There is much debate among scholars about the “rearrangements of populations” and the shifts in identity and power taking place in many areas of the Middle East.
In an interview with Adam Shatz, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, argued, for instance, that the Middle East is witnessing the “return” of the 12th century, when Shia lords, supported by Persia, dominated much of northern Syria and the rest of the region.
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The Mamluks and then the Ottomans, Landis contended, changed that: “They pushed out the Shias, marginalised them – they became very impotent.”
This “narrative” has a long historical trail. Gertrude Bell, in a letter to her father on August 23, 1920, referred to Shia clerics in a strongly Shia region of Iraq in the following terms: “It’s as though you had a number of alien popes permanently settled at Canterbury and issuing edicts which take precedence of the law of the land. The Turks were always at loggerheads with them and the Arab govt of the future will find itself in the same case.” These types of approaches, aiming at branding local Shias as “alien”, have had visible repercussions up to the present day.
This and other related “narratives” do not only ignore that Shias still represent about 40 percent of the total Muslim population in the Middle East and that the belonging to a certain confession has been for centuries just one, often secondary, way of expressing one’s identity, but also overlook the historical context on the dynamics of “Shias’ marginalisation”.
The importance of context
Shia communities – characterised by a diversity of belief and purpose – have been viewed at times with suspicion by and faced discrimination from Sunni rulers – especially Mamluks and Ottomans. Yet, their process of marginalisation has had historically much less to do with, say, Mamluks’ violence and discriminations (in the 12th century), and more to do with practical interests connected with, among other things, the exploitation of the Silk Road during the times of Ma’ni Prince Fakhr-al-Din II (1572-1635), when the growth of commercial ties with the West went hand in hand with dramatic changes in the demographic composition of much of “greater Syria”.
Maronite peasants were then prompted to settle in southern Druze areas to cultivate the land at the disadvantage of the Shia components, who were forcibly dispossessed. In the long term this made Christians a majority population in southern Lebanon and ignited, in Fawwaz Traboulsi’s words, a “complex asymmetry [that] served as the matrix upon which the sectarian system and sectarian mobilisation were built”. The new demographic composition had a destabilising effect, particularly from a social and economic perspective, on all communities in “Greater Syria”.
Despite what the ongoing debates would seem to imply, Sunnis and Shias, but also Christians, Jews and other religious groups or confessions have in fact lived for centuries in the region, reaching a level of coexistence higher than any registered in most of the rest of the world, Europe included.
In this context it should be noted that Shia lords, as Landis reminded us, were for long supported by Persia. Equally relevant, however, is that Persia’s population (like the one of neighbouring Azerbaijan) was at that time still largely Sunni (Shafi’i and Hanafi schools): the massive and forced conversion of Persia – from “marginalised” Sunnis to newly “empowered” Shias – took place, at the hands of the Safavids, between the 16th and the 18th centuries.
Too much emphasis on the narrative of the “return” of the “historically marginalised Shia communities”, however, risks overshadowing the living experience of a region in which religious boundaries were, for most of its history, shifting, blurred, and ambiguous.
Despite what the ongoing debates would seem to imply, Sunnis and Shias, but also Christians, Jews and other religious groups or confessions have in fact lived for centuries in the region, reaching a level of coexistence – a concept that does not erase the existence of boundaries but implicitly acknowledges that such boundaries are negotiable – higher than any registered in most of the rest of the world, Europe included.
This should not suggest that communal conflict was historically unknown. As this article also confirms, instances of Sunni-Shia violence have been documented as early as the Middle Ages. Yet, they don’t mirror the actual history of most of the region’s past (pdf). More importantly, their nature and scope are hardly comparable to more recent times.
As noted by Fanar Haddad, “in early medieval Baghdad, there were sectarian clashes, but that is extremely different from what you have in the age of the nation state”. It is fair to add that great difference can also be found in a much more recent past: as recently as 2003, about 40 percent of Baghdad’s population – that is, a quarter of the whole of Iraq – was composed of people born from Sunni-Shia mixed marriages; Baghdad’s Iraqis call them “Sushis”.
The “return” of the 13thcentury
More than seeing “something like the 12th century coming back”, it would be more accurate to argue that the region is currently experiencing what Janet Abu-Lughod predicted in 1989, namely that the era of European/Western hegemony would have been superseded by “a return to the relative balance of multiple centers exhibited in the 13th-century world system”.
All peoples in the Middle East are struggling to find their place in this new system. Many of them – in the Baghdad belt, in the provinces of Diyala, Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas and many other areas in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – are also experiencing the increasing need of getting back into history, rediscovering the hybrid identities, with their permeabilities and specificities, that for millennia characterised much of the daily life in the region.
Shedding light on these still uncomplete yet meaningful efforts is a way of supporting their attempts to “regain possession” of their multifaceted pasts. More importantly, it is a powerful antidote to geopolitical reductionism, so popular in our days.
Lorenzo Kamel is a Marie Curie historian at the University of Freiburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He is also Senior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali and Associate at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He published seven books on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern affairs, including Imperial Perceptions of Palestine: British Influence and Power in Late Ottoman Times (1st prize in the academic section of the 2016 Palestine Book Awards).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.