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Reflections on the panel “The Place of Cultural Pluralism in Aleppo”

Joel Veldkamp

PhD Candidate in International History at The Graduate Institute in Geneva

Professor Mansel rightly emphasizes Aleppo’s long tradition of tolerance and diversity, and notes that of all the cities being examined in this series of workshops, Aleppo is the city that retained its diversity until quite recently. Of the many examples he cites to make his case, two quotes in particular stand out to me. The first is attributed to the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who rejected a proposal to expel Aleppo’s Jews on the grounds that, “The more sorts of nations I have in my dominions under me, as Turks, Arabs, Greeks, etc., the greater authority they bring to my kingdoms, and make them more famous.” 

The second is from Amir Faysal, who briefly ruled over inland Syria, including Aleppo, from the end of Ottoman rule there in October 1918 until his own expulsion by the French in July 1920: “The Arabs were Arabs before Moses and Jesus and Mohammed. All religions demand that their adherents follow what is right and enjoin brotherhood. Anyone who sows discord between Muslim, Christian, and Jew is not an Arab.”

As Prof. Mansel represents them, these two quotes do indeed reflect a continuity of social tradition. Tolerance for religious difference has long been a hegemonic value in Aleppo. But there is also a striking discontinuity between these two quotes – not on the point of religious tolerance, but on the significance of the nation, and even, we might say, the value of diversity. 

For Suleiman, the more “nations” under his rule, the better! It was the glory of an empire to rule over and maintain justice among many different peoples. This glorification of diversity is what undergirded the Ottoman project of religious tolerance.

With Faysal, and the cadres of nationalist intellectuals, activists, and revolutionaries who stood behind him, the opposite was true: religious tolerance was possible, in their view, precisely because religious differences were (or should be) negligible. Rather than embracing many nations, their polity was founded on an imagined homogenous national identity – Arab identity. This national identity was held to precede and trump Christian, Jewish, and Muslim identity. Those who made too much of diversity “sowed discord” and risked expulsion from the only community that truly mattered – the Arab one.


The obvious question raised by Faysal’s program is: what about those in Aleppo who were not Arabs? In his brief reign over Syria (and in his longer reign over Iraq, 1921-1933), Faysal never successfully answered this question. Four months after he delivered the speech quoted by Mansel, over 50 Armenian refugees in Aleppo were killed in a mob massacre. The massacre was preceded by clashes between Armenian military auxiliaries and Muslims in Beirut, Alexandretta, and Adana – clashes which, in its public rhetoric, the Arab government in Aleppo held Armenians collectively responsible for. 

On his first visit to Aleppo after the massacre, Faysal implicitly rebuked Aleppines for the violence, and upped the ante from his previous speech: “We are Arabs before Moses, and Muhammad, and Jesus, and Abraham” he declared. Part of the Arab government’s  response to the massacre was to create a “Committee for Arabian Brotherhood” which brought Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders together to dialogue. The very name of the committee shows how the Arab nationalists’ own ideology prevented them from even framing the question of coexistence, much less resolving it. Faced with violence between two national groups, they responded by doubling down on Arab unity as the solution to all possible ills.

Even if one does not consider the presence of Armenians and other non-Arabs, it is clear that the ideal of Arab nationhood could not, on its own, create the nationalists’ desired homogeneity. Identity differences between religious groups persisted, and since the nationalists’ own ideology denied the importance of these differences, they apparently found it quite difficult to reconcile them into the new polity they were building in Syria.

This brings us to Syria’s French Mandate period, which Professor Seda Altuğ is one of the leading experts on. In her presentation, Altuğ nuances the by-now clichéd view that Syria’s French rulers used a strategy of “divide and rule” to maintain their power, encouraging sectarianism and setting Syria and Aleppo’s different religious groups against each other. Altuğ grants the overall truth of this account, but argues that we need to look at these groups not just as pre-existing blocs that the French were manipulating, but as groups whose own existence and identity was transformed in the Mandate era, especially with the emergence of “minority” and “majority” as politically meaningful statuses for groups to have. Key moments in French rule over Syria, such as the proposed minority protection clauses in the 1936 Franco-Syrian Treaty and the failed attempt to reform personal status law in Syria triggered intense debates (and even street clashes) among Christians and Muslims in Aleppo over the definition and validity of “minority” status.

This deconstruction of the concept of “minority” as a contingent political construct rather than an eternal fact is an important contribution to our understanding, not only of Mandate Syria, but of the emergence of the nation-state system across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In my own view, what we need now is a convincing account that unites Altuğ’s description of minority construction in Mandate Aleppo with the social relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews that existed in Aleppo before the French Mandate. Traditionally, Christians and Jews were formally assigned to a subservient dhimmi status in Aleppo and the Ottoman Empire. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an ambitious project by Ottoman reformers to integrate Christians and Jews as fully equal citizens. This project was, to put it mildly, a troubled one. Even before the arrival of European rule and the minority treaties promoted by the League of Nations, do we not see the familiar dynamics of minority-majority relations and claims-making in the debates about the status of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire? To take just one example: the elections to the short-lived Ottoman parliament in 1876 required provinces to return a certain number of Christian and Jewish deputies. The Young Turks who launched a constitutional revolution in 1908 ended this practice, but the constitution drafted under Faysal’s rule in 1920 would have restored it. The text of the constitution explicitly allocated a number of seats in the national parliament to “minorities.” (Elizabeth Thompson’s 2020 book How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs reproduces the text of this constitution, lost for many years, in full.)

