Archive for the ‘Sectarianism’ Category
Now that ISIS has supposedly taken over vast swathes of northern Iraq (in reality, ISIS is a small minority of the Sunni Arab forces that have risen against the Malki government), the newspapers are full of articles telling us that the West should align with Iran to defeat the common foe. Of course, Iran’s sectarian and aggressively expansionist policy in both Iraq and Syria is a major contributor to the rise of ISIS and similar groups. Working with Iran against ISIS is as intelligent as working with Hitler against anti-Semitism. I discussed the issue with Hayder al-Khoi and Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight.
Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.
Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.
From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.
The officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces and the security agencies – the real powers running the country – were almost exclusively Alawi. This ‘empowerment’ of the community arguably reversed its growing acceptance by the Sunni majority. Once despised, Alawis were now feared and resented. It was also the reason why the regime found it necessary to reduce Alawi identity to its Ba‘athist, or more properly Assadist, component. Because the regime depended on Alawis for its survival, it was potentially at their mercy. Therefore it needed to ensure that no alternative source of authority existed within the community, so independent Alawi shaikhs were killed, imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated into silence. The president’s brother Jameel, unqualified to say the least, attempted to make himself a spiritual leader in their place. Against the urging of the clerics, Alawi doctrines were not studied in universities. Religious education in schools centred on Sunni tenets and rituals (Christian students had their own classes). The president prayed Sunni-style in public, and Alawis were encouraged to give up their difference and build mosques and to go on Haj.
An edited version of this article was published by al-Jazeera.
In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.
Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.
Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.)
But even these simple aims are difficult to achieve, even in the regime’s absence. ISIS closed one printing press (a second ran at a secret location), and arrested and beat Yasser for ‘taking photographs of women’ (the ‘women’ in question were girls under the age of thirteen participating in one of his workshops). In July 2013 he witnessed ISIS attacking Saraqeb’s media centre and its abduction of a Polish journalist.
An edited version of this piece was published by the National.
Our car turns through the crowded alleyways of single-storey breezeblock houses, foggy with coal smoke in the icy December morning. This is the poorest quarter of Reyhanli, a Turkish town just across the Syrian border, and it’s crammed with Syrian refugees.
The woman whose story I’ve come to hear puts on a niqab when the camera comes out. And she prefers to be nameless, because she fears for her two married daughters still living in regime-controlled territory.
She lives in an empty, unheated house. Her son sits with us, and her small daughter shivers under a blanket. The woman is in early middle age but looks older. Her face is long, worn, and haggard, her voice pain-strained and sharp.
Her husband, born in 1972, worked with the military security for seventeen years but retired early when he needed an operation on a vertebral disc. After that he opened a roast chicken place in his Homs neighbourhood, Bayada. The family lived what his wife describes as a working-class life “of an acceptable standard”. They had six children. Bayada comprised both Sunni and Alawi families, “and the relationship between us was very good, even if the state favoured Alawis. We drank maté together. There was no problem.”
The revolution broke out less than a year after her husband’s retirement, and the newly-pressured military security began asking him to return to work. He refused. “How could he work for them? At that time Bab Dreib was being shelled. In our area there were house searches and random arrests of young men. They even took women, those who attended demonstrations and those who shouted ‘God is Greater!’ from their windows at night.”
Her husband supported the revolution and was part of a local network which helped the revolutionaries, finding shelter for those on the run and collecting food, medical supplies and money. His wife believes an Alawi neighbour informed on him. On the other hand, it was an Alawi friend who warned him that his name was on the wanted list at regime checkpoints.
Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).
For the first time there is proof of a large-scale massacre of Alawis – the heterodox Shia offshoot sect to which Bashaar al-Assad belongs – by Islamist extremists among Syrian opposition forces. In its context, this disaster is hardly surprising. It follows a string of sectarian massacres of Sunni civilians (in Houla, Tremseh, Bayda and Banyas, and elsewhere), the sectarian ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from areas of Homs province, and an assault on Sunni sacred sites such as the Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, the Umawi mosque in Aleppo, and the Omari mosque in Dera’a. It follows two and a half years of rape, torture and murder carried out on an enormous scale by a ‘Syrian’ army commanded by Alawi officers and backed by sectarian Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, and by Alawi irregular militias. Assad and his backers have deliberately instrumentalised sectarian hatred more effectively than the Americans did in Iraq, and they must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the dissolution of Syria’s social mosaic. Next, the counter-revolutionary forces in the West (chief among them the United States) must be blamed for obstructing the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army, a policy which has inevitably strengthened the most extreme and sectarian jihadist groups (some of whom, such as the foreign-commanded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are actively fighting the Free Army). Human Rights Watch’s important report on the massacre of Alawi villagers is summed up in the video below. Sadly, HRW fails to adequately distinguish between Syrian and foreign, and moderate and extremist anti-Assad militias. The excellent EAWorldview critiques the report here. Its conclusion:
The HRW report illustrates the dangers of conflating the various factions of the insurgency under the heading “armed opposition groups”.
