Monday,19 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Monday,19 November, 2018
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Dangers of sectarianism

Syria is a land where different sects and creeds have lived in harmony for hundreds of years, but today this could be changing, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Over recent months as the Syrian revolution has entered a more violent and critical phase, there has been greater discussion in the country about sectarian differences and religious disputes.

In these, the Syrians have been divided into two camps. While one group insists that there are major differences between the various sects, and sectarian divisions are deepening as Syria approaches sectarian war, the other believes that discussion of sectarianism in Syria is being manufactured by the regime with the aim of creating domestic tensions to derail the ongoing political struggle. This would turn the political struggle into a sectarian conflict, such people say, allowing the regime to claim that it is acting to control sectarian tensions.

Despite domestic and foreign warnings that the revolution could develop into a sectarian war or that it is very close to doing so, there is no evidence to support this theory, which remains just warnings and empty predictions. Thus far, the country’s armed opposition, mostly made up of Sunni Muslims, has not carried out any attacks of a sectarian nature or targeted towns and villages loyal to the regime, whose members are mostly drawn from the minority Alawite sect.

Throughout the country’s history, different religious sects have co-existed in harmony in Syria, and they have not been affected by the political, economic or cultural disputes that have occurred in the country since the early 1970s. After independence from France in the 1940s, Syrians promoted the slogan that “religion is for God, while the homeland is for all.” Christians were picked for senior government positions, including prime minister and parliamentary speaker, in a country that has a sweeping majority of Muslims.

Such moves confirmed co-citizenship rather than sectarianism and religion as the basis for national entity. However, this co-existence and harmony has recently been subverted, and things have taken a more frightening turn. The uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that started 21 months ago has forced many observers to look again at the religious sects in Syria and their complex relationships. 

DIFFERENT NUMBERS: The size of each sect in Syria is debatable because there has been no official and up-to-date census on the issue, and each sect tends to inflate its numbers. The last official census, dating back to 1986, concluded that the size of the Sunni Muslim community was 76.1 per cent of the population, with the Alawites at 11.5 per cent, the Druze at three per cent, and the Ismailis at one per cent. 4.5 per cent of the population are Christians, the census said, and 0.4 per cent are Shia.

Former Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who has defected from the regime, said in 2009 that the percentage of Sunnis and Kurds in Syria amounted to 85 per cent of the population, while Alawites constitute nine per cent and Christians five per cent.

Recent US estimates suggest that 77 per cent of Syrians are Sunni (19 million from a population of 25 million), Alawites are 10 per cent (about 2.5 million), eight per cent are Christians of different denominations (one million), and three per cent are Druze, Ismailis or Shias.

These different religions, sects and minorities have always co-existed in harmony, but recently they have found themselves caught up in the battle between the regime, led by an Alawite president, and the revolutionaries who come from various sects though the majority is Sunni. The sects are divided into four major categories, with other minor groups. The Syrian population is mixed, and as a result no specific regions are lived in by specific sects.

The Sunnis are the largest religious sect in Syria, averaging 75 to 80 per cent of the population, and they are found everywhere in the country and are the majority in 11 of Syria’s 14 governorates. The most populated regions of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deraa and Deir Al-Zur are also majority Sunni.

The Alawites are the second-largest religious sect in Syria, accounting for between nine and 13 per cent of the population. They are divided into two denominations and mostly populate the coastal mountain range and the two governorates of Latakia and Tartus, where they make up some 50 to 70 per cent of the population, the rest being mainly Christians and Sunnis. The Alawites are concentrated in mountainous and rural areas, while Christians and Sunnis live on the coast and in the cities.

In the 1960s and 1970s, large numbers of Alawites migrated from the countryside to the cities, many of them coming to work as police and security officers. Their numbers grew to 20 per cent in the governorates of Homs and Hama, and they settled in smaller numbers in other governorates.

Christians are the third-largest sect in Syria at eight to 10 per cent of the population. Of these, 80 per cent are Orthodox (Eastern Church), and the rest are a combination of Catholics, Maronites and Protestants. They are found everywhere in Syria, but the governorate of Al-Hasaka has the highest concentration of Christians, where they constitute between 25 and 30 per cent of the population. Entire villages and towns in Latakia, Tartus, Deraa and other areas were once solely Christian.

