There’s a palpable sense that the situation in Syria is increasingly being debated in anthropological terms. The telling clue is the word ‘mosaic’. As in ‘a mosaic of different sects and ethnic groups.’ When all other analytical tools fail, a convenient tactic among Middle East experts is to revive the sectarian prototype, apparently the key to understanding political dynamics in this part of the world. But while sectarian dynamics do play a role in the politics of the Middle East, the real picture is far more complex. The conclusions regarding Syria that we are being presented with today arise from the myopic and reductionist sectarian lens. There’s nothing inevitable about the sectarian logic prevailing.
Take this comment by Gary C. Gambill for example, in which he is arguing for a ‘strategic non-intervention’ in Syria. Here’s his characterisation of the situation:
‘The secular Baathist dictatorship Assad inherited from his father is dominated by Alawites, a heterodox Islamic sect comprising just 12 percent of the population, with substantial contingent support from the country’s Christian, Druze and Shiite minorities. Syria’s Sunni Arab majority was marginalized for four decades, much as Iraq’s Shiite majority was subjugated by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led minoritarian regime (though not quite in equal measure). Not surprisingly, those who are rebelling today are overwhelmingly Sunni, and those who are shooting them are mostly Alawite. With a five-to-one demographic advantage and nearly universal support from the surrounding Arab world, the rebels are clearly going to prevail when the dust settles.’
Sectarian determinism, to coin a phrase. The logic is so seductively complete, it’s hard to resist. What starts as a characterisation of the current situation is developed into a self-fulfilling logic. Nothing is allowed to interject into this neat sectarian schema, such as competing Sunni groups, the emergence of alternate Alawite leaders, or even reformation of the divides along different lines. Think that’s not likely? As Gambill himself says in relation to Western intervention, it’s worth studying Lebanon’s Civil War for lessons, valuable advice that himself should have heeded. The sectarian divides in Lebanon throughout the war were fluid, and some of the most violent and lengthiest episodes took place within rather than across communitarian lines. (Such as the Aoun-Geagea wars, and the Hezbollah–Amal confrontations.)
In fact, the wholesale political realignment that accompanied the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is illustrative of the radical political shifts that don’t adhere to the logic of sectarian division. Naturally it is not detached from sectarian or communitarian considerations, but there is nothing deterministic or inevitable about it. At this moment in time, the future of the uprising in Syria has not been sealed, and there are numerous factors that can disrupt Gambill’s neat but flawed sectarian conflict schema.
As it happens, I agree with Gambill’s point in warning against US intervention, but I hold that as a matter of principle not convenience. But the debate about Syria has become entirely mired in narrow practical or tactical considerations rather than a principled approach. This intellectual laziness is exacerbated by a reductionist attitude towards the Syrian people that assumes they are sectarian automata heading towards an inevitable future. As history teaches us well, it is foolish to dismiss human agency and the ability of people to turn around circumstances.
A very insightful critique. As a Lebanon specialist 'minoring' in Syria, I agree that treating sects as monolithic blocs can be misleading. In Lebanon, the fundamental unit of analysis is not the sect, but the patronage network. However, there is little doubt that Syria is heavily polarized along sectarian lines (even though both sides avoid sectarian rhetoric), and I think my prediction that Assad's support base will contract to its Alawite core the longer fighting goes on will be borne out.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comment Gary, that's very kind of you. If the uprising continues in its current form, it will probably expedite that contraction but we cannot rule out political shifts such as the ones I mentioned. For example, a shift in the dynamics of leading the uprising from the increasingly ineffectual SNC to local groups will make it more likely for a broader-base to be achieved. The point is assuming that sectarian dynamics will prevail automatically leads to a specific outcome, but as Lebanon teaches us this is not necessarily always the case.Delete
Do you think that if there were no foreign elements instigating the violence (which some journalist already label as civil war), and if there were no media elements that would incite the hatred through sectarian language, would there be any sectarian polarization? Maybe your specializing in Lebanon has made you misread Syria with Lebanese glasses. If we allow the facts to speak for the situation itself, it is easy to see how through out history all of Syria's Religious, sectarian, or ethnic groups have lived with one another in harmony. That harmony is only disrupted when political interests dictate that disruption. The majority of Syrians are proud Arab nationalists. This will only change with foreign money funding hate bombings and foreign media using subtle but effective (see the Iraqi example) divisive language.
Karl, of course this is all assuming that making the sectarian argument is an honest analytical miscalculation as opposed to deliberate tactic by the Media to lay the ground for a divide and conquer strategy. I think it is simply the latter.ReplyDelete
While I agree with the gist of your objection to "sectarian determinism" (nice one) in reporting Lebanon and Syria, I think one should allow for what I would call "overriding sectarian narratives" ( while we're coining terms ).ReplyDelete
Yes sects have diverse groups within them, but in times of crises, they tend to coalesce around general ideas, world views and common enemies. Think Sunnis immediately after the Hariri assassination, Shiaas after the 2006 war and Maronite hostility against Palestinian naturalization after the civil war. Are there pockets of admirable independent thought? Sure, One can think of Maronites in the NSSP or Druze in the Tawhid party, but in times of crises with a perceived existential threat to their sects, the independents take a back seat or join their sect's hysteria.
Yes Mustapha, but what you are missing is that the shifts in the general outlook of 'sects', such as the Sunni attitude changing towards Syria in the aftermath of the Hairri assassination. If we wanted to use the same analogy with the Sunnis in Syria, firstly it's not clear who will win the battle for leadership, nor what their aims will be. It is not even clear whether this coalescence will necessarily take place at all. For example, look at the Christians in Lebanon where no one has been able to conclusively win the battle for leadership.Delete
* SSNP , not NSSPReplyDelete
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