hâfiz al-’Asad was no exception to this rule. Dalrymple again:
In ’Asad’s Syria Christians have always done well: at the moment, apparently, five of ’Asad’s closest advisers are Christians, including his principal speechwriter, as are two of the sixteen cabinet ministers. Christians and Alawites together hold all the key positions in the armed forces and the mukhâbarât… The Christians themselves estimated that they now formed slightly less than 20 per cent of Syria’s total population, and between 20 and 30 per cent of the population of Aleppo, giving that city one of the largest Christian populations anywhere in the Middle East.

The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can’t help noticing the minute you arrive in the country. This is particularly so if, like myself, you cross the border at Nisibis: Qâmishli, the town on the Syrian side of the frontier (and the place where Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim was brought up) is 75
per cent Christian, and icons of Christ and images of his mother fill almost every shop and decorate every other car window – an extraordinary display after the furtive secrecy of Christianity in Turkey. Moreover Turoyo, the modern Aramaic of the Tur ’Abdin, is the first language of Qâmishli. This makes it one of a handful of towns in the world where Jesus could expect to be understood if he came back tomorrow.
The fear of Christians in Syria was not of the government. Even in 1994, when Dalrymple was writing, the fear expressed to him by the Christians of Aleppo and elsewhere was related to the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. An Armenian man Dalrymple interviewed put it this way:
After ’Asad’s death or resignation no one knows what will happen. As long as the bottle is closed with a firm cork all is well. But eventually the cork will come out. And then no one knows what will happen to us.
As I said, I hope to bring this topic more ‘up to date’ in a later post. But in such historical circumstances as these, the continued pro-government stance of Syria’s Christians, from the progressive presidency of Hâfiz al-’Asad until the present time, hopefully makes some greater sense. The precariousness of Syria’s Christian populace has been felt, in the bloodiest and most painful possible way, in these six years of civil war, as the anti-government rebels – overwhelmingly made up of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists of the most debauched and violent sort – have committed heinous atrocities upon Christians, Shi’ites and Yezidis. It is unsurprising to say the least that they turn to the government and to the Syrian Arab Army – built upon the promise of a semi-sæcular modus vivendi – to defend them.

14 April 2018

Understand, all ye nations

A Statement Issued by the Patriarchates of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Greek-Melkite Catholic

Damascus, 14 April 2018


God is with us; Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves!

We, the Patriarchs: John X, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, Ignatius Aphrem II, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and Joseph Absi, Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, condemn and denounce the brutal aggression that took place this morning against our precious country Syria by the USA, France and the UK, under the allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. We raise our voices to affirm the following:
  1. This brutal aggression is a clear violation of the international laws and the UN Charter, because it is an unjustified assault on a sovereign country, member of the UN.
  2. It causes us great pain that this assault comes from powerful countries to which Syria did not cause any harm in any way.
  3. The allegations of the USA and other countries that the Syrian army is using chemical weapons and that Syria is a country that owns and uses this kind of weapon, is a claim that is unjustified and unsupported by sufficient and clear evidence.
  4. The timing of this unjustified aggression against Syria, when the independent International Commission for Inquiry was about to start its work in Syria, undermines of the work of this commission.
  5. This brutal aggression destroys the chances for a peaceful political solution and leads to escalation and more complications.
  6. This unjust aggression encourages the terrorist organizations and gives them momentum to continue in their terrorism.
  7. We call upon the Security Council of the United Nations to play its natural role in bringing peace rather than contribute to escalation of wars.
  8. We call upon all churches in the countries that participated in the aggression, to fulfill their Christian duties, according to the teachings of the Gospel, and condemn this aggression and to call their governments to commit to the protection of international peace.
  9. We salute the courage, heroism and sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army which courageously protects Syria and provide security for its people. We pray for the souls of the martyrs and the recovery of the wounded. We are confident that the army will not bow before the external or internal terrorist aggressions; they will continue to fight courageously against terrorism until every inch of the Syrian land is cleansed from terrorism. We, likewise, commend the brave stand of countries which are friendly to the Syria and its people.
We offer our prayers for the safety, victory, and deliverance of Syria from all kinds of wars and terrorism. We also pray for peace in Syria and throughout the world, and call for strengthening the efforts of the national reconciliation for the sake of protecting the country and preserving the dignity of all Syrians.

