Reflections on Sectarianism in Syria

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Christa Salamandra


Contributing Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in the print version of Anthropology News in November 2012.

Relentless in their 19-month struggle, peaceful anti-regime protesters continue to cry out for Syrian unity: “one, one, one, the people of Syria are one” (wahid, wahid, wahid, al-sha‘b al-suri wahid). This call reflects, and rejects, competing sentiments. As a conflict begun with pro-democracy demonstrations evolves into civil war, sectarian distinctions increasingly inflect activist, rebel and pro-regime discourses alike. It is therefore worth examining how Syrians perceive, experience and reconfigure religious-based difference.

The rise of localisms tinged with religion speaks to the failures of Arab socialism and Ba‘thist nationalism. My intermittent fieldwork in Damascus, begun in the early 1990s, reveals that despite—or indeed because of—the al-Asad regime’s efforts to suppress them, religious distinctions have reemerged, alloyed with those of class and region. Sectarian idioms express dissatisfactions and disappointments, as group affiliations are believed to determine access to positions of power and influence. They surface, for example, in response to state-sanctioned television dramas, where attempts to evoke a sense of nationhood frequently backfire.

The al-Asad kleptocracy, built over four decades under a cloak of socialist secularism, feeds perceptions of sectarian privilege. For a small segment of Syria’s heterodox Shi‘i ‘Alawi community—today an estimated 10-15% of the population—a stunning reversal of fortunes occurred within living memory. Before the 1960s, elite urban families—primarily from Damascus and Aleppo—dominated political and economic life in Syria. They had little in common with the majority population, beyond a Sunni Muslim affiliation. With the Ba‘th (Renaissance) Party takeover in 1963, political power shifted to a largely rural military elite, among whom ‘Alawis dominated. Damascenes and Aleppines were systematically displaced from key positions. The urban bourgeoisie was forced to do business with their erstwhile social inferiors: ‘Alawis from coastal villages whose daughters had only recently served in Damascene households. A cold peace ensued, anchored by shared interests, but laced with mutual resentment. Each group assumes the other’s advantage: ‘Alawis point to the enduring prosperity of Damascus’ “merchant princes;” Damascenes to well-placed ‘Alawis’ control of licensing and smuggling.

The majority of ‘Alawis suffer an inaccurate association with privilege. Urban Sunnis sometimes acknowledge that many ‘Alawis remain impoverished. Nevertheless, the claim that “all ‘Alawis are connected to power” has become a frequent refrain. More than a reference to religious belief, the term “‘Alawi” connotes class and region; avowed atheists hurl sectarian accusations against each other. This has intensified during the conflict. As a Damascene friend put it, people are no longer afraid of criticizing the regime; they now fear each other. Discourses of resentment, fueled by a combination of official doublespeak, skewed access to resources, and radical exiled Islamists, instill fear among ‘Alawis, other religious minorities, and Sunni secularists alike. Paradoxically, the urban elites who have long condemned what they saw as an ‘Alawi parvenucracy have been slow to support the opposition. They have learned to live (well) with the status quo, and fear its likely alternatives. Secularists, among them Sunni believers who reject the Islamization of public life, dread the influence of the puritanical Salafism that animates factions of the Saudi and Qatari-backed opposition. Islamists’ rise in post- revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt worries them. Staunch nationalists fear NATO interference. Most Syrians, urban and rural Sunni Muslims suffering from unrelenting authoritarianism, unbridled neoliberalism and devastating drought, have less to lose. Underclass youth swell the ranks of peaceful protestors, opposition militias, and shabbiha, armed gangs of regime supporters.

Given the media blackout, gauging support for the opposition is difficult. While it may be shifting in response to regime brutality, the three positions described to me by a Syrian friend last August offers an insight:

My father, who has never benefitted from the regime, is 100% for it, and thinks the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy. My brother has been arrested at protests. My father watches (pro-regime) Dunya TV, my brother, al Jazeera, and I think both channels are lying. There are many households divided in this way.

The uprising has afforded Syrians the freedom to acknowledge, discuss and potentially overcome sectarian divisions, once as taboo as they were salient. An understanding of these complex fault lines should inform reconciliation efforts to which anthropologists will hopefully contribute.

Christa Salamandra is associate professor of anthropology at Lehman College CUNY.

Jessica Winegar is editor of Human Rights Forum, the AN column of the AAA Committee for Human Rights. She may be contacted at j-winegar@northwestern.edu.

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