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A deeper look at ethnic identities in the Levant

Studying minority identities and ethnicities of two towns in the Levant – namely, in Lebanon and Syria – can help untangle the region’s geopolitical complexities.

Society

The neighbouring states of Lebanon and Syria – considered the same nation during Ottoman rule – represent a mosaic of religions and sects that contribute to their richness, but also to political strife in the Near East. The EU-funded CENTERING THE MARGIN (Centering the margins: Identifications and belonging in Lebanon and Syria: 1943-1958) project looked at how national and ethnic identities in two small peripheral cities, one in each country, evolved. Both Lebanon and Syria were under Ottoman control for centuries up to World War I, passing on to French domination in the 19th century until the 1940s when each gained its independence. The two countries are unique in the Arab world in having sizeable Christian minorities, representing a strong part of their societies’ identities even today. In Lebanon, the project looked at the predominantly Christian town of Zahle built deep in the country’s Bekaa Valley, studying how the people articulated their identities after the formation of the Lebanese state. In the same way, it examined the Syrian town of Qamishli on the Turkish border (later to be very much affected by the civil strife in Syria, throwing the balance), which today is home to strong Christian Armenian, Arab Muslim and Kurdish communities. Within this context, the project compared communities in these towns against how populations identify themselves also in the capitals of these two countries, namely Beirut and Damascus. It investigated life experiences across borders, examining interactions between populations and looking at how state powers codify ethnic, religious and sectarian variations. In particular, the project team examined how community members exploit these realities in their struggle for power and domination. The project focused on identification and belonging from one particular aspect: studying news records of intra-communal athletic competitions among the inhabitants of various Lebanese and Syrian marginal towns and capital cities. With countless oversights and injustices committed by previous colonial powers, combined with mass migrations due to geopolitical conflict in recent years, project research affords important insight into the complexities of the region. In today’s context where minorities in the Near East are threatened by fundamentalism, understanding recent historical background on the ground could help today’s world powers manage conflict in the region more wisely.

Keywords

Ethnic identities, Levant, geopolitical, Near East, CENTERING THE MARGIN, fundamentalism

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