10 April 2018

Prayers for protection

Blessed Father Herman of Alaska, wonderworking patron and father of the Church in North America, please intercede with God for us sinners, for the protection of your motherland and for the protection of the land you came to serve with such loving-kindness and devotion!

Holy Martyr James the Priest of Persia, sufferer of cold and hunger and indignity for the sake of Our Lord, take pity, and intercede with Him whose lordship you confessed over that of the earthly Šâpuhr, that He may protect your homeland and have mercy upon us sinners!

09 April 2018

No, Christian democracy can’t save America


A CiF op-ed has been going around of late, that has been promoting Christian democracy as a possible antidote to America’s political-cultural woes under Trumpism. Sadly, though I can’t help but admire the intentions of the authors, I fear that their thesis is deeply naïve. Our cultural problems are far too deeply-ingrained for a political import of debased specie like that of Western European Christian democracy to have any salutary effect.

The following may seem an odd topic to broach for Bright Week – and certainly the tone of what will follow will be drastically out of keeping with the otherworldly joy of the season. For that I can only offer my sincere and contrite apologies, which I do now: I am indeed sorry. But I was put in mind of this by the Gospel reading today: the ‘short ending’ of the Gospel of Mark, upon which Ched Myers placed such literary-political importance. The direction of the young man in the white robe to the myrrh-bearing women was to tell the disciples where Jesus was going: ‘before you into Galilee’. Back to the source, in other words: to the beginning of the Gospel. In short, the women were commanded to gather up all the disciples – who had fled, who had denied Christ, who had gone to their own homes in fear of the authorities – and tell them this strange and unearthly commandment ad fontes, which left them ‘alarmed’, ‘amazed’, ‘afraid’ and literally speechless.

Another thing: I am reminded, in an odd way, of the anonymous French editorialist writing for the newspaper La Liberté in 1932, who wagged famously that ‘Americans are the only race which passed directly from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation’. Though I would argue that the French of that era are probably the very last people fit to lecture others on the topics of barbarism, decadence or civilisation, when it comes to us Americans, this particular Frenchman might have a point.

Not coincidentally, France of that same interwar period was also the home to a number of thinkers and activists of disparate strands (Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Simone Weil, Gilbert Dru, Stephen Borne, and also a few of the philosophical Russian émigrés like Nikolai Berdyaev, Mother St Maria of Paris and her collaborator, the saintly revolutionary Il’ya Bunakov), whose ideas would gradually coalesce, after the Second World War, into the theory that would come to be called ‘Christian democracy’. To be sure, the ideas that would inform Christian democracy had been kicking around Europe since the French Revolution – but the impetus that would fashion an intellectual and social movement out of them came out of the high-pressure intellectual crucible of Western Europe between the wars, where communism and fascism fought tooth-and-nail for the soul of the West.

It is necessary to note that the movement for Christian democracy – based in France, but effective also in the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, West Germany – was a revolutionary movement. It did not only militate against communism and fascism. It was also anti-capitalist. It saw the same dehumanisation at work within private corporations, that it did within mass-movement political ideologies of the extreme left and right. It therefore rejected homo œconomicus. It favoured equal political and œconomic rights for men and women. (That’s another thing: it had none of the squeamishness the modern right has over the topic of ‘œconomic rights’!) It sought to refashion society along lines suggested by, in the words of Swiss Christian-democratic œconomist Wilhelm Röpke, the ‘natural solidarity of small groups’, first among which was the natural nuclear family.

There was, for one brief moment in the human, physical and intellectual wasteland of the Second World War (on which topic, gentle readers, please do yourselves a solid favour and refer to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr), a brilliantly-flickering spark of the civilised. This movement fashioned by Mounier and Borne truly did hold out for a humane third option, for a very brief time. But the Christian democratic movement turned out to be better at contending with the dying ‘ideologies of the extremes’ than they were at resisting the golden straitjacket of American finance capital and the neoliberal ideology that came with it. Whatever the other (and considerable) benefits of the Marshall Plan were, one side effect was the strengthening of links between European states and transatlantic multinational corporations. Political formations in the affected nations could either bankroll themselves with the funds of these ‘rebuilt’ (but heavily-dependent) industries, or they could find themselves relegated to oblivion.

