Posted by: sean | April 25, 2011

Sectarianism and the Syrian uprising

Syrian tank entering Dara'a

Like many, I’ve been glued to the internet and television watching the degeneration of the situation in Syria. Since Friday, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and Reuters et al. have reported that somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 people have been killed by the regime and its loyalists throughout Syria. This morning, there were reports that Damascus sent the army (including tanks) to Dara’a, the town on the border with Jordan where the protests began last month.

One problem those following events have faced, similar to the situation during the post-election protests in Iran, is the lack of international media access to Syria. This, as Anthony Shadid recently noted from Beirut, has allowed exiled members of the protest movement to largely shape the coverage of the events. Supporters of the regime and others on the fence have argued that this smacks of manipulation:

The unprecedented power of the long-distance activists to shape the message troubled Camille Otrakji, a Damascus-born political blogger who lives in Montreal. Where others see coordination, he sees manipulation, arguing that the activists’ mastery of image belies a revolt more sectarian than national, and deaf to the fears of minorities. “I call it deception,” said Mr. Otrakji, a somewhat lonely voice in the Internet tumult. “It’s like putting something on the wrapping of a product which has nothing to do with what’s inside. This is all being manipulated.”

This sentiment jives somewhat with the official government line that there is some sort of outside manipulation of Syrians. Although Damascus is never really explicit about who’s supposedly pulling the strings, the idea is that Saudi Arabia, Israel and Lebanon (and/or America, al-Jazeera and the BBC) are somehow involved in stoking sectarian conflict to take down the Syrian regime.

All this brings up the question of sectarianism in Syria in general and more specifically, who the protesters actually are. Many supporters of the regime, and the regime itself, insist that the protesters are “Salafis” or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, implying that the movement is neither secular nor non-violent, as many activists claim it is. One example of this thinking can be seen in an article by Michel Aoun’s spokesperson, May Akl, who heavy handedly (and without any real evidence) stokes sectarian (and Western) fears of Islamism:

In the context of these leaderless revolutions that stemmed from rightful social, economic, and political demands, the only organized and well-structured group has been the Muslim Brotherhood. For 83 years now, the aim of this widespread movement has been to instill the Quran and Sunna as the sole reference for ordering the life of the Muslim family and state. Whether it will finally succeed in doing so by claiming to embrace the hopes and dreams of the Arab youth is not to be ruled out. As such, the real beneficiaries of Arab regime changes are yet to be discovered. While this theory has yet to be proven in Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen, it is easier to note in Syria, where the last Muslim Brotherhood uprising was brutally crushed by Hafez Assad in Hama in 1982. But the Brotherhood in Syria, under claims of demanding reforms, does aim at overthrowing the Syrian regime.

[…] Hopefully, [US policy] will also acknowledge the fact that democracy and people power can actually be used as a cover for extreme groups to access power. Indeed, extreme Islam does not always come with a turban; sometimes, it comes with a tie.

As my friend Elias has noted, this is kind of a flip-flop for Aoun.

There has been a lot written recently to frame the protest movement and the regime’s violent crackdown as a sectarian conflict between Alawites (the Assad family’s sect, which makes up around 12% of Syria’s population and dominates the military and intelligence services) and Arab Sunnis, who make up around 65% of the country’s population. There has also been a bit of talk about the situation of Christians in this situation.

May Akl’s sectarian defense of the regime in Damascus can be seen in the context of a split in Lebanese Christian sentiment.  As-Safir recently ran a piece about the division of Lebanese Christians on the matter:

Lebanese Christians who had transformed freedom into a special icon that sets them apart, are now afraid of what freedom will bring to the Arab populations in general and to the Syrian populations specifically, mainly [regarding] power and the authority. They are asking difficult and complicated questions, which is increasing their confusion.

They are split into two camps. On the one hand, the March 14 Christians are following up on the Syrian events with an implicit joy that they keep hidden…. On the other hand, the Christians close to Damascus are following up on the developments in a cautious manner. And after the confusion of the early days, they are now repeating slogans about the “immunity of the regime” and the “conspiracy targeting it.”

But the two teams are brought closer together, based on different calculations and backgrounds, by a major concern and fear…. The March 14 Christians believe that  “any change in Syria will reflect positively on the Lebanese reality. The Damascus Spring must reflect on the Lebanese Spring and the change of the regime in Syria will allow for the independence of Lebanon and for the establishment of a state in it….”

An official figure from the Free Patriotic Movement wondered if “the Damascus Spring aims at achieving the demand for the return of the Niqab-wearing women to the classroom….” But apart from sarcasm, this Christian group considers that “the Syrian regime is not the best. It does have its drawbacks. However, we cannot deny the fact that it is working hard to be secular and the situation of the Christians in Syria is very good…. A large number of Syrian intellectuals who have always objected [to the policies of the regime] do not want to overthrow it but rather to modernize and improve it….” This group also notes “a major concern in case some Lebanese have been reckless enough to contribute, one way or another, to the ongoing events in Damascus as this will negatively reflect on Lebanon in general and not just one side” (initial English translation by MidEast Wire).