The number of Christians in Syria today is declining because of emigration. At the beginning of the 20th century, Christians constituted 20 per cent of all Syrians, but this figure had dropped to 17 per cent in the 1950s, and today it is no more than 10 per cent.

The Druze is the fourth-largest religious sect, and they number between two and four per cent of the population. They are mainly found in the Al-Siwaydaa governorate in southern Syria, and a large number of them are expatriates, especially in Latin American countries such as Venezuela, which is home to half a million Syrian Druze. For this reason, there is a Venezuelan consulate in Al-Siwaydaa in Syria.

The Druze is a Muslim denomination that is an offshoot of the Ismailis, and it co-exists with other Syrian sects. Members of the Druze have taken varying positions on the Syrian uprising. While some support the regime, which has given them weapons under the pretext of “popular committees” or regime militias, others have supported the uprising and participated in the protests. The majority of the Druze, however, has focussed on sending aid to afflicted regions in Syria in gestures of solidarity with the revolution without actively participating in it.

Along with these four major sects, there are also two minor groups that have played a less influential role, namely the Shias and Ismailis. The latter are an offshoot of Shiism and constitute one per cent of the Syrian population and have their own Sufi and humanitarian principles. The Ismailis believe in the teachings of the Imam Karim Aga-Khan, who lives in Europe. Like the Druze, they co-exist peacefully with other sects, and the majority of them support secular, communist or nationalist political parties though they often also uphold their sectarian loyalties. The Ismailis have participated in the uprising against the regime because they believe it is a revolution against tyranny and aims to achieve justice and democracy.

The Shias also constitute around one per cent of the Syrian population, and a key Shia holy site, the grave of Lady Zeinab, is located in Syria. Shias from around the world go on pilgrimages to visit it. The Shias are closely connected to the Alawites, and they have often enjoyed privileges from the regime. Syria’s alliance with Iran has also given this sect influence, and the Shias have mostly backed the regime against the revolution.

However, these are Shias with Arab roots and therefore they are different from the Persian Shias in Iran. It is perhaps for this reason that other Syrian sects have not acted against them. The group has not publicly backed the regime in its current military crackdown.

 

SPECIAL PRIVILEGES: When former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad came to power after a military coup in 1971, there were many changes in the regime, security agencies and the army.

The Alawites, the president’s sect, took control of the security, intelligence and military commands and marginalised other groups, which were excluded from senior political positions close to decision-making circles. The posts of prime minister and parliamentary speaker no longer carried any great weight, and real influence moved to the security agencies.

Sectarian rivalry stirred up by the military group that had earlier led the 1963 coup (the March Revolution) became embedded as a result, and several internal coups occurred aiming to eliminate Sunni officers from key positions in the army and security agencies. These were replaced with Alawite officers, while large numbers of Alawites were recruited into strategically important military contingents. Research has also shown that senior army and security commanders in the first, second and third contingents were mostly Alawites.

The security and military institutions imposed their control over other state agencies by relying on the Alawite minority, and senior state and public positions were reserved exclusively for Alawites. Sources in the Syrian opposition say that more than 70 per cent of senior officials and administrators were Alawites at this time, and 90 per cent of domestic and foreign university scholarships were granted to students from the sect. Alawites were also given priority in government employment.

Over the decades, the Syrian regime coordinated with Iranian intelligence to form sectarian militias in Lebanon, such as Hizbullah, especially after Hafez Al-Assad backed Iran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. This move contradicted the Arab consensus, as well as the principles of the ruling Syrian Baath Party and its pan-nationalist slogans. Iran was able to establish a doctrinal foothold in Damascus at a time when the law penalised anyone belonging to a Sunni religious group, and law 49 imposed capital punishment on anyone belonging to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

While the regime permitted other Sunni groups to exist, it strictly regulated them, and the security agencies directly oversaw them. Regime loyalists were appointed as the heads of these groups, which were void of any political content, and their roles were limited to purely religious functions and advocating obedience to the country’s leaders. In this manner, the regime appeared to sponsor moderate Islamist groups in Syria.