Long story short: the Christian democracy of Western Europe lost its soul this way. They adapted themselves to postwar political landscape, both by becoming less politically radical and less insistent on the integrity of the family. Both transformations were meant to render them harmless and tame in the eyes of a transatlantic capitalist structure that had been wizarded back into being by American ‘aid’. Instead of being a righteous protest against the dehumanisation of mass politics, the Christian democratic movements morphed into mass parties of the centre-right themselves. I’ve used this quote from ‘third way’ theorist and author Allan Carlson on this topic before, but I will use it again here:
As early as the 1950s, Christian democracy as a vital worldview entered another period of crisis. The youthful excitement, energy and sense of positive Christian revolution evident in the 1940s dissipated… In Italy and West Germany, Christian democratic parties consolidated their hold on power at the price of their vision. By the early 1960s, they were increasingly pragmatic and bureaucratic, self-satisfied defenders of the status quo. Ambitious office-seekers, rather than Christian idealists, came to dominate the parties. Movements for ‘moral and spiritual renewal’ became simply mass parties of the right-of-centre. When a new ‘crisis of values’ hit Europe with particular force in the 1960s, the Christian democrats were unprepared to respond. They appeared by then to be old and discredited guardians of a new kind of materialism, the very opposite of what the movement’s visionaries had intended.
How else, indeed, are we to explain the sadism (there is truly no other word for it) with which the Christian democrats of Western Europe have treated the indebted, and increasingly unemployed, drug-addicted and suicidal, Greeks? How else are we to explain their idiotic insistence on austerity policies that beggar the poor and struggling in their own backyards? How else to explain their general indifference to the dissolution of the family in European countries, particularly those most deeply afflicted by debt and unemployment? How else to explain their craven, supine capitulation to a war agenda that has destroyed – in succession – Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Yemen and Syria, and condemned some of the world’s poorest people to slavery, starvation and cholera?

Consider every single one of the principles that Invernizzi-Accetti and Steinmetz-Jenkins cite in their op-ed – the principles of Mounier and Borne: anti-capitalism; radical insistence on the family; solidarity with ‘less fortunate’ peoples and countries. Consider how deeply and how thoroughly the European centre-right parties bearing the banner of ‘Christian democracy’, and the self-interested politicos and bureaucrats who run them, have betrayed each and every one of those principles! Make no mistake: far-right ‘populist’ parties like Lega Nord, Front National and Alternative für Deutschland are every bit as horrible as advertised, and old-school European conservatives should be the first ones to say so. But it’s difficult to escape the conclusion, once one accounts for the contempt and instrumental manoeuvres with which the ‘Christian democrats’ in their respective countries have treated the poor and oppressed these past five decades, that they amount to a divine judgement upon Europe’s ‘good Christians’.

Back to that old saw from La Liberté I mentioned earlier, though. Allan Carlson himself said that ‘there has never been a serious Christian democratic party in America’, and, sad to say, he’s still right. I was a supporter, for a brief time, of the only party in the United States to attempt to lay hold of the Christian democratic mantle. I resigned both my state post and my membership in December of last year. The inter-party divisions that tore through the party last year resulted in a number of resignations from the socially-conservative ‘right’, but I may hold the dubious distinction of being one of the few people who has left the party because it was leaning too far to the right on œconomics. Why is this? Long story short: I watched, in real time, as the very same mutation that destroyed the soul of the European ‘Christian democrats’ took hold of the party leadership here, with similar effects… but without the excuse that significant material or electoral gains were at stake.

The divisions within the party, tellingly, are a microcosm of the divisions now regnant within American society as a whole. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but here are the broad strokes. Each ‘faction’ can lay claim to some of the vision of Mounier and Borne, Weil and Berdyaev, but clearly not all of it. The party leadership, which is overwhelmingly based in the Acela corridor, is noticeably more ‘liberal’ on cultural and pelvic issues (inclusive of homosexuals and transgender; eager to claim continuity with the civil rights movement; mistrustful of countercultural or ‘crunchy’ tendencies), while also being sneeringly dismissive of anything stronger than a casual critique of capitalism. On the other hand, the functionaries of the state parties in middle America tend, on the whole, to be less liberal on the pelvic issues, and more open to ‘populist’ critiques of American capitalism (but also more nationalistic in a Jacksonian sense). Regardless of which side carries the day, the result will be a shadow movement to one of the major parties.

