What does it mean to be independent? Today we take it for granted that most Arab countries have an independence day of sorts. It is a kind of unifying symbol for the people, a day of reaffirmation of what it means to belong to this or that particular country. On television and on the radio, we are blasted with nationalist songs and our streets are festooned with beautiful decorations or flags. It is also a day which people can take off from work. But there is very little in contemplation of what something like this means. In our busy modern lives we just take it for granted that something is the way that it is with little thought of why it is the way that it is.
Almost all Arab countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, celebrate an independance day because they were occupied by European countries. That means that those streets you walk on today were once patrolled by French, English or Italian jackboots, and men with guns would have rounded you up and put you in trucks to be placed in concentration camps or worse. Today, two Arab countries are still under occupation, Palestine and Iraq. But just as there were good men resisting back then, there are good men resisting the occupation today. But we must not forget that the reason we have independence days is because we failed to defend our countries properly. Also, why independence? What kind of term is this? In the modern sense, independence is given a political, judicial and cultural meaning. But importantly, that means that an entity which has gained 'independence' had its sovereignty suspended whilst under occupation. Therefore independence can be used only for one and the same entity. Can we say the same for Syria?
A little bit of history first. There was no "Syria" as a political entity we could recognise today in 1914. Syria was part of the Ottoman empire. But we were not just part of the Ottoman empire, we were Ottomans. We were Muslim Arabs who, just like the British under Victoria were Victorians, were Ottomans. It was when the Ottoman empire became weak that a new, secular movement called the Young Turks tried to Turkify the empire that we then decided to Arabize ourselves. King Faisal of the Hashemites (who ruled Saudi Arabia before the Saudi bit was added) was our King when the Turks were kicked out by the British led revolt. It was King Faisal's Arab Kingdom of Syria which was occupied by the French, but it was the Syrian Arab Republic which "won" independence from France in 1948. This is like a fictional Nelson Mandela going into prison and twenty years later coming out a white man. Can you really say he was freed?
The Americans were British subjects who formed their own lands, they belong to the Anglosaxon tradition and they were men and women who decided to be independent from their former king. Syria, on the other hand, had moved from being an integral part of an Ottoman, Muslim, empire that dated back five hundred years, which was the heir to the Islamic caliphate in Baghdad, to being the Kingdom of a Hashemite King. It was then quickly occupied by a French Army and then when the French left there was something new there. Something that had not existed before. The French occupation formed a break in our history, in that laws, culture and society were drastically changed in a way that King Faisal's rule did not do. King Faisal was an Arab and a Hashemite, descended from the Prophet Muhammad. He was from that same social-cultural-historical makeup that we as Syrians come from.
It would be a brave man indeed who today would argue that we can somehow erase all traces of our colonial past, but it would be a foolish man who could seriously argue that Syria is now independent when in fact Syria as a republic is a creation of the French occupation. Even after the creation of the S.A.R. the inhabitants of this new republic still did not feel that the artificial borders which had been drawn between them and other lands were real, these would ossify later through bitter political rivalry. In essence, as the old generation died out, the collective memory of Syria became confined within these borders that we today celebrate as symbols of our independence. They are in fact our prisons. You are not independent, you just got moved into your own cell so you can be managed properly.