Economically, the regime gave financial privileges to Alawites that other sects were barred from. Many Alawites became the owners of large businesses and institutions, and they were able to monopolise state tenders and large tourism projects that were given to them at nominal prices. They were also not always prosecuted for legal violations, and the state distributed land to loyalists and rented government buildings to associates at low prices.

The present Syrian president’s maternal cousin, for example, today owns companies that generate 15 per cent of the country’s GDP. The state has granted members of the Alawite community homes, cars and farms, making them believe that their future is linked to that of the regime and that they should defend the latter to the end.

However, not all Alawites support the regime, and not all of them benefit from it. A portion of them, especially the intellectuals, has been aware of how the regime has used the sect, and many Alawite activists claim the regime has used the sect in its war against the people, sacrificing both it and civic peace in its bid to remain in power. Such activists have urged their kin to be loyal to Syria before their sect, which is why many Alawite political activists have been arrested over recent months.

 

THE CHRISTIANS IN THE REVOLUTION: Christianity was the religion of Syria from the 1st century CE onwards, and the Christians facilitated the entry of the Arabs and Islam into the Levant, assisting the Arabs in defeating Byzantine rule in Syria.

The Umayyad state in Syria in the early centuries of Islamic rule relied on Christians to Arabise the administration, favouring them in government and other employment. Much later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Syrian Christians contributed to the Arab Renaissance, playing a key role in the cultural and political renaissance of the time by opening schools, reviving the Arabic language, publishing newspapers, creating societies and so on. They also partnered with Muslims in creating Arab political parties, demanded decentralisation, and wanted Arabic to be the official language of state.

Growing numbers of Christians have left Syria over the past three decades, and many Syrians, including Muslims, have warned against this flight because it threatens the country’s culture and diversity. They have urged that this migration should be stopped and that keeping the Christians inside the country boosts the idea of the modern state, as well as plurality and democracy.

The Christians have enjoyed a reasonable amount of freedom under the Al-Assad regime, and many view them as advocates of the regime because they are concerned that extremist Sunni groups could take power should it fall. However, the injustices of the regime against all Syrians have also been inflicted on the Christians: key Christian opposition figures have been detained for many years, and some have been killed in jail. Christian protesters have also died during the ongoing turmoil.

There are 12 Christian denominations in Syria, and because of this wide diversity among Syrian Christians and their cultural and political differences it is impossible to identify a united Christian perspective on the current crisis. Nonetheless, the Christians largely sympathise with the uprising, and they have participated in it to some extent. The Christians in Syria are divided into two camps, one supporting the revolution and its goals and represented by the Christian political parties and the elite, and the other being pro-regime and represented by the churches and clergy. This has not been surprising since many clergy are associated with regime agencies.

“The Syrian Church has abandoned political rights for the rights of God,” explained Michel Kilo, a prominent Christian opposition figure. “We refuse to see the rights of Christians reduced to merely the right of worship. We will not accept anything less than full citizenship and genuine political partnership in a new Syrian state.”

 “Christians who have supported the revolution have received threatening letters from criminals describing themselves as ‘Christ’s Militias’. The Church will never restore its position unless the clergy take to the streets not only to demand protection for the lives of their Muslim brothers, but also their rights and freedoms.”

Some Christians say that their community fears the future, and they want the revolution quickly to make its position on the country’s identity clear and guarantee that religion is divorced from politics. These Christians are looking for reassurance that they will have a political and cultural future within any future regime and that this will correspond with their historical weight. They no longer believe the lies that the Al-Assad regime is the guardian of minorities, or that the next regime will necessarily be made up of fanatical Salafis.

Over recent months, several Christian districts have been targeted by car bombs, the regime accusing terrorists of deliberately targeting Christians. However, most Christians have not believed these claims, and there has been a reverse reaction and more Christians have declared their support for the revolution.

Churches in areas where there is a concentration of Christians especially in the north of the country have formed social relations councils to support the revolution and protect Christians and to strengthen bonds between Christians and Muslims.

Commenting on the reasons why the Christians have changed their position and the bombings in the Christian communities, Suleiman Youssef, an Assyrian expert on Syrian minorities, said that “one of the key issues that have impacted Christians is the attempt by the regime to thrust the country’s Christians into the domestic battle. Although the revolution has been militarised, the opposition has taken up arms, and the numbers of fanatical and extremist local and foreign jihadists and Salafist Islamist groups are rising, in the eyes of Christians the regime remains responsible for the continued violence and for the deaths of Syrians.”

