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.