Is the Syrian regime sectarian?

The term is heard whenever the Middle East or Syria are discussed, yet a talking head would be pressed to define what they mean by sectarianism. Mohammad Dibo speaks to two prominent Arab thinkers willing to assist our understanding by going back to the basics.


Mohammad Dibo: Can we have an opening definition?

Salameh Kaileh: The sect is a community that subscribes to certain religious beliefs from the past. These beliefs, at the time of their formation, were the expression of the ideological and class conceptualisation of a certain social group. This conceptualisation is transformed into a religious belief when there is a societal collapse and social groups become closed, whereupon these conceptualisations are reformulated as “mythological” beliefs. The sect is a group of people who were born to certain beliefs. Their beliefs often survive only cosmetically: people practice some celebratory or funerary rituals, or marry into the same sect for reasons of continuity. But these inherited beliefs do not serve as a basis for relations with the larger society where more common traditions and customs, both in urban and rural societies, are more prevalent. These beliefs generally recede against modernist ideas allowing for more societal integration.

Sectarianism is any religious or sectarian barrier that is based on inherited beliefs against the ‘other’. That is to say: sectarianism is turning diversity to conflict. Without doubt this diversity is a result of an ancient conflict, however, the conflict at that time had economic and ideological bases for a political and ideological class conflict. Whereas before they represented intellectual currents rooted in material social classes and conditions, this language of an old struggle is used today in an essentialist way that has no relation to ideologies or classes.

There is a subheading which we could call, sectarian instrumentalisation. A certain class could utilise these inherited beliefs to advance its own interests, without necessarily believing in them. This can be seen in the context of a class’s defence of its own privileges and existence against other classes, or against other sectors from the same class.

Sectarianism is the tendency to undermine social cohesion by pushing for the reproduction of ancient beliefs and separations. This process is not exclusive to religious minorities, but can also be observed in the majority as well.

Victorious Shams: The sectarian question emerged in Lebanon initially. Its main theorist was Michel Chiha (1891-1954) who is considered one of the fathers of the Lebanese constitution (1926). Chiha viewed Lebanon as a unique country that is “only similar to itself” because of its confessional diversity. Lebanon, according to Chiha, was a country of “partnership between sectarian minorities.” The sect was considered a “stand-alone social entity, held together by its internal cohesion, and with deep historical roots.” Thus, the sect becomes the main, and elementary, social unit, rather than the individual. Indeed, it becomes the necessary gateway between the individual and the state–i.e. the individual’s relationship with the state rests upon his sectarian affiliation, rather than his claim to citizenship.

Citizenship is replaced by a sectarian understanding of sectarian authority, as in a “partnership between sectarian minorities.” Mahdi Amel formulated a scientific rebuttal of this understanding. He defined the sect as a “specific political relationship that is defined by the history of class struggle”; that is to say, a sect only achieves presence and political cohesion through its relationship with other sects, its position within the state, and its proximity to authority in the network of interests that covers all the other sectarian components in the political system.

Sectarianism, according to this definition, is the system that best preserves the classist hierarchy and the dominance of the colonial bourgeois class (this is in communities with diverse confessional backgrounds, where tribalism might prevail in other types of community).

MD: When is a regime “sectarian” and when can we say that it is “instrumentalising sectarianism”? Is there a difference ?

Salameh Kaileh: Most of our sects are the product of the Middle Ages after the collapse of the Arab Islamic empire. This is the era that witnessed the formation of the majority—Sunnis–and religious minorities. Prior to that, Islam was the religion of the authorities, and thus class opposition would usually take a religious shape, but as a politicised class opposition.

There are four types of state sectarianism. When a sectarian power obtains authority over a state–i.e. it transforms these inherited beliefs into an ideological and political project–this becomes a sectarian state, with the power to enforce its beliefs upon the entire community. This is an extreme example that rarely materialises, because the kind of sectarian fervor needed for its success is usually only felt by small parts of the imagined community, who rarely have the necessary force to control a state. More often than not, this scenario ends with the disintegration and collapse of the sectarian state.

Now, take the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) in Iran. Here we find that the ruling power is another type of sectarian power–i.e. it believes that it represents the majority, but it enforces the views of a minority. Here we can indeed say that the state is governed by a sectarian power. To ensure its control, these powers implement different control mechanisms, replacing the class hitherto dominant in the control of the state, while at the same time representing their interests.

When the Muslim Brotherhood won power in Egypt, as before that in Sudan and Tunisia, they represented what remained of a traditional capitalist sub-class (city merchants), a group who could only ascend to power by dint of their adherence to a fundamentalist ideology. The ruling class in Iran is the capitalist class linked to a denomination of Shia who believe in Velayat-e Faqih (a relatively weak current in the Shia spectrum).

