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The right to neighbourhood: way out of a sectarian quagmire

In Damascus there are no direct routes linking Jaramana to Mhajirin, or the Yarmouk camp to Sayyida Zayneb - each home to different communities stratified along lines of class and religious belonging. Isolation and distance is reinforced; and in so doing serves to reproduce the Other.

“I remember hearing a story that was doing the rounds during the Iraq war. You have in Baghdad al-Kadhimiyeh and al-A’dhamiyeh a bridge which connects the two neighbourhoods. The people of al-A’dhamiyeh are Sunni and in al-Kadhamiyeh they’re Shi’i. During the war a bomb went off on the bridge and people fell into the river and of course not everyone knew how to swim (it’s tough even for those who know how to swim - the currents can drag you away). There was a boy around 16 years old - ‘Othman was his name. He was a boy but a big lad you know. He dived straight in and one by one saved the lives of 22 people. He got to the 23rd person, an old lady, and his body gave way and they both drowned. But for five years even in the midst of all the bombing that has torn Baghdad to bits - the people of al-A’dhamiyeh and al-Kadhimiyeh got on with things - they had peace between them. They recognised the sacrifice of this boy; he became a symbol.”                                                                             Syrian small business owner. London, April 2014.

A different conflict in time and space, yet one where the pervasive stench of the sectarian narrative persistently lingers. Although in this telling of the event some of the details are not wholly correct - the boy was 19 and it was the fear generated by the presence of a supposed suicide bomber rather than an actual explosion that had sparked panic among Shi’i pilgrims resulting in a stampede on the al-A’immeh bridge killing 953 people, it is notable that a narrative calling on neighbourliness to counter sectarianism is remembered. It alerts us to a deep-seated desire for an alternative and one which comes not from above but from unlikely, ordinary sources.

Reducing identity to primordial notions of religious belonging produces a distinctive set of processes and practices which seek to subjugate, dominate and exclude the Other while occluding social, cultural and economic factors at play which cut across those very same communal cleavages. Tellingly the sectarian narrative of the Syrian conflict has been near-hegemonic. Analysts from across Syria, the Middle East and the wider world have increasingly come to interpret the conflict through a sectarian lens. Think tanks, policy makers, journalists and academics have all been guilty of demonstrating an unhealthy obsession bordering on perversion with geo-political readings that over-emphasise the clout of sectarian armed groups and gloss over the agency of millions of Syrians. This is in keeping with the al-Assad regime’s telling of events which from the very beginning of the conflict has employed a communitarian discourse that has been willingly reproduced by sections of the armed opposition. Although framed in the language of religious symbolism, this discourse has very little to do with everyday lived understandings of religion.

How can we challenge the methodological sectarianism obfuscating how we think about what is happening inside Syria today? This is not to downplay the dangers of sectarianism, which are very real, but to begin a conversation on finding a common script that will help transform the parameters of this internecine conflict. To do so, I suggest the fight be taken to those who assert their authority by mobilising religious symbolism. This can be done by questioning the epistemological basis of their claim to authority through religion. Drawing on conversations with displaced people in the region, my argument is a simple one: religion is about relationships not identity. Religion encourages us to look inward to nurture the relationship with the self and with God. The practical manifestation of ‘lived’ religion is the nurturing of relationships with the Other. We are relational beings and religion is centrifugal. How we relate to the stranger is of paramount concern to religious teachings. In what follows, I consider the possibilities Islamic tradition affords in transforming strangers into neighbours and how a politics of propinquity could provide an alternative framing of the conflict to date. But first, I shall explore how a right to neighbourhood has been eroded in Syria’s recent history.

Strangers in our midst  

The minibuses of Damascus. Source: Longreads.com. All rights reserved. The minibuses of Damascus. Source: Longreads.com. All rights reserved.

