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 review was published at the Guardian. I like the Guardian’s books section and its G2 section, not least because they sometimes pay me to write. I also like some of their brave correspondents, such as Martin Chulov. What I don’t like at all is the idiotic, orientalist, conspiratorial, fact-free, and sometimes racist narrative against the revolutions in Syria and Libya which is so common in the Guardian’s comment sections. Blanket-thinking statist leftists like Seamus Milne and Jonathan Steele dominate, alongside talentless and ignorant polemicists like Tariq Ali. The last lines of my review target people like them, who are unfortunately influential in ‘liberal’ Britain. I am not at all surprised that the Guardian cut these lines from the review, although I name no names. These lines: “….the new Islamophobia of sections of the left, the notion that US imperialism and ‘al-Qa’ida’ are in league to destabilise imagined ‘secular’, ‘resistance’ regimes. Those who defended Iraqi Islamists in the Blair years now point to the Allahu Akbar chant as evidence of an agenda far more benighted than that of the genocidal neo-liberal dictatorships.” (I just spoke to the good man who commissioned the piece. He says the issue was space in the print edition. Fair enough. But why cut the lines which apply to Guardianistas?)
Arun Kundnani’s “The Muslims Are Coming”, vastly more intelligent than the usual ‘war on terror’ verbiage, focusses on the war’s domestic edge in Britain and America.
Kundnani’s starting point is this: “Terrorism is not the product of radical politics but a symptom of political impotence.” The antidote therefore seems self-evident: “A strong, active, and confident Muslim community enjoying its civic rights to the full.” Yet policy on both sides of the Atlantic has ended by criminalising Muslim opinion, silencing speech, and increasing social division. These results may make political violence more, not less, likely.
The assumptions and silences of the counter-radicalisation industry end up telling us far more about particular ideological subsections of Anglo-American culture than they do about the Muslims targetted. The two dominant security approaches to Muslim citizens described by Kundnani – ‘culturalist’ and ‘reformist’ –focus on ideology rather than socio-political grievances.
Culturalism’s best-known proponent is Bernard Lewis, Dick Cheney’s favourite historian, who locates the problem as Islam itself, a totalitarian ideology-culture incompatible with democratic modernity. So Mitt Romney explains the vast divergence between Israeli and Palestinian economies thus: “Culture makes all the difference” – and decades of occupation, ethnic cleansing and war make none. Writer Christopher Caldwell believes residents of the Paris Banlieu rioted in 2005 because they were Muslims (although many weren’t), and not because of unemployment, poor housing, and police violence. Perhaps the silliest culturalist intervention was Martin Amis’s “The Second Plane”, where Amis breezily admitted he knew nothing of geopolitics but claimed authority nevertheless from his expertise in ‘masculinity’ – 9/11 was explained by Islamic sexual frustration. Such discourses are part of an influential tradition of silliness. In 1950s colonial Kenya, psychiatrist JC Carothers understood the Mau Mau uprising as “not political but psycho-pathological”.
This was published by the Guardian.
This must be how the Palestinian camps began their slow transformation into towering townships. The Syrian families here are still living in canvas or plastic tents, but the little shops selling falafel and cola on the Atmeh camp’s ‘main street’ are now breeze block and corrugated iron constructions. And now nobody dares to talk about going home.
Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, hugs the Turkish border fence. Its population has risen in the last six months from 22,000 to almost 30,000. This newly-sprung settlement is one of very many – there are more than six million people displaced inside Syria, and over two million in neighbouring states. The camp’s population dwindles and swells according to the vicissitudes of battle. When the regime reconquered (and obliterated) the Khaldiyeh quarter of Homs last July, an additional 50 to 60 families a day arrived.
Six months ago, when I last visited, I was able to travel deep into liberated Syria – as far as Kafranbel in the south of Idlib province – with nothing to fear from the Free Army fighters manning checkpoints. This time I didn’t dare go as far as Atmeh village, sitting on the nearby hilltop, because it was occupied by the al-Qa’ida franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In June the camp’s residents referred derisively to the mainly foreign jihadists as ‘the spicy crew’. Now they are a real threat – abducting and often murdering revolutionary activists, Free Army fighters, and journalists. This development contributes greatly to the gloom of the camp’s residents. (At the time of writing the Free Army and more mainstream Islamic battalions are finally striking back at ISIS, fighting and arresting its cadres.)
In the camp, the steaming vats of the Maram Foundation’s charity kitchen are cooking the same meal they were cooking six months ago: lentil soup. Children wait for lunch to be distributed with buckets in the red mud outside. Also on main street is a new clinic and one-room dentist (funded by the Syrian-American Medical Society). Dr. Haytham grins as he complains about the conditions. The roof leaks, and the recent snowstorm flooded his crowded space, destroying electrical equipment. As he served us tea, a boy called Mahmoud walked in to observe us, his face marked by post-treatment leshmaniasis scars (a resurgent disease caused by the sand flies which prosper in uncollected rubbish). Mahmoud, about five years old, seemed a pleasant child at first, but after a smiling photograph with one of our group his mood flipped, he violently pinched the hand of the man he’d been cuddling up to, and then took to whipping his older sister with a cable. “Nobody can control him,” somebody remarked. “He doesn’t have a father.”
Fatherless, husbandless, homeless… When I asked a man where he’d come from he changed the name of his town from Kafranboodeh to Kafr Mahdoomeh, ‘the Demolished Village’. I asked him why. “Because they haven’t left one house standing nor any animals in the fields. What will we ever return to? The whole town’s gone.”
Mohammad Ojjeh made a short film in which the children of the Salam School for Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, Turkey, speak about their experiences and the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna programme.
This was published at the National.
Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with the country – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people. Of course there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a ‘political offense’ – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And before too long I did move on, because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.
Then in 2011 the revolution erupted. This instant of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar al-Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a
result the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears and hatreds produced a Sunni backlash. Al-Qa’ida franchises set up emirates near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue. In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, in December, and questioned under the UK’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: either the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the ‘no further threat’ box.
They also asked why I was going. The answer: I was lucky enough to know a group of committed and talented Syrian-Americans, including Chicago-based architect and writer Lina Sergie Attar, interviewed below, founder of the Karam Foundation. Karam delivers aid and opportunity to war-struck Syrian communities, and I was on my way to participate in its Zeitouna programme.
How do you act usefully in the face of a tragedy which unfolds on an incomprehensible scale? Syrians and their friends were forced to address this question as Assad’s genocidal repression transformed the popular revolution into a civil war, and as an unthinkable third of the population were made refugees. Every city except two has crumbled in whole or in part under bombardment. Ancient mosques and churches have been reduced to dust. The country’s multicultural social fabric appeared to dissolve.
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.