From 2008 to 2010, young scholar Christian Sahner (left) lived in Syria, studying Arabic. He learned a great deal about the country. particularly the relations among the different religious groups that made up Syrian society–including Christians, who accounted for perhaps 10% of the population. Last fall, he published an engaging account of his time in Syria, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford). In the book, Sahner describes life in Syria before the Arab Spring. Notwithstanding a surface calm, he writes, sectarian tensions existed just below the surface.
This week, Sahner–who received a PhD in History this month from Princeton, and who will start a research fellowship at Cambridge in the fall–kindly answers some questions about his work. Our conversation covers topics such as the history of Christians in Syria, their experience under the Assad regime, the failure of the Arab Spring, and prospects for the future.
Christian, let’s start with some background. Your book is a reflection on the years you spent in Syria (2008-2010) and Lebanon (2011-2013). Why did you decide to live in these countries? What were you doing there?
Sahner: I first came to Syria for language study. Before the tumult of the Arab Spring, it was common wisdom among students that Cairo and Damascus were the best places to master Arabic. It was more or less dumb luck that led me to Syria and not to Egypt, and in hindsight, I’m immensely grateful the cards fell the way they did. By the beginning of 2011, Syria was no longer a safe place for an American student. Therefore, it was to Beirut that I relocated to carry on my language work and research. I’ve been returning to Lebanon ever since.
A main theme in your book is the power of sectarianism, which you define as the “activation of religious identity as one of the main principles of social and political life.” You believe this is a key fact of Syrian and Lebanese societies. What do you think explains it?
Sahner: Among the different countries of the Arab and Muslim world, Syria and Lebanon stand out for the terrific variety of peoples who live there, and always have. This includes not just Sunni Muslims, who form an absolute majority between the two countries, but also smaller Muslim sects, such as Shi‘is, Alawis, Isma‘ilis, and Druze, along with non-Muslims, including numerous Christian denominations, and until recently, large populations of Jews. The existence of religious diversity does not in and of itself entail the existence of sectarianism. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that sectarianism depends on and cannot exist without a sense of religious difference in a society. In the Levant, we face a world in which, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political systems emerged that explicitly assigned power on the basis of sect (as in Lebanon), or which saw informal imbalances of power arise among sects (as in Syria). Because these systems thrust religious identity into the center of political life in this way, they tended to stoke resentments between communities, and under certain circumstances, spark violence.
You have a great interest in the Christian communities of Syria. Many Westerners are very unfamiliar with these communities. Could you give us a brief description of them? Who are they, what are their numbers?
Sahner: We tend to think of Syria as a Muslim-majority country, but for centuries after the rise of Islam, its population was majority Christian. The roots of these Christian communities are very ancient. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, it was in the Syrian city of Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Over the centuries, Syrian Christianity became splintered into different denominations, which were divided over the proper interpretation of various church councils that occurred in late antiquity. This produced a great diversity of belief that has endured to the present, including denominations that are relatively little known in the West, including the Syrian Orthodox, the Maronites, the Antiochene Orthodox, and others. Before the war, Christians in Syria probably numbered around 1.5 million, or about 10% of the population, a figure that has fallen sharply in recent years as a result of the conflict.
You make an interesting point about how longstanding intra-Christian disputes, including Christological controversies, made it easier for Muslims to capture Syria in the seventh century. Could you explain this dynamic?
Sahner: I wouldn’t say that the Christological disputes of late antiquity – and the competing hierarchies they gave rise to – made the Arab conquest of Syria any easier. What I would say is that unlike the Byzantines, who had governed Syria before the conquests and who were deeply enmeshed in these very controversies, the Muslims were usually indifferent to competing interpretations of Christian theology. For the most part, they seem to have regarded Christological disputes as a kind of “inside baseball” among Christians. Thus, provided Christians paid their taxes and recognized the general suzerainty of Islam, the Muslim rulers rarely took sides in debates over doctrine or authority. This is not to say that certain Christian communities cheered the Arabs’ victory because it freed them from Byzantine persecution (as historians once speculated). I think it’s safe to say that most Christians in the Middle East mourned the collapse of Byzantine power, regardless of their own feelings about the politics of the imperial church. What we can say is that the Muslims were impartial rulers of their Christian subjects in a way the Byzantines had not been, especially when it came to intra-Christian sectarianism.
Notwithstanding the contentious history, Mideast Christians today are among the least interested in divisive theological disputes. In fact, you quote a Catholic priest as saying that there is essentially intercommunion among Christians in Syria now. What explains this? Is it what Pope Francis has called “the ecumenism of blood?”
Sahner: Regardless of their particular doctrinal or institutional commitments, Christians in the modern Middle East face a common set of challenges. These include the allure of emigration, the prospect of discrimination and violence, and a general shrinking of their numbers. As a result, it seems to me – at least anecdotally – that many have put aside their historic differences and found common cause with Christians from other denominations. In places like Damascus or Beirut, for example, it’s not hard to find intermarriage between Orthodox and Catholics, intercommunion between officially separate churches, and even priests from different denominations celebrating the liturgy side by side. Of course, this does not mean that denominational identities have disappeared – far from it. Rather, it is to say that for many, “Christian” has become a more important marker of public identity vis-à-vis the Muslim majority than “Syrian Orthodox,” “Armenian,” “Maronite,” or “Rum.”