Sectarianism in Syria did not emerge overnight nor has it been expressed in a uniform manner. Indeed sectarianism has arguably been a disciplinary technique through which the Ba’thist regime has managed to maintain control over the movement and degree of interaction between Syrian people. One only need think of how little movement there was between and within urban centres, thereby entrenching rigidly parochial understandings of identity. For the large part, even within a single city there is little reason for residents of one district to visit another. Spaces in which to have meaningful interaction with the Other have long been few and far between. Where they do exist, here I take the old city of Damascus as an example; they remain under the watchful gaze of the regime. A confined space allows for easier monitoring and surveillance of any signs of dissent. The centre of the city becomes a supposedly neutral space of carefully managed ‘mixity’. There are no markets specific to a district which can draw in people of other faith communities. There are no competitive sporting events which take participants and supporters on journeys to neighbouring districts. Theatres, art galleries, exhibitions, music concerts, cinemas, sporting complexes, restaurants are largely confined to the centre.

Even more quotidian journeys are closely managed. Much of the movement across the city is mediated through the servīs - privately owned mini-buses seating a maximum of fourteen passengers that ply fixed routes between Damascus and its suburbs. The cost effectiveness and the rapid frequency of the servīs, means it is the favoured choice of transport in the city for those on low incomes. The mapping of routes is far from arbitrary - indicative of where movement to and from is deemed desirable. There are no direct routes linking Jaramana to Mhajirin or Mukhayim al-Yarmouk to Sayyida Zayneb; each home to different communities stratified along lines of class and religious belonging. Isolation and distance is re-enforced; and in so doing serves to reproduce the Other.

Towards a politics of propinquity

What do I mean by a right to neighbourhood? The rights discourse is built on an understanding of individual rights. While this has undoubtedly advanced debates on liberty and social justice - a dogmatic adherence to the individual fails to see the wood for the trees. Individuals are located relationally both within and outside larger units in social space: family, neighbourhood, work-place. A right to neighbourhood guided by a politics of solidarity anchored in local relations would serve to protect the well-being, dignity and integrity of all those who form the neighbourhood, including those who arrive as strangers. It would protect the neighbourhood against the caprice of a state which serves to defend the interests of those close to its centre - upholding not only social, cultural and political rights but economic rights also.

The politics of propinquity I am advocating here is far from being parochial. It does not serve to exclude. Rather, social distance between self and Other are compressed and boundaries are recognised as spaces to cross rather than bound. It understands an individual, a neighbourhood, or a city to be part of a greater whole. Relationships are configured radially. It is useful here to think of a concentric circle spiralling outwards, or of a matryoshka doll - the spaces in between are not void but thick with meaningful relationships.  

The conflict in Syria can be read retrospectively as a case where the right to neighbourhood had been eroded by decades of subjection to an insidious politics of entrenched sectarianism. The question ‘where are you from?’ takes on a sectarian aspect when asked even within urban centres. Neighbourhoods and districts had become characterised by specific communities along the lines of religious belonging. While it can be argued that such an evolution of neighbourhoods is organic, with people tending to inhabit areas where kin and social networks already exist, it remains debatable as to whether the Ba’thist state encouraged otherwise.   

On the eve of the conflict in Syria, social transformation was already fast under way. Mismanagement of the agricultural sector by the al-Assad regime in tandem with a devastating drought had rendered rural livelihoods almost impossible with more than three million Syrians living in extreme poverty. Decimated communities from farming communities in the Houran to the South and al-Hassake, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa to the North and East were compelled to move en-masse, as many as 50,000 families, to the fast-expanding poverty belts encircling the key urban centres of Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. As long as this disenfranchised poor Other kept to the margins of already marginalised outlying areas of cities, the al-Assad regime was able to convince itself that they were not there. Of course this all changed following the events of 15 March 2011.