It has also been the regime that has been suspected of being behind the bombings that have targeted Christians, trying to deepen their fears about alternatives to the present regime. History has shown that minorities are victimised most under oppressive dictatorships and that the best safeguard for all is a state based on equal citizenship, justice and democracy.

THE MAJORITY AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT: The cities most involved in the present uprising are mostly Sunni in composition, and they include Deraa, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Deir Al-Zur and others. These cities have not risen up for religious or sectarian reasons, despite what the Sunnis describe as their persecution by the regime over the past four decades.

The uprising in Syria began more than 20 months ago with simple demands related to dignity and local reforms. However, after the first deaths it evolved into one making political demands for freedom and comprehensive reform. As the regime escalated its military crackdown in response, the uprising grew into a people’s revolution demanding the overthrow of the regime and the building of a pluralist, democratic state that should guarantee the rotation of power.

After the regime resorted to what amounts to war against the population, using heavy artillery to shell cities and kill more than 40,000 people, Syrians have been demanding the overthrow of the present regime and the building of a new state.

The country’s Sunni majority has attempted to reassure other sects and religious and ethnic minorities that the revolution is not against any one segment of Syrian society. The protesters have chanted “One, one: the Syrian people are one,” “Sunnis and Alawites are one,” and “Syria is for all and not for the Al-Assad family.” Some Friday protests have been given reassuring names, including “Good Friday”, to reassure Christians, and “Saleh Al-Alyy Friday”, after an Alawite revolutionary during the French occupation.

Statements made by the country’s Sunni majority have emphasised how the overthrow of the regime and reform of the state will benefit all Syrians from all the country’s sects and ethnicities. While some observers have criticised the fact that the demonstrations have been launched from mosques, many others have countered that these were the only places in which people could quickly gather and that many Christians waited near the mosques to join the demonstrations.

As a further reassurance, protesters began launching demonstrations from a variety of locations, including universities and neutral zones away from the guns of the military. “We are thankful for the mosques because they triggered the protests and the revolution for dignity and freedom in Syria,” declared George Sabra, a Christian and chair of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). “The basic truth is that the conflict in Syria is between a people who demand freedom and a regime that has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of all the sects.”

Ghassan Aboud, director of the opposition Mashrek Television channel, said that “everyone forgets that the power of religious institutions derives from the absence of democracy and that the reduction of the roles of the parliament and the local councils without any protest for the past half century, as well as the marginalising of public opinion, has boosted the power of the mosques in political life. The creation of many platforms for expression is what will balance political life in a free Syria.”

Since the protests began, the regime has tried to instill fear into the minorities, recalling events in Hama in 1982 in order to portray “armed militias” and “terrorists” as wanting to destroy co-existence and create an obscurantist state led by a single sect that would subjugate everyone else. However, Syria has never shown leanings in this direction, and Syrian society has always rejected extremist opinions or rhetoric.

“Since the Baath Party came to power in 1963, sectarian tensions have flared up several times,” explained Fayez Sara, a Syrian writer and researcher, “especially after clashes between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the regime in 1982. The regime used political and police suppression in dealing with the challenge, instead of comprehensive reform, further stirring up tensions between Sunnis and Alawites. The Syrian people, with their heritage of unity and national sentiment, tried to contain these frictions because if they had spread, they could have broken up the nation and divided its citizens. This logic can be applied to today’s crisis, since the military crackdown has given rise to harbingers of sectarian strife, although the conflict is essentially political.”

Since the early weeks of the uprising, the regime has aimed to insinuate that the protests against it are attempts to incite sectarian strife, something claimed by presidential advisor Bothayna Shaaban, for example. However, the protests have demanded basic reforms and a fight against corruption: they did not demand the overthrow of the regime until the latter resorted to a military and security crackdown against the civilian demonstrators. As the uprising spread, the regime maintained its sectarian-strife theory, propagating this through its media outlets.

Hurling accusations about the sectarian nature of the uprising has been a constant of official rhetoric since the beginning. The regime has tried to portray itself as the guardian of minorities, but protesters have responded by chanting “the Syrian people are united.” The opposition claims that the regime has contrived sectarian incidents in order to confirm its narrative in an attempt to intimidate the religious minorities and force them to support the regime.