Another question about Mandate Aleppo that remains outstanding is the relationship between these debates about minorities and sectarianism, and the shockingly powerful labor movement that emerged in Aleppo in the 1930s. In August 1932, some 50,000 Aleppines marched in support of striking textile workers. Aleppo’s nationalists, who largely hailed from its landowning class, sided with the factory owners. Armenian refugees were well-represented among these workers, and Armenians led the early communist party in Aleppo. When some nationalist leaders and ulema launched an economic boycott of Christians and Jews in the spring of 1936, it often manifested in factory owners firing all of their Christian workers. How did these two conflicts – sectarian and class – map onto each other? They surely did, but as of yet, I know of no academic studies that address this point.

One of Altuğ’s most valuable insights comes in the question and answer section of the panel, when she notes: “When we trace the destinies of pro-French minorities, we can conclude that it was political submission that formed the basis of admission to the nation.” The creation of the unified Syrian Arab nation in Aleppo, she observes, required the “castration of any kind of sectarian agency for any minority group.” It is a story well-known to scholars of nationalism: it was not a common identity or a common purpose that at last brought Muslims and Christians in Aleppo together in a single nation in the late 1930s. It was force.

This insight perhaps brings us closer to understanding the devastating developments related by Professor Ugur Üngör. Already in the 1930s, Syria’s nationalist movement established a precedent of rule by force, as well as an equation between national unity and loyalty to the ruling class. Through decades of successor regimes, culminating in the Assad regime, these precedents were maintained, preventing any authentic dialogue or groupmaking between Aleppo’s communities. Just as Syria’s first generation of nationalists did, the Assad regime treated Syria’s religious groups as building blocks of the nation, essential for establishing a trans-religious Arab identity. Neither the existence of any real agency for these groups, nor the creation of a cross-sectarian civil society, could be permitted under this brittle system. When that system collapsed in 2011-2012, these ethno-religious blocks emerged as the principal focal points of Aleppines’ loyalty, and their most immediate sources of protection. Thus, as Professor Üngör states, “In five months, Aleppo went from coexistence to street executions.”

For Üngör, “Violence is an incredible driver of identity,” and the “2011 conflict triggered unprocessed traumas in Syria.” Among those unprocessed traumas in Aleppo – the violent episodes that Muslims and Christians were never able to discuss and process together, as friends and neighbors – we might count the massacres of Christians in Aleppo or Aleppo province in 1850, 1895, 1909, and 1919, the 1915-1923 Armenian genocide, the 1936 Sunday Market Clash between Christian and nationalist paramilitary groups (mentioned by Altuğ), the attacks on Christian homes and institutions during the anti-French uprising of 1945 and the Suez Crisis of 1956, the 1979 massacre of Alawite military cadets, and the regime-led massacre of hundreds of Sunni Muslim Aleppines during Eid al-Fitr 1980. In the absence of public discussion or education about these traumas, each community was left to its own devices to develop explanatory narratives, which were then passed down through the generations. 

Professor Üngör’s questioning of the concept of “cosmopolitanism” is welcome and long-overdue. As he points out, the mere presence of diversity does not amount to positive inter-group relations, and coexistence can be fragile. Üngör proposes redefining cosmopolitanism as an “amoral” quality – by which I assume he means neither positive nor negative for social relations, just the mere fact of diversity. In place of the fuzzy concept of “good” cosmopolitanism prized by many observers, Üngör proposes the more precise concept of “hybridity,” exemplified in his word-image of “Kurdish-speaking Syriac Orthodox people going to do business in the Arab souq.” 

While this concept does appear more precise, I confess that it is not clear to me how this “hybridity” is necessarily more positive or conducive to a society that resists inter-group violence than the “mere presence of diversity” signified by “cosmopolitanism.” After all, souqs in prewar Aleppo were sites where people of different ethnic and religious identities mixed with abandon. How do “cosmopolitanism” and “hybridity,” respectively, correlate with the fragility or strength of coexistence? (I freely admit the possibility that I simply misunderstood this point.) 

Finally, we were treated to Isber Sabrine’s inspiring account of the efforts of Aleppines to preserve their heritage in the face of the devastating urban warfare that took place from 2012-2016. Üngör argued that Aleppines will not be able to coexist again “for a generation,” and that the Assad regime’s victory “precludes any kind of deep reconciliation.” He may be right. But Sabrine’s account is a salutary reminder that memory and trauma are not destiny, that human beings are free actors, who can choose to preserve and rebuild, even in the midst of horrifying suffering.

Sabrine also points up the difficulties that this era’s civil wars pose for international efforts at heritage preservation. By default, international efforts rely on the local government to coordinate activities. The case of Aleppo, where the city was divided for nearly half a decade between regime and opposition forces, highlights the shortcomings of this system. It will surely not be the last such case.

For my part, I thank all the panelists for their presentations. Together, the presentations work to unify the questions posed by Syria’s current war with Aleppo’s deep past. I found each one helpful, revealing, and pertinent.

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