Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Revolution Becomes More Islamist

with 19 comments

photo by reuters/ zain karam

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.

Third, the perception that Alawis (and to varying extents other minorities too) are siding with the regime as it destroys the country and slaughters the masses has produced a Sunni backlash. To a large extent the perception is correct. The regime’s crucial officers, its most loyal troops, and most of the shabeeha in Homs, Hama and Latakkia are Alawis. It’s true that some prominent Alawis have joined the revolution, that Alawis were targetted by Asad’s sectarian propaganda from the start, and that Alawis have good historical reasons to fear the rule of the majority, but all this is academic to some of the men in the firing line. The situation has been made much worse by the lining up of supposedly ‘Shia’ forces in defence of the criminal regime. Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah each have their own (horribly mistaken) strategic reasons for opposing the revolution, but a fighter with no time for geostrategic analysis sees only a Shia alliance opposing his life and freedom. By their words and actions, Iran and its clients have confirmed the discourse of anti-Shia propagandists. Many Syrians who now chant threats against Hassan Nasrallah previously loved the man, and scorned those who muttered about his heresy or Iranian loyalties. Like racism, sectarian hatred is not something inherent in a society or in an individual’s heart. It is generated by propaganda and political reality. (Please someone tell this to Joshua Landis). So we have to worry about the Sunni backlash, but we also have to blame the propaganda and bad politics which catalysed the backlash.

Next, in the ears of many Syrians the phrase ‘Islamic government’ doesn’t signify ‘amputations’ or ‘women in burkas.’ Many Syrians hear the phrase as ‘just government’ or ‘clean government.’ Leftist and rightist Islamophobes made a fuss of the news that certain liberated areas of Syria have set up sharia courts, but this development isn’t necessarily as scary as it sounds. Family law was already run according to sharia in Asad’s Syria. In places where the state has collapsed, where corrupt officials have fled or been arrested, it is logical that local fighters and organisers would recruit respected clerics to practise a law which everyone understands. In rural Syria in particular sharia is more trusted than civil law, because the experience of civil law in Asad’s Syria has been an experience of grotesque corruption.

Then the regime went out of its way to kill or detain secularist or anti-sectarian activists. Secularist activists are in some ways the greatest threat to the regime, because their existence contradicts the regime’s sectarian propaganda. There are tens of thousands of disappeared, and amongst them many civil society organisers. We don’t know how many are still alive, but if and when these people leave prison their ideas will be reinjected into the revolutionary debate.

Finally, some units of the resistance that have recently grown beards and thrown a more Islamic twist on their videos are really only pretending. They are wearing Islamic clothing in the hope of attracting weapons and money from the Gulf. They are doing so out of necessity. This is what the regime’s violence has reduced the country to.

Is the increase in radical Islamism a problem? Of course it is. There is no reason to think that post-Asad Syria, once united and fed (for these will be the first tasks), will accept an undemocratic Islamism, but in the perhaps very long gap between here and there, radical Islamism poses a great threat. It makes it much more difficult to start building a civil state for all. It scares minority communities. It scares the West (which, anyway, is doing almost nothing to help). It means that at some point there will have to be a showdown between the majority of fighters who want a Syrian democracy and the small minority who want an emirate on the path to a global ‘caliphate’.

Should we refuse to support the resistance for fear of its Islamism? Absolutely not. The factors generating scary forms of Islamism are factors introduced by the criminal regime. The situation will continue to deteriorate until the regime is made inoperative.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 1, 2012 at 11:40 pm

19 Responses

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  1. Hello, what are your thoughts on the Angry Arab blog’s ever escalating anger at Syria rebel’s violence?:
    He posts reports about FSA abuses and the apparent alliance of some with Al Queda


    November 2, 2012 at 1:33 am

  2. I’m not going to go into detail now, but I think the angry arab is wrong on very many things, from the israel lobby to the syrian and libyan revolutions. i also think he was particularly nasty on Juliano Mer Khamis. His position on syria seems to be that he wants the syrian regime to fall, just as soon as the syrian population consists of enlightened marxist-anarchists like himself. in other words, he’d like the syrian regime to stay. some of the generalisations and decontextualisations he makes with regard to syria are crude to say the least, even islamophobic, though he often screams ‘islamophobia’ at western journalism. and some of his supposed war against racist stereotypes in journalism misses the point or tilts at windmills. for instance the way he goes on about journalists who say shoes are offensive in arab culture. but shoes are offensive in arab culture, more than they are in western culture. what’s wrong with a journalist saying so?

