In the late 1950s, my family went to a film festival in Damascus. We were in Beirut, and I was too young to remember. Difficult to imagine, but Syria and Lebanon were progressive, open and comfortable, made up of diverse Christian communities dating back to the time of Jesus, a thriving Jewish community, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze, and many athiests who expressed their beliefs in prose and poetry. We were Lutheran, but it didn’t matter. The area was not religious, and everyone lived on top of everyone else. Very few women wore hajab, though people dressed modestly, except on the beach. There was a relatively free press and free discourse. Poets and writers flourished. There was no real border between Syria and Lebanon—borders were a European invention, which upset the world much more than it helped. The Lebanese and Syrian governments spent very little on their military. I believe Lebanon had the most representatives at the convention for the United Nations in San Francisco.
I know I’m painting too rosy a picture, but the area had neither Europe’s destruction from WWII nor the hatred and militancy that brought it about. The Arab world in general had no anti-Jewish hatred. Just the opposite: Jews took refuge in Islamic countries during the many periods of European Christian malice.
What went wrong? It seems like the region has been spiraling down inexorably into war, sectarian hatred, and economic hardship. How did they end up with a repressive dictatorship commanding Syria and a long civil war in Lebanon.
I’m not going to attempt to answer this question in a short phrase because the answer involves the changing world, the increase population, the creation of Palestinian refugees, and the intervention of so many other countries. I do know that weapons is a central reason for decline. It’s similar to a depressed person having a gun in his house. It increased many fold the chance of suicide. Also, climate change played a part in the recent brutal Syrian civil war as the area became more arid and led to economic problems which the dictatorship did not handle.
It is so crazy that a country, which can’t really afford the luxuries of life, has an array of very expensive weapons. I can’t list one weapon that has made life better for anyone in Syria or Lebanon. None of these weapons are made locally, so those that sell them on the backs of the farmers and storekeepers pocket the money. Weapons come from the US, Russia, and Europe. Are they guilty of an unspoken crime?
If my hypothesis of various groups living in harmony is at least partly accurate, how did the divisions open up and become explosive? And if it can happen in Syria, can it happen in other countries that are currently stable and liberal?