Ana Maria Luca

A true revolution

Professor Antoine Courban’s face lights up when he speaks about the Syrian pro-democracy uprising. “It is fascinating,” he says, especially when looked at in a historical and anthropological light. Courban—a professor of Anatomy and Morphology at Saint Joseph University, who also holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science—has a passion for Middle Eastern history and cultural anthropology. He was a guest speaker at the Lady in the Mountain Gathering in Adma on October 25, when over 600 Lebanese Christian intellectuals, journalists, academics and politicians came up with a statement backing the Arab Spring.

NOW Lebanon sat down with Courban to talk about the importance of the popular uprising in Syria and its cultural origins.

What is happening in the Middle East?

Antoine Courban: What we are witnessing is a change of paradigm. It is a surprising phenomenon coming from the midst of the Sunni culture. One would have expected this uprising to come from the midst of the Shia culture, which has always been more liberal.

Why do you think the Sunnis were the ones to rebel?

Courban: What we are witnessing is amazing. Islam, especially the Sunni sect, can be considered a civil religion. It is like the old Rome religion: there is no Ummah [community] without a Dawlah [state, political order]. The Shia culture sees that from a more communitarian point of view. What is happening today is a new modernity emerging in the middle of Sunni Islam. The other Islam, Shia Islam, underwent another type of revolution in Iran [in 1979], but this revolution was ideological, rooted in mystical perception, and it has led to radicalization of esoterism. 

Is the Middle East looking for Western-style democracy?

Courban: What is happening today is not inspired by the West. They are maybe reconciling with the West, but not on Western ground rules or criteria. These uprisings bring with them not Westernization, but a new modernity, different than the European modernity. [In Europe] you have to say you are against God in order to be modern.

[Participants in the Arab Spring] are gathering in the mosques, probably because there is no public space. But why on Fridays? They go to pray, they listen to the imam’s word, and then they go out on the streets. Not to say, “Allahu Akbar!” Not to say, “I will die for the Arab nation.” They desperately say, “The people want…”  They are expressing a common will, somehow different from God’s will.

This is a new modernity, where the crowd is a new political actor, in a world of globalization.

This new modernity is happening here, in the Levant. Islam in the Levant has the advantage of being mixed with other cultures.  This is the old Eastern Mediterranean, either Ottoman, or Byzantine or Roman.

How is the Arab Spring in Syria different from that in other Arab countries?

Courban: In Syria, there is the radicalization of the conflict between two cultures: the urban culture, the cities, and the rural culture, the Al-badiah. The regime, of rural origin, effectively protects the residents of the city, but on the condition to resign the political life. What is happening in the uprising is the emergence of a political life in the cities, with this type of power. 
What else is specific to the uprising in the Levant?

Courban: A third thing about the uprising in the Levant is [the technology] and the use of media, especially in making images. While Islamic culture is rather iconoclastic, the crowd in the uprising uses their bodies as icons. These bodies [depictions of martyrs] that they upload on the Internet are icons.

What makes the Syrian uprising important in your opinion?

Courban: I am looking at the anthropological, symbolical point of view, not at the political one. At this level, something extraordinary is happening. It will be impossible to go back. This is to be read very carefully, because if the Arab Spring is to lead to a certain political order, the new political order will affect the whole eastern Mediterranean. This is why Syria is so important, more than Egypt is. And this political order is crucial for civil peace in Europe.

How might changes in Syria affect Europe?

Courban: Because in Europe Islam is Islamist. Here Islam is not Islamist, and we are in the heart, the birthplace of Islam. Probably a change in this part of the world will be extremely helpful for the Muslims in Europe, who are mainly radicals. After the Arab Spring they might have a cosmopolitan model of another Islam, a modern Islam. It will be very important, not for the dialogue of religions, but for the dialogue of cultures. Through this revolution, Arab Islam will have regained its dignity.

Why do you say Islam has lost its dignity?

