In their increasing concern about their Syrian origin, many people have become interested in the ancient history of Syrian Christians and try to discover links between ancient Arameans and contemporary Syrian Christians. These Syrian Christians have developed their group identity based on Aramean history and their language, which have endured in 'Greater Syria' since ancient times. Consequently, Syrian Orthodox Christians do not regard themselves ethnically as Arabs. As the regime promotes a Syrian-Arab identity, they feel that the government-fostered national identity does not acknowledge them as 'Syrians'. The Christians are anxious about this situation and so construct their own version of Syrian national identity, in which their community assumes a crucial role as descendants of original inhabitants of Syria. By doing so, Syrian Orthodox Christians try to promote themselves as one of the ethnic groups in Syria and integrate themselves into Syrian society.
The Development of Christian Orthodox
Syrian Identity under Hafiz al-Asad
The Syrian national identity advocated by Syrian Orthodox Christians is affected by Syrian-Arab nationalism propagated by the regime. 'Me government promotes a secular Syrian-Arab nationalism, which combines two ideologies: Arab nationalism, which emphasizes Arab unity, and Syrian nationalism, which is based on the prospective unity of the members of different groups in Syria. There used to be political conflicts between Arab nationalists and Syrian nationalists, who both advocated different ideologies for establishing the identity of Syrians. However, the present regime stresses the compatibility of these two ideologies in order to integrate supporters of both beliefs and ethnic groups. The regime emphasises the two characteristics of Syrian identity: Syrians are Arabs who have inherited Arab and Islamic cultural traditions (Arab nationalism); these traditions are shared by inhabitants in 'Greater Syria' (Syrian nationalism). Being influenced by this propaganda, Syrian Orthodox Christians attempt to construct a Syrian identity in which they play a crucial role in integrating different ethnic groups in a Greater Syria. Ancient Aramaic is the language which used to be a common language of people in Greater Syria and historically speaking, their language and cultural traditions have contributed to constructing the culture and language (Arabic) of present Syrians. The Syrian Christian version of Syrian national identity tries to establish the rights of all the ethnic groups in the territory of Greater Syria.
A comparison between the Syrian Christian version of national identity and that propagated by the regime is required in order to understand why Syrian Orthodox Christians, who are not only intellectuals, but also ordinary people, attempt to create such discourses.
The construction of Syrian Orthodox Christian identity has been influenced by ideologies of nationalism since the Ottoman period. The ideology of nationalism was introduced by Ottoman intellectuals in the early nineteenth century and some Syrian Orthodox Christian intellectuals became influenced by these ideas. One of the most famous activists is Na'um Faiq in Diyarbakr. He attempted to revive their interest in their religious traditions and classical language, Syriac, in order to spread the idea of group solidarity at the beginning of the twentieth century, a time of political tensions in Turkey. He tried to popularise the idea through school education and the publication of Syrian Christian magazines.
In the 1930s there were two political ideologies: Arab nationalism and Syrian nationalism, which were initially opposed. Syrian Christians supported the latter. The Boy Scouts movements, which were supported by Syrian nationalists, flourished in the urban areas among Syrian Orthodox youth in Aleppo, Qamishli and Hassake. Christians were afraid that their political rights would be threatened by Arab nationalism, which was based ideally on the unity of all Arabs and their 'glorious' history, culture, Islam
and the Arabic language. By contrast the SSNP (Syrian Social Nationalist Party) claimed Syrian identity was derived from the shared history and tradition of Greater Syria. By participating in the Boy Scouts activities Syrian Orthodox Christians began developing the idea of their ethnic origins as ancient Arameans whose language they had maintained.
Young people led these activities because they had had a modem education in Arabic in Syria, which older generations had not had a chance to obtain, and, consequently, were able to absorb a growing trend toward movements of nationalism. Education seems to have distanced between the young people and the older generation, who only had basic education in Turkish.
One of the famous activists was a Syrian Orthodox school teacher, Shukri Sharmugri, who lived in Qamishli and followed the ideas of Na'um Faiq. He became the leader of Syrian Orthodox Christian youth. He tried to promote the idea of the historical identity of the Syrian Christians by involving them in the Boy Scouts activities. These young people were influenced by Syrian nationalism, which enhanced the consciousness of their group's identity. They became interested in activities which stressed the distinctive traditions of their community, including the classical language of Syria, Syriac.
Many Syrian Orthodox Christians became involved in Syrian nationalism. Given Syria's unstable situation, such political alignment was a risky one. In the face of the rising ideology of Arab unity, represented by the Syria's unification with Egypt in 1958, and the expansion of Ba'ath party (a Socialist Reformist party), the political alignment of Syrian Christians with Syrian nationalists (SSNP) left the group vulnerable. They learnt that political alignments are risky strategies for the construction of their ethnic identity. Instead, contemporary Syrian Christians tried to promote their own version of Syrian national identity.
