During the past weeks, I've been spending a good deal of time with Syrians from the southern rebellious city of Dar'a. (They sought PR help to highlight their plight; I gladly accepted.) It hadn't hit me earlier that quite a few of them had the surname Al-Omari or a variation thereof. Neither that for many of them "Omari" was a diametrically opposing term to Alawi. The name is quite popular not only in Syria but also across the Sunni geography.
Omar, and Ali (and people of Dar'a will be careful to mention these names by the required words of respect, radiallahu anhuma, "May Allah be pleased with both of them") are among the four Great Caliphs of Islam.
Alawis, as an offshoot of Shia, have come to define themselves as those who have sided with Caliph Ali. Various Shia factions, deeply split among themselves too, attribute a different kind of importance to Caliph Ali: Some say he should have been the 1st caliph instead of the 4th. There are even small minorities who go so far as to assign divinity to him, straying off the Islamic mainsteam by an irreperable margin.
Sunnis believe the historical order of the caliphs were the right one. They mean absolutely no disrespect toward Caliph Ali, on the contrary holding him with much reverence due to his special place in the family of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
In short, Sunnis are not supposed to define themselves as anti-Alawi. They just love Caliph Omar with a special kind of affection and respect. For example, they love the Taraweeh prayer of Ramadan nights particularly because it was institutionalized during the time of Caliph Omar. They carry from one generation to the next stories of the sword of the Caliph, how it had cut without discrimination when governors of the caliphate strayed from justice.
As I sat with people of Dar'a for hours on end, I wanted to understand their deep dislike of Alawis. To my surprise, many of them were completely ill-informed. I challenged them to refer me to their Sunni literature to back up their tall tales about Alawis of today. Most of them had not read proper religious books. Not to forget, Dar'a is part of the historic Bilad-ash Sham, an apex of Sunni Islamic culture. My Dar'a friends did not even recognize such fundamental Sunni authors as Ibd Abidin.
I remembered that during the late Ottoman times, the Halabi author Ibn Abidin was the central reference for Sunni Muslims from Yemen to Egypt, from Istanbul to Palestine.
Whatever happened in the past 100 years, had cut off Dar'a's scholarly links to the great center of Islamic learning called Aleppo, just a couple of hundred miles to the north.
I thought of the Grand mosques of the Ottoman Capital. In each of those mosques, the wall that looks in the direction of Mecca is adorned with the holy names of Allah and the Prophet, both mentioned with the obligatory words of respect. Then come the names of the four Great Caliphs, in the order they were elected. In many mosques, the names of Caliph Ali's sons Hassan and Hussein are also mentioned. All in the shape of grand works of calligraphy and ornamentation.
This way of mentioning the Four Great Caliphs was the Ottoman's solution to addressing the memory one of the saddest and most divisive episodes of Islamic history when two sides differed over interpretation and took to the sword to settle it. The Ottomans discouraged any debate over the period. The ornamented calligraphy in the grand mosques of the capital also served an empire-wide signal to everyone as to how the issue should be treated.
The Ottomans were deeply distrustful of their own Alawis and occasionally organized punitive campaignst against them. However, those campaigns were more of a political nature, to quell unrest and disobedience in a particular region. The fact that Alawis survived 600 years of Ottoman domination in the Middle East is a testimony that the Ottomans followed a live-and-let-live approach toward the Alawis in general.
It begs the question, then, how did modern Syria, as a direct descendent of the Ottoman state become a hotbed of Alawi hatred that is on the surface more religious in nature than political?
There are many answers to this question.
My Syrian friends immediately point out to the fact that they have been ruled by an opressive Alawi minority, now bent on a Sunni massacre.
Others mention of Iran's 30-year campaign to convert the Syrian Alawis to Shia. Some showed me pictures of "Husayniyat" -supposed Shia holy places- that Iran just fabricated out of thin air in the deepest Sunni corners of Syria.
My answer, however, is a little different. I remember that the Ottomans fought with Iran (back than ruled by a Shiite Turkish dynasty) precisely for the same reason: Stopping proselytzying about Shiism in Ottoman Anatolia. The border between modern day Turkey and Iran was drawn in the 17th century, following a war the Ottomans waged to force the Iranians to abandon their religious designs over the Sunni Muslim lands.
