Take Two: What’s Behind the Religious Conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq

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Earlier today I recommended a Fareed Zakaria video about the roots of the current civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Sam Barkin, a professor at UMass Boston, emails to say that Zakaria’s history is faulty:

While reading your post of about an hour ago on arming the Syrian rebels, I clicked on the embedded video of Fareed Zakaria’s five-minute historical primer. He makes what seems to be a compelling case about the historical complexities of Syria. There’s just one problem. His history is wrong. Really quite wrong, in a way that makes me worry about his analysis.

He claims that three contemporary countries in the Levant—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—were intentionally set up by the European colonial countries with minority-rule governments, explicitly for divide-and-rule purposes. In Iraq, it’s true, the monarchy was Sunni (it also wasn’t Iraqi, but that’s a different story). The British did deal with the local elites, as they tended to do in their protectorates, and the local elites were by and large Sunni, but that was a pre-existing condition.

However, in the two French-protectorate countries, Syria and Lebanon, the French at no point tried to empower minorities at the expense of ethnic/religious majorities. In Syria, which is roughly three-quarters Sunni, almost all of the heads of state and government until 1970 (it may in fact be all of them, I didn’t have the patience to check) were Sunni. The central role of the Shiite Alawites in the security service did not begin until after Assad senior consolidated power after the 1970 coup. And I can assure you that the French were not fans either of Assad or of the Ba’ath party more generally. Lebanon, meanwhile, was designed by the French specifically to be Christian majority (in fact, the French redrew the map of Lebanon in 1920 to ensure such a majority). The Christians probably remained a majority in Lebanon into the 1960s.

So telling the story of Syria (either current Syria or Greater Syria) as one of a history of sectarianism and minority rule is simply historically factually wrong. And it leaves me wondering if Zakaria really doesn’t know the history, or if he’s taking some serious historical liberties in order to make his point.

In a nutshell, Barkin is saying that only in Iraq can you argue that a minority-rule government was originally installed by a colonial power. In Lebanon it was a case of demographic changes turning a Christian majority into a minority, and in Syria the minority Alawites took power long after the French had withdrawn. Zakaria is right that in all three cases, conflicts between religious minorities and majorities are still central to what’s going on today, but the historical backdrop is more complicated than he allows.

I thought this was worth passing along. Anyone else care to weigh in?

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