Douma, which has been at the heart of the uprising against the al-Assad regime, provides an example where the economic rights of the neighbourhood had been sacrificed to make way for a liberalisation of the Syrian economy which privileged the centre. Small to medium sized enterprises that comprised the mainstay of the Douma economy were squeezed out by cheaper Turkish goods as the détente between Syria and Turkey reached a peak in 2010. Here, the underbelly of globalisation was laid bare for all to see - unemployment, the immiseration of an urban working class and the erosion of community resilience. The call for bread, freedom and social justice in Douma was born out of recognition of the manifold ways in which the economic rights of the neighbourhood were being forsaken by the al-Assad regime. Douma's resilient neighbourhoods, 2013. By: Lens Young Dimashqi. All rights reserved. Douma's resilient neighbourhoods, 2013. By: Lens Young Dimashqi. All rights reserved.

The fact that the uprisings against the regime across the country were driven by local grievances and the protests were multi-vocal has always meant that the opposition would not be cohesive but fractured. Iterations of discontent and disenchantment with policies not grounded in local lived realities - be they the policies of the so called ‘international community’, SNC, al-Assad, ISIS or Jubhat al-Nusra - should be understood as a clarion call for localised solutions.

Arguably, the Syrian revolution has already made strides towards a right to neighbourhood. This can be clearly seen in the rhizomatic structures of governance and administration we find emerging in non-regime held areas. The autonomy of local areas grounded in solidarity has been the popular expression of will rather than a reliance on party-based political projects.  

Challenging sectarianism therefore demands first and foremost a politics of propinquity - where social distances (imagined or otherwise) are collapsed. It is here that religious traditions have much to offer in building a right to neighbourhood framework which is compatible with secular readings of a civil society. A religious idiom provides adherents with a learned grammar of interaction with the Other.  

A forgotten vocabulary?

Before mobilising this grammar we need to agree upon a vocabulary. In Arabic, the word nation or homeland is often translated as waṭan. In the context of modern nation states the right to belong is contingent on having been born in that country – jus soli (the law of soil) or on having a hereditary right – jus sanguinis (the law of blood). The Arabic term waṭan refers to any place which is inhabited (maḥal al-insānī), making no mention of either soil or blood.

Pre-modern notions in the Muslim world of who is entitled to residency are contingent on the actual fact of residency – jus domicili. In contrast, under the dictates of the nation-state, citizenship becomes a matter of formal rights granted to those with a legal status: a logic which reduces belonging to the nation – and is heavily contingent on birthright. Waṭan should therefore be understood in its proper localised context. Waṭan is an elastic term contingent on the relationships an individual nurtures as s/he moves from place to place. The vestiges of this open tradition, which considers the mobility of people a norm rather than an aberration, is inscribed in the social and cultural practices of people in Syria today.

Waṭan was appropriated by Islamic reformers confounded by their encounter with western colonial powers in the nineteenth century. In one fell-swoop, al-Tahtawi’s conflation of waṭan with territory placed the concept firmly within the framework of the nation-state. Since then, thinking people concerned with the role of Islam in the contemporary world have been confronted with the Sisyphean task of reconciling a universalizing religion with a nation-state framework which by definition is exclusionary. This paradox has drawn many into an intellectual morass wading through debates on authenticity where religion is largely understood as a matter of identity. Nowhere does the expression “you are what you eat and wear” seem more apt than in how Islam is currently discussed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Equally damaging has been the gross over-simplification of the imagined community of believers - the ummah. For many it has simply become a byword of pan-Islamic solidarity. As with waṭan, it has been absorbed into the nation-state paradigm - the ummah becoming a confederacy of nation-states where convenient for ruling elites. The calls for an Islamic state arise from the same place. Grafting the notion of ummah onto waṭan (as understood by al-Tahtawi) we begin to see the emergence of a discourse of Pan-Islamism in the late nineteenth century with the writings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. This coincided with calls for the ummah to defend the Caliphate during the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire - again elitist readings of the ummah.

