Religious and Sectarian Identity in Syria

March 24, 2021

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Yard of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria

March 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, a violent conflict between Baath Party President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces that continues to fuel the largest refugee crisis in the world. The civil war is often described in terms of sectarian conflict because Assad is part of the Alawite community, a sect of Shia Islam, in a Sunni-majority country, turning what started as a protest against an authoritarian secular state into a Sunni-Shia conflict. A growing body of scholarship, however, challenges the simple reduction of conflict in Syria—and, indeed, other areas in the Middle East—to sectarian differences. The complex politics of Alawite identity in Syria can be viewed in large part as a product of modernity, dating to at least the French mandate era, when the colonial power promoted separate identities and autonomous zones along ethnic and sectarian lines. Exploring the construction of sectarian difference is essential in considering the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The intersection of religious or sectarian identity and politics in Syria is also complex because the ongoing conflict involves a blend of external actors. Foreign states—most notably Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the United States—have played active roles in the conflict, most recently in and around the city of Idlib. The conflict has also involved other religiously motivated actors, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State. An ongoing Berkley Center project on the Politicization of Religion in Global Perspective, led by Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari, is exploring these and other issues by using Syria as a country case study in a forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press. As part of this project, the Berkley Forum invites scholars to reflect on religious and sectarian identity in Syria as the civil war there approaches its tenth anniversary.  

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What roles do religious differences play in the ongoing Syrian Civil War? How can the history of colonialism and state-formation in Syria help to contextualize the current conflict in the country? What are some lessons learned about the relationship between religion and politics after 10 years of conflict in Syria? How does religion figure into the foreign policy behavior of external states as they approach Syria? Can religion contribute to the peacebuilding process in Syria? If so, how?

related event | "Lunch Series on Religion and Nationalism: Syria"

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