Religion and politics in Syria

Many politicians and journalists are fearful of the future which can be facing the religious minorities in Syria following the … Continued

Many politicians and journalists are fearful of the future which can be facing the religious minorities in Syria following the revolution. Very often, these fears are expressed in the context of justifying the hesitancy of the US and the international community to arm the Free Syrian Army. It is this hesitancy that has given the Syrian regime the opening to perpetrate heinous massacres against the civilians before the eyes and ears of the world.

The fears about the future of religious minorities, particularly the Alawites, are exaggerated and are unsupported by evidence from modern Syrian history. Neither are they supported by the course of events during the revolution which erupted almost a year ago. There are no precise statistics on the distribution of religious minorities in Syria;however the percentage being widely quoted places Sunni Muslims at 79 percent of a total population of twenty three million. The Alawites constitute nine percent of the population and so too do the Christians, while the remainder is distributed among the other groups such as the Druze and Shi’a.

As the history of the Middle East is so important to understand the reality and in forecasting the future, historical readings give us no solid evidence that we are before a wave of religious sectarian cleansing. The notions of religious or ethnic purity are alien to the history of the region. Syria, like Iraq, Lebanon and other states in the region, contains a mosaic of cultural religious elements which areconsidered the most diverse in the world. Here, the great divine religions co-exist with subsidiary minorities, many of which have become extinct in other parts of the world, but remain present here.

Modern Syria has never witnessed primary religious conflict; tensions have always been the consequence of political manipulation and the sectarian factor was used as a means to exercise dominance and control. Tensions during the early 80s between Sunnis and Alawites were a result of the bloody assault launched by the regime of Assad’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, against the Muslim Brotherhood and resulted in widespread massacres in the Sunni city of Hama where many districts were flattened to the ground. It is totally unfair for the Alawite community to bear the blame of those assaults; it is the Ba’athist regime that has ruled Syria for the last 41 years that should solely bear that blame. Throughout that period, the regime remained keen on systematically entrenching the sectarian aspect for its own ends. Hence, Sunni officers were removed from the leadership of the army and the security agencies. Likewise, other minorities were marginalised and the regime depended almost completely on a section of the Alawite community to exercise its military and security control over the country.

The popular uprising currently taking place began in opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad because it is a corrupt and tyrannical regime. It did not begin, and throughout its course, has not assumed a sectarian dimension. In fact, some of its early leaders were Alawites, Christians, and Druze in addition to Sunnis. Just as the Syrian street presented an image of bravery, it also presented a spectacular image of consciousness. The slogan that was most widely and consistently repeated throughout the uprising was, “The Syrian people are one.” This contravened the official propaganda which was keen to ignite minority fears.

This does not mean that the efforts of the regime did not raise the sectarian polarization tension. For many of those whose homes were destroyed;whose sons were tortured in an unprecedented manner and whose families were butchered by the ‘Shabiha’ Forces [a group loyal to the regime most of whom are Alawites] before their eyes – many of these victims will not forget or easily forgive what they have suffered, and indeed there were acts of sectarian reprisals. But what is reassuring here is that the leaders of the revolution as well as religious leaders and scholars, regard these as isolated incidents which do not genuinely represent the ‘Syrian street’ in its various dimensions. This is an important point, because in the absence of a legitimate government, Sunni religious scholars and Alawite prominent figures and intellectuals assume the role of the most important authority in the relationship between the two sects.

In this regard, I refer to two important statements issued in February when Homs was being bombarded by the Syrian armed forces. The first statement was issued by five senior Sunni scholars in Damascus who enjoy wide respect and influence among Syria’s Sunnis. What was noticeable about these statements was that they called for caution to avoid falling into the sectarian trap, and strongly rejected any attempt to lay the blame for the regime’s crimes upon the Alawite community. In the second statement, which was issued by Alawite intellectuals in Homs and the coastal villages, they condemned the crimes of the regime and called for national unity to be strengthened. These statements and positions represent a continuing feature of the revolution which has been present from its very beginning. It also represents an important guarantee for the future against the occurrence of revenge attacks and sectarian killings.