The stranger in the Arab-Islamic imagination

Once again, it is in the context of the encounter with western colonialism and the emergence of the nation-state paradigm that we find the language used to describe relationships with the Other becoming less conciliatory - moving from gharīb (stranger) to ajnabi (foreigner).

Etymologically ajnabi (pl. ajānib) can be traced back to the root j-n-b or to put to one side. The word tajannub, which shares the same root as ajnabi, means to avoid - transforming the stranger or foreigner into someone to be avoided. This can be attributed in part to the encounter with colonialism and the confusion engendered through being made subordinate to a people who did not share the same world-view. The nineteenth century witnessed traditionalists vying for the hearts and minds of local populations with reformists in the territories of the Ottoman Empire. The latter looked to challenge orthodoxies and introduce new laws based on the imitation of colonial powers. While reform-minded individuals considered cultural and ontological borrowings from Europe an opportunity to cast off the shackles of stagnation attributed to orthodoxy, traditionalists understood such reforms in the light of colonial expansionism – strangers were now understood to be uninvited and unwanted guests. Paradoxically, supporters of orthodoxy - increasingly blurring discourses of nationalism with religion - were championing a view at odds with centuries of lived Islamic tradition which upheld the virtue of accommodating the stranger.  

In the pre-modern era the term gharīb was often used less as a legal category than an all-embracing label for any individual who had left her original place of residence voluntarily or involuntarily: it was not contingent on the length of stay. It encompassed students, religious scholars, wandering ascetics, pilgrims, traders and forcibly displaced people - clearly an ambiguous and nebulous term. On the one hand, good treatment of strangers was a highly regarded custom of pre-Islamic Arabian culture such that those who demonstrated kindness and generosity to strangers were lauded with the title of ma’wā al-gharīb (refuge of the stranger). This attitude towards strangers was further institutionalised by Qur’anic and Prophetic injunctions which encouraged generosity and good conduct towards strangers. In particular, the bolstering of the pre-Islamic tribal practice of jiwār – the granting of protection and assistance to the one seeking refuge illustrates the central importance of hospitality towards the stranger. This is perhaps unsurprising given the geographical terrain Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula inhabited. The harsh climate combined with the arduous journeys across desert necessitated hospitality – in short it guaranteed survival. We are reminded of this on a daily basis whenever we greet one another with ahlan wa sahlan - may you be at ease among the plains as if you were among family.

One ḥadīth attributed to the Prophet states: "Islam began as a stranger, and it will revert to its (old position) of being strange. So good tidings for the strangers".[ii] While the exact meaning of this ḥadīth is open to interpretation, it unequivocally celebrates the stranger - encouraging good treatment towards the other as a fundamental concern of Islam. Another phrase oft-used in Islamic traditions to denote the stranger includes the ibn al-sabīl (literally the son of the path) and is interchangeable with 'ābir al-sabīl (traverser of the path). A ḥadīth of the Prophet states: "Be in this world as if you were a stranger or an 'ābir al-sabīl” - pointing to the metaphor of religion or a life well-lived in accordance with God’s Laws as being a journey or a crossing. It is also worth remembering that the ibn al-sabīl is included as one of the categories eligible for financial support and assistance through the mechanism of zakāt.

‘Forced to Leave’ by Cuban artist Angel Boligàn captures the ambivalence of exile. Yearning for home, and carrying it everywhere ‘Forced to Leave’ by Cuban artist Angel Boligàn captures the ambivalence of exile. Yearning for home, and carrying it everywhere

Yet, in the Arab imagination the loss of social and material capabilities through being made an exile is a fate worse than penury - it speaks of a poverty of relationships. A popular proverb in Damascus warns of the fate that lies in store for one forced to leave his home: mīn tarak dāru ‘all miqdāru - the one who leaves his home, lessens his value. To overcome this loss, human activity is re-interpreted through the narrative of religion. The idea religion is able to offer legitimation in a way that the state cannot is one which came up time and again in my conversations with displaced people in the Middle East. Belief in Islam ameliorates the anguish that comes with a life in exile. Being a refugee is un-stigmatized. One Iraqi refugee, Aref, I met in Damascus told me:  

