Spirituaity Ireland is proud this week to add Rania Elmasry as a contributor to the site. A native Syrian and a blogger in Syria. Rania will be giving an unbiased blog about the fears of fellow country people during the turmoil occurring in her Country.
To understand the tension and the conflict my country Syria, it is important to understand the religious and sectarian divide that polarizes the nation.
Shi’a (Alawis) Muslims (12% of the population)
The Assad family and its associates who run the country are Alawi Muslims – an offshoot of Twelver Shi’a Islam. They come from the northwestern part of the country around the coastal city of Latakia, with the Assad family itself originating from the town of Qurdaha. Originally a marginalised country people with few opportunities, much of the Alawi community has seen its fortunes change since the Assads took power. Alawis hold all the central positions in both government and the military. Priding itself on its socialist secular credentials, the Alawi-dominated regime has ensured the co-operation of wealthy Sunni business elites and the Christian population who fear Islamic radicalism.
Sunni Muslims (c.74% of the population)
Sunnis are majority of the Syria’s population. The major cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Latakia all have large Sunni majorities and it is from these communities that the regime has sought Sunni support but also seen mass opposition. The merchant elites of Damascus and Aleppo have been instrumental to the regime’s survival, ensuring that their monopoly on lucrative trade contracts is maintained in return for allegiance to the Assads. The working populations of these cities however, have been the backbone of the revolt, mirroring the protests that take place in many other smaller Sunni towns across the country.
Christians (+10% of the population)
An important and powerful minority in the country left largely to govern its own affairs, most of Syria’s Christians live in Aleppo and Damascus. The Greek Orthodox and Catholic are the main denominations, but a large number of other groups have also called the region home for centuries. Most of the country’s Christian population have yet to join fully in the protest movement, as they are concerned for their safety in a post-Assad era. The experience of Iraqi Christians after the fall of Saddam and their targeted persecution in that country was an important lesson for their Syrian co-religionists.
Druze (3% of the population)
The small Druze population originates in the southern Jabal Al Druze or Mount Houran area, where al-Suweida functions effectively as their capital city. It is through that nearly half of all Druze live in Syria. The Druze have not been too vocal during the current protests, worrying as the Christians do what life after Assad might bring them. But although a small minority, their role in Lebanese power politics over the past 40 years has shown them to be an important force to be reckoned with.
As we are seeing now, Sunni dominant cities are being brutalized by the regime, as Assad is aiming to remain in power, and keep his Alawite rule intact. Other minority religious groups have been utilized for the regimes own self purposes. “In the regime’s arsenal, there is the ultimate threat that this upheaval would become a sectarian war between the Alawites and the Sunni majority. Syria is riven by sectarian differences—there are substantial Druze and Kurdish and Christian communities—and in the playbook of the regime those communities would be enlisted to keep the vast Sunni majority at bay.”
This possible sectarian violence is quite reminiscent of what took place in Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a Sunni Muslim who ruled over a nation that was 60 percent Shia Muslim. For years, Saddam Hussein prosecuted and murdered members of the Shia community. When Saddam was finally ousted, the Shia community rose up, with great help from their ally Iran, and cause tremendous sectarian violence against their Sunni countrymen. We do not know if this will arise in Syria, but the stage seems to be set for uprisings by the majority sect that has been oppressed for decades
For the past 10 months, Syrians have taken to the streets in large numbers to oppose a repressive regime that has not hesitated to use force. The United Nations estimates more than 6,000 Syrians have died, and it is far from clear how the uprising will play out. Assad’s regime blames the revolt on Islamist militants and casts the uprising as a threat to Syria’s minorities, including Assad’s fellow Alawites and the country’s Christians. In the heart of Damascus, churches built alongside mosques show a long history of tolerance. But Syria’s diverse social fabric is fraying over the aims of the revolt, now 10 months old.
It is normal to see Syrian television playing in the background of Assad with his father, Hafez Assad, who began the Alawite dynasty in 1970, ending the domination of the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria.
I recently talked to Rev. Gabriel Daoud, a parish priest who allowed his St. George Syrian Orthodox Church to be used a refuge for Iraqi Christians about the Christian point of view. These Iraqi refugees were targeted in a sectarian war and forced to cross the border for safety. Daoud is against an uprising that he thinks could turn Syria into another Iraq.
Asked if he detects anti-Christian sentiment in the uprising, he says: “I feel some of it. They do this chaos in this country.”
Syria’s state media insists the chaos comes from militant Islamists — or terrorists — who will end the protection for Syria’s Christians to freely practice their faith.
Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar at Tufts University, described recently what might be called Sectarianism 101. The Syrian regime incites sectarian tensions, then presents itself as the only force that can hold the country together.
It needs to make sure that its Alawite base, and also the Christians in the country, remain in its corner, and then it can go to battle against the Sunnis trying to divide them, co-opt them or intimidate them, according to Nasr.
But the Assad regime needs to make sure that the 20 percent of the country that has sided with it remains supportive. Without that, the regime doesn’t have a chance, Nasr adds.
Wissam Tarif a says human rights activist said last week Syria’s protest movement is trying to break through the sectarian divide,
“In Syria, in particular, it is a revolution of young people, and the young people are not sectarian,” he says. “We don’t know the language, we don’t understand the concept.”
“Regimes have incited and played on difference for the last 50 years — what do you expect, it’s not magic,” Tarif says. “We need the space to mature, to become citizens. The concept of becoming citizens is not known to us; that’s what we need to learn.”
A democratic system that guarantees minority rights is what’s needed, according to Tarif, but it’s an untested model in the region. With more than 6,000 dead since last spring, Syria’s divide between pro- and anti-government forces is starker than ever, he says.
“And now people are gathered around a concept of fear,” he says. “When a family is sitting at night before they go to bed, they are not sectarian, they are afraid — they are afraid from the neighbour who is different, who is loyal to the regime or vice versa. It is fear.”
Thank you for reading this and hope God willing that people around the world have a better understanding after this.