Syria's communal tensions are fuelled by politics not theology

Analyses that claim Syria's troubles have their roots in sectarian strife are missing the reality.

Powered by automated translation

Living in Scotland, I am witness to the continuing legacy of Protestant-Catholic communal hatred, despite the theological indifference and general irreligiosity of the populace.

The hatred is most commonly activated by Rangers-Celtic football matches. It is manifest too in Orange Order marches and schoolyard slurs. It intersects with the gang violence of the housing estate. Most of the time, of course, it is absent or it emerges as friendly competitiveness rather than actual conflict. But you can bet your last communion wafer that it would blossom into something much fiercer if, in the event of political crisis, a divide-and-rule tyrant were to send Catholic militias to pacify restive Protestant areas, or vice versa.

Like Scotland's sectarians, Syria's Alawites are usually largely secular and ignorant of their own sect's theology - at least they were; a war-driven religious revival is touching them as well as the Sunnis.

Over the last four decades, Alawite religious scholars have been assassinated or otherwise silenced by the Assad regime as it sought to render the community entirely dependent on the Baathist state.

Most Alawites - but by no means all - continue to support Bashar Al Assad because they have no community leadership.

Also, many have relatives working in the security forces and so they fear a loss of privileges and even violent revenge when the regime falls. Alawites also remember their historical marginalisation by the Sunni majority and, therefore, fear majority rule.

As in the conflicts 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 in fact 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 be against Jabhat Al Nusra, the extremist militia which nominally controls the city, as against the regime. This is not an Islamist rebellion but a popular revolution. As in Egypt, if Islamists oppress the people or fail to deliver, they too will be rebelled 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.

The British newspaper columnist Simon Jenkins illustrated the approach perfectly earlier this year in The Guardian. First, he expressed the weird, counter-factual belief that Britain destroyed "secular politics" in Libya - where Islamists lost a democratic election, somewhat unexpectedly, after Muammar Qaddafi's tyranny had given "secularism" such a bad name. Then, he fitted Syria neatly into the Sunni-Shia box and told us: "These disputes are intractable ... For Sunni to accept Shia and vice versa is for each to deny the faith."

His sweeping generalisation failed to account for the fact that a third of Iraqi marriages before 2003 were mixed sect, or that non-Sunnis and secularists are fighting Mr Al Assad or that his Alawi sect was traditionally considered heretical by Shia as well as Sunni authorities.

Or take the case of Patrick Cockburn, another British journalist who rightly questioned Bush-era propaganda that the War on Terror was a war for western freedom. Yet in the London Review of Books on June 6, he took at face value Hassan Nasrallah's "conviction" that the Syrian war is an existential one for Shia.

The "existential" excuse is at least the third justification for Hizbollah's invasion of Syria: first it was that Syria's regime was "resistant"; and then to defend "Lebanese citizens living in Syria".

With the rise of Salafi extremists, Mr Nasrallah has sought to portray them as representative of the majority of revolutionary forces in Syria. An easier way to deal with the Salafist threat would be to support the Syrian people against their tyrant and thereby win back their devotion - Syrian Sunnis supported Hizbollah when it was fighting an Israeli occupation.

But Mr Nasrallah is not a spiritual leader. He is a political actor and is beholden financially and ideologically to Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Those who would ascribe 7th-century motives to his moves, or those of the Syrian resistance, are engaging in absurdity.

There's certainly a sectarian problem in Syria. From the revolution's first days, the Assad regime instrumentalised the sectarian fears it had carefully kept bubbling over the past decades.

It did so through propaganda and false-flag operations, by releasing extremists from prison while targeting secular activists, and by establishing sectarian death squads.

By backing the tyranny, Iran and its "Shia" clients seemed to confirm the worst of Sunni conspiracy theories. A Sunni backlash is well underway in Syria and beyond.

The longer the regime lasts, the more time it has to make good on its promise to regionalise the conflict. But the revolution continues on the ground, and this provides reason to hope.

In Kafranbel, in rebel-held Idlib province, I met Abu Yusuf, who had been a policeman for 26 years. His words voice a sentiment shared by the Syrian mainstream: "I don't fast in Ramadan. I pray when my mind isn't busy. I'm a Muslim, but my first religion is humanity. I don't care about the religion of the president. But I'll fight to the death to not be ruled by a murderer."

I am sure Scottish citizens would share this sentiment. Human beings are human beings.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of the novel The Road From Damascus. He co-edits the Critical Muslim and, and blogs at