‘For Iraqis to leave Iraq it was hard. No one wanted to leave Iraq; they needed a safe place to go. I found my belief in Islam makes it easier for me to think about being a refugee. It’s a hard thing to do, to leave your home, but I know that my Prophet did the same, and he was a refugee. If we think about it, in Islam we see that borders are not important, there are no nationalities. The differences are with language. All the land belongs to God and you can find a place to live and work wherever you go.

An Islamic narrative allows displaced people to re-imagine their migration. As Aref reminds us: “all the land belongs to God”. Territorial sovereignty belongs to God rather than the state. Everyone has the right to move freely without hindrance - borders have no place under this schema. A Qur’anic injunction to demonstrate kindness to categories of persons includes among them al-jār dhil-qurbā (the related neighbour) and al-jār al-junub (the unrelated neighbour). Al-Tabārī in his exegesis of the Qur’an states that the unrelated neighbour is one who is not necessarily Muslim and the command in the Qur’an is directed towards the treatment of all neighbours. Thus, the traditional interpretation of the unrelated neighbour equates it with the gharīb or stranger. The Islamic narrative demands the stranger is entitled to “find a place to live and work wherever [he goes]”

Becoming Other: lessons learned from mass displacement

Conflict induced violence and forced migration are key contributors to social transformation; communities are left fragmented; economic resources usurped or destroyed; and traditional ways of life are re-examined and interpreted anew. The loss and attempt to retrieve re-create or perhaps even re-shape the vital cultural resources which constitute relational understandings of home lie at the heart of the decision-making, religious practices and beliefs of displaced people in the Middle East.

As the social anthropologist David Turton reminds us: “the experience of displacement is not only about the loss of place, and the pain and bereavement this entails. It is also, inevitably, about the struggle to make a place in the world.” And so, with every fragmentation comes a re-imagining and re-configuring of community and neighbourhood; with the destruction of economic resources come changes in livelihood strategies; and with the re-examination of traditional social structures are born new perceptions of identity and belonging.

Many of the displaced people I have spoken to over the past eight years have identified communal home-like spaces (mosques, churches, places of learning, community centres) as being significant in helping orient themselves following displacement. Community centres, particularly those organised around networks of self-reliance, are often described as a refuge from the cramped conditions in which displaced people ordinarily live. Aside from being used as places of learning, such centres are used to celebrate festivities including weddings and annual religious festivals, to organise sporting and cultural events, to introduce neighbours to one another, to pray. In short, such spaces are deeply anchored in the lives of displaced people. In using communal spaces as much as possible including as a place to meet friends, to eat, drink and be hospitable, displaced people affirm the centrality of relational understandings of home in religious practice and imagination.

The theme of neighbourliness was integral in their understandings of home-making and religion. It is in the understanding of reciprocal rights and duties pertaining to neighbourhood and neighborliness that the ummah is realized as lived practice. Far from political readings of ummah as understood by the modernizing efforts of Islamists such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani from the late nineteenth century onwards, the lived experiences of displaced people remind us that the ummah is found first and foremost in localized contexts. A Syrian refugee I met in Urfa echoed the experiences of Iraqi refugees I had met earlier in Damascus in 2010. He signalled the importance of neighbourly visits as a barometer of meaningful relationships:

“I like it when they (Turks) treat us equally and not as ‘poor’ refugees. When they visit and invite us to their homes - I feel normal and equal to them. I’m not made to feel like a refugee. It’s great when people call on you like this. Visiting people’s homes like this means we have proper relations.”