And here it should become plain why the ‘Christian democracy’ of Invernizzi-Accetti and Steinmetz-Jenkins can’t really help us, any more than the insipid psychobabble of Žižek can. The ease with which Invernizzi-Accetti and Steinmetz-Jenkins can, with such a stunning lack of historical irony or self-awareness, indict the ‘Faustian pact’ that Christians have made with sæcular authoritarianism in America while overlooking entirely the similarly Faustian bargain ‘Christian democracy’ made with transatlantic capitalism in postwar Europe, shows that they don’t even know who they are. (How dare you presume to help us? You can’t even help yourselves.) The conditions within which Christianity and democracy could be taken seriously in Europe – when the atrocities of fascism and total war had stunned us all into a state of self-awareness at the horrors we had wrought, rendered intelligible the ‘death of God’ and opened a window for a social call to repentance – didn’t obtain for very long. And here, well – did our transition between barbarism and decadence ever last long enough for those conditions to have obtained at all?

Having posed the problem as starkly as I have, though, I think it only fair to point out that many of the early advocates, particularly the Russian-French ones, of ideas that went into the Christian-democratic project diverged onto their own paths. They weren’t necessarily wrong in doing so. Through their dramatic spiritual transformations and their shared martyrific witness against fascism, Mother Maria and Saint Ilya never truly forsook their (pardon the expression) agrarian socialist roots. Berdyaev, for all his Solovyov-influenced doubts, shows through his later works that he was an anarchist to the end.

Confronted with the empty tomb, with the fearsome rupture of reality that the Resurrection had wrought, once we are shown the empty tomb and the defeat of death we are then tasked with going back to Galilee: as Myers would have it, back to the beginning of the Gospel. It should be obvious by now that I’m no myrrh-bearer. I’m not a good democrat. I’m not a good socialist. I’m not even a good Christian, Orthodox or otherwise. I’m also not interested in condemning the people of good will who are, understandably, drawn to the ideals of Mounier and Borne, of Christian democracy. But I will continue to insist as I have done, that for Christianity or democracy to be taken seriously, a more radical leaven (or perhaps a more reactionary one), one for which the Resurrection remains reality, is needed. I would not be surprised, were that to be a leaven which no single coherent ideological label can adequately describe.

08 April 2018

Хрістос воскрес!

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honour the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal Kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages! Amen.
- The Paschal Homily of Saint John Chrysostom

07 April 2018

The Great Syrian Revolt


As so often happens with such monographs, The Great Syrian Revolt by Michael Provence edified me in a number of ways. It confirmed a couple of things I had already suspected; it taught me a great many more things I simply did not know; and, showing me where my knowledge of the subject was lacking, it expanded my reading list considerably. For example, Philip Khoury’s book (cited often here) on Syria and the French Mandate is now on my shelf.

A convincing overview and analysis of the primary source documentation and ‘official history’ of the Syrian Revolt, Provence’s work not only sets out to provide a different angle on the revolt which doesn’t reduce it to class, tribal or sectarian dimensions; but in the process it also demonstrates a certain set of patterns of orientation and behaviour that are helpful in understanding the modern war in Syria going on as we speak. It tackles the Syrian revolt from the point-of-view of those most directly affected by it and those who most directly participated in it. Provence argues effectively not only that the revolt was more than just a ‘feudal’ Druze uprising. He also demonstrates that it served as a crucible for a flexible and expansive definition of the Arab nation, in which localist and religious concerns played key rôles, and which would come to colour the various liberation movements which arose in its wake.