After the collapse of the Syria's unification with Egypt the Ba'ath party seized power in a coup in 1963. Political and ideological changes, which occurred before Hafez Asad took power, are related to the two facts. Arab unity, which had lost its dynamism and the 1967 War against Israel, provided opportunities for Ba'athists to entrench themselves in the army. Consequently, Ba'ath leaders, who promoted Pan-Arab unity, were gradually replaced by the party's army officials. Personal and group rivalries were the most conspicuous features until Hafez Asad took over power in 1970. The Party had lost its Pan-Arab dynamic and had no definite ideological direction. Asad needed to establish an ideology which would strengthen his power and integrate Syrian society.
One of the strategies which Asad promoted was to advocate Arab nationalism through Syria's struggle with Israel. The government currently celebrates Asad's political 'victory' in the October War in 1973 with Israel. In fact, the October war was a military defeat for the Arab side, since Israel attacked sites vital to the Syrian economy, such as oil refineries, airports, electric power stations and military bases. The economic loss to Syria, as well as damage to its political pride, was enormous. Syria lost its most important allies, when Egypt embarked on a separate cease-fire with Israel and accepted the mediation of the United States. Other Arab allies were also uncertain as to the correct response. Following the 1973 war, relations with Iraq had deteriorated, Saudi Arabia was uncommitted, and Jordan came to depend for its security on Western powers for maintaining a balance of power between the Arabs and Israel. As a part of his internal and diplomatic survival strategies, Asad fostered an image of a stubborn Arab leader and the only effective challenger to Israel. Paradoxically, in spite of the military setbacks (and through them), Asad's regime sought legitimacy through Syria's struggle with Israel, Portraying Syria as the vanguard of Arab nationalism.
The anniversary of the Sixth of October, therefore, celebrates Asad's leadership in promoting Arab nationalism. Pupils, teachers and public sectors employees are obliged to attend parades commemorating the 'victory' over Israel. They wave flags of Syria and the Ba'ath party, portraits of Asad, maps of Arab countries, and banners with such slogans as 'Hafez Asad, The Leader of the Arabs', symbols representing the unity of Syrian Arabs under the ideology of Arab nationalism. This commemoration has been enacted over two decades and is, therefore, a cyclical event creating the opportunity for people from all over Syria to confirm Syria's role in the Arab community, and enhance their solidarity as Syrian Arabs.
Another strategy for enhancing Syrian Arab identity is to emphasise Arab Islamic traditions shared by Syrians. However, the present Ba'athist regime emphasizes its secular identity, which is close to earlier view of a Ba'athists' leader, Michel Aflaq, who maintained that Islam is a culture for Arabs rather than a faith. Islam is revealed in the Quran, which is written in Arabic and, therefore, embodies Arab values. Islam is used as the sublime expression of secular Arab nationalism.
However, the use of Islam as a political tool is a recent phenomenon. It dates from the late 1970s to the 1980s when some Sunni merchants and the Muslim Brotherhood expressed active opposition to the government. They were defeated in Hama in 1982. In the 1970s the government nationalised large section of the economy which came under the control of the Ba'ath party. Asad's group, Alawis, have heavily infiltrated the party from where they can obtain special privileges in tendering for public service contracts.
This created tensions between the Alawis and Sunni merchants who had long dominated commerce. Hama became a 'showpiece' of massive state repression and was intended to be interpreted that way. The dynamics of opposition in Syria during the 1980s are complex, but it was clear that increasing economic dissatisfaction with the regime's inability to provide for the people in the face of a failed nationalisation policy was partly fuelled, sustained and rationalised by religious beliefs.
The government tried to conceal economic dissatisfaction by rationalising its heavy handed oppression (the town of Hama was flattened) as a suppression of dangerous religious dissidents. Even though at the moment there is no particular Islamist movement inside Syria, they may cause problems in the future. Since Islamists are afraid of brutal repression by the regime and their opposition activities have become rare, the regime is able to use religion as its political tool to promote the unity of Muslims. Since the early 1990s, the regime has encouraged the development of businesses in the private sector, which is the base of the economy prescribed by the Quran, and has protected private investors, including suq traders on which urban Islam has its political base. Islamic feasts and the construction and renovation of Sunni mosques (for example the renovation project of the Umayyad Mosque) are conducted under the patronage of the President Asad, as part of his policy of countering the Muslim Brotherhood and reducing the potential threat of the Sunni Muslims toward Alawis.