One the most interesting parts of your book relates to the experience of Christians under the Assad regime. Christians were quick to tell you that interreligious relations were great. And yet you noticed problems below the surface. Neighbors and friends from different religions mixed freely, you write, but “there were some frontiers you could not cross comfortably without a proper invitation or purpose.” Could you explain?
Sahner: Before the war, it was common to hear all stripes of Syrians say, “There is no sectarianism in our country.” Today, many still believe that, choosing to interpret the sectarian turn of the uprising as the work of outsiders like the Saudis or the Iranians. Of course, the sectarianism we’ve witnessed over the past four years did not come out of the ether, and in the book, I try to explain how it may have built on certain unspoken codes and boundaries that had existed in Syria for a long time. Here, it’s important to distinguish between sectarian violence – which largely did not exist before 2011 – and sectarian identities – which certainly did. Syrian society was organized around a principle known in Arabic as “aysh mushtarak,” or “living together,” that is, co-existence among different religious communities, based on neighborly good practice and conviviality. The language of “aysh mushtarak” does not so much question or discount the sectarian organization of society as it takes it for granted, all the while insisting upon the essential harmony among groups. What we’ve seen over the past four years is the erosion of this harmony and the reinforcement of walls between groups – a process that has affected all of Syria’s sects, including the Christians.
Many in the West were hopeful about the Arab Spring. And yet, your write, in a matter of months, the Syrian revolution, “which had begun as a peaceful protest movement clamoring for dignity, became a violent insurrection powered in large part by religious fundamentalists.” What went wrong?
Sahner: There are many theories concerning how the Syrian uprising ended up in the hands of extremists. One suggests that the Asad regime had been so successful in suppressing opposition over the decades that there were few liberal dissidents or intellectuals left in the country with the credibility or know-how to steer the revolution in the right direction in its earliest days. Any legitimate opposition was either sitting in jail or had been living outside the country too long to matter. Another theory suggests that from the beginning, the Asad regime was determined to paint the uprising as a violent, extremist movement (whatever its original character or goals). It did so by turning its guns on the protesters, thereby provoking a violent response from the opposition. It also did so by releasing large numbers of hardline Islamists from Syrian prisons, who in turn, spread to the battlefield and poisoned the revolution, as some tell it. Ultimately, whatever caused the change, fundamentalist groups proved to be the most successful on the battlefield, thereby helping them attract more recruits and money. Furthermore, the vision they proposed for the future of Syria proved more appealing to many Sunnis, who felt disenfranchised by the Alawi-dominated government of President Asad and who had become disenchanted with its secular nationalist platform.
What do you predict for the future of Syrian Christian communities?
Sahner: Sadly, I think we may be witnessing the last stand of Christianity as a numerically significant part of Syrian society. Increasingly, Christians have either left the country or withdrawn into government-controlled cocoons in Damascus and along the coasts. The rise of the Islamic State has caused the situation to deteriorate further. Many Christians in Syria look at the tragic fate of their co-religionists in northern Iraq – who have been killed, driven from their homes, and now wallow in massive tent cities – and fear the same could happen to them. The disappearance of Christians from Syria would be a massive blow to the country. They have played an outsized role in economic, cultural, and political life, and provide key connections between Syrian society and the outside world.
You explain that in the view of conservative Muslims, modern Western culture and Christianity promote values that are “un-Syrian.” This poses a problem for interreligious dialogue, doesn’t it—as well as for Western foreign policy towards the Middle East? Is there a way to overcome this?
Sahner: Ever since the Ottoman period, when European powers like the French, English and Russians began cultivating Arab Christians as clients, there has been a growing sense among many in the region that Christianity is essentially a “Western” religion. Of course, this is historically untrue, but political and cultural ties with the West have often made local Christians suspect in the eyes of their Muslim neighbors. This is what I mean when I quote a Syrian Muslim as saying that Christians harbor “un-Syrian” values. Such an attitude poses a range of challenges – political, social, and religious. Ultimately, it is precisely this view – the notion that Christians are outsiders in their own country – that can justify acts of discrimination, the creation of new forms of political identity that exclude Christians (such as various strains of Islamism), and under the worst circumstances, provoke violence. The key is for Syrians to maintain as capacious a view as possible of what it means to be Syrian, such that smaller communities like the Christians have a sense of commitment and belonging to the country when this war eventually ends.
Although you describe a history and current situation that is “filled with sorrow,” you believe there is reason for hope. Could you explain a bit more?
Sahner: I confess that my optimism has dimmed since I finished writing the book, largely as a result of the rise of the Islamic State. The days when Syria’s civil war was notionally about the overthrow of an authoritarian regime are long past. What we are left with today is a range of bad options and bad outcomes for the people of the country. That said, if I have any hope for Syria, it is the idea that the region has passed through periods of trial in the past, and the present war is merely another one of them – albeit more destructive thanks to the presence of heavy weapons and the proliferation of extremist ideologies. I also hope that the deep seeded animosities that have flowered in the context of the war may be overcome – or at least, negotiated to the point that Syrians of different viewpoints and background can build working relationships again – much as what happened in Lebanon after the end of its civil war. Syrians are resilient, resourceful, and good humored people. I hope these qualities will serve them well whenever the fighting comes to a halt. As to when that happens, as they say in Arabic, “God knows best.”