Academic journal article Insight Turkey

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

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

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

Article excerpt

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

By Benjamin Thomas White

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011, 239 pages, ISBN 9780748641871.

ETHNIC and religious minorities and concomitant majorities--do not just exist sui generis. They have to be constructed or invented. It is not self-evident who is included in which category and who is excluded. It is only once these categories are accepted and used by people that they appear as natural and even eternal. This basic argument in White's book is not new or startling for readers familiar with today's mainstream research on ethnicity and social classifications. None the less, it is an argument well worth reiterating, not least because of its contemporary relevance for politics in the post-Ottoman empire in general and in Syria in particular. White does this by investigating the actual emergence of concepts such a 'minorities' and 'majority' during the French mandate in Syria.

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White's initial research plan was to study minorities in Syria during the French mandate and the way they were used--and even created--by the mandate power in order to understand the mutual confrontation between imperialism and nationalism. Most historical research on this period in Syria--the period when Syria was both fragmented into various smaller parts and finally united--underlines the complex interplay between the French mandate power, the Syrian nationalists, and the 'minorities.' This research, Whites argues, uses terms like 'minorities' and 'majority' not as broad descriptive terms, but as terms with analytical force. White, however, noticed that in texts produced during the mandate the term 'minority' was not frequently used until the 1930s. With this realization his whole project took a different turn. How did the term emerge?

White, like others, argues that the classificatory scheme majority-minority/minorities is closely linked to nationalism with the founding idea of one people with a common and shared culture through a common language, religion and history. World War I brought about the final dismantling of the multi-national, multi-religious and multi-linguistic Habsburg and Ottoman Empires in Europe and in the Near and the Middle East. With the creating of nation states linguistic, religious, or ethnic minorities were created as well. Borders in Central and Eastern Europe, on the Balkans, in Anatolia and the Middle East created people who found themselves stuck in the 'wrong' national territory, or were left no national territory at all, and who then became 'minorities.' The newly formed League of Nations was assigned to oversee that new states protected 'the minorities' found on their territories.

When the French and the British were awarded mandates over respectively today's Lebanon and Syria, Iraq and Palestine by the League of Nations in 1920 they had an obligation to develop these territories into functioning states. France directly set about subdividing its mandate into smaller units and by separating Lebanon from the rest of the territory. Today's Syria was divided into the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo and the Alawite state. In 1922, the Jabal Druze was detached from the State of Damascus. The Sanjak of Alexandretta/Hatay was an autonomous part of the State of Aleppo and the Syrian dessert was under direct French military rule. There was considerable resistance among the nationalists against the French policy of territorial division. …

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