Coincidentally, that conflation is a tactic of the regime who seeks to portray the insurgency as extremist-led, largely foreign fighters rather than an extension of the indigenous protest movement that took up arms after Assad’s forces used violence to quash it from March 2011.
By this conflation, HRW (a fine organisation which has done great work in uncovering the truth of the Syrian conflict) veers dangerously close to the orientalist/racist stereotyping of the Syrian people’s struggle now dominant in both the rightist and liberal/leftist Western media.
It goes without saying that the crimes committed against Alawi civilians in northern Lattakia province are grotesque and idiotic, and constitute another strategic blow against the revolution and the survival of the Syrian state.
This was published at NOW
The Syrian city of Selemiyyeh lies to the east of Hama, where the fertile crescent becomes barren. The ruins of Shmemis castle, dating to the late Hellenistic period, cling to the cone of an extinct volcano nearby. The major historical site in the city itself is a shrine containing the tombs of Imam Taki Muhammed and Radi Abdallah. Some believe that Imam Ismail, the foundational figure of the Ismaili sect, is buried here too.
Although it’s an ancient city, with ancient links to the Ismaili faith, the ancestors of its present population were 19th and 20th Century migrants from Ismaili hill towns to the west, places such as Qadmous and Misyaf. The town, which also houses significant populations of Sunnis, Twelver Shia and Alawis, has long been a model of sectarian co-existence. Its secularism has been real – a genuine popular tolerance for difference, not the debased, propagandistic ‘secularism’ of the regime.
Along with Homs, Darayya, Dera‘a and Kafranbel (each one for different reasons), Selemiyyeh has become one of the capitals of the Syrian revolution. As a predominantly non-Sunni community which has since the start stood solidly for freedom and against the regime, its example proves both the mendacity of Assad’s sectarian narrative and the oversimplified western media discourse which portrays the fight as one between Sunni extremists and minority-secularists.
As part of its divide-and-rule strategy, the regime has spared Selemiyyeh the aerial bombardment and rocket attacks it has visited on majority-Sunni areas, but the city has suffered as much as anywhere from detentions and disappearances. Its revolutionaries, like all revolutionaries in regime-controlled areas, live underground.
Selemiyyeh has also bled (in January and February) from bomb attacks, probably organised by Jabhat an-Nusra, which targetted the regime’s shabeeha militia but also killed many innocent civilians. Despite such provocations, Selemiyyeh’s revolutionaries have cooperated with the Salafists of Ahrar ash-Sham, who have brought food aid to the city. And the community has done a great deal to house and feed its brothers and sisters of all sects fleeing violence in Homs and Hama. Pioneers of the early non-violent protests, many of Selemiyyeh’s residents are now engaged in the armed struggle.
When I met Aziz Asaad, an activist from Selemiyyeh, across the Turkish border in Antakya, I asked him why the community was so revolutionary, why it hadn’t been scared into fencesitting or even grudging support for Assad by the Islamist element of the opposition. His answer: “We read a lot. We’ve always read books.”
This account of my visit to Atmeh camp was published at Foreign Policy. In deference to their new paywall, I’ve waited a week before posting it here, and I haven’t posted the edited version, which for a change is better than the original, and which includes a brief commentary on the proposed intervention after the chemical weapons attacks. (I think you can read a certain number of articles at FP before paying – though if you can pay, do. FP is a great resource. I may give up my subscription to the sadly orientalist London Review of Books and subscribe here instead).
At the north eastern corner of the Mediterranean lies what used to be called the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Historically part of Syria, the French Mandate awarded the territory to Turkey in the late 1930s. The Turks named the area Hatay, after the Hittites. The extreme Turkish nationalism of the time held that the Hittites, like the Sumerians and other ancient peoples, had been proto-Turks, and that the Hittite ruins in the area justified its annexation to the Kemalist republic. The Arab population of the province produced their own mythology in response. Zaki Arsuzi, one of the founding ideologues of the Ba‘ath Party (its slogan: One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message), did much of his agitating in Antioch, the provincial capital. Ba‘athism appealed particularly to non-Sunni minorities throughout the Levant. Today a debased version of the creed provides ideological cover for Syrian president Bashaar al-Assad’s campaign of slaughter.