A third form of sectarianism is the institutionally sectarian. This brand is mostly created by colonial forces. The institutions of the state are filled on the basis of power-sharing between different sects. The obvious example, of course, is Lebanon (which was replicated in Iraq by the US occupation): the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of the parliament a Shia (in Iraq: the president is Kurdish, prime minister Shia, while the speaker of the parliament is Sunni).

This is a system that reproduces societal groupings and identities on the basis of sect, regardless of whether the ruler is sectarian or not. It is a superficial sectioning that keeps society divided, and contributes to sectarian intolerance, and eventually sectarian upheaval. In this case, we can label the political structure sectarian. And even if the ruler is not sectarian, his position is inevitably determined by his sect.

In the institutional sectarian cases, we find that even potentially non-sectarian bourgeois political parties tend to flatter sects and use sectarian discourses (for example, Michel Aoun, a prominent Lebanese politician, who, despite his nominally secular ideology, often uses sectarian discourse in the service of his bid for presidency). This privileges sectarian identities in the struggle of conflicting groups within the same class for ultimate control. In the example of the Lebanese civil war, we find that most of the struggles were aimed at revising the balance of power vis-a-vis the sects and their relationship with the state, as well as their relationships within the capitalist class.

A regime that is not essentially sectarian but in fact represents a different class (usually the dominant capitalist class) can still instrumentalise sectarianism in its quest to remain in power. This is a very common tactic for colonial regimes, but it is also used by capitalist nations and regimes run by organised crime. In the Lebanese example we can see that the Christian capitalist class utilises the confessional structure to protect its control of the state as well as other parts of the capitalist class. In short, most ruling classes are not sectarian, nor even religious in any sense, but use these antiquated beliefs to assert control over the state. These beliefs are mined for their religious, sectarian, tribal or even regional prejudices.

Victorious Shams: Your question needs some revision. The phrasing objectifies sectarianism, as if it were a choice. Like a cloak that can be worn or discarded at will. This is a simplification of the issue that might suggest that the regime under discussion, the one that “instrumentalised” sectarianism, could arguably equally formulate itself in many other ways, if it so wishes. This is not the case. The nature of any political regime (be it democratic, dictatorial, tribal, etc.) is not born out of choice, but rather governed by the complex interests of the ruling class and by whichever part of the system is best suited to preserving its hegemony in a specific social setting, regardless of the personal convictions or wishes of individuals within that class.

In retort to that question, we might pose another one: could the Libyan regime, at the height of its crisis, resort to sectarianism to preserve its authority? I think the answer is that this was glaringly impossible, for Libyan society is homogeneous from a sectarian point of view. That means, the regime would have had to resort to another type of Asabiyyah (as elaborated by Ibn Khaldun) such as tribalism.

The Syrian regime has long rested its control upon a blend of nationalist and socialist maxims that have preserved its hegemony and allowed it to survive. The revolution however marked the collapse of these maxims, which have long been drained of any substance. They were replaced, under pressure of the fight for survival, with different ones that ushered the conflict in a different direction: sectarian mobilisation and escalation. This was not a matter of choice, but rather a necessity in the context in which the regime found itself. This begs another question: regardless of the current framing of the conflict, could the Syrian regime return to its nationalist and socialist maxims with any credibility? The answer again is a glaring no.

To my mind, instrumentalising sectarianism is simply sectarianism: there is no difference between the two concepts. One cannot analyse the matter on the basis of the wishes and intentions of those in the driving seat of the conflicting camps (the regime, and its opposition). Indeed, one must proceed in one’s analysis from the effects of the conflict on the ground, and the ability of each party to preserve its control. This is especially true in the absence of alternative ideologies, like Arab nationalism or Marxism.

The difference between sectarian and religious regimes is that in the case of a religious regime, one is subjected to an absolutist religious hegemony that allows no sharing of power with any other religious groups, as is the case in Iran and Saudi Arabia. A sectarian regime, on the other hand, presupposes power-sharing between different religious minorities on the basis of quota, even if the system is overwhelmingly dominated by one of them.

MD. (to Salameh Kaileh): You have said that, “when we want to characterise a political system, it is necessary to proceed from a materialist analysis to understand its structure and the interests it represents. Only then can we study the ideological form it uses to impose its hegemony over society.” Can we consider the Abbasid Caliphate or the Iranian state under the jurisdiction of Velayat-e Faqih as a sectarian regime using this definition? 