The regime attempts to create ideological links between Arab nationalism and Islam. Syrian mass media and intellectuals, who support the government propaganda, regard Arab nationalism as an idea developed in Arab Islamic culture. For example, a newspaper article introducing discussions on the conference on the subject 'The notion of the Arab at the end of the twentieth century', which was held at the University of Damascus on 4 April 1998, emphasised the connection between Islam and nationalism.
The discussion at the conference hinged on the notion that Western nationalism was introduced by [Ottoman] middle class intellectuals. However, some Arabs mentioned that this notion was already present in Islamic ideology and that it had been developed among both the Arabs and the West; whereas Marxism and Imperialism, whose origin was in the West, had already lost their validity in most countries. The aim of the Arabs is to reconsider Islam in the light of new Arab nationalism. This article does not explain how they found the idea of nationalism in Islam. However, it suggests that although nationalism is a secular idea, which developed in both Western and the Arab worlds, nationalism for Arabs has been and should be nurtured within Arab Islamic culture. The ideology of Arab nationalism in contemporary Syria found its ideological base in the society where Arab Islamic culture has nurtured.
The regime tries to describe similar characteristics which are found in both current reform movements, i.e., the Tishreen Corrective Movement promoted by the President Asad, and the reformation movement of Islam led by the Prophet Muhammad. The government presents through its media, in a rhetorical mode, the similarity between the President Asad's reform movement and the political and economic leadership of the prophet Muhammad at the Gazwat al-Badr, (the fight of Badr). Religious sheikhs emphasise the character of the Prophet as an able political and economic leader by looking at the effect of Gazwat al-Badr on the ancient Arabian economy. Governmental propaganda and the religious authorities construct the nationalists' subjective version of Gazwat al-Badr and use it as a symbol of Asad's Corrective Movement.
The regime attempts to find similarities between Asad's economic difficulties and political isolation at the time of the October War and the aftermath and those of the Prophet Muhammad at the time of the fight of Badr. When the religious movement of the Prophet Muhammad had reached a deadlock and he had little hope of increasing his followers in Mecca, he became isolated and emigrated to Madina. (Hijra). Due to his outstanding ability as a political leader, he controlled a major commercial route by intercepting caravans of Meccans at Badr, in the month of the Ramadn 624, and won the first and decisive military victory for integrating Arabs. Similar to the Prophet's effective leadership, the stand taken by Asad since the time of October War, was to pursue victory against Israel (despite Syria's isolation) and to encourage the unity of the Arabs in the Tishreen Corrective Movement and thus promote Syria as the vanguard of Arab nationalism. The regime tries to connect current Arab nationalism and Arab Islamic traditions, both of which are shared by Syrian Arabs.
The regime also attempted to combine Arab nationalism with Syria's territorial demands, primarily by cooperation with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which used to be rivals of the Ba'athists. This makes it ideologically possible for the regime to link its claim on the territorial unity of 'Greater Syria' to Arab Islamic unity.
For example, the authorities tend to use the commemoration of the October War to remind people of Israel's invasion into Arab land and appeal for the return of the occupied Golan. The authorities say that the persistent claim of Syria for a return of its land and their firm attitude in opposing the Israeli occupation have increased the sentiment of Arab solidarity, and have consolidated their faith. Here, the regime maintains that Syria's struggle to stress its territorial integrity appeals to advocates of Arab Islamic unity.
The main stance of Asad's policy toward the occupied land was to show how Israel threatens the territorial sovereignty of Syria. Asad presented his view at an interview on French television. He said that the peace process, launched by the American initiative, has supported the principle that peace should be accompanied by a return of the occupied land. Netanyahu, however, wanted to take away this land and keep it in the hands of Israelis. This means that he tried to substitute peace for an agreement of regional security without the return of occupied land. Asad further stated that Syria would refuse to accept Netanyahu's justification for military action because Syria respects the will of 'our' people and UN resolutions. This interview was broadcast many times on Syrian television both in Arabic and English, although the real voice of the interviewers and Asad was erased from the programme.
Asad insisted on a comprehensive peace to restore rights over the territory to their original owners. When Asad accused Israel of having an aggressive and cunning policy aimed at obtaining both power and land, he demonstrated his hard-line policy against Israel. It encouraged Syrian citizens to believe that Israeli conspires to cause divisions among them and provides an interpretative framework for people to understand new critical situations. For example, during the deterioration of Syria's relation with Turkey, the latter accused Syria of backing the PKK in October 1998. People in Aleppo and the Jazirah, both of which are close to the Syrian-Turkish border, became worried about potential conflict between Syria and Turkey. They claimed, "it is Israel which encourages Turkey to make trouble with us". This view of the common people is congruent with that of the Syrian government, i. e. that Israel was behind the crisis. Similarly, Syrian Orthodox Christians in al-Malikiya believe that the missionary work of the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Brethren of Lord in their town is fostered by Israel so as to disturb Syrian Orthodox Christians and split up their community. Political paranoia is both a function and a cause of difficult geopolitics and cannot be rejected as 'untrue'. Like religious belief it is a Durkheim social fact which has definite social effects.
