Bashar Assad holds Syria’s diversity hostage

d7b3b2154d3c8b24c70edab12c54.jpgBy Haroon Siddiqui
A sign in Arabic that reads: “Freedom, Freedom, Islam and Christians” is attached to the gate of a church in the al-Hamidiya neighborhood of Homs
In the Syria that existed before the rebellion and crackdown, it took some time to grasp the evil manifestations of the police state. But you were immediately struck by two pleasant aspects of the country.

It has mostly escaped the architectural crimes of “modernization” and kept its historic mosques, homes and labyrinthine bazaars, especially in Damascus and Aleppo.

And Syrians had retained the relaxed pluralism that once characterized the Levant.

It is this interreligious and ethnic harmony that Bashar Assad sometimes cites to justify his massacres. Others see him stoking minority fears to preserve his power.

Still, Christians and others fear a civil war, as in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where murderous sectarianism raged right under the noses of the American forces.

Syria’s estimated 22 million people are a demographic mélange — Sunni Muslims (70 per cent, including the ethnic and linguistically distinct Kurds), Christians (10 per cent, including the Armenians), Alawites (10 per cent) and the rest Shiites, including the Ismailis, and Druze.

Unlike in other Arab countries, minorities have not been persecuted — except for the Kurds and the Jews. Most of the latter left for Israel and the few who remain are closely watched and controlled.

Churches and monasteries have inscriptions in Syriac, Greek and Arabic. Some days, Muslim pilgrims outnumber Christians.

Power in the police state has long been held by Assad’s minority Alawite sect — just as in Iraq it was held by Saddam’s Sunni minority and in Bahrain it still is by a king belonging to the Sunni minority there. (About 87 per cent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims are Sunnis, but Shiites form a majority in Iran and Bahrain, and a plurality in Lebanon.)

Alawites are a dissident branch of Shiites, as are the Druze.

Alawites — also known as Nusayris, after their 9th century founder Muhammad Ibn Nusayr — downplay the Islamic prayer and fasting but observe Christmas and the Zoroastrian festival of Nawruz. They were long regarded as heretics, but in 1974 a leading Lebanese scholar proclaimed them to be part of Shiite Islam.

During the French mandate of Syria (1920-1946), the French, in a typical colonial divide-and-conquer tactic, wooed the Alawites and Druze, and heavily recruited the former into the army.

After independence in 1946, the ranks of the newly formed Baath party were drawn mainly from Alawites, Christians, Druze and Ismailis. They felt the secular, leftist party would protect them from Sunni hegemony.

In 1970, when Hafez Assad became president, he promoted fellow-Alawites in the military and security and intelligence agencies. Alawites also make up the rank-and-file of shadowy government militias. The aim has been to have the community so closely identified with the state and reviled by others that it would depend on the regime to the point of fighting to the death for it.

Syria’s Sunni majority has long borne the brunt of state oppression. Consequently, opposition to the government “tended to take the form of a strong assertion of Sunni Islam by the Muslim Brotherhood or similar bodies,” writes Albert Hourani in his 1991 classic, A History of the Arab Peoples.

Just such an assertion in Hama in 1982 prompted Hafez Assad to massacre about 20,000 people and jail thousands who were never seen again. Since then, social conservatism has spread among Syrian Sunnis (as it has elsewhere), with more hijabs and beards. But politically, the Muslim Brotherhood long ago moderated its views, even if the extremist Salafists have not.

The Brotherhood is but one of many forces in the current protest, which is decidedly not the Islamic uprising portrayed by Assad.

“We are all Syrians,” the protesters often shout. “Muslims, Christians and Alawites are all one.”

Prominent Alawites are part of the uprising. Some leading Christians, too, have joined. But for the most part, the community has remained loyal to the devil it knows.

The Kurds, long denied cultural and linguistic rights, have been fearful of reprisals should they openly join the rebellion. Some have fled to the Kurdish region of neighbouring Iraq.

The uprising began as a non-sectarian and non-violent struggle. But faced with Assad’s murderous crackdown, it is turning into an armed insurgency. Its religious pluralism is still intact, despite government thugs burning Alawite and Christian shops and blaming them on Sunnis. There have also been some sectarian killings between Sunnis and Alawis in Homs and Hama.

Syria’s interfaith tradition is now one of Assad’s many hostages.–bashar-assad-holds-syria-s-diversity-hostage