Archive for the ‘Sectarianism’ Category
Like ‘armed gangs’, armed Islamists are one of the Syrian regime’s self-fulfilling prophecies. Most grassroots organisers and fighters are secularists or moderate Islamists, but the numbers, organisational power and ideological fervor of more extreme and sectarian Islamists are steadily rising. So why is the revolution taking on an increasingly Islamist hue? Here are some points in order of importance.
First, the brute fact of extreme violence. As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Not only is faith intensified by death and the threat of death, and by the pain and humiliation of torture, but tribal and sectarian identities are reinforced. We want to feel like we when in death’s presence, not like I, because I is small and easily erased. So in Syria at the moment many Sunnis are identifying more strongly as Sunnis, Alawis as Alawis, Kurds as Kurds, and so on. This is very sad and it immeasurably complicates the future task of building a civil state for all, but it is inevitable in the circumstances. The violence was started by the regime, and the regime is still by far the greatest perpetrator of violence, including aerial bombardment of villages and cities, and now the liberal use of child-killing cluster bombs.
Second, beyond patriotic feelings for Palestine and Iraq and an unarticulated sense that their government was corrupt, two years ago most men in the armed resistance were apolitical. Finding themselves having to fight, and suddenly entered onto the political stage, they search for an ideology within which to frame their exciting and terrifying new experience. At present, the most immediately available and simplest ideology on offer is Salafism. As well as for their stark message, Salafists are winning recruits because of their organisational and warfaring skills honed in Iraq and elsewhere, and because of their access to private funds from the Gulf. If this were the sixties, the revolutionaries growing beards would have had Che Guevara in mind (and if much of the ‘left’ in the world were not writing off the revolution as a NATO/Saudi/Zionist conspiracy, the left might have more traction). At present, Salafism is in the air. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the historical moment. And why were all these young men apolitical before the revolution? Why hadn’t they learned more of debate and compromise? Simply put: because politics was banned in Asad’s Syria.
I was honoured to be asked to write the introduction to the English translation of Khaled Khalifa‘s third novel, In Praise of Hatred – set in Syria in the 1980s and essential background reading for the current tragedy. Four paragraphs of the introduction are reprinted below, and then Maya Jaggi’s review in the Guardian.
So how brave and necessary it was to write a fiction of the events. In our narrator’s harsh euphemism, Alawis are “the other sect” and the Ba‘ath Party is “the atheist party”, but the historical references are unmistakeable. Khalifa plays one of the noblest roles available to a writer: he breaks a taboo in order to hold a mirror to a traumatised society, to force exploration of the trauma and therefore, perhaps, acceptance and learning. He offers a way to digest the tragedy, or at least to chew on its cud. In this respect he stands in the company of such contemporary chroniclers of political transformation and social breakdown as Gunter Grass and JM Coetzee.
In purely literary terms as well as politically, the novel rises to a daunting challenge: how to represent recent Syrian history, which has often been stranger and more terrible than fiction.
For a start, it’s a perceptive study of radicalisation understood in human rather than academic terms. It accurately portrays violent Islamism as a modernist phenomenon, a response to physical and cultural aggression which draws upon Trotsky, Che and Regis Debray as much as the Qur’an, and contrasts it with the more representative Sufism of Syrian Sunnis.
Next, it examines the dramatic transformations of character undergone by people living under such strain, the bucklings and reformations, the varieties of madness. The characters here are fully realised and entirely flexible, even our bitter narrator, and their stories are told in a powerfully rhythmed prose which is elegant, complex, and rich in image and emotion. There is musicality too in the rhythm of the episodes, the subtle unfolding of the plot.
It has thrown students out of top-floor windows. It has shelled cities from the land and from the air. It has raped women and men and tortured children to death. Now with the massacres at Howleh and Qubair – in which Alawis from nearby villages, accompanied by the army, shelled, shot and stabbed entire families to death – the Syrian regime has escalated its strategy of sectarian provocation. Here Tony Badran explains very well the sick rationale behind these acts.
