Is the democratic uprising of the people of Syria against Assad’s tyranny being sidetracked into sectarianism?
A recent report by journalist Nir Rosen in the London Review of Books (27 September) describes the point of view of Syria’s Alawite minority.
Rosen has no illusions about the regime and “the fury of its repression”. “In six months in Syria I had been at more than a hundred opposition demonstrations. I had been shot at in many of them”. He refers to Alawites who have joined the opposition and are “regarded as traitors against their sect”.
But in an Alawite village Rosen saw the funeral of a colonel from state security. The chants were: “Welcome, oh martyr”, “We want no-one but Assad”.
Alawites are about 10% of the population. They are a religious minority, maverick Muslims, but according to Rosen: “Few Alawites are familiar with the tenets of Alawite faith... For most Alawites, religion is less a rigorous faith than an expression of their culture”.
Their community has a long history. “Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled, and ground down... They were practically serfs to the Sunni feudal lords”.
They gained some routes of social ascent under French rule and then under the Ba’thist regime. Young men from Alawite villages went through the military academies and became strong in the officer corps.
After the Assad dynasty took power in 1971, “the state became the bulwark of Alawite identity”.
Still many Alawites are poor. They regard themselves as neglected and inadequately protected by the state they are loyal to.
They also see themselves as “more ‘liberal’ and secular than mainstream Muslims. They point to their use of alcohol, the Western dress codes of Alawite women and their freer interaction with men”.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and al Qaeda, all intervening in Syria, will be trying to give the opposition a Sunni-sectarian twist. The reflex sectarianism of many Alawites can make that a vicious circle.
As the rebellion becomes bloodier, it becomes more and more vital that secular, democratic, and working-class voices prevail in the opposition.