Sunday, January 29, 2006

What Tolerance Begets....

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (by Maria Rosa Menocal) . This is an excellent book on al-Andalus. It is an engaging and very interesting book which covers the subject in a clear-eyed and objective way. For the Arab and Muslim bashers in the West, who speak of their exclusive "Judeo-Christian" heritage, it becomes clear that they ought to add Muslim to this equation. On the other hand, Muslim extremists, in their regressive and monochromatic view of the world, look at al-Andalus only as pure conquest and minimize the contributions of other cultures and ethnic groups within the Muslim empire. To me, the genius of Islam is its ability, in its inclusiveness, to absorb knowledge from other cultures, engage the various peoples under its wing and create a superior and advanced culture that then Europe used to lift itself out of the dark ages.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Syrians & Lebanese: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Having grown up Syrian in Lebanon, I have heard it all. To the Lebanese, we were like distant, unsophisticated, country cousins that they would rather not been seen with. They were clever, urbane, worldly, cosmopolitan Levantines and we were simple minded, backwards and spoke with a funny accent. Mind you, this was the impression before the Syrian army and mukhabarat spent almost 30 years there! So I was not terribly surprised when the March 14th demonstrations turned xenophobic and then ugly.

The outrage at the Hariri assassination and the oppressive presence of the mukhabarat were understandable, the xenophobia was not. Both people originate from a common stock. Besides, who better understands Lebanese outrage than people who have endured the suffocating oppression of baathist rule than the average Syrian.

I applaud the Lebanese for demanding their independence and trying to hold the Syrian government accountable. However, there is something very unpalatable about the way they have made Syria culpable for 30 years of their own sordid civil dysfunction. It is all too convenient and, unfortunately, all too Lebanese. Even when they were killing each other, it is always someone else's fault. If it is not the Palestinians, it is the Israelis, the Americans or the ____ (fill in the blank). More than 15 years after the end of the Lebanese civil war, there has not been any serious discussion of the roots of the civil war, no reconciliation, not a single public memorial. The recent discovery of the mass grave in Anjar next to a former Syrian mukhabarat offices was first met with macabre glee in some Lebanese circles. Here is finally hard proof of Syria's dastardly work. But very quickly, the story disappeared from the front pages lest mass graves, of Lebanese making, start popping up a little everywhere. This collective amnesia, may be a reflexive survival instinct, but does not bode well for the long term health of the country.

Don't get me wrong, I care deeply about Lebanon (how can I not? My wife is Lebanese). Some of the Lebanese's conceit about their superiority to the Syrians is true. Beyond the superficial obsessions with everything new and Western, the Lebanese society is more developed in many ways than Syrian society. The free press and free exchange of ideas has fostered an atmosphere that has helped the Lebanese establish civic institutions independent of the absent/dysfunctional state. Moreover, the young, post-civil war generation of Lebanese seem to have shed some their parents' sectarian biases. Syrian society, on the other hand, has languished in cultural and economic isolation and stifling enforced Baathist conformity. Syrians, on the other hand, have a much clearer sense of national identity, something that -despite all the recent flag waving- the Lebanese still sorely lack.

The Lebanese and Syrians are inextricably linked by geography, history, clan and sectarian relationships. Yet over the past 50 years, each has evolved separately, forming a distinctive identity and historical narrative (no Greater Syria for me). Both countries' interests will easily converge when each has a stable, truly representative government. For the Lebanese, the Syrian exit is a start, but along with a full accounting of Syria's misdeeds is a need for a full accounting of their own culpability - what is needed is a Lebanese "Truth and Reconciliation Commission". For the Syrians, the journey starts with the radical reform or the ouster of the current regime. Along the way, both countries will need each other, not in a the master-vassal relationship but as equals with a common destiny.

