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Ethnic politics in the Levant: A fresh perspective on the political careers of Zaki al-Arsouzi, Suleiman al-Murshid, and Antun Sa'adeh

Article published in: Meir Litvak and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman (editors), Nationalism, Identity and Politics: Israel and the Middle East – Studies in Honor of Prof. Asher Susser. Tel Aviv University: The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, 2014, pp. 13-28.

The Levant and the Fertile Crescent are in turmoil. These terms refer to two overlapping geographical entities. In its broadest sense, the term "Levant" refers to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, but it is normally used in a narrower sense to designate the coastal area of Syria and Lebanon. The term "Fertile Crescent" refers to the relatively fertile area that surrounds the Arabian and Syrian deserts and comprises Iraq in addition to Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon conform to the definition of a "failed state." Since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime, and certainly since its departure in December 2011, the country has in fact been divided into three. Syria, since the outbreak of the crisis there in March 2011, is in a state of civil war and the government's effective control is limited to less than half of the country's territory. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is more powerful than the state. It has demonstrated its ability to take over the country but prefers not to do so and instead to continue to operate under the umbrella of the Lebanese state.

These developments are the product of a number of processes and discrete developments. They are also not unique to this part of the Arab World and are matched by the collapse of the Libyan and Yemenite states as well as by the instability of several other Arab states. The distinctiveness of the unraveling of the Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese states, and the intensity of the turmoil they are undergoing, derives from two main sources: the dominance of ethnic-sectarian rivalries and loyalties, and the fundamental weakness of states that were put together by the colonial powers at the end of World War I according to imperial considerations rather than by more legitimate criteria.

All three states have heterogeneous populations. Iraq has a majority of 60 percent Shiite Arabs, 20 percent Sunni Arabs, and 20 percent Kurds. Syria has a majority of 60 percent Sunni Arabs and the other 40 percent are made up of Alawites (ca 12%), Christians (10%), Kurds (10%) and smaller groups of Armenians, Druze and Ismailis. Lebanon is a true mosaic of ethnic and religious communities but the Lebanese political system, unlike the Iraqi and Syrian ones, was built on the assumption that the country had a Christian majority of a 6:5 ratio to its Muslims. Furthermore, of the three, Lebanon was the only state whose political system was originally predicated on the assumption that there is no Lebanese nation and that the population's ultimate allegiance is vested in religious or ethnic affiliation. The terms used to designate such affiliation in French (confesionel) and in Arabic (ta'ifi) have no equivalent in English. The Iraqi and Syrian states were constructed on the assumption that they were Arab, and pan-Arab nationalism was the dominant ideology of their political elites. The implicit assumption was that the Shiite Arabs in Iraq, and groups such as the Alawites, Christians, Ismailis and Druze in Syria were members of the Arab nation and would find their place in states defined as Arab. This was illusory. Arab nationalism has a Sunni tincture and Shiite and other non-Sunni groups did not find their proper place in countries dominated by the Sunni urban elites.

Given this state of affairs, as well as the weakness of the states constructed by the British and the French, and the aura of illegitimacy surrounding political entities that were the product of imperial give and take, it is hardly surprising that much of the political and ideological ferment of the 19208 and 19308 was focused on efforts to redefine political boundaries in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant and the political communities that were to inhabit them. In the same vein, questions of religious, ethnic and sectarian affiliation and conflict were at the core of most political movements in the region in those decades.

Presently, as the current political turmoil has reopened many of these questions and brought them to the fore, it may be useful to take a fresh look at three figures who played important roles in crafting ideologies grounded in sectarian loyalties and who engaged in one fashion or another in sectarian politics during the interwar years: Zaki al-Arsouzi in Alexandretta and in Damascus, Suleiman al-Murshid in the Alawite Mountains, and Antun Sa'adeh in Beirut.


Zaki al-Arsouzi

The traditional historiography of the Ba'th Party identified Michel 'Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar as its co-founders. 'Aflaq, an Orthodox Christian from Damascus, and Bitar, a Sunni Muslim from the same city, returned to the Syrian capital after completing their studies in France and became high-school teachers. They were influenced by, and contributed to, the ideological ferment and politics of the ci beginning in the 19308. During the course of World War II, they founded a party whose ideology combined a secular definition of pan-Arab nationalism with a mild form of socialism. The party's secularist view of Arab nationalism as related to, but distinct from, Islam was given its dassic formulation in a speech delivered by 'Aflaq in the amphitheater of the University of Damascus on the Prophet Muhammad's birthday in 1943. 'Aflaq_s quest for a secularist definition of Arabism was typical of minoritarian intellectuals in different parts of the world who believed, consciously or sub-consciously, that by defining their political community in secularist or universalist terms they could escape minority status and become equal members of their nation. Later, _Aflaq and Bitar joined forces with a very different political leader, Akram al-Hawrani, a member of a notable family from Hama. Hawrani brought to the united party, now called "The Arab Socialist Ba'th Party," his connections in the Syrian military and his influence over the peasant population in the rural areas around Hama and elsewhere. This alliance propelled the Ba'th into political prominence by enabling it to do unusually well in the parliamentary elections of 1954 and in the military politics of a country that witnessed early and frequent military intervention. Four years later, the Ba'th leadership played a major role in pushing Syria into an abortive union with Egypt (the United Arab Republic, UAR) that ended in September 1961 with Syria's succession. The union's failure led, among other things, to the breakup of the partnership between 'Aflaq and Bitar, on the one hand, and Hawrani on the other. Hawrani did flourish briefly in the post-secession politics of Syria but his political career ended in March 1963, when a group of Ba'thist army officers staged the coup that brought the party to power in Syria. A month earlier, the party's Iraqi branch had seized power in Baghdad.