Provence uses the official French propaganda surrounding the revolt as a kind of literary foil for his study. As I noted briefly in my prior polemical piece touching on this book, the mandatory government’s ideology positioned it as the protector, patron and enlightener of an unchanging, hopelessly-primitive ‘oriental’ society. France saw herself – and her mandatory administrators did also, of both political left and right – as bringing technology, infrastructure, liberal rule of law, civilisation tout court, to the backward tribal Arabs, mired as they were in ‘feudalism’, tribalism and barbarism. In short, France’s view of her mandatory mission was precisely the sort of orientalism described and criticised by Dr Edward Sa‘îd. Provence, rejecting this view as simplistic and outdated, instead shows that the Syrian Revolt was motivated by genuine attempts at building an alternative multi-ethnic, multi-religious and sæcular order in place of the French mandate. Far from being an exclusively ‘feudal’ or rural revolt, its œconomic basis lay in routes of trade that linked the peasantry and smallholders of Hawrân to the independent grain dealers of Damascus.

Although Provence places himself in diametric opposition to the French self-image and perspective on the conflict, he is far too shrewd a scholar to omit where the French had judged the situation rightly. The colonial French were masters of manipulating tribal conflicts, and thus not only had a keen understanding of the religious and ethnic differences that divided Mandatory Syria, but were experts at exploiting them. The French carefully cultivated client-patron relationships with Uniate churches in Mandatory Syria and the Lebanon – to wit, the Maronites and the Melkites. They dexterously isolated troublesome Druze and Alawites with religious propaganda aimed at the Sunni majority. And they fanned ethnic tensions – in particular, by using North African and Armenian mercenaries to commit the worst acts of ethnic cleansing and plunder.

Provence does not deny that these tactics were effective. After all, it was no ideological slogan that the city-dwellers shouted as they rose up against the French, but rather: ‘The Druze are coming!’ Religious and ethnic differences did matter. Orthodox Christian families and even monasteries tended to support the revolt; Uniate Catholics tended to support the French government. But the French had somewhat misread the milieu. Countervailing against the tribalist tendencies they assumed obtained within Mandatory Syria, were not only the œconomic linkages between small Damascus merchants and the peasantry of southern Syria which Provence takes pains to illustrate, but also the old Ottoman institution of the state-funded military academy, which Mandatory Syria under French rule left largely intact. The military academy served two major purposes: it was the instrument of social advancement for boys of poor peasant families, and it exposed these boys to both practical knowledge and a broader awareness of nationalism.

Thus, there were in rural areas a number of well-educated, erudite and effective military commanders of humble peasant origins, who took command of the revolt and stuck it good to the French for two whole years despite their colonial opponents’ overwhelming military superiority and total lack of humanitarian scruple. Sultân al-Atrash, the Druze leader of the revolt and the chief protagonist of this study, was one of these. Hâfiz al-’Asad, too, would later rise to prominence through the military from similar poor peasant stock. As one might expect, the guiding principles of the Revolt were quite vague from the start. Were they guided by Muslim pieties, or by French Revolutionary principles about the equality and dignity of man? Was the ‘homeland’ they sought to defend, merely the village? Was it Mandatory Syria as a whole? Was the Lebanon included? What about Iraq and Palestine? Provence notes, with perhaps a trace of mischievous enjoyment, that the governing ideas of the Syrian Revolt were kept deliberately vague, pragmatic and adaptable to the exigencies and needs of the moment. This reader might fancifully imagine in this broad take a certain echo of the Byzantine order of a previous age, even though the natural reference is instead to the Ottoman.

Though there were some exceptions, the urban élites of Damascus – the well-connected landlords from Ottoman days, big businessmen and politicians – did not join the revolt, and indeed sought a negotiated settlement with the French government fairly early on. In the rare cases where they did join the revolt, indeed, they tended to do so with an eye to their own political and material advantage. In their setbacks and failures, the rural and petit-bourgeois leadership of the Syrian Revolt did not forget the compromises and betrayals of the élite class.

Another point of interest for students of postcolonial theory, is that for this ragtag, motley assortment of rural peasants, state academy officer-graduates, craftsmen and grain merchants, localism and local networks of contact took on a paramount importance – both tactically and in terms of the ‘national idea’, which was deliberately kept vague. It’s often implied that the only way to stay one step ahead of French propaganda – which was aimed, as often as not, at keeping Damascus quiet while the modern, civilised French systematically shelled, bombed, butchered and torched entire villages – was to rely on word-of-mouth from trusted sources, and clandestine village or neighbourhood meetings. Local affinities and loyalties were also one of the key appeals used to bring various families and village leaders into the revolt. Many working-class Arabs in rural areas still did not respond well to highfalutin nationalist ‘theories’, but they could sympathise readily with the more immediate and concrete demands of hospitality, brotherhood, honour and revenge. On such firm foundations the unique, flexible and rich understanding of Arab nationalism could readily take root.