A second strategy of combining Syria's territorial integrity with advocates of Arab Islamic unity is expressed by the notion of a historical Bilad as-Sham, i. e. Greater Syria. The regime attempts to portray the state of historical Syria as a real political entity, i.e., Bilad as-Sham. Greater Syria includes Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and it is assumed that they formed a geographical, cultural and economic integrated area, before the area was carved-up by the colonial powers in 1920. Thus, Greater Syria has a territorial implication and reality. Asad used the notion of a historic Syria to reconstruct the unity of the former classical community in contemporary Syria. This classical community, i.e., Bilad as-Sham, is perceived by people in Syria as 'real Syria', which does not correspond with the demarcated borders of the modern states, but is defined as a community linked by the Arabic language, Arab Islamic culture and the territory occupied by them. Such distinctive characteristics of Bilad as-Sham are portrayed as a means for confining membership within the community and creating the unity of people in this region. Thus, Bilad as-Sham with its territorial implication becomes a political entity which defines Syria's origin. In the present political situation where the old Bilad as-Sham is divided between present Syria and Lebanon, and where Lebanon has been in turmoil, the Syrian government regards Syria and Lebanon as one community based on language and culture, which act as factors for integrating the two societies. Asad did not draw a line between the unity of classical Syria (Bilad as-Sham) and the aspiration towards Arab unity. He did not expand on the territorial implications of Bilad as-Sham, as this raises Syria's complicated relations with Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, which are historically regarded as parts of Bilad as-Sham.
The historical and cultural unity of Syria and Lebanon was evoked to justify Syria's intervention into Lebanon. Despite careful avoidance of language suggesting the political unity of Syria and Lebanon, people in Syria from different religious and social backgrounds understood that Syria's attempt to establish a close relationship with Lebanon was on the regime's political agenda. As Asad indicated, Syria had to defend herself against a possible Israeli invasion of Damascus. Syria had experienced such a crisis at the time of the October War and in the Lebanese civil war in 1982. Israeli armies launched attacks against the Syrian positions in the Lebanese mountains and reached a position from which to threaten Damascus. As its defence strategy, the regime, therefore, used the notion of a classical community and homeland to justify its military intervention in Lebanon, the pretext being to protect the land and people of Lebanon threatened by Israel. The Arabic transcript of Asad's interview on French television clearly stated that 'historically speaking', the Syrians and Lebanese are the same people, who speak the same language and have experienced the same situation. They acknowledge that Lebanon is a separate state (dawla). The consensus among the Syrians is that they will intervene in conflicts in Lebanon in order to establish good relations between the various sects in Lebanon. Asad stated that he was determined to accomplish this task, even though it meant that a large number of his soldiers would be hurt and even killed during the operations as well as 'our Lebanese brothers'.
Such beliefs in belonging to a wider Bilad as-Sham were promoted by an elementary school curriculum and pupils paid visits to families of soldiers who were killed during the 1982 Lebanese civil war. These visits provided an occasion for children to listen to stories by families of the deceased. The government aimed to teach children to praise the families of these soldiers who are now martyrs, due to their contribution and dedication to the nation, i.e., Bilad as-Sham. Children's individual experiences of visiting these families were embedded in the national contexts of commemorating martyrs. The President also met the children of the martyrs, praised the bravery of their fathers and wished these children success on Martyrs' Day on the sixth of June 1998. Formal educational activities allowed each child to share and participate in the state's view of martyrs and give expression to the idea of a nation based on the classical community of Bilad as-Sham.
Such systematic historiographical campaigns deployed by the state are a characteristic device for constructing the nation's origin and for legitimising its policy. The regime takes on the role of guardian of the past, in which Asad's leadership was assumed to be a centripetal force for emphasizing Arab Islamic policy and traditions and reuniting the classical community of Bilad as-Sham. However, the regime emphasis on a Syrian identity based on Arab Islamic traditions has failed to completely provide Syrian Orthodox Christians with a sufficient base to acknowledge their rights in the state. They are thus obliged to construct their own version of Syrian national identity. An analysis of nationalism, therefore, requires one to examine the relationship between state propaganda and people's collective sentiments, which are the core of ethnicity, and on which modern nation states are founded.