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    November 2, 2012 at 2:04 am

    • Why are shoes considered offensive in arab culture?


      November 3, 2012 at 12:31 am

  3. […] • Radical Islamism poses a great threat to the Syrian revolution, but the uprising should still be su… […]

    • Tick, tick, tick, every word and paragraph correct. A very welcome read. It provides more accurate insights than everything on the subject in the mainstream press put together. (Er, I realise that’s not a high benchmark).

      I don’t think Angry Arab’s anger has escalated. He’s had the same cubic metres of stale hot air under him forever. I noted him being displeased, patronizing and disparaging about the Syrian revolution from the beginning. He only started talking out of both sides of his mouth when people called him on it.

      His nastiness and irrationality on Syria (and a couple of other things beyond the scope of this discussion) is an issue because he struts around mouthing off as a key “Arab” opinionator, which people in the west assume is representative. I’d go so far as to say he presents a problem for the Arab brand.

      So thank God the accelerated spread of opinion and information is enabling people to skip him and quickly find something better. He’s wearing an increasingly musty date tag in 2012.. .


      November 6, 2012 at 2:58 am

  4. […] • Radical Islamism poses a great threat to the Syrian revolution, but the uprising should still be su… […]

  5. Absolutely spot on. The politically juvenile young men who are only now discovering what it means to hold an opinion on politics or to say what they think without fear are going to go through many phases before maturing. Radical Islamism is, hopefully for many, just a temporary stepping stone because it is so readily available and simplistic.


    November 2, 2012 at 9:34 am

  6. “Islamophobes” A phobia is an irrational fear, when it comes to an Islam..it clearly isn’t.

    (ex-muslim Atheist leftie from Egypt)


    November 2, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    • homophobia is an irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals. if a homosexual is trying to rape you at knife point, your fear is not irrational and you are not phobic. But if you fear homosexuals who are leaving you alone, then you are phobic. I am scared of extremist salafism and sectarianism. i don’t think that makes me an Islamophobe. Clearly, I’m talking about people who overgeneralise and decontextualise and make no effort to understand what is happening to the syrian people as they are slaughtered, starved and tortured by asad’s forces.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      November 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm

  7. […] • Radical Islamism poses a great threat to the Syrian revolution, but the uprising should still be su… […]

  8. […] • Radical Islamism poses a great threat to the Syrian revolution, but the uprising should still be su… […]

  9. […] that Alawis were targetted by Asad’s sectarian propaganda from the start, and that Alawis have good historical reasons to fear the rule of the majority, but all this is academic to some of the men in the firing line. […]

  10. […] via The Revolution Becomes More Islamist « Qunfuz. […]

  11. Qunfuz missed a few points:
    – Saudi and Qatari aid aimed at strengthening the Islamists
    – the uprising has started as a protest of mainly traditionalist and fundamentalist
    Sunni. In order to broaden its audience it has played the sectarian card – painting
    Alawites as oppressors and exploiters. Arour is prominent fgure in this propaganda.
    – ‘Islamic government’ may not signify ‘amputations’ but the first reports about
    pressure on women to veil themselves are already there
    – “where corrupt officials have fled or been arrested”: a rather euphemistic way
    to describe a reign of terror where everyone associated with Assad is killed or
    – the uprising is rather similar to that in Iran in 1979. We see the same coalition:
    On one hand there are the discontented people from the countryside who resent both economic modernazation
    that leaves them marginalized and social modernization that goes against their traditional
    upbringing. Joining them are some artisans in the cities who are in a similar position.
    The ideological core is provided once again by religious fundamentalists. Initially
    Iran’s uprising was a broad coalition but we know how it ended. There is a good
    chance that Syria will go the same way.