Of the dangers of sectarian war in Syria, Marwan Habash, a former Syrian minister and leading member of the ruling Baath Party, said that “the regime’s aggressive security crackdown has resulted in the victims rising up to defend themselves and reciprocate the violence. A Pandora’s box has been opened, as weapons have poured in and the number of combatants has risen. The revolutionary brigades are cautious about not attacking on a sectarian basis. Attempts at sparking an armed sectarian or civil war, such as those that have taken place in Somalia or Lebanon, have failed because those demanding freedom in Syria are from all sects and creeds and they do not want to fragment their country.”

 

INBOUND EXTREMISM: Armed Islamist groups have emerged in recent months, in response to the excessive force used by the regime, and these are frightening to anyone concerned with sectarian issues in Syria.

Syria has never hosted Al-Qaeda or jihadist Salafis because the country’s mostly moderate Sunni community has not tolerated such groups, viewing them as extremists. As a result, Sunnis in Syria fear the appearance of such groups in the country, though most Sunnis believe that talk of the “Islamisation” of Syrian society is merely rhetoric that does not concern them.

“The world is talking about an issue that does not exist in accusing the Syrian revolution of sectarianism,” said Mohamed Nemr Al-Madani, a writer. “However, there is concern about civil war when discussing the many sects and ethnicities in Syria, and many international players have intervened to prevent any sectarian war threatening Syria.”

“No one in the opposition is Salafi or extremist. Some are members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the moderate Islamist groups, but the majority supports secular, communist, nationalist or Baathist political parties. They include Christians, Druze, Alawites, Shias and Sunnis. Perhaps someone in the opposition made sectarian statements, but none of the opposition’s actions or platforms is based on sectarianism.”

“When a Sunni protester is killed by an Alawite bullet, no one portrays this as a sectarian attack, but when an Alawite is killed by a Sunni bullet, the entire world erupts, even though both crimes occurred because of a political and not a sectarian conflict.”

However, Haytham Manaa, director of the opposition National Democratic Committee, disagrees. “An international conference on Syria must be held attended by all international, regional and Syrian parties in order to force everyone to live up to their responsibilities,” he said. “There are serious fears of a media-fanned sectarian blaze. There is a quasi-civil war on the ground, and there is anxiety that a sectarian war could erupt. It is no longer feasible to talk about people’s immunity to the flames of sectarianism and civil war. Instead, it is vital to find firefighters to douse the flames and end the hypocrisy.”

The Syrian people raised the torch of liberty because they believed the battle for freedom would be a social, political and economic one rather than a battle to make one sect dominate the others or create a religious state. Sectarianism in Syria, although seemingly linked to the ongoing crisis, is not a widespread phenomenon, and it does not undermine the unity of the Syrian people. When it rears its ugly head, it is based on local and circumstantial reasons that do not go beyond these specific incidents.

Yet, if the pressure continues to mount, including the regime’s crackdown and its attempts to incite one group or sect against another, things could change. “The regime has warned that if it falls there will be havoc in Syria,” Hazem Nahar, an opposition figure, explained. “But I believe that any such battle would be better described as a war by the regime against its own people.”

 “As part of this war, there may be minor incidents that trigger civil or sectarian conflict in some areas, but these will quickly end because the majority of Syrians know why the regime has been mixing issues and covering up its crimes with crimes committed by irresponsible elements who have been gambling on the future.”

The actions of the Syrian regime over the past 20 months have created fertile ground for local and Arab Salafis, some of them closely connected to the regime, to recruit for jihadist purposes especially from the lower echelons of the middle classes in the suburbs and the countryside, which have borne the brunt of the regime’s injustices.

This segment of the population may be easily manipulated, and some Salafis have taken up arms on the road of revolution. Some say that this phenomenon is not a great transformation in Syrian society, and it should not last long after its raison d’etre is eliminated. However, others warn that as conditions become more harsh, this will create more fertile ground for extremists and the longer the Syrian revolution lasts and the regime’s violence continues the more such fertile conditions will be created.

This could in turn marginalise moderation and the middle-ground, something which the Syrians fear the most.

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