The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics and Community in French Mandate Syria

The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics and Community in French Mandate Syria

The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics and Community in French Mandate Syria

The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics and Community in French Mandate Syria

Synopsis

Why, in the years around 1920, did the concept of 'minority' suddenly become prominent in public affairs worldwide? Within a decade after World War One, the term became fundamental to public understandings of national and international politics, law, and society: minorities (and majorities too) were taken to be an objective reality, both in the present and the past.

This book uses a study of Syria under the French mandate to show what historical developments led people to start describing themselves and others as 'minorities'. Despite French attempts to create territorial, political, and legal divisions, the mandate period saw the consolidation of the nation-state form in Syria. There was a trend towards a coherent national territory with fixed borders and uniform state authority within them, while the struggle to control the state was played out in the language of nationalism - developments in the post-Ottoman Levant that closely paralleled events in Europe at the same time, following the demise of the Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist empires. Through close attention to what changed in French mandate Syria, and what those changes meant, the book argues for a careful reappraisal of a term too often used as an objective description of reality.

Excerpt

Let me start with what this book is not. When I began my research, I planned to study minorities in French mandate Syria. Everyone who had written about the mandate seemed to agree that the French in Syria used the minorities – in some eyes even created them – in order to offset the opposition of the nationalist majority. Studying these communities would therefore allow me to understand better the confrontation between two ideologies that have shaped our time: imperialism and nationalism.

My original plan was to consider several specific minorities, defined along religious or linguistic lines (or both), to see how these different variables affected their relationships with the majority, the nationalists and the imperial power. This would provide insight into the aggressively divisive policies put in place by the French in Syria, and the imperialist conception of the colonised society as hopelessly divided that underpinned those policies. At the same time, it would illuminate the means whereby Syrian Arab nationalism constructed the Syrian Arab nation. While I was sceptical of the imperialist claim that religious or linguistic cleavages in Syrian society were primordial, permanent, and insurmountable, and that religious or linguistic identity determined political identity, I was also aware that such cleavages are not negligible, especially to the development of nationalism. A numerical majority of the inhabitants of the new state were Sunni Muslims, but that majority was divided by language; a numerical majority were Arabic-speakers, but that majority was divided by religion. Sunni Muslim Arabic-speakers – sharing both language and religion – were a numerical majority, but a much smaller one: nationalism would need to appeal beyond this group to achieve a solid base in Syrian society. Since French imperialism imposed divisions on that society precisely to hinder the appeal of nationalism outside this group, examining Syrian Arab nationalist responses to those divisions – whether seeking to reassure minorities of their place within . . .

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