    November 8, 2012 at 10:02 am

    • some of what you say is true. however, it was not the revolution which played the sectarian card but the regime, by its propaganda (which you seem to have fallen for) and by arming alaei thugs and sending them to kill sunnis. how exactly sunnis would broaden their appeal by being sectarian, i don’t know. arour is not as bad as he’s been made out to be, but he still isn’t good, i agree. you have completely ignored the role of secularists in the grassroots LCCs, the role of women like suhair attasi, razan zaitouneh, etc, as well as the admittedly less important role of christians, ismailis and even alawis in the revolution. your stereotyping of the revolution is reminiscent of the class prejudice employed by the regime against ‘abu shahata’.
      i don’t think ne0-liberalism is synonymous with ‘economic modernisation’, particularly not when neo-liberalism goes hand in hand with crony corruption. making rami makhlouf a billionaire has nothing to do with modernisation, and everything to do with looting the country.
      there is indeed a chance that syria is heading for some sort of islamist rule. this didn’t need to happen. the point of my article was that asadist barbarism has made an unpleasant sectarian/ fundamentalist outcome much more likely, and the longer this child-murdering sectarian regime remains able to torture and kill, the more likely it becomes.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      November 8, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      • Do you know the Latin saying “Cui boni” (=in whose interest is it)? There are millions of Sunni who prefer Assad above the FSA. Assad has no interest in antagonizing them, but the rebels do have an interest in creating the impression that they are fighting against their own people. Several rebel leaders have openly admitted that they don’t like Arour but that he has been crucial in broadening support for the uprising.

        Assad relies on a trusted core of people who happen to be to a considerable extent Alawite. But that has to do with the dynamics of the conflict; not with a decision to exclude others.

        Of course there are other people too who don’t like Assad. But an uprising cannot stay a broad coalition forever and gets a color of its own. The uprising was from the very beginning concentrated in certain rural areas and certain quarters of cities. Religious minorities and secularists played a minor role in the peaceful protests and are virtually absent in the armed uprising.

        Assad spent many years in England and it looks like he has copied the “neo-liberal” free market ideology of that country. I don’t think that has been very helpful: he would have done better to pay more attention to East Asia to learn how you can help your country to profit from free markets. Of course there is some corruption but that is not the heart of the problem.

        Civil war is a very brutal form of war as people on both sides know that they have nowhere to go when they loose. The people who started this uprising should have known that and are the primary responsible for this mess. The international community should stimulate a dialogue to get out of the impasse as a victory for one of the sides in unlikely to be achieved without at least another 100,000 dead.


        November 9, 2012 at 7:06 am

      • i just don’t understand your first paragraph. as for asad not having a desire to exclude others – the top ranks of the security services which run the country have been overwhelmingly alawite for four decades. so, yes, there has been a decision to exclude others, obviously. corruption certainly is the heart of the problem, along with mismanagement and a torture state. and it was the torture of children in dera’a, and protests by the families of these children, that strated the revolution. at first nobody was even calling for the downfall of the regime, just for the right to not be tortured. those peaceful protesters were gunned down. yet you describe them as ‘primarily responsible for this mess’ rather than the regime which tortures and rapes as a matter of policy, which has killed tens of thousands, detained tens of thousands more, bombed almost every syrian city, and organised sectarian death squads. there is something profoundly wrong with you, and we have no more to say to each other.
        talk of negotiations with this regime is completely unrealistic and fails to recognise that in almost two years the regime has done nothing except murder and propagandise. better ask the european jews to negotiate with hitler. i think there certainly should be negotiations with representatives of the alawi community and others scared of the revolution, but there can be none with these genocidal criminals, not only for reasons of principle but for very practical reasons – the criminals have made the decision to fight to the death. astheir shabeeha write on the walls – al-asad ow nahraq al-bilad – either al-asad or we’ll burn the country.

        Robin Yassin-Kassab

        November 9, 2012 at 10:38 am

  12. WIM said: “Do you know the Latin saying “Cui boni” (=in whose interest is it)? ”

    Yes, I do. And after reading all you’ve written here with a fancy reweaving of the pro-Assad narrative, it’s only natural that readers ask themselves that about you.

    The kindest (and probably naive) explanation is that you confine yourself to reading and relying on very poor sources.


    November 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm

  13. […] See original article: The Revolution Becomes More Islamist « Qunfuz […]

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