Reyhanli (Reyhaniyeh in Arabic) is a town in Hatay right on the Turkish-Syrian border. Its population of Turks and Alawi, Sunni and Christian Arabs has recently doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees. The crisis has boosted the local economy but also brought tragedy – a car bombing on May 11th, almost certainly the work of Assad’s intelligence services, killed 51 people. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in Turkey’s history.
A hotel in Reyhanli served as my base in late June while I worked with refugees on the other side of the border. A pleasant respite from the dust and trauma of the camp, it felt something like the setting of a Graham Greene novel. Saleem Idriss, chief of staff of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, wandered in one evening. Expatriate Syrians, charity workers or weapons smugglers, smoked shishas in the courtyard. And an American called Eric, with no surname, introducing himself as ‘a researcher’, visited the charity offices outside.
The back streets feature Syrian women being promenaded in their wheelchairs. It happens frequently that you shake a hand and realise that fingers are missing. One of my first friends there was Malek, an eleven-year-old boy from rural Hama with a big smile, a scar on his cheek, and only one leg. The hotel staff included Muhammad from Kafr Zeita, who escaped Syria after a year and a half’s imprisonment and torture. Read the rest of this entry »
This was published by the National. If you’d prefer to read my tense choices, before the subediting process, read this version here.
I live in Scotland, where I am witness to the continuing legacy of Protestant-Catholic communal hatred, despite the theological indifference and general irreligiosity of the populace.
The hatred is most commonly activated by the Rangers-Celtic football game. (In his great novel “Kieron Smith, Boy”, James Kelman brings it viscerally alive through the mouth of a Glaswegian child.) It is manifest too in Orange Order marches and schoolyard slurs. It intersects with the gang violence of the ‘schemes’. Most of the time, of course, it’s absent, or it emerges as friendly competitiveness rather than actual conflict, but you can bet your last communion wafer that it would blossom into something much fiercer if, in the event of political crisis, a divide-and-rule tyrant were to send Catholic militia in to pacify restive Protestant areas, or vice versa.
Like Scotland’s sectarians, Syria’s Alawis are usually largely secular and ignorant of their own theology (at least they were – a war-driven religious revival is touching them as well as the Sunnis). Over the last four decades Alawi religious scholars have been assassinated or otherwise silenced by the Assad regime as it sought to render the community entirely dependent on the Ba‘athist state. Most Alawis (by no means all) continue to support Assad because they have no other community leadership. Add to this that many have relatives working in the security forces, and so fear a loss of privileges and even violent revenge when the regime falls. Alawis also remember their historical marginalisation by the Sunni majority, and therefore fear majority rule.
As in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, or Northern Ireland, the conflict in Syria is not about theology but about group fears and resentments. Ultimately, it’s about power. Communal tensions are the result not of ancient enmities but of contemporary political machinations. And nothing is fixed in time. Syria’s supposedly ‘Sunni rebellion’ (which contains activists and fighters of all sects) becomes more or less Islamist in response to rapidly-changing political realities. A few months ago, for example, Islamist black flags dominated demonstrations in Raqqa, in the east of the country; now Raqqa’s demonstrations are as likely to protest Jabhat an-Nusra, the extremist militia which nominally controls the city, as the regime. This isn’t an Islamist rebellion but a popular revolution. As in Egypt, if the Islamists oppress the people or fail to deliver, they too will be revolted against.
The Umawi mosque in Aleppo has burnt. Its thousand-year-old minaret has fallen. The minaret of Dera‘a’s Omari mosque, built in the seventh Century by Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, has been destroyed. And today the Khalid ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, built around the mausoleum of the famous Muslim general and companion of the Prophet, was shelled and burnt. These are ancient mosques of enormous significance to Muslims, and they are world heritage. They were. They survived the Mongols, but not Assad.
It’s clear the Western media does not understand the religious, cultural and historical importance of these sites. Assad’s cultural vandalism and civilisational provocations are worse than the Taliban’s assault on the Bamiyan Buddha. Am I wrong to think that an attack by rogue elements of the Syrian resistance on a major Shia shrine would raise a far greater noise?
Many Muslims too are strangely quiet. If the Israelis were to hit a mosque of such vast symbolic resonance, you can bet there’d be furious demonstrations from Casablanca to Jakarta, from London to Lahore.
What’s happening is no secret. The shabeeha write it on the walls: “Al-Assad or We’ll Burn the Country.” The world worries about Islamists, about hypothetical future persecutions, about the chess game between America and Russia, Israel and Iran. Meanwhile the country burns. The people and their history burn. And the flammable poison of sectarian hatred seeps out from Syria, to east and west.
I participated in BBC World’s “World Have Your Say” to discuss the fall of Qusair and the spread of sectarian war as Hizbullah invades Syria in force. Sara Assaf, Kenan Rehmani and Elizabeth Tsurkov also contribute.
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.