The Many Afflictions of Syria’s Non-Islamist Opposition

From the start, Syria’s civil war was highly sectarian. Historian Basilius Zeinu writes that the opposition’s practice of underlining the sectarian affiliations of regime opponents, rather than adopting inclusive, nationalist slogans, is a worrisome sign. It is, he writes, as if minority groups were demanding medieval Catholic ‘indulgences’ from the country’s majority Sunnis for the sin of being born Christian, or Druze, or Shi’ite.

Since the start of the uprising, Syrian intellectuals, many from minority groups, have been heavily involved. They organized “flying protests,” ensured media coverage, publicized the names of detained protesters, and launched campaigns of solidarity with them.

Early on, the only way they could congregate was to set out from mosques or nearby them, as the Emergency Laws prohibited public gatherings. This was before they joined forces to convene their founding, and final, conference. Organized by opposition figures Luay al-Hussein and Munzer Khaddam, it was held at the Semiramis Hotel in central Damascus on June 27 of last year – the only event of its kind since the Baath regime took power.

The participants were subjected to a two-fronted attack. The first came from the official and “semi-official” media on one side, and by a ferocious propaganda assault, on the other.

This was from the group – still then in its formative stages – sponsored by the alliance between Gulf capital and political Islam. It organized demonstrations against what it called the “conference for dialogue with the regime,” and went on to all but rule out any political option for resolving the crisis.

With the increase in violence, murder, and terror resulting from the only policy ever pursued by the regime – the “security solution” – a succession of conferences were held outside Syrian territory. Eventually, the Syrian National Council emerged (SNC), with a hybrid (Islamist and liberal) structure, formed in line with a policy of deferring differences until after the downfall of the regime.

Since the arrest of a number of intellectuals from the Midan neighborhood in Damascus ahead of a demonstration they planned for 13 July, identifying the sectarian affiliation of detainees has become a way of demonstrating the “patriotic” nature of the “revolution.” Also it is used to disprove the “Salafist” or “fundamentalist” labels with which the regime’s media branded the protesters.

Some secularists and members of minority groups, including Christians, have no qualms about condemning critics of the raising of religious slogans in a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society – instead of patriotic slogans, or ones inspired by the human rights for which people rose up. In interviews and on websites, many of them have taken to reiterating phrases like “I’m from a minority, and I support the revolution,” or “I am Christian (or Alawite, or Druze etc.), Allahu Akbar.”

When actress and activist Fadwa Suleiman courageously appeared among the people in the Baba Amr neighborhood, one prominent activist saluted her for being “a thorn in [the regime’s]neck; secondly, because you are a free artist; and first and last, because you are Alawite.”

Yet Suleiman herself rejects such sectarian labeling, as she knows how dangerous it could prove in the future. On December 20, she wrote on her Facebook page: “I am not Alawites, and not an artist. I have actually been a rebel against all the obsolete values in our society since the day I was born…A rebel for freedom, and for people to be free to think, believe and love as they want, so long as that comforts them, even worshiping trees…So, down with the Alawites and long live their humanity…Down with the Sunnis, Druze, Ismailis, Muslims, Jews and Christians, and long live their humanity…Long live humanity in dignity everywhere, of whatever religion or affiliation.”

The demand for indulgences has been growing from non-religious or secular activists, and those from minority backgrounds. They have gone to the extent of making themselves indistinguishable from political Islam, which, using its powerful organization and political experience, has begun exploiting the non-sectarian popular Islam espoused by Syrians.

Instead of forming an independent group raising “national” slogans that are inclusive of all Syrians, they adopted the slogan of a “civil” state. Islamists devised this as a deceptive alternative to a secular or national state and a hoax against democracy.

A cultural descent has begun down the murky ditch that was dug by the regime and deepened by the Islamists.

Facebook pages have appeared such as “Alawite Coalition Against the Assad Family Regime,” “Committee of anti-Bashar Assad Alawite Youth – Homs,” “Syrian Christian Network for Supporting the Syrian Revolution,” and “News About the Involvement of Minorities in the Syrian Revolution.”

There has also been a profusion of like-minded public statements, with titles like “Statement by Members of the Alawite Sect,” “Statement by Syrian Christians,” and “Statement in Favor of Citizenship.”

Despite the good intentions these may at first appear to reflect, and their positive immediate impact, their long-term effect is negative. They help reproduce the sickness in society and make it the basis of the new social reality of the future, rather than seeking to cure it with appeals to patriotism, which the regime has devoided of meaning.

They also reflect an intense fear of being accused of sectarianism, and a subconscious collective guilt complex among minority groups, a product both of the regime’s behavior and Islamist mobilization. This prompts a quest for indulgences or certificates of innocence from the collective subconscious of the other party (Sunni/Islamist).

Some of these intellectuals also participate, intentionally or otherwise, in facilitating the realization of some Islamist schemes, out of a desire to unify opposition ranks in order to bring down the regime. They have faith in “the revolution,” so they deem the religious names applied to some Friday protests to be a minor matter, of no consequence when set against the regime’s repression, killing, and abuses. They argue that any criticism of “the revolution” serves the regime, which has always sought to disseminate a tale of “armed gangs” and “Salafist.” That wasn’t the case at the start, but now anything could happen in Syria, with divisions deepening, attacks intensifying, weapons flowing in, and – most seriously – the steady abandonment of the uprising’s loftiest slogan: “We Choose Non-Violence.”

In the name of “the revolution,” anyone who criticizes its mistakes, its diversion from its course, or those who trade in the blood of the martyrs, is attacked. This was seen in the defamatory campaigns organized against Haytham Manaa, Samir Ayta, Michel Kilo and others.

It thus came as no surprise, nor as a departure from the course that the Syrian uprising had been considering whether January 27 should be touted as “Jihad Friday.” This was the latest in a succession of increasingly religious names for Friday protests, behind which stand political Islam. The promoters of political Islam – like medieval monks – engage in extortion against protesters who do not necessarily share their ideology in order to win as many compromises as possible in exchange for “patriotic” indulgences.

The “Jihad Friday” proposal cannot be dismissed as a mere name that was misunderstood. It angered and alarmed most opposition supporters, who saw it as serving the purposes of the promoters of civil war and reflecting a mentality that has no qualms about exploiting ongoing violence and bloodshed to achieve political goals even at the expense of the unity of Syria and its social fabric.

The regime can be accused of raising the specter of civil war, and of trying to trigger one on the propaganda and popular levels (using the shabiha thugs, for example) as the Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh regimes did. But the regime cannot be blamed for the religious incitement practiced by the other side.

Some might portray criticism of the mistakes of “the revolution” as stemming from “Islamophobia,” which critics of political Islam are usually accused of.

But the problem is not with Muslims. It is with the Islamists and their opportunism. Rather than accuse, we would do better to ask: If titles and slogans – at least as means of expression – could create confusion or divisions or stoke sectarianism, then why not avoid them in the first place? Does the Arabic language lack terms, or has Syria’s patriotic lexicon run out of words?

Syrians deserve better than a choice between two evils: political tyranny or religious tyranny. The blood that has been spilled deserves better than deference to, and the seeking of grants of absolution from, opportunists and Islamists.

Syria deserves an inclusive national movement that embraces all citizens (religious and irreligious, loyalists and opposition) and lays the foundations for the concept of a democratic state that can ultimately lead to a Syrian Peace of Westphalia.

Basilius Zeinu , Researcher in history and archaeology