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How the Assad regime's policies nurtured sectarianism in Syria.

Looking at the turmoil in Syria today it is easy to conclude that one of the few virtues of the Baathist dictatorship was its opposition to sectarianism. Since the Syrian conflict began, President Bashar Al-Assad has sought to portray his struggle for survival as an heroic effort to quell religious strife, but this strife is also partly a result of the regime's own religious policies.

Sectarian divisions existed in Syria long before the Baathists came to power. Before the current conflict triggered a mass exodus, about 74 percent of Syria's inhabitants were Sunni Muslims. Shia sects, including Alawites and Ismailis, accounted for 13 percent, various Christian groups ten percent, and the Druze three percent. There were also the remains of a Jewish community, probably numbering no more than a few dozen people.

The Baathists were Arab nationalists and, by inclination, secular. Under their rule, however, Syria never became a secular state with a government that was neutral and uninvolved in matters of religion. Although Syria--unlike most Arab countries--has no official state religion,its constitution (re-drafted in 2012) says the president must be a Muslim and "Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation."

As happened with other Arab regimes, the Baathists in Syria developed and propagated their own brand of religion to suit their political needs. In contrast to the austere Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, the Syrian regime opted for a sterilized and homogenized version of Islam, which was much more bland. Crucially, it was also one that denied the existence of sectarian divisions.

One problem the Baathists had to grapple with, however, was the dominant position members of the minority Alawite sect held within the regime. This was a potential weakness that could be exploited by regime opponents, as the Sunni majority was historically inclined to view the Alawites as heretics.

Hafez Al-Assad responded to this challenge in several ways. The first was to try to control the Sunni majority by channeling them into "acceptable" forms of Islam that posed no threat to his regime or to the Alawites, as Torstein Worren explains in an Oslo University thesis on Syria:

"He realized that in order to stabilize the country, he would have to make concessions to the Sunnis. Through his Corrective Movement, he sought to redo the most radical secular reforms of the earlier Baath regimes. In order to limit the clergy's influence in the political sphere, he co-opted them by giving them increased power in the social realm. Therefore, instead of building a true secular society, the state was secular on the surface, but not in matters of family and personal law."

Another arm of Hafez Al-Assad's religious strategy was to redefine the Alawites as ordinary, mainstream Muslims. Thus, for example, the Alawites were not allowed their own religious courts (despite being generally regarded as Shia Muslims) and were brought under the same sharia rules as the Sunnis.

This effort to "normalize" the Alawites also helps explain why talk of religious diversity had to be suppressed in Syrian schools. Worren continues:

"The Islam presented in the schoolbooks is that of orthodox Sunni Islam, and there is no mention of the Islamic minorities living in Syria or of Shia Islam as a whole, or even of the different schools of thought within Sunni Islam. According to the schoolbooks, there is no diversity within Islam. This means that Alawism is never mentioned in schools in Syria."

Presenting a monolithic view of Islam became even more important for the regime after the Islamist uprising and subsequent massacre of thousands in Hama in 1982.

Denial of religious differences extended far beyond the education system. "Discourses and discussions on sectarianism, regardless of their shape or content, were completely banned on national media and in the public sphere," Mohammad Dibo, a Syrianjournalist, poet and novelist, writes--adding that one political dissident, Riad Seif, was arrested merely for saying that "the Syrian people are characterized by their diverse ethnic and religious universe."

Sectarianism also became a convenient charge to use against regime opponents. "According to many witness testimonies," Dibo says, "it became a common strategy from the 1980s onwards, for security forces to deck walls with sectarian slogans such as, 'We want to overthrow the Alawite regime' a night before they stormed a neighborhood to arrest members of the Communist Action Party or other political groups."

To present a facade of religious harmony within the regime, cabinet posts were distributed among the sects. Similar unspoken rules applied to the military--though the sections of the security apparatus most vital to the regime's survival remained firmly in Alawite hands.

Meanwhile, the regime did little to tackle the problem of religious segregation in towns and neighborhoods, which were informally assigned to one sect or another. One theory is that this suited the regime's needs because it felt better able to control religious groups and the interactions between them.

Over many years, the combined effect of these policies has been to keep Syrians in the dark about the beliefs of their fellow citizens, and the differences between them. "What they know or think they know is based on rumors and stories passed on from friends and relatives," Worren writes.

Basically, by not educating people about the other sects, the regime held everyone hostage to its version and deterred sects from learning about each other," one Syrian (who asked not to be identified) told me recently. "The less you know about someone the harder it is to accept them as peers. The continuing civil war, with increasing sectarianism, is the product of such decades-long policies."

Under the Assads, Syria, far from being a model for religious harmony, has remained an example of how sweeping religious differences under the carpet eventually makes things worse.

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Publication:Yemen Times (Sana'a, Yemen)
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Dec 9, 2014
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