Sectarianism, Memory and Countermemory of the Great War in French Mandate Aleppo

By Joel Veldkamp
Submitted to Session P4913 (Politics of Religion During WWI as lived and remembered in the Ottoman Empire, 2017 Annual Meeting
In 1926, as the “Great Syrian Revolt” against French occupation was underway, Robert de Caix, the French delegate to the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandates Commission, suggested that Christians in Syria faced massacre if the French were to withdrawal. The Syrian delegation to the Commission angrily rebutted the claim: “We have answered this unjust and malicious allegation many times, by recalling our attitude during the Great War and our cooperation then with our Christian brothers against Jamal Pasha.” Mansour ‘Awwad’s 1939 novel al-Ragheef similarly conflated the Lebanese resistance and Amir Faysal’s Arab Revolt to narrate a joint Christian-Muslim struggle against the Turks during the Great War.

The Beirut Jesuit journal al-Mashriq, on the other hand, used its coverage of the Great Syrian Revolt to describe the 1916 Arab Revolt as a “fitna” and accuse Amir Faysal of plotting attacks against Christians after his defeat by the French in 1920.

Arab nationalism in Syria emerged in part as a reaction to anxiety produced among the region’s elites by European power. In response to European claims that Syrian society was backward and religiously fanatical, Syrian intellectuals and notables adopted a modernizing, secularizing ideology. World War I was commemorated by Arab nationalists as an occasion of Muslim-Christian cooperation against foreign occupation. It was logical that anti-nationalists, particularly Christian anti-nationalists, would challenge this commemoration with alternate narratives.

This paper argues, using Yael Zerubavel’s model of commemoration, memory-making and countermemory, that the memory of World War I should be seen as a field of contestation between Syrian nationalists and Christian anti-nationalists in the public discourses of the French Mandate era. It will examine how this contest played out, and with what consequences, in the politics of Mandate Aleppo.
Christian ecclesiastical and communal periodicals from Aleppo will be used as sources, as well as petitions addressed by Syrians to the Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva – the institutional embodiment of the war’s international legacy in the Middle East. Aleppo will be given special attention since, with a Christian population that was in the majority composed of survivors of the wartime genocide in Anatolia, and a Muslim notable class that was slower to abandon Ottomanism than the notables of Damascus, the contest there can be expected to have been more fraught, the seams in the discourse more revealing. This examination will shed new light on the memory construction process of Mandate Syria, and the narratives discarded in that process.