Friday, October 07, 2011

Syria's Sectarian Curse

Much of what is written about Syria is pretty dull and useless, but sometimes I read an article like this and it pricks my ears up instantly. In effect, Theo Padnos is trying to understand what the Assad regime really is. Is it an Alawite regime? Is it a regime that happens to be Alawite? Or is it now something far more sinister. His contention is that Assad's regime has become a cult in itself, independent of his ethnicity or religious background:

Walk into almost any restaurant in any neighborhood in Damascus and there they are, in pastel, against a black background, with faint evening clouds in the distance: the dead Basil, the dead father, and the surviving brother Bashar. These are Syria’s patron saints. They are often depicted in aviator glasses (Hafez was a pilot), and always Hafez and Basil appear to hover over the shoulders of Bashar, like angels from beyond the grave. The effect is meant to be a little spiritual and a little spooky. It does add a jarring note to the dining experience, I’ve found.
 There's a lot more to the article, but noteworthy is the author's bringing up a subject which is often overlooked by foreign correspondents in Syria:

Actually the student of Islam in Syria is in a strange position. Every day his teachers ask him to meditate on the power of almighty Allah, the king of all the worlds, and every day his teachers tremble before the mightier, more fearsome power of the Alawi. The teachers are positively transfixed. Nor will they explain the situation. Either they are too worried or they work for the secret police or some combination of these circumstances is at work.
I had some question marks about his use of the word "Alawi" but I don't believe he is using sectarian language, or generalising about a sect. Rather, he is trying to grasp a reality about Syria, her sectarian curse. Anybody who tries to govern Syria, whilst wilfully ignoring the ethnic and religious background of her peoples is a person who will not rule for long. Where the Baath party, and the Assad regime, have been most skilful, is in traversing the minefield of sectarianism and maintaining a grip on power by knowing exactly how to react with each of the country's elements, ensuring that no group becomes powerful enough to challenge them. Here, the author notes the irony of a religious school which, in one breath, tells people that heaven's laws take precedence to man's laws, yet in reality they live in and under man's laws. And not just any man, but one man. Syria needs to be understood further before people naively pretend that removing Assad will sort out all our problems. He's just the beginning...

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