As for the situation of Christians in Syria, the Washington Post recently reported that many Syrian Christians are eying the protests with suspicion:

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, have largely stayed out of the anti-government protests, fearing what change could bring. Many are wealthy and could have much to lose if the uprising succeeds. Christians also occupy a disproportionately high percentage of senior positions within the government and tend to work in the educated professions as doctors, dentists and engineers.

As protests have spread by demonstrators demanding Assad’s ouster and a chance for Syrians to choose their leader after decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his father, the government has claimed that it is being challenged by Islamic radicals. The demonstrators deny that, but many Christians appear to believe it.

Dozens of planned weddings in Christian villages across Damascus have been canceled for fear of attack by extremists. Christians are withdrawing funds from banks, keeping their children home from school and not venturing out to socialize.

[…]Many Christians interviewed said their biggest fear was the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria. About half as many worshipers as usual attended Good Friday church services this year because people are afraid to leave their homes.

That said, the plural of anecdotes is not data, so it’s unclear how widespread this sentiment is within the Syrian Christian community.

Again, this raises the question, then, of who the protesters are and how sectarian their movement actually is. There have been recent claims that the person behind the “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook group is a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood living in Sweden. Others have claimed that some protesters’ slogans have had a distinctly sectarian ring to them: “Alawiyye bi eltabout…w masi7iey 3a Beirut” (Alawites in a coffin and Christians to  Beirut).

Not being in Syria and lacking media coverage of the events there, it would be an understatement to say that our understanding of what is happening is incomplete. That said, I do find a certain irony in the fact that regime and its supports are using the Islamist threat to attack the protesters, since Syrian foreign policy is largely organized around an alliance with Islamists (be they Sunni or Shi’a) in Lebanon, Iran, Palestine and Iraq. Many of those stirring up fear of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood were quick to point out Washington’s hypocrisy when democracy promotion took a back seat after the success of Hamas (the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Palestinian elections. So assuming that the protesters are all Islamist (which clearly isn’t the case), would that mean that they would be ineligible to participate in a democratic system? If so, isn’t that a mirror image of the right-wing American rhetoric that supporters of Assad dislike so much?

Furthermore, even if the Syrian Ba’ath regime is ostensibly secular, doesn’t the fact that the security apparatus and military are dominated by Alawites mean that the regime is far from blameless in any subsequent sectarianism? Just as the Bahraini government has had a hand in fueling sectarian resentment there, isn’t the Assad regime guilty of doing the same thing in Syria?

Hanna Batatu once wrote of the Alawite tendency “in their political actions to adhere to or cooperate more markedly with kinsmen or members of their own clan or people from their own sect or region” as the resulting “logic of their fundamental structural situation” of a previously disadvantaged (and in this case, rural) group. Is it surprising, then, that this sectarian “narrow cliquishness,” as Batatu put it, might be met with an equally sectarian reaction?



  1. If a given regime does not allow media access, then its version of the events should be denied consideration. I think we all had our share of deconstructing tweets and second hand reports. If Assad wants his claim about the sectarian nature of the protests to be taken seriously, he should let reporters in. If he does not do it, then his claim should be considered unfounded

  2. I find it interesting that minorities are willing to defend a regime that oppresses the majority. If this is the case, then how can they stand and whine when the majority oppresses them? I have had the chance to meet some Syrian christians recently in Canada and I was amazed how much xenophobia they expressed when talking about muslims. They were defending the regime and were angry because I spoke against the Baath!!

    I think Syria like Lebanon and all of the Levant is very sectarian and the society is pretty segmented. So, I won’t be surprised if the sunna want to overthrow an Alawite regime. I mean imagine United States ruled by a Morman dictator?

  3. Ironic indeed. I’ve been wondering what Khaled Meschal is thinking right now…I imagine Erdogan thinking really fast too… It seems that the recent events have caught a lot of people on the wrong foot? Or maybe not.

  4. Sean I think you did a good job covering the different views.

    Most people are both guilty of, and victim to, this loud and noisy mess that an infinite number of unreliable and highly biased sources on social media sites generate non stop.

    On Twitter for example … it seems that thousands of Egyptians decided to “support” the Syrian revolution the way Twitter allows you to support … by retweeting anything negative they see about “the Syrian regime”. None of them has a clue what they are contributing to the rest of the online community …

    Syria (and Lebanon and Iraq) are too complex to be supported or explained on Twitter, or even facebook.

    Journalists writing about Syria have to interview 10 people, 5 of them 100% propagandists, the other 5 end up producing 20 words each to the final 800-word opinion piece.

    And of course journalists love under dogs. If someone says he is “a human rights activist” she or he become reliable.

