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Syria, Saudi, Hezbollah and Cairo: the Politics of Sectarianism

January 24, 2014 at 9:50 am

However well intentioned, the gathering of a number of Islamic scholars and preachers at a conference in Cairo which addressed the conflict in Syria between 13-15 June ended up as an exercise in irresponsibility. I say this not only as a supporter of the Syrian uprising, but also as a supporter of the professed Islamic nature of many of the revolutionaries and the call to re-establish an Islamic caliphate that a section of the uprising has explicitly adopted.

The rhetoric coming out of the Cairo conference was that of sectarianism dressed up in a call to a praiseworthy Jihad. This apparently reached the level that one of the scholars involved called upon the Egyptian government to deny any Shia entry into the country due to them being “unclean.”

The idea that there is a Jihad against or with the Shia in Syria is a false one. From its start the Syrian uprising was against the oppressive security state of the secular, Arab nationalist Ba’athist regime. It happens that the regime is led and dominated by members of the Alawi community, and is considered by the Iranian regime to be a strategic ally in the Middle East (and so by extension, also of Hezbollah, a proxy for Iran in Lebanon).

Trying to paint the Syrian uprising as a sectarian struggle rather than one against an oppressive secular dictatorship plays into the hands of the Assad regime, who was the first to state that the rebellion was of a sectarian nature. The claim was originally part of the regime’s attempt to re-frame the revolution as a civil war being fought along sectarian lines, rather than it facing a nascent popular uprising. Alternatively, those against the regime across the board consistently stressed that they were not protesting along sectarian lines, and that this was a regime ploy to undermine the uprising.

Through making the discourse of the revolution one of sectarianism, the Iranians – Assad’s closest ally in the region – support his regime through an appeal to identity politics, despite the decision to stand by him being a cold geo-political calculation. By framing the uprising as being “anti-Shia” they justify their involvement among their own constituents, and via Hezbollah who have been mobilised ostensibly to protect Shia religious sites such as the tomb of Sayyida Zainab.

These claims should be understood in light of the following –

  1. The fact that the uprising was against the actions of the regime rather than the Alawi sect per se fundamentally undermines any claim of sectarianism. Ironically, if this had been a sectarian fight against the Alawi sect (which it isn’t) -in theory the mainstream Twelver Shia (as ostensibly represented by Iran) ought to unite with the “Sunni” rebellion against the regime, given that until the ascent of Hafez al-Assad in the 1970’s the view of both mainstream Sunni and Shia was that the Alawi sect fell entirely outside of Islam.
  2. The claim of Shia involvement to protect religious sites is thoroughly debunked in Toby Matthiesen’s article Syria: Inventing a Religious War, where he makes it clear that location of Sayyida Zainab only became a site of pilgrimage in the last few decades with a large tomb being built there by the Iranian government.

The basis used by the Syrian regime and its allies in Iran and Lebanon to frame the uprisings in sectarian terms is incorrect and merely a cover for political calculations, devoid of any moral imperative and everything to do with keeping Assad in power.

The only legitimate justification could be the claim that those engaged in the uprising are sectarian in nature. This may be true of individual elements, and though inexcusable some of it is an inevitable reaction in light of the overt sectarianism introduced by the regime into the struggle with its opponents, which has been reinforced by anti-Shia rhetoric largely emanating from Saudi Arabia. However, it ought to be clear that the uprising was not in origin due to the Alawi or Shia nature of the regime but as a result of anger and discontent with the secular dictatorship people in Syria have suffered under for decades.

At the same time, it is not Assad and his allies alone who are benefitting from framing the uprising as a sectarian one. Opponents of the Assad regime and proclaimed supporters of elements of the uprising like Saudi Arabia and Gulf states such as Bahrain who have significant Shia minorities also benefit. Saudi Arabia is facing numerous elements of discontent against its regime, ranging from the Shia minority in Najran to the continuous unrest regarding its treatment of political dissidents.

By creating a “sectarian war” in Syria, these regimes are able to frame their local problems in sectarian terms and mark all opposition with the same brush, distracting from their own oppressive policies and unpopularity during a period of sweeping change across the region. Far from being illegitimate regimes supported by foreign powers, the remaining motley collection of Arab monarchies can now claim to be bastions of Sunni Islam standing firm against an aggressive Shia expansion from Iran to Syria with Iraq, Bahrain and Najran in between.

Beyond the immediate region, Western media has been talking about the Syrian uprisings in sectarian terms almost since it began. This is partially due to aversion towards the Islamic flavour that has come to dominate the Syrian opposition, and the accusation that any call for an Islamic state means a call to sectarianism.

On one hand it forms part of the argument for those who are suspicious of any intervention in Syria, exemplified by Robert Fisk’s 16 June piece in The Independent that sensationally paints the conflict as the continuation of a “titanic Islamic struggle” stretching back to the death of the Prophet. This characterizes such an armed conflict as an inevitability, as opposed to being the contemporary manifestation of sectarian identity politics exacerbated in the region post Sykes-picot through the establishment of a government formed along confessional lines in Lebanon, the establishment of a sectarian national government in Iran in 1979 and the explosion of Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq in the wake of Western occupation in 2003.

Conversely, at the same time conflation of the uprising as part of a constructed region wide sectarian conflict can be manipulated by any side wishing to get involved. Both anti and pro interventionists can make an appeal to sectarianism to bolster their positions (going into a sectarian conflict is messy versus not going in will leave the “sectarian extremists” in ascendancy).

In light of this and the very vocal announcement by Hezbollah that it is part of the conflict while helping the regime to retake the town of al-Qusayr, the conference in Cairo has not initiated the inflammatory sectarian discourse in this case. However, in its reaction – following on from Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s embracing of the sectarian cause reacting to Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrallah – those involved in Cairo have merely fed into the line of argument that aids the regime’s cause and legitimises its narrative. At the same time, the call for individuals to fight on the basis of a sectarian war absolves the various governments who sponsor some of the scholars at the conference of any responsibility to resolve the conflict whether through concerted military involvement or otherwise.

With all the various entities and elements that benefit from framing the uprisings in Syria as sectarian in nature, both regionally and internationally, the obvious fact is that the general population both in Syria and beyond are the ones who suffer the result of this politics of sectarianism, as well as the uprising itself.

There have been several dissenting Shia voices who point out that the conflict in Syria is one against the regime and not sectarian in nature. Most notably, Ayatollah Subhi al-Tufayli (formerly secretary general of Hezbollah) stated unequivocally that the involvement of both Hezbollah and Iran in Syria was unjustified, and that far from their fighters being promised martyrdom if killed they would instead be destined for hell for supporting a regime that in his opinion was known to be killing women and children indiscriminately. Other Shia leaders have expressed similar misgivings, such as Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani who is reported to have advised Hezbollah to leave Syria immediately.

Rather than feed into the sectarian narrative pushed by both the Syrian and Saudi regimes as tools for their survival, and thus further helping to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Cairo conference could theoretically have used such commentary to present a united voice against the Syrian regime. In doing so, it would have undermined the call to sectarianism while simultaneously building upon the popular discontent against the regime without sacrificing the aspirations of those engaged in the uprising.

REZA PANKHURST (Twitter: @rezapankhurst) is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, where he previously completed his Masters degree in the History of International Relations. His latest book, The Inevitable Caliphate? A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present, is published by Hurst and available now.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.