“Syrian Republic” or “Syrian Arab Republic”?

Before the Arab Spring, the national question of identity in the Arab world had always been treated with suspicion if it did not conform to pan-Arabism. It is not difficult to see how this was possible since identifying the individual with the politically correct identity was an established  intellectual expectation. And the national identity which was politically correct was Arab nationalism. There was a time growing up in Lebanon, if when asked I used to shy away from saying “Lebanese,” and used  “Arab” instead. Anything short of that would have earned me, and many others, the label of “isolationist” and at worst “unpatriotic.”  If this was the label leveled at a Lebanese whose native tongue is Arab, what about those who are ethnically and linguistically not Arab, like the Kurdish people?  While these nationalistic issues are thought to have been now a thing of the past, they are still being thought of even as the Syrian people challenge a ruthless dictator. The latest conference of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul revived the issue once again when some Kurdish delegations walked out in protest of the name of the post-Assad Syria. Instead of the “Syrian Arab republic,” on which some delegates insisted, the Kurds want the state to be called "The Syrian Republic."  As al Hayat's opinion and ideas editor Hazem Saghieh wrote recently: "It was surprising and perhaps quite embarrassing for those displaying ostentatious feelings toward Arabism to discover that hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds have not had Syrian citizenship for decades." Saghieh goes on to explain that this deprivation of citizenship predates the Baathist regime and, ironically, it happened as a result of a consensus on Arabism, whereby the Baathists agree with their opponents as well as the Islamists (all in the name of Arabism, of course). Since ideology is a cultural component of any given society, Saghieh makes a sharp observation when he acknowledges that political differences are not similar to cultural differences, adding that  political differences are often accompanied by cultural consensus among the partisans. Arab politicians are notorious for outbidding each other when it comes to cultural issues. As Saghieh writes, this consensus on cultural questions is at the heart of the confusion wherein we are unable to know “Who is more Islamist, Saddam or Khomeini; who is more Arabist, Saddam or Hafez al-Assad; who is more determined to liberate Palestine, Hafez  al-Assad or Yasser Arafat?”  Saghieh concludes by paying a tribute to the Kurdish delegation at Istanbul for reminding the Arabs of the significance of the name of the future Syria.


--Elie Chalala