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 state’s religious 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.
Public discussion of sect and sectarianism was taboo. To an extent this was a good thing. When I lived in Damascus I heard about a Christian (the friend of a friend) who had a fist fight with a Jew. The fight was over the affections of a woman, and had nothing to do with religion or sect, but the Christian was nevertheless swooped upon by plain-clothes mukhabarat on suspicion of provoking sectarian dissension. This was unfair, but also somehow impressive. (Of course, if you were minster of defense – and your name was Mustafa Tlass – you could write volumes of ridiculous text on Jewish ‘blood sacrifice’ and no mukhabarat would swoop down on you).
The taboo extended so far that the word ‘church’ in an English-language film would be translated on state TV as ‘place of worship’. The regime apparently assumed that the best way to deal with the social cleavage was to ignore it, and to infantalise the people so that they would be forced to ignore it too. But ignoring an illness is never a good idea, and the regime’s policy – if it really was intended to overcome sectarianism – failed miserably. An honest public discussion would have necessarily aired a variety of perspectives, and would have allowed more Sunnis to understand why Alawis and Christians sometimes feel ill at ease with their neighbours. Post-war Germany underwent an honest examination of its anti-Semitism, and is a much better place for it (the examination was sometimes derailed by Zionism, as Gunter Grass notes, but that’s another story). Post-apartheid South Africa avoided collapsing into chaos by its truth and reconciliation process, which not only allowed blacks to express their injuries, resentments and fears, but also whites. The absence of public discussion in Syria, on the other hand, increased the sectarian vitriol of private discussions. Evil grows best in the dark.
Symptoms of this stultifying taboo afflict several pro-revolution Syrians today. At a recent event in London I heard Ali Ferzat describe Syria as a beautiful and unified mosaic of peoples. He stated very firmly that Syrians had never in their history suffered from sectarian hatred or violence.
(Ali Ferzat doesn’t claim to be a political analyst, so I don’t hold his romanticism against him. He claims to be a cartoonist, and indeed he’s perhaps the best, or most important, cartoonist in the world, one who tackles universal as well as local themes. He’s also a man whose hands were broken by the regime.)
There is certainly some truth to the mosaic idea. A variety of ethnicities and religions have coexisted in Greater Syria for thousands of years, and peaceful interaction has been the rule. Yet there have been bloody exceptions. As Ottomanism degenerated and European powers moved in to sponsor favoured communities in the 19th Century, relations often broke down. Druze and Christians fought each other. In 1860 the Christian quarter of Damascus was destroyed by fire. And then there’s the case of the Alawis. Except in Antakya, now part of Turkey, Alawis didn’t share Syrian cities with Sunnis until the French arrived in the 1920s. Since Ibn Taymiyya, under Mamluks and Ottomans, Alawis were deprived of all legal and civil rights as soon as they set foot outside their own villages. Most young Alawis have no theological gripe with Sunnism, but they’ve heard stories of insult and humiliation from their grandfathers.
All this has to be recognised and understood in order to understand the divide-and-rule strategy of British and French imperialism in the north eastern Arab world. After Sykes-Picot drew the artificial borders, minority groups were propelled to power in each new country. In Iraq Sunni Arabs inherited. In Jordan the Meccan Hashemite family ruled over local Beduin (and later Palestinian refugees). Palestine was controlled by Zionist Jews, an immigrant minority which (briefly) became a majority when most of the natives were driven out. In Lebanon Maronite Christians held prime position over the panoply of sects.
In Syria, the French first tried to further split the country according to region and sect. This plan failed (to the credit of the Syrian people), but the French were successful in building an army of minorities. The troupes speciales were recruited disproportionately from hitherto oppressed rural minority groups. This was the basis of the national army which first took over the country (with CIA help) in 1946, and which has ruled for most of the time since.
The ugly history has to be understood now most urgently because the regime has instrumentalised sect so savagely since the uprising began. It has done so through its propaganda and, more dangerously, by arming Alawi thugs and sending them to kill and rape in Sunni neighbourhoods. The ruling gang’s objective is to encourage Sunni hatred of Alawis so as to scare Alawis into loyalty to their ‘Alawi’ president. It doesn’t need to be said that the Alawi community as a whole is, or will be, the prime victim of this policy.
Rather than eternally agitating for a Western military intervention that will probably never come, the Syrian National Council would do better to address Alawis and Christians specifically and repeatedly, to name the crimes committed against them in the past, and to welcome the migration of Alawis and others to the urban centres in the Ba‘athist years as a redress of historical wrongs. And anti-Sunni prejudice should also be addressed. Those Syrians who believe that a chant of ‘Allahu akbar’ is inevitably a call for Sunni supremacy, for instance, should be encouraged to confront their assumptions.
Saudi-backed Salafists are already talking about sect. Important sections of Sunni society in Lebanon and Iraq understand the Syrian tragedy in sectarian terms. Western journalists very often overemphasise the salience of sect. Why then do pro-revolution leftists, liberals and secularists tend to ignore the issue, and to leave the field to more retrograde voices? People are being killed. There isn’t any more time to waste on taboos.