To a certain extent the regime’s plan has already worked. Now it seems inevitable that sectarian revenge attacks will intensify. In general, sectarian identification is being fortified in the atmosphere of violence created by the regime and added to by the necessary armed response to the regime. Sectarian hatred will deepen so long as the regime survives to play this card.
The regime wants us to understand the conflict in purely sectarian terms. Many Syrians recognise this and are resisting it. At this impossibly difficult time it’s good to remember the Alawi revolutionaries, who are heroes, and crucial to the revolution, heroic in the way Jewish anti-Zionists are heroic.
What do I mean by heroic? A disproportionate number of Alawis owe their livelihood to the regime. To fight for a post-regime future means to fight for a future in which their community will be, at best, less favoured than at present. This takes moral and political courage. Many Alawis have grown up surrounded not, as most Syrians have, by anti-regime mutterings, but by the happy version. To break with this version requires a psychological transformation, something as big as growing up. More concretely, there are family pressures – and family is so important in Syria. Very many Alawis are employed in the security forces. If your uncle is an officer in the mukhabarat, therefore, you don’t find it easy to publicly oppose the regime. It takes courage to do so, and the kind of confidence in your own judgment which will allow you to discount the arguments of your elders and authorities. Only a few people have such strength. (Of course it takes much more strength to live in a Sunni neighbourhood being beseiged and bombed, but this is a different kind of strength.)
This was published in the excellent Ceasefire magazine.
Ba‘athism began as a conscious attempt to supercede the sectarian and regional divisions which plague the Arab world. That’s why many of its early ideologues were Christians or members of other minority groups. The Ba‘athist slogan umma arabiya wahida zat risala khalida – One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message – employing the word for ‘nation’ which previously designated the international Muslim community, and the word for ‘message’ previously associated with the Prophet Muhammad’s divine message – suggests that this variety of Arabism actually intended to supercede religion itself, or to become a new religion.
In Iraq it all went wrong very quickly. Saddamist Ba‘athism in effect designated ethnic Arabs of the Sunni sect as true Arabs, the Shia majority as quasi-Persian infiltrators, and the Kurds as an enemy nation. Saddam even wrote a characteristic pamphlet called ‘Three Things God Should Not Have Invented – Persians, Jews and Flies’, and so demonstrated the slip from nationalism to fascism.
Syria was somewhat different, somewhat more sophisticated. Despite the fact that the president and his top spies and generals were Alawis from the Lattakkia region, only Sunni Islam and Christianity were taught in the education system (to the chagrin of traditional Alawi shaikhs). When the president prayed in public he prayed in the manner of the majority, Sunni-style. In the last couple of decades the regime sought to broaden its base by coopting Sunni businessmen as well as soldiers from the minority groups. And the majority’s rituals and religious festivals were never banned as they were in Iraq.
The first issue of Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine in book form co-edited by Ziauddin Sardar and me, will be in the shops in January. More on that at a later date. Today I’m finishing off a long essay on Syria, Iraq and sectarian hatred for Critical Muslim’s third issue. Amongst the books I review in the essay are Fanar Haddad’s indispensable “Sectarianism in Iraq” and Nir Rosen’s “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” which is also indispensable, in a different way. As a taster, here’s the section on “Aftermath.”
For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s wars in the Muslim World”.
Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the US military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (‘the Sunni triangle’, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.
This was first published at Foreign Policy.
From the start of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime’s media have portrayed the overwhelmingly peaceful grassroots protest movement as a foreign-backed military assault. Its preferred catchall term to describe the tens of thousands of patriots it has kidnapped and tortured, as well as the thousands it has murdered, is “armed gangs.” Despite a series of televised “confessions,” the regime has not provided any serious proof of the supposed American-French-Qaeda-Israeli-Saudi-Qatari plot against the homeland. Nor has it explained the evident contradictions between its narrative and the thousands of YouTube videos and eyewitness accounts of security forces shooting rifles and artillery straight into unarmed crowds.