Courban: It is a long story of decadence. The regression of Arab culture started in 1258, when the Mongols took over Baghdad, burned its libraries and put an end the Ijtihad, the intellectual effort. Why is the Ijtihad awakening by itself today? Some may say there was an Arab nationalism movement. Arab nationalism was a French idea in order to get rid of the Ottoman rule. It was a transplant, not a product of the local culture. A transplant can either be taken in, or can lead to a catastrophe. The catastrophes were all these authoritarian, [so-called] secular regimes, created in the name of Arab nationalism in the middle of the 20th century. This was extremely wrong. The Arab culture in the Levant was infinitely more liberal in these cities. And now the cities are awakening. They walk in Daraa and they call for Homs and Hama. The echo of this movement moves from one city to another. This is fascinating; there is a network of cities.  If you don’t call this revolution, I don’t know what you can call it.

This article has been condensed and edited.

  • Not-concerned Syrian (Samer) Part 1

    Most of the assad's terrorist militias (including Shabeha, Republican Guard and 4th division) are Alewites (over 90%). This was also intended by the racist and sectarian dictator assad. You see how this dictator divided his nation. So it is a shame of you and you have no respect for the victims of the revolution of the free to describe the protestors as racist Sunnis. bashar and the whole family of assad are far worse than the israelis. Their crimes against Syrians are much uglier and brutal than those of the israelis. Shame on you! Pay respect to the victims of the Freedom Revolution.Describing the protestors as Sunni radicals is a pure humilation of the Syrian people. Long live, Syria.

    November 23, 2011

  • Not-concerned Syrian (Samer) Part 1

    Well, Concerned Syrian, I must say that I am very amused by what you are writing here. I am amused and ashamed at the same time that a fellow citizen like you writes these funny things here. What we observer in Syria today is an uprising of all Syrians (not only Sunnis) against this fascist, sectarian and racist dictatorship of assad. A large part of the Christians in Syria support the revolution although they benefited from the racist dictator more than the Sunnis. However, the Christians are proud of the Syrian nation and they are an essential part of Syria now and in the future. The racist and sectarian dictatorship of the assads tried to divide the nation (like Israel tried to divide the Arab world) into sectarian groups. Alewites benefited the most - economically. Nobody can neglect that Alewites received huge benefits just because they are Alewites (This is part of the racist dictator's policy).

    November 23, 2011

  • joe cotton

    While there is a truth in the surprising rise of a revolutionary spirit totally inexistant in the Sunni tradition, it is expected that it will not last long. If the authentic revolutionnary movement of the Shia transformed itself in an authoritarian theocracy, it is very probable that the same fate will be to a pseudo revolutionary movement alimented by westernized elite using the economical hardship in the country to push western agendas.

    November 20, 2011

  • Concerned Lebanese

    Concerned Syrian did you find the mass murders perpetrated by the secular absolutist supremacist Syrian regime against every community in Lebanon whenever they disagreed with it's hegemony "fascinating" as well? No doubt inspired by the Holocaust, the Armenian/Greek/Christian and akin to the Kurdish Shiite mass murders committed by the similar secular absolutist supremacist Baathist next door. Regimes such as Assad's only "protect" whoever keeps quiet, overlooks or collaborates with it. Everyone else is forever in danger of slaughter at the regime's whims. Case in point when Aoun was the mortal enemy of the Syrian regime it punished his community en masse slaughtering the guilty and innocent alike but as soon as he became a friend they showered him with praises and all his previous trespasses were forgiven. Ask the Iraqi Shiite majority if they'd like to have Saddam back so minorities would be "protected" you'll find the reaction "fascinating" especially your ride to a hospital.

    November 5, 2011

  • Concerned Syrian

    With all due respect, the protesters on the ground are not as sophisticated as one would think after reading Dr. Courban's flattering description. He is correct that this is a sectarian uprising by Sunnis who cannot stand that a minority is in power and that Syria is a largely secular country because their beliefs are forever absolutist and supremacist in nature. Second, the messaging of "demanding what they want" is copycat language from Tunis, and every other chant is "allahu akbar" and now includes the people want the execution of the president and other militant islamic battle cries. The common Sunni in Syria says "aren't we 80% of the population? ok, then shouldn't the president come from us?" This is the simplistic reality of the sectarian revolution and it is as "fascinating" as the Holocaust or the Armenian/Greek/Syrian Christian genocide that inspired it.

    November 2, 2011