As a result of this highly-localised, highly-personalised character, the revolt was sometimes tinged with banditry. At best, this banditry took on a Robin Hood aspect – it was patriotic and aimed at taking from the wealthy to liberate the poor. At worst, it was simple selfish robbery and feuding. The two tended not to be easily distinguished, either at the time or even with the benefit of hindsight; Provence offers what primary-source data exists, but it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Al-Atrash was forced, in several instances, to rein in his fellow commanders, institute discipline among the rebels, make restitution to ‘inconvenienced’ villages and make assurances that repeat incidents would not occur.

Provence’s book is fantastic at highlighting all of these different aspects, but could probably have done with a bit more commonsensical organisation. He groups events and sources thematically rather than chronologically, and thus it can be hard to tell who did what, to whom, when. On the other hand, this book sheds a certain degree of light of understanding on why and how the current civil strife in Syria has taken the shape and character that it has. The escalation of sectarian tensions by foreign powers, the horrific total war tactics, the back-and-forth bombing and shelling, the use of poison gas, the ‘humanitarian’ propaganda from a Western power aimed to mislead a Western audience, the importation of foreign mercenaries to commit the worst atrocities – these were all presaged in the original Syrian Revolt. For this reason, the book becomes more important as a resource for the serious student of Middle East history and current events.

06 April 2018

Great and Holy Friday (of the Tyre)


This past Friday was Land Day in Palestine.

The original protest commemorated by Land Day took place during the Nakbah (a term coined by Dr Qustantîn Zurayq), the period from late 1947 to 1949 when 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were forced out of their homes by the nascent Israeli state. On 30 March 1948, six Palestinians were shot to death protesting the mass expropriation of land in Galilee to make way for Jewish settlements. Last week, Palestinians in Gaza used this date to protest for the right of return.

The protest in Gaza commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1948 protest in Galilee, turned out to be even bloodier than the original: 17 Palestinians who protested along the border in Gaza were shot to death by the Israeli military, including snipers using live ammunition; nearly 800 more were injured. Most of those who were killed and injured were teenagers and young men. All but two of those who were killed were unarmed. This was, as several news outlets have noted, the most casualties Gaza has suffered in a single day since the 2014 Gaza war.

Though governments around the world have condemned the disproportionate and unjust violence against the protesters, typically, the American government has blocked an attempt to organise an inquiry through the UN Security council.

There is another protest today against the Israeli government: ‘the Day of the Tyre’, and the Israeli government is planning, again, to use disproportionate and unjust force against peaceful and largely-unarmed protesters. Indeed, there are already casualties. Please remember that this is a protest in just cause: the historical and moral force behind the Palestinian plea for the right of return is considerable.

For the Orthodox Christians of Palestine – making up half or more of the Christian population of Palestine – today will be Good Friday, just as the Land Day protests were Good Friday for the Catholic and Protestant Christians among the Palestinians. This is not insignificant. Like today’s Palestinians, the Judæans of the first century were an occupied people. They thirsted for liberation – a different liberation than Christ offered, but Christ showed His solidarity with them, all the same, with His mortal life. Christ Himself was crucified today, between two such men – thieves, or bandits, who were prepared to use violence against the Roman government. Notwithstanding those who have kinship with Him, today Christ would be standing alongside the same people, standing on the same land, victims of an imperial violence which looks frighteningly similar, and which is eager to wash its own hands of the blood.

The cosmic terms in which Christ’s death and resurrection obtain for us, and upon which the Church rightfully and joyfully insists, should not blind us to the historical reality within which that death and resurrection occurred, or the meaning of that historical reality as it continues to play out before our very eyes. This Great and Holy Friday, let us stand both in sorrowful contemplation of Our Lord’s passion, and in solidarity with those who continue to experience it, forsaken by the world. And let us not forget the hope for the resurrection which is to come.