(Photo by AK: Baalbeck, Lebanon)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Syrians on Edge

Revealing comments on public sentiment inside Syria by Abdallah Ta'i (in Arabic) on Syria Comment.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Problem of Identity

Identity or rather the multiplicity of identities, in my view, remains a fundamental problem in the Middle East. Most of us have hyphenated identities: Lebanese-Maronite-Christian, Syrian-Kurd, Egyptian-Copt and so on. How we express our hyphenated identities depends on who we are talking to and what the particular social situation is. So religious, sectarian or clan/ethnic affiliations may become the foremost identifier superseding national identity. It is these unresolved issues that have led to such paradoxes as: A secular, socialist party (Baath) dominated by a religious minority, the statue of Salahudin proudly displayed in Damascus but hundreds of thousands of Syrian kurds are deprived of citizenship, Lebanese shiites with dueling loyalties to Iran and Lebanon to name but a few. The cause of these dueling identities are multiple including the artificial borders of modern Arab states and the real and perceived marginalization of ethnic and religious minority groups.

The concept of Arab nationalism grew during the Arab Nahda in the late 19th century fueled by Arab intellectuals returning from Europe in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. This movement was aided by the antipathy many people felt for Ottoman rule. What is unclear (at least to me) is whether this movement awakened a dormant sense of Arab identity or whether it was a foreign construct imposed from above. How, for example, did the average Damascene merchant view their counterpart in Beirut or Jerusalem? Regardless, the concept stuck through the early most of the 20th century as the Middle East was arbitrarily divided up by colonial powers. Promoting Arab nationalism remained the public stance of all Arab leaders but their self-preservation was their real stance. While they preached unity, they effectively segregated us from each other. It was easier for an Westerner to visit an Arab country than for an Arab to visit a neighboring Arab state. Arab nationalism failed because individual Arabs states failed.

So is the concept of Arabism dead? I don't think so. The concept of an Arab nation does ring true for many people on a number of levels. While the Palestinian plight was often cynically used by Arab leaders to promote their particular agendas, popular support for the Palestinians was genuine. There are also the bonds of language, religion and a shared history. Ironically, these popular bonds may be getting stronger at a time when political commentators have declared the death of Arab nationalism. Over the past two decades large numbers of people have migrated from poorer to richer Arab countries for work mixing of previously segregated and diverse Arab cultures. The other factor is the proliferation of satellite TV. Now sitting in Beirut, you can watch a vast array of channels from across the Arab world. There are call in shows, from the trivial to the serious, receiving calls from a dozen different countries. There is clearly an affinity and commonality that is being expressed among the people across the Arab world as never before. So although the political concept of Arabism and Arab identity may be dead, it is being been replaced with a genuine, grassroots Arab identity. To be sure, this does not mean that borders will melt away. After close to three generations of independence, most Arab states, however artificially drawn by the colonial powers, have now distinct identities with a historical narrative of more than half a century that is particular to each. So no matter how close Syrians are to Lebanese, each identify with a different historical and political memory. To be successful, this Arab identity has to be expansive and inclusive so that it can accommodate the vast diversity within our midst while respecting the uniqueness and independence of individual states.

(Photo by AK: San Francisco)

Who am I to Blog?

I thought long and hard about creating this blog. However, our part of the world is at a pivotal time in its modern history and I felt helpless watching from afar. Expressing my opinions freely is my way, however humbly, to contribute towards the advancement of positive change. What energized me is the discovery of a wonderful parallel world of Syrian and Lebanese bloggers working from within and without, expressing original ideas freely, unhindered by the straight-jacket of cultural and political dogma. What surprised me most were the Syrian bloggers, from courageous known dissidents to anonymous citizen bloggers vividly demonstrating that 40 years of Baathist oppression may have impoverished the people materially but did not dampen their spirit.

I strive to be a citizen blogger looking from a distance. I left Syria at a young age and grew up in Lebanon, and now reside in United States. Before some dismiss me as an outsider with no first hand knowledge of current day Syria, I will shamelessly wave my family credentials. My grandfather was a delegate to the first Syrian Congress in 1920 and advocated to give women the right to vote. My father also served in pre-Baathist Syrian governments only to be rewarded with 3 months in Mazzeh prison during the Baathist era following which he left Syria. None of this gives me any special expertise or knowledge but it does establish my personal and family connections and my interest in the fate of my place of birth. I want to see an end to the oppressive and failed Baathist regime. I want to see the evolution of a representative and responsive government that will allow for the full expression of the cultural and economic potential of the Syrian people. In the end, I want to be able to go back to my hometown, without hindrance or fear, to see my grandfather's old house in which my father delivered me some 47 years ago.