Salameh Kaileh: We cannot make a valid comparison between the Abbasid Caliphate and the modern regimes of the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran. At the time of the Abbasids, religion was the ideology of the state that was used to coerce society, and class and political struggles took place through religious forms. Religious majorities and minorities took their shape as sects only after the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate (especially in the 12th and 13th centuries). Before that they represented intellectual currents rooted in material social classes and conditions.

This transformation happened outside the state; that is, these sects were stateless and in conflict. When the Sunni ideology rose to take control it considered other sects to be of a lower level, and in some cases actively worked to enslave or eradicate them (as has happened in the Seljuk and Mamluk empires, and even more so in some periods of Ottoman rule).

Today in Iran, the state is ruled by a Twelver Shia denomination that ascribes to the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, but it also co-exists with other sects (Iran is home to a significant Sunni minority). The Iranian state considers itself a representative of the majority Shia population, despite the fact that it does not represent all Shias (neither all denominations, nor all the people). Thus, while it rules in the name of Shia, it actually serves the interests of a specific capitalist class. Sectarianism in this context is discrimination between people in their access to power. This is based on an inherited model that conceptualizes the citizenry, not as citizens, but as delineated sects. This is indeed a sectarian perspective. A parallel example can be seen in the Wahhabist ideology of the Saudi regime.

Having said that, the concept of sectarianism, as I have tried to explain goes deeper. It stokes conflict with the ‘other’ on the basis of antiquated conflicts and inherited beliefs. That is, it is an infra-political struggle.

There is no doubt that the Iranian regime aspires to enforce its hegemony over the region in the context of international struggles and its own aspirations to become a major power. This is why it has supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, strengthened its relationship with the Syrian regime, coordinated its strategy with the US in Iraq, and supported the Palestinians. To this end, the Iranian regime will use any tool at its disposal, including sect. By positing itself as the representative of Shias, it attempts to mobilize them in areas where it needs to create pressure, and supports Shia groups for political gain, like in Bahrain and Yemen.

But it has also nurtured very close relationships with groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and the Erdogan government in Turkey (all Sunni forces). That is to say that the Iranian regime operates pragmatically with concern to its regional interests, despite its Shia character and its commitment to the ideology of Velayat-e Faqih. It is a very intelligent strategy, whereby Shia ideology is only a cover, and does not represent a serious obstacle when more pragmatic alliances are needed.

As for its “policy of Shiaization”, I believe this is exaggerated, and mostly perpetuated in the discourse that considers the region through a ‘Sunni-Shia struggle’ framework.



In the second part of our conversation on the state and sect in Syria with prominent Marxist thinkers from the region, we explore how sectarianism and class intersect in the dark realms of the Syrian elite. See part one.

Mohammad Dibo: Salameh, should we consider Assad’s regime, or the Alawites as a group, sectarian?

Salameh Kaileh: Any investigation into the reasons of how a dictatorship chooses the groups that support its hegemony must be approached through a sociological lens, rather than a sectarian one. The difference here is that a sectarian, or religious approach to the subject focuses on superficial markers in determining the nature of the regime; e.g. the sectarian background of the president and the surrounding ruling class. The real question should be what is the logic that lies behind the dictator’s choice of collaborators? Why might he surround himself with members of the same background?

Let’s be frank. Hafez al-Assad was part of a nationalist party, and that was the underlying consciousness that predated his ascendance to rule. In that sense, one cannot accuse him of being sectarian–unless one subscribes to Islamist notions of the esotericism of Alawites, which I believe is bigoted nonsense. The main struggle inside the Baath party was actually between two Alawites–Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad. Thirdly, this struggle completely divided the ruling class at the time between the two factions, including the Alawites, whereby many Alawite officers from Tartous supported Jadid, while the officers from Jableh supported Assad. Moreover, the power vested in [Sunni] figures like Mustafa Tlass, and Abdulhalim Khaddam, under Assad, was well on a par with that of Alawites like Ali Duba or Ali Haydar.

Viewed from a sociological perspective, we notice that such dictators depend on individuals from the same environment they themselves grew up in. The rural environment they were brought up in first and foremost establishes linkages that are regionally-based. This is “rural consciousness”, it attaches confidence to regional linkage, which is natural at a time when the countryside is so isolated. As Engels remarked, a peasant believes that his village is the world, the whole world. This isolation breeds fear of the outside world and strengthens the importance of regional links. Wherever the peasant goes, it is only his neighbours, or those connected to his village that he considers trustworthy and dependable. That is, in a nutshell, why a dictator surrounds himself with those who share his own regional background.