In a new development, the Free Syrian Army recently announced the formation of its first Alawite squad which has named itself the Free Alawite Squad. The new squad issued a statement in which they called upon all officers and soldiers from the Alawite community to join them in the revolution. This is the first military defection of its kind from within the Alawites.

The most important problems facing the Syrian revolution does not spring from the nature of the revolution or its future course, but rather from the hesitancy of the international community; particularly following the position taken up by Russia and China, and ensuing feelings of helplessness, in the region and internationally, to stop the massacres against civilians. As for the revolution, it is called to continue along the same wise path: insisting on national unity, adhering to the inclusive values of the Syrian people, establishing a just democratic state, and then the criminal will face his punishment according to the rule of law -far away from the law of the jungle and the darkness of revenge.

Wadah Khanfar is president of the Sharq Forum, an independent think tank dedicated to developing long-term strategies for political development, social justice and economic prosperity of the people of the Middle East.

  • ccnl1

    Sunnis vs. Shiites (Iran?) vs. Baathists is not a religious conflict?

    “In March 1963 a military coup installed a secular, Baath socialist regime dominated by minority sects. In 1970, an Alawi ruler, Hafez al-Assad, seized the presidency (he was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Asad, in 2000). The most intractable challenge to Baathist rule has come from Sunni Islamic groups, most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood. The first Islamic uprising was in 1964 in Hama; other such sectarian disturbances followed in 1967, 1973 and from 1976-85.

    Iraqi refugees — estimated at nearly 2 million, or close to 10% of the Syrian population, in 2007 — comprise all Iraqi religions, including Sunnis and Twelver Shia, as well as a disproportionate number of Christians. The most notable effect on Syria’s religious balance has been the increased size of the resident Twelver Shia community in Syria, which was previously minimal.

  • nickchoukor

    OK, let’s get the record straight on the ethnic and religious make up of Syria. Sunni Arabs make up 48.6% of the country, and most of them support the government of President Assad. Alawites 16.7%, Shiites (Imamis, Ismailis, etc.) 4.4%, Christians 14.3%, Druze 4.1% , 2.3 others (Turkoman, non-Arab non-Kurd Sufi, Yazidi,etc.) Sunni Kurds 9.6% Non- Sunni Kurds 3.3%. Please note that the total adds up to more than 100% because Non-Sunni Kurds are counted twice, once ethnically as Kurds, again by religion as Shiites, Yazidis, etc. Also included in the Sunni Kurds are very small percentages of Sunni Kurds minorities like Sunni Sufi, and due to their very small numbers, they are not counted separately.
    I agree with the author, that In Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Turkey secularism runs deep and ethnic and religious demographics are of some but not great significance. The Events of the early eighties however are so similar to what is happening now, they started all over the country after which the masses of the revolt retreated to Hama where things ended. In both instances it was sectarian groups taking advantage of prevailing circumstances to instigate revolts leading to death and destruction. It is the wisdom of the Sunni Arab Community that takes credit for saving Syria both times. I have never in history seen more idiotic and insulting arguments for the support of misguided revolts, like we see now on behalf of the current Syrian Revolt. By the way, the revolt of the early eighties resulted in 1842 deaths most of whom were supporters of the government.
    Having said all of that, I add there are many grievances the opposition could have built upon to seek change, but unfortunately most stressed sectarianism, and that is why they have failed twice.
    Both times, then and now, there were and are sincere peaceful revolutionaries who did and are doing the right thing, but the extremists have hijacked and aborted both movements. let us not fo

  • nickchoukor

    Correction to my earlier comment: The revolt of the early 1980′s resulted in 11,842 deaths not 1842, most of whom were supporters of the government (soldiers, civilian and military targets of assassinations and random bombings.)

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