Facing historic ethnic dynamics in Syria and the Middle East (and the world)
I found the article below useful from a social evolutionary perspective.
The dynamic it describes seems like a relatively insoluble situation. But then again, it once seemed that South Africa was such a situation. So I’m curious about the potential shifts possible through scenario work of the kind that facilitated the end of apartheid in South Africa. “A diverse team of South African leaders—from the opposition and the establishment, left and right, black and white; businesspeople, politicians, academics, trade unionists, and community workers” used “scenario methodology to work together on how to effect a successful transition to democracy” – “a project that became known as the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise. The Mont Fleur team’s scenarios, published in 1992, asked the question: How will the South African transition go and will the country succeed in “taking off”? Each of the four stories gave a different answer and had a different message. South Africa was in the middle of the contentious and risky transition negotiations. Nobody knew how or even whether they would succeed, or if the country would remain stuck, embattled, and isolated. As a set, the scenarios provided a provocative road map for this transition. There were three dark prophecies of futures to avoid: Ostrich, in which the minority white government sticks its head in the sand to try to avoid a negotiated settlement with the black majority; Lame Duck, in which there is a prolonged transition with a constitutionally weakened government that, because it purports to respond to all, satisfies none; and Icarus, in which a constitutionally unconstrained black government comes to power on a wave of popular support and noble intentions, and embarks on a huge and unsustainable public spending program, which crashes the economy. Then there was one bright vision of a future to work towards: Flight of the Flamingos, in which the transition is successful because all the key building blocks are put in place, with everyone in the society rising slowly and together.” (excerpted from http://reospartners.com/news-view/268/)
You can read the full official report at
Dynamic Facilitation and Nonviolent Communication are also interesting possibilities, if they were given some support in the circumstance.
In any case, this article articulates major trends to keep in mind.
June 8, 2013
Butterflies in Damascus
by Uri Avnery
founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement
see his other articles at
DURING THE Spanish civil war of 1936, a news story reported the deaths
of 82 Moroccans, 53 Italians, 48 Russians, 34 Germans, 17 Englishmen, 13
Americans and 8 Frenchmen. Also 1 Spaniard.
“Serves him right,” people in Madrid commented, “Why did he interfere?”
Similar things could now be said about the civil war in Syria. Shiites
from all over the Muslim world stream into Syria to help Bashar
al-Assad’s dictatorship to survive, while Sunnis from many countries
hasten there to support the rebels.
The implications of this go well beyond the bloody Syrian struggle. It
is a historic revolution, region-wide and perhaps world-wide.
AFTER WORD WAR I, the victorious colonial empires carved up the
territories of the vanquished Ottoman Empire among themselves. Since
colonialism was out and self-determination was in, their new colonies
were dressed up as independent nations (like Iraq) or as nations-to-be
European-style nationalism took hold of the new Arab nations. The
ancient idea of the pan-Muslim “Umma” was pushed away. The idea of a
pan-Arab super-state, propagated by the Baath party and Egypt’s Gamal
Abd-al-Nasser, was tried and failed. Syrian nationalism, Iraqi
nationalism, Egyptian nationalism and, of course, Palestinian
It was a doubtful victory. A typical Syrian nationalist in Damascus was
also a part of the Arab region, of the Muslim world and of the Sunni
community – and the order of these diverse loyalties was never quite
This was different in Europe, where the national loyalty was
unchallenged. A modern German could also be a Bavarian and a Catholic,
but he was first and foremost a German.
During the last decades, the victory of local nationalism in the Arab
world seemed assured. After the short-lived United Arab Republic broke
up in 1961 and Syrians proudly displayed their new Syrian passports, the
future of the Arab nation-states looked rosy.
Not any more.
TO UNDERSTAND the immense significance of the present upheaval one has
to go back in history.
Two thousand years ago, the modern idea of “nation” was unthinkable. The
prevalent collective structure was the ethnic-religious community. One
belonged to a community that was not territorially defined. A Jewish man
in Alexandria could marry a Jewess in Babylon, but not the Hellenic or
Christian woman next door.
Under Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman emperors, all these dozens of sects
enjoyed a wide autonomy, ruled by imams, priests and rabbis. This is
still partly the case in most former Ottoman territories, including
Israel. The Turks called these self-governing sects “millets”.
The German historian Oswald Spengler, in his monumental “The Decline of
the West”, asserted that great cultures were like human beings – they
are born, grow up and die of old age within a thousand years.
Middle-Eastern culture, according to him, was born around 500 BC and
died with the decay of the Muslim Caliphate. Judaism, which was born in
the Babylonian exile around 500 BC, was just one sect among many.
Arnold Toynbee, the British historian who espoused a similar theory,
claimed that today’s Jews were a “fossil” of this obsolete culture.
What happened later was that European societies went through many
stages, the latest being that of the “nation”. In Europe, the Jews were
a sinister and hated anomaly because they clung to their former
existence as a homeland-less, dispersed ethno-religious sect. This was
done quite consciously: the rabbis erected a “fence around the Torah”,
separating Jews from everybody else, making it impossible for them to
eat with non-Jews or marry them. Jews orginally congregated in ghettos
because of their need for a Synagogue they could walk to on the Sabbath,
public bath (Mikvah) etc.
