Sectarian narratives promote troubling agendas, not justice

The sectarian “narrative” for Syria is political propaganda that is analytically unsound and morally problematic.

Bashar Assad, Hassan Nasrallah, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
According to the sectarian narrative, Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime are proxies for all Shia and Alawites [AP]

Sectarianism is not simply a form of prejudice, but a way of thinking and speaking which, consciously or not, enables various unjust agendas. The Syrian uprising, and the regional struggles in which it is enmeshed, show us how such a discourse can take on local and regional dimensions. Take, for example, Khalid Amayreh’s October 2012 theory for Iran’s continued support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, despite the mass killing. “The main and central reason behind Iran’s murderous embrace of the Assad regime,” Amayreh explains, “has mainly to do with the immense hatred the Twelver Shiites (who follow the twelve god-like imams or saints) harbour for Sunni Muslims.”

Such attitudes have become commonplace, despite a vocal contingent of anti-sectarian voices in the Syrian uprising. Although Amayreh is an Islamist writer, religiosity is not a prerequisite to today’s sectarianism (if it ever was), as even those who never fast or pray will not hesitate to indulge in it.

Syrians have been subjected to an unending series of Guernicas, but it would be a mistake to dismiss these expressions as nothing more than a natural, temporary reaction to collective suffering. Sectarianism is not about emotional outbursts or non sequiturs that blame “all Alawites” or “all Shia” across time and space for the actions of Bashar al-Assad’s regime or Iran. Rather, it is a discourse of power that obscures some forms of oppression or worse glamourises them; meanwhile, the values that motivated the protests starting nearly 24 months ago become a distant memory.

Syrian couple overcomes sectarian differences

It is important to show the sectarian narrative’s many logical, historical and moral shortcomings. Not only is it unneeded for opposition to the Assad regime on principle, or for holding the regime accountable for its own history of sectarianism, but it is also antithetical to the values of freedom and equality. Assad’s planes, tanks and death squads – unable to quell popular opposition despite unspeakable violence – do not threaten the future of the Syrian uprising in the way the sectarian way of thinking will if left unchecked.

For one, the sectarian narrative groups Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime on the basis of religious identity, and reduces their positions and actions to nothing but base emotions like “hatred” of Sunnis, as if these three entities – unlike all other regional actors – do not have political, military, ideological, or economic motivations. This reductive reading forecloses the possibility of a strategic understanding of, and engagement with, those parties.

Moreover, the narrative uses Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime as proxies for all Shia Muslims and Alawites, whether in Dearborn, Baghdad, or Bahrain, as if people of these faiths are homogenous and act in unison at all times and in all places, never disagreeing amongst themselves. This manner of thinking not only ignores the diversity of voices against the Assad regime, but also enables sectarian oppression of those communities in other contexts. And it forecloses the possibility of co-operation across sectarian lines in other parts of the world. In the United States, for example, Sunni and Shia Muslims of all backgrounds share common cause against Islamophobia and civil rights violations by law enforcement in the name of the “War on Terror”.

On another level, the sectarian way of thinking assumes that, unlike external supporters of the Syrian regime like Iran and Hezbollah, its external opponents are motivated only by noble (non-sectarian) reasons. Regional actors like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are thus insulated from criticism for their own acts of repression in their own countries, thereby undermining the possibility of solidarity on the grassroots levels between activists in Syria and in those countries. Perhaps more importantly, such countries are insulated from criticism for their policies in Syria itself, for example, about whom they choose to support, how, and why.

This narrative thus functions to obscure the ethical implications of the Syrian opposition’s strategic choices in its regional and international work, even as its regional allies use Syrians’ suffering as the playing field for their own agendas. In this respect, the opposition’s external allies do not differ from the Syrian regime’s allies with respect to their failure to stand consistently by justice and right. On that point, the sectarian narrative also fails to explain the behaviour of the Syrian regime’s allies. It is no more the case that Iran and Hezbollah support the Assad regime out of an “immense hatred” for Sunnis, than it is for Russia or China. The sectarian narrative thus masks all parties’ political calculations and agendas. Such motivations, whether for Assad’s supporters or the opposition’s, must be thoroughly understood for strategic and informed action.

The sectarian narrative also assumes that the Assad regime’s violent and brutal repression of Syrians is a uniquely evil feature of Shia/Alawite “hatred” of Sunnis, again ignoring current and past examples in other countries and across history that demonstrate that people or political formations regardless of religious identities are equally capable of atrocity, oppression and injustice. Many religious groups in the Middle East and in Syria have histories of suffering, discrimination, or marginalisation, dating to the Ottoman period. Dismissing these perspectives does nothing to build a better future, nor does acknowledgment equate to apologia for the crimes underway today.

As part of this narrative, the injustice suffered by non-Sunni Syrians at the hands of the Assad regime over the four decades of its rule is conveniently neglected or treated like an aberration. Conversely – and perhaps more suspiciously – the sectarian narrative obscures the immense privileges, economic and otherwise, enjoyed by many Sunni Syrians under the Assad regime. How is this to be explained?

Most threateningly to the uprising and those who want to see a better future for Syria, the sectarian narrative makes two distinct but related claims: first, it implies that Syria properly belongs to “the Sunnis” (again imagined to be homogenous rather than divided by ideology and class among other things) because “Sunnis are a majority”; and second, it implies that a “Sunni” government ruling over a “Sunni majority” is less likely to be oppressive or unjust. Amayreh’s op-ed, for example, concludes that the lesson of the Syrian experience for all “Sunni Muslims” is that “Muslim states must never allow small minorities and esoteric cults to hold the reins of power in their respective countries”, as if this were enough to guarantee justice for all.

Look no further than Syria’s neighbours to see the absurdity of this claim. It takes much more than a particular state identity to curb government abuses and ensure fair and just governance; and often, the worst injustices are perpetrated in the name of purifying or maintaining a state identity. Moreover, the use of such simplistic identities to justify war or repression against “the Other” also often functions as a cover for authoritarianism and economic policies that advantage the few at the expense of the many.

In short, the sectarian narrative comes with clear costs. It is analytically unsound, and thus cannot be the basis for smart decision-making. It is morally problematic, and thus taints the stated values of the uprising and risks causing real harm to real people. It is political propaganda, and thus functions to enable agendas not necessarily in line with the uprising’s founding values.

The sectarian narrative is not, however, an excuse for inaction, in the style of some apologists for the Assad regime. It is not the natural, inevitable outcome of the Syrian uprising, but rather the product of human action tied to particular circumstances, and moulded by certain agendas. Now is the time for people who wish for an alternative that requires neither continued authoritarianism nor communal discord to do their part. 

Yaman Salahi is a civil rights attorney of Syrian origin in Los Angeles, California.