The Nation-State Form and the Emergence of ‘Minorities’ in Syria

Benjamin White, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism: Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007

The research paper was summarised by the Free Syrian Translators

A minority can be defined as a “ ‘group distinguished by common ties of descent, physical appearance, language, culture or religion, in virtue of which they feel or are regarded as different from the majority of the population in a society’ (Bullock 1988: ‘minorities’), a distinction understood to have political significance.”

Minorities are modern political groupings that resulted from the formation of nation-states. Actually the word ‘minority’ itself did not appear in European dictionaries and Encyclopedia (at least those in English and French) until the early 20th C., particularly after WWI when the League of Nations ‘inaugurated an era in which the nation became the only internationally legitimate state form.’ In the beginning it was used to refer to religious minorities, and then later the meaning was extended to include ethnic and other types of minorities.

In the past, demographics did not determine which religious group was subordinate to the other. Hence it was common for a numerically superior group to be ruled over by a smaller religious group, as it was the case in the Arab caliphate and various Ottoman provinces.

There are certain philosophical and geographical preconditions for the concept of minority to acquire its current meaning:

* Philosophically, there is the notion of representative government (whether democratic or not). In pre-modern times, it was not unusual for the ruler to be of a different religion or race than the people he ruled, for his rule represented the will of the divine, rather than the ruled. The representative government, on the other hand, claims to represent a certain people, who are defined geographically, by a specific territory, and also culturally by some form of nationalism. However, more often than not, it happens that some groups within that population which live within this defined geographic territory do not fit the cultural identity assumed by the state. In this case, these groups become defined as ‘minorities’.

* Geographically, the development of modern means of communication and transportation rendered the existence of semi-autonomous communities in isolation of the state almost impossible. The authority of the state has extended exponentially, which enabled it to interfere in all fields of governance (political, cultural, legal, etc.).

* The French had a static understanding of the millet system in the Ottoman Empire. According to this understanding, Ottoman populations were presumed to be divided into religious communities, millets, with each having its own autonomy under a religious hierarchy. The French assumed that these religious communities were suspicious of each other and that religious identities subsumed all others.

* Based on this model, which did not reflect the political and social changes in the Ottoman Empire in its last decades, the French mandate of Syria sought to construct the Syrian modern nation-state. The French extended the millet system in accordance with the principle of association of colonial theorist Marshal Lyautey, as opposed to the principle of assimilation, which was followed in Morocco.

* The analysis that the French pursued a ‘divide-and-rule’ policy by cultivating links with minorities in Syria in order to counterbalance the weight of the majority is “unsatisfactory”. ‘Minorities’ are not just there waiting for the French to pick them up; the French themselves helped defined which groups in Syria are to be defined as minorities and which are not. For example, the French refused calls by Circassians and Kurds to be recognised politically as minorities on grounds that the designation ‘community’ is restricted to religious groupings, although it was more difficult for them, i.e. ethnolinguistic communities, to integrate within the ‘Syrian Arab nation’ than Arabic speaking religious communities.

* One of the reasons for the French to choose to order Syrian society along religious lines is their interest in maintaining close links with Christians in the Levant, especially in Lebanon, where “France’s interests and clients were concentrated.” This policy, also, allowed them to exclude “the (many) Christians who were not hostile to [Syrian/Arab] nationalism.”

* This did not preclude the French from exploiting ethnolinguistic divisions by, for example, recruiting Circassians and Armenians it its military forces.

* The Ottoman Empire did not recognise Islamic sects as millets, although some of them, such as Alawites and Druze could be regarded as ‘unofficial’ millets because of their virtual autonomy.

* Uses of the category ‘minority’ in political discussions in Syria “reveal more about the expansion of state power within the nation-state form than about primordial identities. ‘Minority’ is important not because minorities as political groupings have particular demands a priori, but rather because the category lends itself to political mobilisation.”

* The French originally justified their intervention in Ottoman affairs on its claims of protecting Christian communities. As this “sat uneasily” with the secular nation-state form, the French recast their involvement in Syria as being for the purpose of protecting ‘minorities’.

* “By imposing a conceptual category such as ‘minority’ on a society, we may obscure more than we reveal, losing sight of how the social and political groups these categories describe appeared and developed.”

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