When the situation of the nation-less Jews in nationalist Europe became
increasingly difficult, Zionism was born. By a sleight-of-hand it
postulated that Jews were not only an ethno-religious community, but at
the same time also a “nation like other nations”. This was a necessary
fiction, until Zionism succeeded in creating a real nation – the Israelis.
With the founding of the Israeli state, the Zionist doctrine lost its
purpose and should have been dismantled, like the scaffolding of a
finished building. Everybody expected this to happen in due course –
Hebrew Israelis would be a “normal” nation, and their connection with
the Jewish world would become secondary.
TODAY WE are witnessing a kind of Jewish counter-revolution. In Israel
there is a comeback of the world-Jewish connection, while separate
Israeli nationhood is denied. It is a reversal of Zionism.
The events in Syria indicate a similar process. Throughout the region
the ethno-religious community is coming back, the European-style
nation-state is disintegrating.
The colonial powers created “artificial” states with no consideration to
ethno-religious realities. In Iraq, Arab Sunnis and Shiites and non-Arab
Kurds were arbitrarily put together. In Syria, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawis
(an offshoot of the Shia), Druze (another offshoot), Kurds and diverse
Christian sects were put into one “national” pot and left to stew. In
Lebanon the same was done, with even worse results. In Morocco and
Algeria, Arabs and Berbers are put together.
Now the ethno-religious sects are uniting – against each other. The
Syrian civil war has united the Shiites – from Lebanon to Iran – in
defense of the Alawite semi-Shia regime. The Sunnis from all over the
place rally to the cause of the majority Sunnis. The Syrian Kurds have
already created a de facto joint state with the Kurds in Iraq. The
Druze, more dispersed and customarily more cautious, are awaiting their
IN THE Western world, the obsolescent nation-state is being superseded
by supra-national regional confederations, like the EU. In our region,
we may be reverting to the ethno-religious sects.
It is difficult to foresee how this will work out. The Ottoman millet
system could function because there was the overall imperial rule of the
Sultan. But how could Shiite Iran combine with the majority Shiites in
Iraq, the Shiite community in south Lebanon and other Shiite communities
in a joint entity? What about the dozen Christian sects dispersed across
Some people believe that the only viable solution for Syria proper is
the disintegration of the country into several sect-dominated states – a
central Sunni state, an Alawite state, a Kurd state, a Druze state, etc.
Lebanon was also a part of Syria, until the French tore them apart in
order to set up a Christian state. The French created several such
little states, in order to break the back of Syrian nationalism. It did
The difficulty of such a “solution” is illustrated by the situation
of the Druze, who live in two unconnected territories – in South Lebanon
and in the “Druze mountain” area in Southern Syria. A smaller Druze
community lives in Israel. (As a defensive strategy, the Druze in every
country – including Israel – are patriots of that country.)
The disintegration of the existing states may be accompanied by
wholesale massacres and ethnic cleansing, as happened when India broke
apart and when Palestine was partitioned. It is not a happy prospect.
Toynbee, by the way, did not only consider the Jews as a fossil of
the past, but also as the harbinger of the future. In an interview he
granted my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, he expressed the hope that the
nation-state would be superseded by world-wide ideological communities,
like the Jewish diaspora. He may have been thinking of the communists,
who at the time seemed to be turning into a world-wide supra-national
community. That experiment failed, too.
AT PRESENT, a war is raging among Israeli historians. Prof. Shlomo
Sand is maintaining that the Jewish nation was invented (like all
nations, only more so), and that the concept of Eretz Israel (the Land
of Israel) is a Zionist invention as well. Now he also asserts that he
is not a Jew, but an Israeli.
Against these heresies, a whole phalanx of Zionist professors is in
Since I never even finished elementary school, I wouldn’t dare to
stick my head out and get caught up in the battle of the professors. I
will, however, remark that I, too, object to sliding back into a
world-wide Jewish sect and advocate the recognition of the new Israeli
nation in Israel.
YES, WE are an Israeli nation, a nation whose existence is bound to
the fate of the State of Israel.
This does not mean that those of us who are Jews have to disown our
Jewish past, its traditions and values, and our connections with the
world-wide ethno-religious Jewish community. But we have reached a new
stage in our development.
So, perhaps, have the Arab and other Muslim peoples around us. New
forms are in the making.
History shows that human societies are changing all the time, much
as a butterfly develops from an egg into a caterpillar, from there to a
chrysalis and from there to the beautifully colored adult.
For the butterfly, that is the end. For us, I hope, this is a new
Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
site: http://www.co-intelligence.org / blog: http://tomatleeblog.com
Read EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM – http://empoweringpublicwisdom.us
THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY – http://www.taoofdemocracy.com and
REFLECTIONS ON EVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM – http://evolutionaryactivism.com
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