Of course it hasn’t. Yet its propaganda is taken seriously by Russian and Chinese state media, certain infantile leftists, and a vaguely prominent American academic.
Tragically, the propaganda is also taken seriously by members of Syria’s minority sects — not by all of them by any stretch, but perhaps by a majority. It’s tragic because perceived minority support for this sadistic regime will inevitably tarnish intersectarian relations in Syria in the future.
Those Sunni Syrians who are (understandably) enraged by the minorities’ siding with the dictatorship should remember first that many Alawis and Christians, as well as many more Druze and Ismailis, have joined the revolution and that many have paid the price. Second, Sunnis should remember that Alawis and Christians have good reason to fear change, if not to believe the propaganda.
I was a guest on BBC Wales’s All Things Considered, a religious programme, talking about Christians in the Arab world in the light of the Arab revolutions. Also talking are the Right Reverend Bill Musk, based in Tunisia, Bishop Angelos, who serves the Coptic community in London, and the Reverend Christopher Gillam, who admires the Syrian regime and overemphasises Syrian Christian opposition to the uprising. Apologies for my voice, which was heavy with cold.
Here’s today’s Guardian article in its pre-sub-edited form.
Last January Syria seemed, along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, to be amongst the least likely candidates for revolution. If President Bashaar al-Asad had run in a real election, he may well have won.
It’s difficult remembering it today: most Syrians did grudgingly credit the regime with ensuring security and prosecuting a vaguely nationalist foreign policy. It’s that keen desire for security, the overwhelming fear of Iraq-style chaos, which keeps a section of Syrians fiercely loyal to the regime even now.
To start with, although they were inspired by revolutions in Tunisa and Egypt, most protestors didn’t aim for regime change. The first demonstration – in the commercial heart of Damascus – was a response to police brutality. That one ended peacefully, but when Dera’a protested over the arrest of schoolchildren the regime spilt blood. Outraged, communities all over the country took to the streets, and met greater violence, which swelled the crowds further. A vicious circle began to spin. All the intelligence, and the nationalist pretensions, peeled away from the government to reveal a dark and thuggish core.
A (real) Facebook exchange:
Him: Qunfuz…what a horrible horrible horrible name to have…good God…
Me: why? it means hedgehog. i like hedgehogs..
Him: Qunfuz (la) was Omar ibn al Khattab’s (la) servant who whipped and beat up Hadhrat Fâtimat uz-Zahrâ (as) when Omar (la), Abu Bakr (la), Khalid ibn Walid (la), Abu Sufyan (la), Muawiyah (la) and the tribe of the Bani Aslam attacked the house of our Queen Fatimah (as) in order to force Amîr ul Mu’minîn (as) to give his allegiance to the satanic opressor Abu Bakr (la). Qunfuz (la) is one of the people I ask Allah (swt) to curse for all eternity for having oppressed our Queen (as) while she was pregnant. The beating delivered by Qunfuz (la) and Omar (la) was so severe that Sayyidah Fatimah (as) miscarried her baby and died a few weeks later. When I opened that link I just couldn’t believe my eyes. The disgusting smell of satanic blasphemy that comes out of that name just makes me sick.
I was interviewed on KCRW’s To the Point. The programme focuses on Syria, Libya and foreign intervention. I was in august company – Anthony Shadid, New York Times correspondent and author of the wonderfully-written book on Iraq, Night Draws Near; as well as Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine. I’m on between 14.40 and 23.00, and then again from 36.00 to 37.15.
This piece was published at Foreign Policy.
“Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh” — “peaceful, peaceful” — was one of the Tunisian revolution’s most contagious slogans. It was chanted in Egypt, where in some remarkable cases protesters defused state violence simply by telling policemen to calm down and not be scared. In both countries, largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes succeeded in splitting the military high command from the ruling family and its cronies, and civil war was avoided. In both countries, state institutions proved themselves stronger than the regimes that had hijacked them. Although protesters unashamedly fought back (with rocks, not guns) when attacked, the success of their largely peaceful mass movements seemed an Arab vindication of Gandhian nonviolent resistance strategies. But then came the much more difficult uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.
Even after at least 1,300 deaths and more than 10,000 detentions, according to human rights groups, “selmiyyeh” still resounds on Syrian streets. It’s obvious why protest organizers want to keep it that way. Controlling the big guns and fielding the best-trained fighters, the regime would emerge victorious from any pitched battle. Oppositional violence, moreover, would alienate those constituencies the uprising is working so hard to win over: the upper-middle class, religious minorities, the stability-firsters. It would push the uprising off the moral high ground and thereby relieve international pressure against the regime. It would also serve regime propaganda, which against all evidence portrays the unarmed protesters as highly organized groups of armed infiltrators and Salafi terrorists.
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I was on BBC Radio 4′s The World Tonight the other night to comment on the situation in Syria.
Then Jeb Sharp of the BBC interviewed me for PRI’s The World.
Will Syria experience a civil war? There’s already a civil war of narratives, pitching the regime’s version against everyone else’s, and a social civil war, in which Syrians find themselves shocked by the responses of their friends and relatives, and find new friends and unexpected allies, realigning their perspectives and values as they do so. Many Syrians are still so scared of the unknown, and so deep in the slave mentality, that they wish to believe what the old authority tells them.
But decreasingly so. Most people have a time limit on their gullibility, or their self-deception. The lies of state TV and the ridiculous ad-Dunya channel, though they come as thick as summer flies, cannot cover the dazzlingly obvious – that the regime is torturing children to death, shooting women and old men, and randomly arresting, beating and humiliating the innocent. That Syria’s tanks and helicopter gunships should be liberating the Golan, not slaughtering Syrians. That the protestors are patriots seeking their basic rights. (I gave up having the argument about Salafis and foreign infiltrators weeks ago on the basis that anyone who wants to believe the regime version will believe it regardless of facts and logic.)
There are still diehards who point to Syria’s social and cultural ills as a reason for sticking with the regime. Give it a chance, they say. Let it reform, as it will undoubtedly do. The alternative is sectarian civil war.
Amid debate with Joshua Landis in the comments section of the previous post, I wrote this:
Another point about sectarianism. Remember the fight bewtween Alawis and Ismailis some years ago in Masyaf (was it Masyaf?). There was a good piece about it on Syria Comment. Somebody at the time (perhaps Joshua) pointed out that the fight wouldn’t have reached the proportions it did if there had been respected civil society figures who could have knocked the young men’s heads together. But there weren’t any such figures, because any natural authority figure was perceived as a threat by the regime and had been removed. Masyaf is a microcosm of Syria.
Then a visitor called AK posted the following comment, which is very worth reading.
Syrians lived together even before the arrival of Al Assad family to power. Mind you, majority of Alawii are poorer now than forty years ago. You just need to visit any Alawii village (including Kurdaha) to establish that yourself..
The Syria Comment website is an indispensable source for news and views on Syria. Unfortunately, it now requires a health warning.
In a recent article Joshua Landis writes that the protestors “failed to provoke a confessional split in the army as happened in Lebanon. Sunni soldiers have not split from Alawis, despite all the talk about “shabbihas,” which is code for Alawis.”
This, as so often in recent weeks, is an example of Syria Comment taking leave of reality in order to slander the uprising. I’ve been following activist websites and facebook pages, and talking to Syrians of a range of backgrounds. I haven’t come across anyone who aimed to achieve a ‘confessional split’ in the army. Of course, the protestors wanted a split in the army, between patriots and the dogs of the state. They wanted Syrian soldiers to refuse to fire on unarmed Syrian people, and it seems in Dara’a they got what they wished for. Nobody wanted a confessional split.