Syria: A European Arab Country?

So if Syria is to belong to another group other than the Arab World, would it be Europe, or Asia?

Perhaps this is a more legitimate question to be asked by Turks about their country, especially with their bid to join the European Union.  However, this is a question that is being asked today about Syria, and from foreigners that come to live here.

One of them is Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s Ambassador to Damascus. Last night there was a farewell dinner in his honor. In response to an eloquent speech by the hostess Massa Hamwi, Gautam spoke about his stay in Syria and his “attachment” to the country. Syria for him was an undiscovered place. Syrian culture was so unique in every aspect of it, starting from food and not ending with art and literature. He then concluded with something that I wrote about couple of times before but never with the same clarity of expression. For Gautam, Syria represented the best of the Arab/Islamic culture, and the best of European culture. If used well, that can be a winning combination.

In many ways, that is true, and indeed, I for one believe in it. A while ago, I’ve jotted down some thoughts that seem proper to share at this time:

My country is at the heart of the world. I hear from visitors often they in Syria they feel at home. Much of that is due to the fact that every person will find a Syrian that looks like him. Syrians are not the product of today, or of the turbulent 20th century. We are a blend of civilizations that have triumphed over their ethnic or religious identities to form one nation. Our Arab identity is flavored with a rich Islamic culture, a proximity to Europe, and a nucleus location that connects the East to the West. The contributions to humanity since the beginning of time made by people that call Syria home are too many to count. And above all, we boast of an overwhelming youth majority in our population that holds the keys to both crisis and solution. We need to leave no stone unturned in our attempt to enable our youth, to have a present and a future, and to create prosperity for themselves, their families, their nation, their region, and indeed their world. With the current circumstances, it is much easier for our youth to be part of the crisis though. The one question that occupies me: how do help them become part of the solution.

Another question would be: if we are to draw a road map of the way forward, what would it be.


Education is the key it seems. Education, whether at school or university, has to be an all-embracing experience that makes them aware and able of the opportunity to put what they have learned to use. When they have come to a point where they are mature and capable of making their own decision, we want them to choose to be positive and assertive in Syria, not be that elsewhere, or be passive and submissive. We want them to follow in the traditions of their forefathers and become the self-consciences entrepreneurs that are agents of change and progress in all walks of life, from medicine to technology; from music to sports, and from business to philanthropy.

But education alone is not the way to make the young generation part of the solution. We should not allow for our educated youth to get frustrated with an inability to use their qualifications to create prosperity right at home. That would only be a deeper crisis.

Reforms in Syria have to touch all the economic, societal, and participatory intersections to help our people find opportunities, create opportunities, and make them sustainable. The reform effort cannot be restricted to the government’s back office, but to bring into play as equal partners in development both the private sector and the civil society. The three together are creating Syria’s renewed social capital, one that will not only reduce financial poverty, but will also enlighten the soul, and restore a deserved and much need meaning of human values, often lost in the quest of needs and wants satisfied by money.

And indeed, Syria cannot continue to be known only as one of the oldest countries in the world;

We are old an old country that have new people shaped by the globalization of knowledge and technology. By virtue of that, these people are citizens of the world, just as much as they are citizens of Syria, the ancient nation. In many ways, Syrians have not thought of their country only as place they call home, but also a meeting place; a refuge; and a hub where ideas, resources, and goods can be exchanged in a free and just manner. They have believed in partnership as a means for creating added value, sustainability and growth. They have believed in equality and solidarity as their social capital—an infinite resource that maintains social stability in the tides of crises hitting everywhere in the world.

Yes, Syria has one of the world’s lowest ratios of college graduates per capita, and that is our biggest challenge now. There is a huge gap between the supply and demand side of the job market; low skilled labor is abundant, while human resources with the right skills and qualification are scarce. But to go with education, we probably need a judicial system that gives people a sense of security, which is at the core of any sense of belonging even the sternest patriot would have. Education can flourish on a level playing ground, and prosperity cannot be created or sustained without both.

Until then, both Asia and Europe have moved far ahead, and we are short of living up to the great legacy of the real Arab/Islamic culture.

6 Responses

  1. […] Syria: A European Arab Country?, Abdulsalam Haykal, Forward Magazine […]

  2. If Syria is to belong to another group other than the Arab World, it would not be Europe nor Asia.
    I faced this question when I was about to leave Syria for my masters degree here in the UK. We were required to fit ourselves in one of the races given to us in a list of what is supposed to be ‘a list of all races in the world’.
    I just could not fit us, our country, our whole nation and heritage, and more importantly, our potential in one of these classified races. This is not to say that we are superior nor inferior. This is to say that we do not fit in their templets, their molds, their pre-prepared plans for us, and we will not.
    I agree with Abdelsalam that both Europe and Asia have moved far ahead, and we are still to live up to our legacy. I am only adding that we will live up to our legacy very soon.
    To end up with the same question, I would say that if Syria is to belong to another group, it should be the humanity in general, the whole mankind. That is where we fit.

  3. Wow what a question! The simple answer is that Syria and other countries of the Middle East are in a tough spot with respect to the Europe/Asia question. One could answer by reference to which continental plate Syria is located on. In that sense, Syria and Israel are both on the Arabian plate and therefore not European. One could also answer on the basis of culture and genetics, which would mean Syria is still neither European nor Asian but rather Semetic. And, if we are to take this answer as true, are we then forced to classify most (if not all) of North Africa as Semetic? While the question raised brings up much discussion I think most students of Anthropology, International Relations, Geography, etc. will point out quite emphatically that Syria is certainly not European and barely Asian but still could be a combination of many.

  4. The way the question is phrased leaves it open to interpretation. While the Arab World has its own distinct identity and structures, the Levant/Syria’s location at the Asian Rim of Europe makes South East Asia, Japan or China seem much more alien in terms of culture. If “Syria is to belong to another group other than the Arab World”, I believe that it will be able to embrace Europe more than acquire an Asian identity.
    In the socio-economic or purely economic sense it can be argued that both ‘associations’ with Europe and Asia have their pros and cons. In the political sense, Syria might find itself closer historically and politically to Europe than to the countries that extend beyond Iran in Asia. Alliances – though – are a different thing and while Europe may seem to be favourable at first glance there is also great political power to tap to the East!
    The one factor to consider is whether Syria could maintain the same political ‘weight’ within either type of alliance that it does within the Arab World. What needs to be said is that Asia has heavy weights just as Europe does.


    Sad but true, but here’s how i see it…

    Syria, Libya, Yemen, Maqadeesho, Zimbabwei along with other similar countries belong to a category yet to be defined… Perhaps calling them 10th world would be appropriate…

    Let’s stop fooling our selves and wait at least five or ten years until we can dare to ask such questions…. for now, i think we should spare our selves the embarrasment….

  6. great work

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