WRITTEN BY MARY RIZZO: Many people have never heard of the word Sectarianism until the past few years. A simplistic definition would be a conflict between religions or ethnic groups. The antidote to this is considered to be secularism, which is intended as a supposed neutrality of the state towards all religions. Secularism additionally connotes ideas of protection of minorities in a society.
One of the greatest myths of the Syrian war is that it is a sectarian war and that the presence of Assad in the Presidency is the reason for which Syria maintains its secularism. In fact, in a paternalistic way, Bashar Assad, as did his father Hafez has skilfully used propaganda towards the population in order to create domestically the idea that only the regime and the Ba’ath party can serve as a stabilising factor of national unity and internationally to paint himself as a “progressive” who is the last bulwark against the forces of darkness, extremism and religious fundamentalism.
When Assad’s father took power in 1970 in a coup which overthrew the government that only the year before had drafted what can be considered as the only true secular constitution Syria ever had, he made sure his coup was “legitimised” by an election where he was the sole candidate and in 1973 amended the constitution so that it guaranteed explicitly that the Head of State must be of Muslim faith. He even established the “Waqf”, which is a Ministry of Religion and appointed a Mufti of the Republic that establishes an Islamic bureaucracy. The management of a body of religious officials and granting them such authority in governance can hardly be defined as “secular” if we take that concept to mean separation of Church and State. It is clear that Bashar al-Assad KNOWS that outside the Levant secularism is a value that gives a kind of “reassurance” to other nations and it hints at a behaviour that is inclusive. It is not important for Syria to BE secular in Assad’s eyes, but it is important that it is PERCEIVED as such in the West, and this is why he promoted himself as the defensor of such a state.
Thus, if there was no secularism for Assad to defend, the only way to promote such an idea of the “irreplaceable quality of Assad” that would be strongly supported by progressives and those who believe in the separation of Church and State or even those who abhor the idea of a religiously-based State anywhere but in Tibet and/or Israel and/or Iran would be for Assad to create “sectarian strife” himself.
The Syrian heart of darkness did not begin as a conflict between religions, and as a matter of fact, placing the conflict in a simplistic Sunni vs Shi’a equation, while currently popular, is actually a self-fulfilling prophesy and a strategic option used by the Assad regime to the hilt.
The reality of Syria is that it is essentially a clash between an authoritarian, ruthless leadership and the masses (mainly comprised of the majority Sunni population that had been excluded from the most important positions of power and subjected to constant obedience) that was simply tired of kneeling down before the president and those associated with his power. It must be stated that the majority of the positions of control and ownership of wealth in the country belonged to the religious group of Assad, the Alawites, carrying on the tradition of the father of surrounding himself with loyalists particularly in the military, however his associated élite also includes members of various religious groups, though the dominant trait of all of these personalities is not their sectarian belonging but rather their unconditional support to the Assad regime.
Depicting the war in Syria as a continuation of the Sunni-Shi’a schism (which dates back to the dawn of Islam) rather than a struggle of the disenfranchised for their rights is a gross misrepresentation of facts and a distortion that serves to manipulate public opinion internally and abroad as to the “necessity of Assad.” Discounting the true causes and the true nature of the struggle serves only to remove or reduce the revolutionary spirit that started out as legitimate demands for reforms and rights that had long been denied and are considered by all in the world who believe in human rights as fundamental and legitimate rights.
It is even an established truth that influential segments of Alawite and Christian intelligentsia have always been on the side of the masses during the uprising and even after the regime “reacted” by severe prosecution for the courage of being openly so closely tied to what had been quickly painted by the regime and its apologists as a “Sunni rebellion” that would endanger the minorities. Given that defence of minorities is a secular conquest, somehow it is difficult to understand how the regime’s torturing, murdering and imprisoning minorities that rebelled against the regime could be construed as defence of the minority. This reality could only be true in the criminal interpretation of the concept that predominates the Assad narrative.
Yet, it cannot be denied that exploding onto the scene to enhance the sectarian strife and add great numbers of combatants was none other than the theocratic Republic of Iran, which itself persecutes the ethnic and religious minority of the Ahwazis (Arab Sunnis). Could the reason for this be some kind of Shi’a solidarity? No doubt, it is simpler to use a religious “calling” to convince the population that a cause is worthy, as people are historically far more apt to sacrifice their sons in war for a sacred or religious purpose than to an economic one, but the persons who make the decisions in Teheran probably share a stronger opposition to Iraq than they do a unified vision of extension of the Shi’a influence. Additionally, both of them (at least on paper) share a common animosity for both the United States and Israel. One could say that they might be using their own status as anathema to reinforce their own individual positions with a bit of leverage.
Hezbollah’s intense involvement as well seems to be economically based, as financially they exist by will of Iran and Syria and it could either be payback time, while Hezbollah is also giving the Assad regime the lifeblood and soldiers that it needs to keep on surviving. While it might also be true that some in Hezbollah fight against the opposition to Assad because the opposition is comprised for the majority of Sunnis (which should not serve to define it as a Sunni army, given that 74% of the population are Sunnis any more than the USA army could be defined as a Christian army even though 76% of the USA population are Christians) others in this militia could possibly believe they are fighting for a resistance cause against the West, Israel and Saudi Arabia in a sort of proxy war. That many “secularists” who support Assad seem to turn a deaf ear when Nasrallah makes speeches against “Takfiri” (a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy) is another indication that there is very little genuine concern for secularism no matter what some of these defenders of Hezbollah in the west might claim. They also might get a slight case of the hives when they find out that just this week Assad has made a decree that puts in the school curriculum “Shi’a education”.
Yet, the greatest risk for Syria, as long as the myth of sectarianism remains part of the dominant discourse is going to be run by the minority populations. It is not at all unlikely that the Assad regime will be defeated. The outcome could be that the country is torn apart by collective blame of the Alawites who would bear the brunt for the abuses of the regime, despite the fact that part of the regime is Sunni. It will be nearly impossible to construct and rebuild a secular-pluralistic Syria that existed in some dimension historically and is yearning to free itself from oppressive rule based on favouritism and interests. Creating a truly just Syria for all Syrians means to recognise the myth of sectarianism as one of the war strategies of Assad for the sole purpose of maintaining his personal power and the wealth of those close to the regime.