The Syrian war is about politics, not theology

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: As in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, or Northern Ireland, the conflict in Syria is not about theology but about group fears and resentments. Ultimately, it’s about power. Communal tensions are the result not of ancient enmities but of contemporary political machinations. And nothing is fixed in time. Syria’s supposedly ‘Sunni rebellion’ (which contains activists and fighters of all sects) becomes more or less Islamist in response to rapidly-changing political realities. A few months ago, for example, Islamist black flags dominated demonstrations in Raqqa, in the east of the country; now Raqqa’s demonstrations are as likely to protest Jabhat an-Nusra, the extremist militia which nominally controls the city, as the regime. This isn’t an Islamist rebellion but a popular revolution. As in Egypt, if the Islamists oppress the people or fail to deliver, they too will be revolted against.

Yet much of the rightist, leftist and liberal media choose to understand the revolution in the terms of 19th Century orientalism, as if Syrians are fated by culture or race to follow ancient, unchanging patterns. Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian of May 28th, illustrates the approach perfectly.

First he expresses the weird, counter-factual belief that Britain destroyed “secular politics” in Libya (where Islamists lost a democratic election, somewhat unexpectedly, after Qaddafi’s tyranny had given ‘secularism’ such a bad name). Then he fits Syria neatly into the Sunni-Shia box, and tells us, “these disputes are intractable… For Sunni to accept Shia and vice versa is for each to deny the faith.” His sweeping generalisation fails to account for the fact that a third of Iraqi marriages before 2003 were mixed-sect, or that non-Sunnis and secularists are fighting al-Assad, or that al-Assad’s Alawi sect was traditionally considered heretical by Shia as well as Sunni authorities.

Or take the case of Patrick Cockburn, a journalist who rightly questioned Bush-era propaganda that the War on Terror was a war for Western freedom, but who takes at face value (in the London Review of Books, June 6th) Hassan Nasrallah’s ‘conviction’ that the Syrian war is an existential one for Shia survival. The ‘existential’ excuse is at least the third justification for Hizbullah’s invasion of Syria: first it was because Syria’s was a “resistant” regime; then to defend “Lebanese citizens living in Syria”. Now comes fear of Salafist extremists, who Nasrallah pretends represent the majority of revolutionary forces. Yet Nasrallah cooperated with Jabhat an-Nusra’s Iraqi base during the American occupation. He’s worked with them before and could so again, if politics would allow him. Obviously, an easier way to solve the Salafist threat would be to support the Syrian people against their tyrant and thereby win back their devotion (because Syrian Sunnis loved Hizbullah when it was fighting an Israeli occupation). [Continue reading…]

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