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.