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Culture, Society, and Religion (Modern Intellectual and Political History of the Middle East)

Book Author(s) :
Christa Salamandra and Leif Stenberg
Published Date :
November 2015
Publisher :
Syracuse University Press
Paperback :
344 pages
ISBN-13 :
Review by :
Diana Alghoul

Syria from Reform to Revolt is a two volume series that taps deeply into the socio-political life of Syria. When compared to the latest books being published on Syria, which are mainly on the humanitarian crisis, the war itself, the failure of international interventionism and the rise of militant non state actors, this series offers a unique input on the lives of Syrians that goes beyond statistics and reports from human rights organisations. It looks at the different ethnic and religious groups in Syria, gives an outline of how pluralistic Syrian society is and each group’s relationship with the government, whilst also explaining the various types of opposition to the regime. This gives a basic understanding of which group had a vested interest in starting and perpetuating the Syrian revolution and why.

The first volume talks about the aspect of economic discontent amongst the opposition. It analyses Bashar Al-Assad’s economic policy and explains why, although statistically speaking Syria’s economy was improving under Al-Assad and urbanisation was developing, there was a silent proletariat class who did not benefit from Al-Assad’s economic reforms. If anything, the lack of subsidies created a larger gap in wealth in the country, giving protesters grounds for demanding economic reforms.

The book also looks into the Ba’ath party and the changes that occurred from the days of Hafiz Al-Assad and the regime’s relationship with the regional and international community.

The second volume focusses more on the relationship between Al-Assad and Syrian society, along with the way popular culture in Syria was affected by this. One chapter in particular highlights the way television shows were reflective of Syrian society and were used as a means of state propaganda through both subliminal messages and through censorship. It looks at the mobilisation of organisations and compares the way different religious organisations were treated by the Assad regime giving a comprehensive summary of the developments in religion and culture and their relationship with the state.

Both volumes look at the nature of Al-Assad’s authoritarianism and what it was like to live in Al-Assad’s Syria. The series as a whole analyses the depths of the Assad regime, his way of suppressing the opposition and how they managed to work their way around the increasingly tightening system.

The volumes interlink around one theme and are very well organisation and the arguments well-constructed.

For someone who would want to understand pre-revolution Syria and the way socio-political and economic determinants have linked to create the Syrian revolution, this series gives a very balanced and in-depth base.

It does not, however, discuss Al-Assad’s relationship with more extremist opposition groups such as Al-Qaeda, with whom he has a more complicated relationship. Discussions of jihadist groups and their bearing on the conflict are only mentioned in the first volume, however no in-depth analysis is offered.

The series does however give a solid understanding of why different groups in Syria wanted to revolt and how discontent shaped the country’s political situation.

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