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 Continue reading