Mar 5, 2013

Was Syria ever the secular, non-sectarian state we are led to believe it was?

Richard Spencer

In Aleppo a few months ago, we asked the driver ferrying me and a couple of other journo types around what the city was like before the war. "Well," he said, "I lived here, as I had a job here, but I'm not actually from here. I'm from the countryside, so the locals used to call me and the people where I lived X." X was an Arabic word none of the foreigners recognised, but its meaning was pretty clear. When someone finally checked, its closest English version was something like "blockhead", but as someone who grew up in Somerset I had already substituted my own version – bumpkin, or bog-dweller, or (showing my age) wurzel.

He wasn't a rebel, but he was friends with some of them from his home town, which was how we came to hire him. Now I'm not the first person to point out that there is a rural-urban divide in the Syrian civil war, but it's worth a reminder. When rebels moved in and took half of Aleppo in July, they took the poorer, lower-middle and working-class districts, those where jobseekers like our driver lived. The more sophisticated northern parts remain in regime hands to this day. There is the same divide in Damascus, where most of the city itself is in regime hands while the outer suburbs and country areas are controlled by rebels. Both in Aleppo itself and across the country the rebels are more likely to come from the provinces, villages and small and medium size towns, than the sophisticated metropolises, and some rebel leaders are openly contemptuous – perhaps in revenge for never forgotten "blockhead" taunts from the past – of the city slickers who failed to join the uprising in outrage at the Assad regime's brutal response to protests.

This rather simple fact is being forgotten as the West tries to address the crisis, and particularly when people talk about Syria "before" and "after" the war. Throughout the conflict, I've read journalists and experts write about the Syria of "before" as a "secular" state, where people weren't particularly religious, where women wandered the streets at night alone, and hipsters drank in western bars and nightclubs. All sects and ethnicities mixed happily. There's a kernel of truth there but it's misleading, and it's aggravated by the fact that the worst offenders, whether pro- or anti-regime, or somewhere in the middle, are often those foreigners who know the country best: after all, they lived and worked, studied Arabic and socialised, largely in smart areas of Aleppo and Damascus where those statements are more likely to be true. Even The Economist, which in the current edition has an excellent and gloomy overview of the mess Syria is in, falls into this trap, talking nostalgically of the time Muslims and Christians lived side by side in peace as church bells and muezzins filled the air over Damascus's Old City. Few of the original protesters were very devout, it says.

What this neglects is that a large part of Syria – largely the parts that have driven the revolution – were not so visible to the outsider. From my experience (even much earlier in the war) of provincial towns and villages, they were often divided by faith, with "shia villages" separate from "Sunni" and "Christian" ones. That doesn't mean they didn't get on, but everyone knew who was who. Likewise, in these places, you certainly don't see young women "hanging out". A general form of segregation is observed in Sunni areas – male journalists put up in local houses kept well apart from the women – and young men pray diligently and regularly. Moreover, while few talked openly about the sectarian divide before the revolution, that may have been because it was so important, not because it was unimportant. Nearly half a century of Baath party had totally inverted the historic sectarian order, in which Alawites (the sect of the Assads) were at the bottom of the pile, with the sect's leaders now occupying the key positions of state, and controlling much of its wealth. The effects of the Alawites' change of fortune were felt particularly in places like Homs and Hama, where poor Alawites were given land and encouraged to move, setting up the horrible sectarian clashes that have emerged in these areas.

Moreover, the regime, while claiming to be "secular", played a strange game of footsie with radical Islamists, not only allowing al-Qaeda to operate from and through the country in its highly sectarian attacks in neighbouring Iraq, but also allowing and encouraging some Islamist groups that it thought could be a counterweight to its great historical enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, that bizarre hypocrisy has now turned round to bite. Jabhat al-Nusra's core is Syrian men who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Among the revolution's most powerful leaders on the ground, Abdulqader Saleh al-Hajji, known as "Hajji Marea", head of the most powerful Brigade in Aleppo, the Tawhid, and vice-head of the revolutionary command council, was before the war a missionary for Dawa, a state-backed Sunni evangelical group, and travelled widely, including to Islamist-full Dagestan. ("Tawhid" itself, which means Unity, in a religious context refers to the "Oneness" of God and, in politics, to the importance of an Islamist, not secular state – division of religion and state clearly being an offence to Oneness.)

There is no doubt that the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are sponsored by salafis in the Gulf and full of foreign fighters, and it serves both pro- and anti-regime forces well to emphasise this, the former to cast the revolution in the most hideous light it can, the latter to say that the revolution's Islamism is imported from Saudi Arabia and other fundamentalist places. It's also true to say, with the latter, that the "Islamism" is growing, and to a considerable extent because of the West's failure to back the rebels with weapons and other military support. But in fact the demand for a more religious society is indigenous to large parts of Syria, as it is to Egypt and other Middle Eastern states that have been in the grip of "secular" (actually, just hypocritical) dictatorships. For provincial types, "secular" has come to mean flashy, worldly, corrupt and finally brutal, and for them Sharia means a more honest and decent society, as much as anything else. This is not a good thing – I wouldn't want to be an ambitious young woman growing up in Syria today, or one of the many perfectly decent, god-fearing middle-aged Muslim men I know who like a quiet tipple of Scotch before bedtime – but they will be victims of the dictators' dishonesty and refusal to reform as much as of Saudi fundamentalists.

This does not of course help the outside world, whether the "West" or Russia or Iran or the UN, decide what it wants to do about the mess. The White House is said to be reconsidering its opposition to arming the "good rebels", though what that means when Hajji Marea, officially a "good" rebel, is in open alliance with the "bad" Jabhat al-Nusra, is hard to say. But it is worth recalling once again that both Washington and Moscow might never have faced this dilemma were it not for years of support for horrible regimes that it mistakenly thought were at least non-sectarian and secular.

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