What I observe in my friends from Dar'a that the collapse of the Ottoman system had also left them in a great cultural vacuum. They were cut off from their traditional channels of Sunni Islamic learning. That Aleppo -the great center of Islamic knowledge- remained in the same country as Dar'a didn't help once the Ottoman system was gone. The people of Dar'a were orphaned.
So were other Arabs. And the Kurds. And the Bosnians. Even the Turks themselves.
The collapse of the Ottoman state destroyed centuries of accumulated knowledge and socio-cultural behavior patterns. If we take 1920 as the effective date of the dissolution of the Ottoman state, for nearly a centurty, a whole geography is trying to find itself with little success.
After the Ottomans, Syria has seen a bloody and repressive Frech period. Since then, it has been under the iron fist of supposed Arab nationalists who turned out to be neither Arab nor nationalist. The Baath ideology was subservient to godless Soviet Russia during the Cold War and then comfortably switched to come under the wings of Iranian imperialism.
The Kurds, divided among four countries, are yet to find what they really want for themselves. Their most successful enterprise so far has been the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, a precarious entity whose future is dependent on continuous and close international support. Turkey's Kurds fought with state repression by subscribing to a Marxist-Leninist guerilla organiztion whose values are at least as alien to them as those of the values of the secular Turkish Republic that they despise.
Few remember that Palestine, Hejaz (part of today's Saudi Arabia) and Yemen were among the last battlefronts where the Ottomans fought against superior British forces till the last drop of their blood. None of these lands fared so well after the fall of the Ottomans. Perhaps the Palestinians did the worst, degenerating into nothingness throughout the 20th century. They have produced nothing more than terrorism, targeting others, as well as themselves. Yemen hasn't done so well either. Saudi Arabia is a powder keg primed to implode when the hour strikes - and there is every reason to believe it won't take another decade for that to happen.
Yes, it turned out pretty badly that the Ottoman State was forcibly dismembered so that imperial British and French interests could be served. It was a collossal blunder as far as global peace and security are concerned.
Can anything be done to undo at least part of the damage?
I believe so.
I give little credence to neo-Ottomanism. The Ottoman period is over. It is not coming back even if the whole planet were to mobilize for the purpose. History flowed a different course and peoples have diverged.
However, there is one thing possible: A middle eastern economic region with diffuse borders. The border between Syria and Turkey is pretty meaningless. Syria's commercial capital Aleppo is closer to big Turkish cities like Gaziantep than it is to the Syrian capital Damascus. Kurds living on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border are enough to mock the artificial separation: Whole cities are divided by a border that serves no useful purpose. Turkish-Iraqi border is no better: It divides Turkey's Kurds from Iraq's Kurds.
Everyone is sensitive to a change in borders. Nothing has to change. But there is no reason why Turkey-Iraq or Turkey-Syria borders should be more controlled than the Schengen border between Germany and France.
Other nations like Armenia, Bulgaria and Greece may also find it closer to their genes to be a part of this Greater Middle East than the decaying European Empire with which they share little in the way of common interests.
Such a region of free travel and trade requires a few critical steps which are easier said than done. I'll venture to summarize them under three headings:
1. The Greater Middle East should be anchored as part of the Western Alliance: It should be part of Nato so it knows where it stands in the international order.
2. A regional law enforcement agency must be established to pro-actively fight against against violent extremism and other sorts of internal security threats.
3. Citizens of the Greater Middle East should continue to carry their national passports but should be free to live, travel and trade across the region without hindrance.
That is my vision for the future of the Middle East. Otherwise, I fear, the orphans of the Ottomans will continue to find themselves embroiled in one meaningless war over another for many more decades to come. For what they have lost is an identity that transcends their small worlds. Where nationalism failed, a common historical backround may just serve everyone right.
I often look at old photos of the Imperial Constantinople and gaze at the characterless skyline of modern day Istanbul. What, I keep asking myself, have the Turks and other nations of the Ottoman world have done to deserve this level of degeneracy and indignity? Losing our cosmopolitan existence, with Christian and Muslim; Turk, Arab, Armenian, Greek and Jew walking the same streets in equality, serving the same society, was perhaps one of our greatest crimes. I would like to hope that the peoples of the region have served enough time of punishment for their crimes so they can once again look forward to a common, better future for all.