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.
Yet much of the rightist, leftist and liberal media choose to understand the revolution in the terms of 19th Century orientalism, as if Syrians are fated by culture or race to follow ancient, unchanging patterns. Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian of May 28th, illustrates the approach perfectly.
First he expresses the weird, counter-factual belief that Britain destroyed “secular politics” in Libya (where Islamists lost a democratic election, somewhat unexpectedly, after Qaddafi’s tyranny had given ‘secularism’ such a bad name). Then he fits Syria neatly into the Sunni-Shia box, and tells us, “these disputes are intractable… For Sunni to accept Shia and vice versa is for each to deny the faith.” His sweeping generalisation fails to account for the fact that a third of Iraqi marriages before 2003 were mixed-sect, or that non-Sunnis and secularists are fighting al-Assad, or that al-Assad’s Alawi sect was traditionally considered heretical by Shia as well as Sunni authorities.
Or take the case of Patrick Cockburn, a journalist who rightly questioned Bush-era propaganda that the War on Terror was a war for Western freedom, but who takes at face value (in the London Review of Books, June 6th) Hassan Nasrallah’s ‘conviction’ that the Syrian war is an existential one for Shia survival. The ‘existential’ excuse is at least the third justification for Hizbullah’s invasion of Syria: first it was because Syria’s was a “resistant” regime; then to defend “Lebanese citizens living in Syria”. Now comes fear of Salafist extremists, who Nasrallah pretends represent the majority of revolutionary forces. Yet Nasrallah cooperated with Jabhat an-Nusra’s Iraqi base during the American occupation. He’s worked with them before and could so again, if politics would allow him. Obviously, an easier way to solve the Salafist threat would be to support the Syrian people against their tyrant and thereby win back their devotion (because Syrian Sunnis loved Hizbullah when it was fighting an Israeli occupation).
But Nasrallah is not a spiritual leader; he’s a political actor, and he’s beholden financially and ideologically to Iran’s Khamenei. Those who would ascribe 9th-century motives to his moves (or those of the Syrian resistance) are engaging in absurdity as surely as those who would analyse a Martin McGuiness speech in terms of the transubstantiation of the body of Christ.
By now, there’s certainly a sectarian problem in Syria. From the revolution’s first days the Assad regime instrumentalised the sectarian fears it had carefully kept bubbling over the past decades. It did so through its propaganda and false flag operations, by releasing Salafists from prison while targetting secular activists for assassination, and by establishing sectarian death squads. By backing the tyranny, Iran and its ‘Shia’ clients seemed to confirm the worst of Sunni conspiracy theories. A Sunni backlash is well underway in Syria and beyond.
The longer the regime lasts, the more time it has to make good on its promise to regionalise the conflict. But the revolution continues on the ground, and this provides reason to hope.
In Kafranbel, in liberated (but still shelled) Idlib province, I met Abu Yusuf, who’d been a policeman for twenty six years. His words voice a sentiment shared by the Syrian mainstream.
“I don’t fast in Ramadan. I pray when my mind isn’t busy. I’m a Muslim, but my first religion is humanity. I don’t care about the religion of the president. But I’ll fight to the death to not be ruled by a murderer.”
I’m sure Scottish citizens would share his passion. Human beings are human beings.