Posted by Joshua on Sunday, November 23rd, 2008
“Are There Non-Sectarian Parties in Syria?”
By Joshua Landis
The following post originated in the comment section. I brought it to the front page not only because “sectarianism” is endlessly fascinating to our readers, but because it remains the central strumbling block to the formation of geographically based nationalism in the Middle East. I am responding to a comment by Nour:
The only truly secular parties in Lebanon are and have always been the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Communist Party. However, their ability to attract members has been historically hampered by the deep sectarian nature of Lebanese society which has only been strengthened and reinforced by the political system insisted upon by the sectarian, tribal chieftains of the country.
What about the Baath Party? Like both the SSNP and Communists, the Baath is secular and even anti-sectarian in ideology. Of course, it has not been so in reality.
I raise this question of the Baath, which is much more familiar to us, in order to challenge you on the other two – the SSNP and Communists.
I have always thought of the SSNP (Syrian Social Nationalist Party ) or PPS (Parti Populaire Syrien) as a party founded on a Greek Orthodox sensibility, even though it attracted many non-Orthodox. Yes, it builds on “Greater Syrian” nationalism, which is geographically based and not obviously sectarian, but hasn’t it appealed to Greek Orthodox first and foremost – as the anti “Arab” party? What I mean by “Arab” was understood by Greek Orthodox to be a code word for Muslim? It was attractive to other minorities, such as the Druze, Shiites, and Alawites as well, for the same reasons. They too were frightened of the Sunni ascendency. (Of course in the 1950s, the party developed a much more nuanced approach to Arabism, but I am talking about its origins here. Baathism later grew up to challenge the SSNP for the allegiance of many of these groups because it promised to establish an Arabism that was not dominated by the hegemonic Sunni moral outlook as was the National Bloc and its off spring.
At the time of the First World War, when the British were trying to appeal to the Arab Sunni majority by supporting the Hashemite version of Arab nationalism, which was infused with Sunni legitimacy, the Comite Central Syrien, a largely Greek Orthodox inspired organization grew up to challenge this conception of the M.E. It presented Greater Syria as the alternative to a Hashemite led Middle East and appealed to the French – particularly during the Paris Peace Conference after the War. People like Jacques Tabet, Chucri Ghanem and Semne, leading members of the movement – as well as the many chapters in the mahjar, Latin America, Europe and North America, did not want toe-picking backward Arabian Arabs to take over. They also depicted Arabism as a scary fanatical movement coming from the desert that wanted to re-impose a caliphate on the Middle East and had no conception of modern nationalism. They tried to scare Christian Middle Easterners and Europeans alike about the ultimate results of empowering a largely Muslim, neo-Umayyad, Arabism in the region.
When one scratched below the surface of the Greater Syria alternative, one found an imperial Byzantine sensibility and conception of history that had been built upon readings of the bible and sought to reunite regions of the Middle East where large populations of Greek Orthodox lived. Greater Syrianism didn’t just grow up as an anti-Arabist movement, it also emerged as an anti-Pheonicianist movement. It was an effort to present a nationalist conception of the region that suited the sensibilities and demographic of the Greek Orthodox in opposition to the largely Sunni and Maronite nationalist conceptions that were emerging.
Antoun Saade, whose father Khalil Sa’adah was a prominent Arabic-language journalist in Brazil, was well versed in this conception of the Middle East. I do not have proof that his father belonged to the Comite Central Syrien of the First World War era, but I would wager he did. He was a publisher and intellectual. Antoun grew up in a politicized and literate milieu.
He brought these ideas back to Lebanon in the 1930s and gave them an overlay of national socialism (fascism) which was the fashion of the time, replacing the liberalism of the original members of the Comite Central Syrien.
In short, what I am arguing is that all the “secular” parties of the Middle East, such as the SSNP, Baath, and Communit Parties, had a disproportionate appealed to various ethnic or sectarian groups and became “sectarianized” because the nationalist struggle in the Middle East could not be isolated from the religious and communal struggles that were and remain such a fundamental part of identity politics in the region.