Most of the power struggles in the Syrian army before Assad’s ascent were based on such ‘regional factions’. Many of the urban officers were purged after the March 8 coup d’etat in 1963 (that brought the Baath party to power); many other urban officers, as well as those from Rif Dimashq and Hama, were sidelined in the purge of Nasserist loyalists in June 1963; many Druze officers (from the south of Syria) were also removed following Salim Hatoum’s failed coup in 1967; Alawite officers were also divided, as previously mentioned, along regional lines (between Tartous and Jableh) during the power struggle between Assad and Jadid.

In that light we can see that the regime’s dependence on a core of Alawi officers is based on regional linkages and confidence rather than on sect. The sectarian insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its military wing (the Vanguard Force) in the late 1970s and early 1980s did reinforce a sectarian tendency, crystallizing in Rifaat al-Assad’s Defense Companies. But even this tendency within the elite was suppressed following the power struggle between the two brothers in 1984. Another attempt at sectarianising community at the time, the al-Murtada association founded by Jamil al-Assad, was also shut down. There is no doubt that a certain sectarian feeling seeped into the structure of the ruling class, but it did not gain any overall hegemony. It was only later taken advantage of by that same ruling class.

As for ordinary citizens who are Alawites, considered as a group, I do not consider them sectarian despite their significant support for the current regime. This is mainly because there are few beliefs that unify them. Ordinary Alawites were not behind the regime before the revolution: on the contrary, they suffered a great deal at the hands of regime thugs, from poverty, marginalisation, land expropriation, and an overall lack of services in their areas. It is no secret that the Syrian coast was one of the most impoverished regions in the country. The brutality of the Hama massacre of 1982 was, nevertheless, attributed to them as a whole societal component, and the regime played its part in spreading the belief that ‘the other’ will always seek revenge on all Alawites for that.

This has created a state of fear in the collective conciousness, that any political change will bring Islamists to power who will then proceed to take their revenge on Alawites. Generally speaking, most of the other religious and confessional minorities shared the fear that Islamists are the only alternative to Assad. This has led to many of them standing by the regime, including the majority of Christians. Without a doubt, this process was encouraged by the regime from the early days of the uprising, but it was also buttressed by some factions of the opposition, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and by some regional powers, like Saudi Arabia, as well as by the mainstream media.

Most Alawites have very little knowledge of their own religious teachings. There is a hardly a specific ‘religious doctrine’ for Alawites to impose on society. It is their debilitating poverty that has led them to join the army in large numbers since the days of the French mandate. And the regime offered very little by way of enhancing their overall quality of life for them to try and hold on to it. However, a general consensus has developed in the country that has identified Alawites with the Assad regime, and with the Hama massacre, despite the fact that a large proportion of political prisoners in Syria were Alawites.

That is the reason why Alawites ended up as staunch supporters of the regime, fear from their perceived connection in the mind of ‘the other’ between them as a community and the regime, and the fear of the consequences of any political change. Thus, their support is not sectarian in nature so much as simply born out of fear.

The wave of Islamic fundamentalism, the assertion of the Islamists’ right to power and the sectarian war that wrecked Iraq, entrenched this aforementioned fear in large sectors of society, in both the minorities and parts of the ‘majority’ as well. This very effective fear is the main reason why the Syrian regime has focused all its energy on promoting and augmenting the Islamist “bogeyman” and presenting the revolution as a fundamentalist movement with the sole aim of usurping power and taking revenge on Alawites. That this has proved a successful strategy, is not due to sectarian feelings amongst Alawites, but rather thanks to the Salafist and fundamentalist sectors of the opposition who were promoted by the mainstream media in the Gulf and even in the west. These elements confounded Alawites from the beginning and made them hesitant in joining the revolution. Over time, as these elements gained more influence within the revolution, Alawites were pushed into blind support of the regime.

MD: Victorios, you seem to have a quite different position on this. You consider the Syrian regime deeply sectarian. So, what is the distinction between a sectarian and an authoritarian regime?

Victorious Shams: As a matter of principle, all regimes are authoritarian. The capitalist regime is one whereby the wealthy elite has power and subjugates lesser classes to its authority; and the opposite is true in socialist regimes. Authoritarianism is a prerequisite of authority. Theoretically, it is impossible to be a sectarian regime without being authoritarian as well, because sectarianism is the system through which the ruling classes guarantees its control within a colonial mode of production. To negate the sectarian label is to negate the control of the ruling class in colonial multi-confessional states. But it is impossible, within the colonial mode of production, to separate sectarianism and authoritarianism; the former is a prerequisite for the latter and vice versa.

