Meanwhile, around the World

EDITORIAL, 4 Feb 2019

#572 | Johan Galtung – TRANSCEND Media Service

Syria calls on our full attention, for a fresh look.  Looking at what? The “reality of Syria”, the “real Syria”, and then seeing what?

The Germans make an apparently useful distinction between reality für mich, as I, ich, see it, and, an sich, reality in, by, for itself, reality as such.  Objective, not subjective.

A useful distinction; making us ponder, how different are they?

Apparently useful; how do we get to, at this an sich thing?

Old questions; maybe no new answers, but worth pondering.

To the West, Syria spells colonial history–by the West since 1916 more than by the Ottomans since 1516–and post-colonial history.  Why?

Because history is a stage with West in key roles as colonizers–Sykes-Picot in 1916 wrestling (Iraq and) Syria from the Ottoman empire into its own as French colony–and then as decolonizers, from France.

‘Syria’ was actually more like London’s “Middle East”, the whole region; but the French used the name for the Picot French part only.

So much for the für mich part, for West.  How about the an sich?

No definitive, final answer.  And this “sich” sounds suspiciously like some “Übermich“, and what it means in practice is an expert.  As if s-he is not also some “ich“, who has constructs her-his Syria.

No way to the “real Syria”?  Wrong question, there are as many Syrias für mich as there are mich; and as many an sich as we define.

Like temperature and pressure exist also without physicists studying and measuring, with their fixation on [OC-760mm].  They chose that.

And we can choose our Syria, and what we want to study about it.

Like physicists, we can use our senses to sense Syria, looking, listening, smelling, touching-feeling; relying on the inter-sensory,  like sight and sound confirming its extension, and inter-subjective communication, I-Others confirming that they sense Syria the same way.

There is my Syria.  Your Syria.  Our Syria.  Many Syrias.

My Syria is profoundly Muslim, run by the imams.

The imam has one leg in the mosque, chanting, calling for prayer from the minaret as what the West calls a priest; and one in the Sharia court, as what the West calls a judge.

As that both-and is unknown in the West, West has difficulties seeing both.

And my Syria is profoundly Ottoman; 400 years with tolerance for the other religions of the kitab, and for non-Arabic minorities.

Wanting to learn “what Syria is about today” I want them to tell me directly; not indirectly, in writing or orally, via “experts”.

So, going to Syria, what touched my senses?

Colonial and post-colonial history shaping the future, of course.

The contradiction between Alawite, Shia minority under the Assads in power, and a Sunni majority well above the magic 50%, of course.

The contradiction between Russia’s huge only base outside former USSR, granted by Assad in return for protection, and US, of course.

But over and above that I was touched by something unexpected and fundamental: a country in deep dialogue over “what is true Islam”.

A dialogue at a level far above this author, but two positions were easily understood:

The Salafi position: true Islam is what the Prophet said and did as patriarch in Medina, from the hegira in 622 till his death in 632.

The theological position: true Islam is found in the Qur’an.

There is something subversive in the contrast: could the Prophet, possibly, have had positions, on some issue, contradicting the Qur’an?

Or, maybe, and wisely so, no clear position at all, as on the question of how to identify his own successor?  By blood, by election?

Leaving that aside, there is something fascinating in a country having a dialogue, meaning mutual search, by way of words, dia logos, about the whole basis of their existence.

This author has witnessed something similar on a bigger scale: China, 1976-1980, four years following Mao’s death.  Arne Næss, the late Norwegian philosopher, referred to the countless encounters all over China discussing “Confucianism” as “the masses philosophizing”.  Meaning searching–for what, and how, maybe not so clear–mutually.

Until Deng Xiaoping designed a new economy with the freedom to bypass cooperatives, marketing farm products in the nearest town thus reviving market systems and merchants.

But back to “Syria”, searching for the “real Syria”.

There is more to it: also the fertile crescent, stretching from Iran and beyond to the Mediterranean, huge, immensely fertile.

And then the French crime, colonizing, usurping “Syria”, from a region and cradle of agricultural fertility to a patch of land colonizable from Paris.  But the dialogue unfolding inside Syria over “true Islam” transcends by far such limitations.

How does the “Islamic State”, IS, enter in this?  Maybe in two ways.

As a part of the State system, to counter NATO and a militarizing European Union.  But present IS is too small for that task.

As an “Islamic caliphate”, designed to counter; to counter what?

A Saudi Arabia with its commercialization of Hajj–the pilgrimage for all the world’s Muslims (1,650 million), once in a lifetime, to Mecca–with a huge hotel where rich people can watch, and pay for watching.  By bringing the hajj back to the ordinary very poor Muslim pilgrims.

In so doing the IS Islamic caliphate seems to transcend the Shia-Sunni divide as Mecca-Medina are for both.  In other words, there is world history unfolding in what the US tries to reduce to a winnable warfare against some IS soldiers in Syria and Iraq.

In all this only one thing is certain: Syria, once out of the French colonial bottle, cannot be forced back into that bottle again.

An educated guess: the new name for the “Middle East” is “Syria”.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of TRANSCEND International and rector of TRANSCEND Peace University. He was awarded among others the 1987 High Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize. Galtung has mediated in over 150 conflicts in more than 150 countries, and written more than 170 books on peace and related issues, 96 as the sole author. More than 40 have been translated to other languages, including 50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives published by TRANSCEND University Press. Transcend and Transform was translated to 25 languages. He has published more than 1700 articles and book chapters and over 500 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service. More information about Prof. Galtung and all of his publications can be found at

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Feb 2019.

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3 Responses to “Meanwhile, around the World”

  1. Gary Corseri says:

    Thank you, Johan-sensei for this thoughtful, pointillistic account. Fascinating that the Syrians are actually “dialoguing” about “the real Syria.” In the West, we tend to take simplistic views: black and white; good and bad; “cowboys and Indians”; legitimate government vs. terrorism; and so forth.

    I read an interesting book recently, “The Bread of Angels,” by Stephanie Saldana, an American woman, who spends a year in her late 20’s, on a Fulbright Fellowship, deeply exploring her own roots, the “Muslim Jesus,” and modern and ancient Syria–conflicted, war-torn, striving for resurrection.

    In the U.S. now there is much debate about the real “identity” of America–“what kind of nation are we” and so forth. But, it is mostly hollow bickering–name-calling and posturing on all sides of the political spectrum. We’ve instituted an endless “election cycle” on shifting sand-dunes of public opinion.

    It is intellectually invigorating to know that real “dialogue” of the kind you describe in Syria may still occur, even in this video-game world of “social media,” false premises, historical ignorance and illogical conclusions.

  2. […] translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Meanwhile, around the World, is included. Thank […]

  3. Akifumi Fujita says:

    Thank you for your very inspiring essay on the possibility of Syria. I like it very much. You were touched by somthing unexpected and fundamental. You have found a country in a deep dialogue on “What is true Islam”.
    There is a possibility here that the Shia-Sunni contradiction be transcended. What is important and fascinating for me is to know that a country is having a deep dialogue about the whole basis of its existence. It should be so for any country in the world today. A fundamental question: What is the whole basis of our exsistence? This question should be posed and pursued in whatever country we happen to be. Thank you very much.