  5. Food for thought, in French, on Le,” l’essayiste Abdelwahab Meddeb et le théologue Tariq Ramadan débattent sur la religion dans les révolutions arabes.”

  6. I think people on the outside need to realize what a no-win situation this is for most Syrians. The people protesting are Muslims, but that doesn’t mean they are protesting because of a religious agenda. They are protesting because they are fed up with their standard of living decreasing so rapidly in the last 5 years, with the lack of opportunities and constant humiliations, and the tension of living under a police state. This reality is shared by all Syrians below the middle-class and any above it with strong ideologies like Communism or religious ethics. So although the people protesting are not doing so for religious reasons, many of the ones NOT protesting are doing so for religious reasons.

    All minorities are terrified of a Sunni government. They accept and negotiate with the Assad regime to ensure their well-being. For the Christians, the current uprising is not a battle they are willing to fight. Within their historical time-line in the Middle East, survival is what matters.

    Perhaps the ones that most have to lose are the Alawis. Though many have enjoyed opportunities in the public sector and the military, they are wrongly associated with power. The majority of them have low-level bureaucratic jobs or are villagers in areas with little investment. Their standard of living is far from high. Although the inner-circle of the government is Alawi, their alliance is based on intimate acquaintance and family, not on religion, and includes only a select few. Before Assad’s time, most Alawis were rural villagers; many of the middle and upper class urbanites resent the parity some Alawis now enjoy.

    For both these groups (and I cannot say much about the Druze population), good alternatives to the Assad regime are hard to envision. They are in a no-win situation if the regime falls as they could be accused of supporting it: in the case of Christians, financially (do they even have a choice?) and in the case of Alawis, by group-association (no choice). It is likely that if the regime falls (and this will take a long time) there will be a backlash towards Alawis. As is often the case in struggles, a scapegoat is found to direct resentment towards, but the ones punished are usually the weak. Alawis know this, and fear it.

    If the Syrians are one as they claim, any alternative should include the protection of minorities. But people behind the struggle will be more likely to protect minorities if they are involved in the struggle.

  7. […] I mentioned the other day, those of us paying attention to Syria are suffering from a dearth of reliable information. In my […]

  8. The protests in Syria now and Egypt or Lebanon or Iran in the past have nothing to do with ‘sectarianism’. These protest are against their western puppet regimes or planned by US-Israel to bring new puppet regimes to keep Muslim world living under Zionist domination.

    Not many people, including the protesters, know the evil people behind the Youth Movements which have spearheaded the street protests against the locally hated regimes. The Alliance of Youth Movement (AYM) was given birth by the US State Department in 2008 an inaugural summit meeting in New York city in 2008. The meeting was attended by members of variety of Jewish thinks, like Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Israel-firsters officials from National Security staff, Department of Homeland Security advisers – and the Jewish-controlled mainstream-media, such as, Google, Facebook, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and MTV. The meeting was attended by actress Whoopi Goldberg, Facebook Co-Founder Dustin Moskovitz and Ben-Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James K. Glassman. AYM has held annual meetings in Mexico city and London (UK) since then.

  9. […] Sectarianism and the Syrian Uprising: A good piece by my buddy Sean, over at The Human Province. […]

  10. […] original here: Sectarianism and the Syrian uprising « the human province Tags: 100-people · al-have · bbc · been-glued · degeneration · […]

  11. @rehmat I don’t share your view that the Israel/ the West are particularly keen to see the Syrian regime fall. I can’t see how it would benefit them. If put to a vote under a new government, the public here would not give Israel/ the West an easy time…

    Regarding the apparent complexity of the the internal dynamics of Syria, I think this is generally overstated. What we have here is a classic case of divide and conquer, ethnically.

    Syrians have not been historically particularly religious. The increase in religious conservatism apparent since the mid-seventies is a result of the Baath party’s repressive policies and the sense of despair ithey created, contrary to the common notion that it is the Baathists that keep the Islamic radicals in check.

    Even with this increase in conservatism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists do not have the popular support the West is wary of. It’s all a joke really. Anyone who knows anything about the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, will tell you that their membership declined greatly after they sold out there own people in the early eighties… And with regards to the Salafists, if they get 1 percent of the vote I would be surprised. I have never met anyone with any sympathy for the Salafists, and I’ve lived in conservative Aleppo all my life….

  12. […] of Alwaites before being crushed by Hafez al-Assad’s forces.  The country falling prey to sectarian strife is the fear that drives large section of the people in Syria.  This fear may not be unfounded when […]

  13. […] before being crushed by Hafez al-Assad’s forces. The country falling prey to sectarian strife ( the fear that drives large section of the people in Syria. This fear may not be unfounded when […]

  14. Interesting thoughts, but let’s also not forget, that while we’re debating the gritty-nitty and predicting the future of a country and the possibility or otherwise of democracy the present is seeing the death of people.

    …and all the while the world watches passively by…

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