Conclusion: a Syrian sanctuary

Who is a stranger but one who is different from me - the Other. The experience of becoming Other makes us sensitive to the richness of difference. Islamic tradition provides us with a vernacular for celebrating diversity and plurality. This is supported by the oft-quoted verse from the Qur’an (49:13):

O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All- Aware.

The stranger is thus readily transformed into a neighbour. S/he moves from being a guest who as common wisdom never fails to remind us must never outstay a welcome to becoming a neighbour. Lest we forget a neighbour in the Islamic tradition has rights due to her: 'A'isha reported Allah's Messenger as saying: “Gabriel impressed upon me [kind treatment] towards the neighbour [so much] that I thought as if he would confer upon him [the right of] inheritance.”

Similarly, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) warned against the ill-treatment of the neighbour: “He will not enter Paradise whose neighbour is not secure from his wrongful conduct.” To emphasise the gravity of behaving improperly towards the neighbour irrespective of her faith, ethnicity, sexuality, we are reminded that good conduct towards the Other is in fact a characteristic of the believer. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) observed: “He who believes in Allah and the Last Day should do good to his neighbour and he who believes in Allah and the Last Day should show hospitality to his guest and he who believes in Allah and the Last Day should either speak good or better remain silent.” 

By shifting our gaze towards those who are displaced within the territorial borders of Syria, we are reminded that conflict zones produce not only debris-ridden neighbourhoods, deserted villages and unimaginable violence but also engender networks of self reliance and spaces of hospitality, refuge and sanctuary despite the degradation and erosion of ever-dwindling resources at the disposal of host communities.

In the midst of conflict the rights of neighbourliness are upheld on a daily basis across Syria. As the delivery of humanitarian aid to non-regime controlled areas becomes ever more challenging and less frequent, more and more Syrians are forced to migrate where humanitarian aid is more accessible and the threat of aerial bombardment negligible. By November 2013, the al-Assad regime was reporting that around 3% of the 6.5 million IDPs were housed in public shelters - mosques, schools and other public buildings. More than 85% of those displaced inside Syria’s borders have found refuge in the homes of relatives and extended family according to government statistics.

Cities such as Salamiyeh and Suweida, home to large minority populations of Ismailis and Druze respectively, have also welcomed the arrival of significant numbers of displaced Sunnis offering them shelter within their own homes. Saleh, a resident of Suweida, described to me the reception displaced people have been afforded in spite of severe restrictions imposed upon community initiatives by the al-Assad regime: 

“The local people were quick to welcome displaced families and even host them in their own homes until they [the displaced families] were able to secure more suitable accommodation. In many cases, rent is initially paid by the people of Suweida; securing even necessities such as mattresses, blankets and basic cooking utensils, as the displaced people arrive with nothing but the shirts on their backs. The people of Suweida have done as much as they can. The thing that stands out the most, is the attention and care given to displaced children. [To provide a sense of normality] the local community has established opportunities for children to play - they are given toys and provided a distraction away from the conflict. Educational needs have also been addressed by providing courses to allow the children to catch up on their disrupted education. Again this has been free with teachers and specialists working voluntarily.”

The arrival and reception of Sunnis in cities with large minority populations is significant in that it counters a sectarian narrative. It challenges the hegemonic account of the conflict as being one where one faith community is seeking to assert its dominance over another. Instead, the stranger is welcomed and supported by Others.

There is no doubt that the strains under which local communities are placed is great: the lack of resources, even fewer employment opportunities, upward spiralling prices of daily necessities, and chronic shortage of space to meet the demand of new arrivals all contribute to possible flashpoints of tension. Yet, the crisis also brings with it the opportunity for the nurturing of neighbourly relations and for demonstrations of hospitality - of knowing how to treat the stranger in our midst in an ethical manner and building towards a politics of propinquity. 

About the author

Tahir Zaman is a visiting research fellow at the centre for research on migration, refugees & belonging (CMRB) at the University of East London and a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS. His research is primarily focused on the social and cultural lives of displaced people in the Middle East.


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