L’ancien ambassadeur néerlandis Nilkaos Van Dam discute les thèses de Fabrice Balanche sur le communautarisme et les alaouites en Syrie
On 29 November 2013 Balanche obtained his “habilitation à diriger des recherches” (a kind of super PhD) at the University of Lyon 2, France. His theme was « Le facteur communautaire dans l’analyse des espaces syriens et libanais » [The factor of communitarianism in the analysis of Syrian and Lebanese spaces]. As a member of the jury during the “habilitation” session, I made the following comments on his academic work.
Fabrice Balanche deserves to be complimented for his two decennia long studies on the Middle East and Syria in particular.
Balanche did not originally intend to write specifically about communitarianism (communautarisme), but the issue, more or less unavoidably, crossed his path, due to the social realities with which he was confronted during his field studies in Syria. Officially the existence of communitarianism in Syria was denied by the Syrian regime, and in practice it was (and is) a subject surrounded by taboos. According to the official ideology of the ruling Ba’th Party, communitarianism was not supposed to exist; and as far as it did exist, the phenomenon was considered to be no more than a negative residue of obsolete old traditions (rawasib taqlidiyah), which needed to be banned and disposed of. The reality was, however, completely different, as is clearly demonstrated in Balanche’s studies.
Whereas communitarianism is officially a part of the Lebanese political system, its existence is officially denied in Syria’s contemporary political system. Nevertheless, social realities are rather similar in both countries, as explained by Balanche.
Studying “the factor of communitarianism in the analysis of Syrian and Lebanese spaces” was considered a very sensitive issue in Syria. It is not surprising, therefore, that Balanche did not get the required cooperation in this respect from the Syrian authorities, or the requested support from French academic institutions inside Syria. The latter, according to Balanche, even worked against him, because the French institutions concerned were afraid that supporting Balanche’s work could negatively affect their own positions vis-à-vis the Syrian authorities.
One could say that Balanche had a somewhat rough academic landing in Syria because of these sensitive circumstances, but he persevered and finally managed to achieve his aim through intensive and painstaking fieldwork. Balanche succeeded in penetrating deeply into Syrian society, at first mainly in Alawi circles. By becoming very close with their community he noticed how all kinds of doors within Alawi society were opened, providing him with an intimate look into its inner workings. Being close to one community had, however, as a side effect that his contacts with other communities, such as parts of Sunni society, were made more difficult, if not blocked altogether. Later on, Balanche made up for this by widening his Syrian social circuits outside the Alawi community, and entering into Sunni circles. When entering the “Sunni world” it appeared as if he stepped into “another Syria”. Through informal channels Balanche was able to obtain a lot of essential information and insights. Having obtained a working knowledge of Syrian colloquial Arabic, Balanche had the necessary tools to get to the bottom of what was happening. Without this immersion into several different communities, he would not have come half as close to achieving the same high academic level. His fieldwork, not always appreciated by others, has turned out to be indispensible.
Whereas Volume 1 La facteur communautaire dans l’analyse des espaces syriens et libanais (140 pp.) constitutes the central part of Balanche’s studies discussed here, Volume 2 Parcours personnel (or large Curriculum Vitae) (139 pp.) should not be considered as less important, as it provides many highly valuable and detailed insights into the inner workings of Syrian society and into the many obstacles with which one may be confronted when doing field work there. Volumes 3 (536 pp.) and 4 (550 pp.) are an enormously rich and impressive collection of Balanche’s numerous earlier publications, which he refers to wherever necessary, in the two first volumes. Next to these four volumes one should also consult Balanche’s splendid Atlas du Proche-Orient arabe (Paris: Sorbonne, 2012, 135 pp.), and take note of his earlier book La région alaouite et le pouvoir syrien (Paris: Karthala, 2006, 315 pp.), which provides many highly interesting details not included in Volumes 1 and 2. (All these works together comprise some 1800 pages).
Although I do agree with many, if not most of the points Balanche makes in his analysis of communitarianism, I think it is necessary to pose some questions and add some marginalia where parts of his conclusions and predictions for the future are concerned. Before I come to that, however, I want to note that certain predictions or observations made by Balanche in the past have turned out to be fully correct.