When it comes to the Syrian regime, it is important to differentiate between sectarian practices exercised by an authority that is controlled by a minority sect, as in the Syrian case, and an institutionally sectarian state, of the type that is Lebanon.

In the Syrian case, sectarian practices form part of a long and complex process that will necessarily lead to the sectarianisation of society at large, which we can see clearly now in the current conflict. In the latter, however, no one sectarian group can monopolise authority completely as it is based on “partnerships” and institutionalised quotas.

This is to say, sectarianism in Syria is not yet articulated in constitutional forms. The practices of the Syrian regime, including its monopolisation of authority as well as the financial and security apparatuses in the country, are driving that process very rapidly. It is worth here quoting Azmi Bishara, the Palestinian thinker, when he says:

“ The phrase, ‘sectarian sedition’, while it has significant societal relevance, forms a part of a political discourse invoked by the regime when faced by crises. The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, had no qualms, in his 30 March 2011 speech, about characterising the protest movement as a ‘sectarian sedition’ that aims to destroy stability and spread chaos. It was clear in his speech that the regime is very interested in spreading fear about sectarian strife, even to the point of provocation, as proof that the authoritarian state is the only form capable of preserving social and political unity in Syria, and that any concessions to democratic aspirations will lead to sedition and division. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that the regime, conscious of those of its policies that absorbed Alawites into its hard core, felt that the revolution is a reaction to the centralisation of power and wealth, and that it must be charged with sectarian feelings against him, and the Alawi sect.”

If we look at the struggle from the point of view that the regime tries to consolidate, one shared between Sunnis and Alawites, we must clarify an important issue. Even though there are Alawites who support the revolution, and there are Sunnis who stand by the regime, nevertheless, the percentage of each on their respective sides is minimal, and cannot be used to generalise about a community, nor as evidence that the regime is not sectarian.

In short, the regime, during its time in power has differentiated between normal citizens and privileged ones from a specific sect, and this is one of the reasons for the popular frustration that brought the country to where it is today. Mreover, these events are still ongoing and escalating and have not taken their final shape.

MD: Victorios, in previous writings you described forced demographic changes as proof of the sectarian nature of the regime. This is quite a strong claim, how do you defend it against the reality that a large number of refugees (more than 500,000) relocated to the coastal provinces?  And how would you explain the substantial Sunni communities that have stayed loyal to the regime?

VS: The forced displacements happening in places like Homs and along the Lebanese borders, seem to be a precaution for a regional scenario where the state is partitioned along sectarian lines. Thus, the regime is working on changing the demographic distribution of some areas, and there are plenty of rumors about nationalisation and settling activity favouring certain sectarian groups migrating from outside Syria or from other areas from the country. This means that the regime is working towards political hegemony over these areas by establishing a sectarian majority in it. This hegemony is political at its base, thus there is no need for a 100% purified area, nor is this possible (Israel, despite its many wars against the Palestinians has been unable to completely unroot them from their land).

We must differentiate clearly between the refugees who only seek to save their lives after their areas have been completely destroyed, and therefore do not aim for political control over the areas they are internally displaced to, and the areas occupied by the regime in the hope that it would become part of a future sectarian canton. Other than that, and as the regime is still responsible for the state, the question remains, what has the state offered to those who took refuge in the coastal areas [Alawite regions]?

As for the second part of your question regarding Sunnis standing with the regime, I believe that is mainly due to class interests. Every strand of Islam is different, and thus the Islamic doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood are completely different from those of the regime, and the doctrines of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or al-Nusra Front bear no similarity to those of Sufism. Hamas used to be very close to the Syrian regime, but it distanced itself after the revolution and after it was asked to help quell the protests. The Qubaisiyat movement has many schools and educational facilities that are supported and facilitated by the regime, and thus they have shared interests. The regime, despite its official line of secularism, is in need of multiple religious covers, as proof of its non-sectarianism, and the Qubaisiyat were ready to play that role along with other official religious institutions like the Mufti and the religious schools.

The Damascene Sunni class is a predominantly bourgeois class that benefits greatly from the regime in an alliance of money and officers. It is still a minority, but a very wealthy one, and they are part of the process of siphoning the country’s wealth into private pockets. Nevertheless, we should note here that many have already moved their wealth from Damascus to other countries, even before the revolution, because of attempts to force them to share their business with the security establishment.

The class interest of the beourgeouisie has no bearing on the sectarian nature of the regime. Sectarianism itself is another form of class authoritarianism, and the “Damascene and Aleppan bourgeoisie” are not too bothered about the form this authoritarianism takes, so long as their wealth increases.


Source: Open Democracy


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