Syria’s Once Profoundly Secular Society Shaken Up

  • by Mona Alami (damascus)
  • Inter Press Service

At nearly a quarter to four in Damascus Koranic prayers erupt from speakers atop the large Omeyyade mosque. In a nearby street, Elias, a Christian souvenir shop owner is discussing the recent protests rocking Syria.

'Arabs want to demonstrate every time they pray,' he says with a smirk, obviously in reference to the pro-democracy Muslim demonstrators swarming the streets every Friday. 'Pretty soon we are all going to be out of business. The only clients I see now are in my dreams.'

His openness is relatively unusual in a country where people are known for few words and a suspicious attitude towards strangers, but the sentiment of his statement is not uncommon. In recent months, as protests gained in intensity, a radicalisation of the street seems to have taken place in certain areas.

'Tensions have been observed in certain cities and villages where different religious communities live together, such as Jabla and Banyas, which are home to both Alawites and Sunnis,' one analyst told IPS on condition of anonymity.

Larger urban towns have also fallen victim to religious divides - namely between Christians and Sunnis in Hama, Homs and Lattakia.

'The Druze will always be losers if a regime change occurs - they better remain on the sidelines,' advocates Hilal, a retired merchant from the Druze Sweidah region, which has remained relatively calm thus far.

Some attribute religious tensions to the government, which has been playing the sectarian card by blaming the protests on armed thugs and Islamists. 'The regime has been seeking to legitimise its crackdown on demonstrators by brandishing the Islamist threat and the spector of chaos in the event it is overthrown,' Talal el Atrach, a Damascus based journalist and author of ‘Quand la Syrie s'éveillera’ (When Syria awakes), told IPS. 'This has exacerbated popular fears among minorities.'

Minorities have also been affected by some of the chants heard during the Daraa protests: ‘No Iran; no Hezbollah; we want a Muslim ruler who fears God.’

However, 'for the most part, protestors have called for peaceful change, with Muslim and Christians united,' sociologist Hassan Abbas, who resides in Damascus, told IPS.

Although sectarianism has been under control during the 40-year regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it has persisted within society, albeit non-violently. 'Members of different communities rarely intermarry, for example, and if they do, they elope,' a Damascus Sunni resident told IPS on condition of anonymity.

Various factors, such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the spread of Wahabism - a radical form of Islam - financed with Saudi Arabian oil money, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq have all had an affect on Syria. These factors boiled to the surface in 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood led an uprising in Hama. The revolt was violently suppressed by what was viewed as predominantly Alawite-led troops, resulting in the deaths of some 25,000 inhabitants, mainly Sunnis.

Over the last four decades, authoritarian practices have destroyed political freedoms in Syria, which has contributed to the rise of political Islam, explains el Atrach. Salafism, a radical form of Islam has also appeared in certain impoverished areas, while remaining minimal.

The ruling Baath regime has also relied on a common sectarian, regional and tribal background to ensure its survival, not because of religious beliefs but to guarantee loyalty. Syria’s last two presidents - the late Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, who is now in power - both hail from the Alawite community.

'The regime [governed by Alawites] has used the community to assert its power and not the other way round. Many Alawites have actually suffered from marginalisation: some of their villages are not even equipped with proper sanitation,' says Abbas.

The schism separating Syrians is not simply sectarian however, but also involves geographical borders. Political scientist and blogger Joshua Landis posted a comment explaining that the government’s siege against Daraa has been effective in unifying the ‘muhafiza’, or district, of Daraa against the Assad regime. 'By treating the entire muhafiza as criminals, the sentiments of most of its inhabitants have turned against the regime. It’s interesting that identity runs not only along religious, ethnic, and tribal lines, but also along geographical lines, in that the people of Daraa - not only the city, but the entire muhafiza - are viewing themselves as a unit, separate from those who comprise the leadership of Syria.'

'People have to keep in mind that this revolution is not one that is religious, but is born from the many social fractures between rich and poor - with a large portion of the population originating from rural areas and feeling disenfranchised,' explained Abbas.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service