Sectarianizing Faith: Safeguarding Authoritarianism in Syria

By: Rahaf Aldoughli

March 29, 2021

Responding to: Religious and Sectarian Identity in Syria

Sectarianizing Faith: Safeguarding Authoritarianism in Syria

Found in the rather arbitrary partitioning of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the nation of Syria has never had a strong territorial identity. Syria is a mosaic of ethnicities, religions, sects, and national backgrounds, including significant minorities who identify as Armenians, Assyrians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds, Yazidi, Mhallami, Arab Christians, Mandaeans, Turkmens, and Greeks, among others. When the Baath Party rose to power in independent Syria in the 1960s through a military coup, it did so in part by promoting a new type of national identity that sought to merge the mosaic of Syrian society into a more cohesive and stable structure.

Supporters of the party were a minority in Syria at the time, and so the regime set upon a course of rigorous state-nationalist indoctrination to consolidate Baathist rule and establish popular legitimacy. Among other endeavors, the Baathists sought to manipulate tribal and sectarian identities, seeking patronage by enhancing the status of previously marginalized groups. After the ascendance of Hafez al-Assad to power in 1970, his project centered around homogenizing these diverse Syrian subjects into a single imagined Baathist identity. In the broader sense, however, the overarching goal of the nationalist construction was to subsume local identities into a broader concept of the “Syrian people,” defined according to the state’s territorial borders.

The overarching goal of the nationalist construction was to subsume local identities into a broader concept of the “Syrian people,” defined according to the state’s territorial borders. 

Sect as a form of belonging was subsumed by the imposed binary of Baathist/non-Baathist. Here, there is a pressing question that departs the focus from conceptualizing Syrian identities as ancient, stable, or innately sectarianly determined. I would rather emphasize that ordinary Syrians had built their social identities as not innately sectarian, but they had become sectarianized through everyday interactions, which minimized the level of trust between Syrians. This daily interaction entails the regime’s intentional mechanism to ensure that Alawites dominate powerful governmental and key military positions. This focus on micro-level agency and on the activities that constitute the fabric of social life provides a corrective to the instrumentalist view that tends to see sectarianism as an outcome of macro-level politics. However, we need to consider that ongoing fluctuations in identity formations may be caused by the aggregated choices of numerous individuals, including the marginalized members of sects who contest established norms through small daily actions.

Sectarianism in Post-2011 Uprising

The political upheavals of the past decade in Syria have given sectarianism a fresh relevance. Some scholarship has framed the Syrian conflict as a sectarian one, viewing sectarian identity in Syria as an innate, fixed, and permanent. Scholars who regard sectarianism through a primordialist lens tend to view belonging to the sect as an essential legacy that most individuals are born into. It is also discussed in mainstream media coverage; this outlook often spills over into language attributing current Syrian conflict to ancient sectarian hatreds. Similar language has been expressed by a variety of influential commentators and political figures, including former U.S. president Barack Obama. As a Syrian scholar, I have often seen academic debates immersed in addressing the Syrian conflict as a matter of Sunni-Alawite strife, a Sunni majority endeavoring to overthrow a ruling minority. 

Some scholarship has framed the Syrian conflict as a sectarian one, viewing sectarian identity in Syria as an innate, fixed, and permanent.

Others have conceptualized the conflict as a geopolitical one where sects are being manipulated, mobilized, and instrumentalized by different regional actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. However, this view does not suit the historical and political context of the Syrian case, nor does it explain how the regime has securitized the Sunni sect as one of its strategic survival methods. What is missed is a closer look into how the regime has not only sought alliance from its Alawite social base, but also reconfigured pre-existing tactics of co-opting Sunni ulama. In order to understand whether identities in Syria are inherently sectarian or have become sectarianized from above, we need to explore the phases of the regime’s instrumentalization, mobilization, and securitization of sect for reasons related to legitimacy and survival after the 2011 war.

Securitizing Sect by the Regime after the 2011 War

Since early days of the uprising, the official Baath discourse has relied on sectarianism as a façade of legitimacy for Assad, who has relied on a sectarianized security apparatus to curtail the pro-democracy protests. In parallel to the regime’s violent military response played mostly by Alawite-loyalist figures, the Baathist regime’s reaction to the people’s demands was creating distinct forms of sectarian nationalism that are conflated with Baathism. In setting out the general landscape of the conflict, Assad’s August 25, 2011 speech reveals a newly constructed version of Sunni Islam to create a homogenized, crossover, synonymized, and conflated perception of religious belief and support for the regime. 

This explicit deviation from secularism comes in the president’s assertion that “religion and nationalism are counterparts.” With this association, Assad reinforced that the cause of the conflict is due to moral failure and to longstanding neglect of the importance of associating religion with nationalism. This comes with his fierce attack against those ulama who did not say that protesting was a sin. Hence, sectarianism becomes not about the rivalry between Sunni and Shia but about political dissidence and disobedience. Assad goes further, making a rigid categorization of those who participated in the protests and those who stayed silent, referring to the former as sectarian and to the latter as patriots. This categorization not only builds on his attempt to sectarianize the conflict but also homogenizes protest as a sinful act. 

Assad reinforced that the cause of the conflict is due to moral failure and to longstanding neglect of the importance of associating religion with nationalism.

While the previous state approach toward containing the heterogeneous nature of Syrian communities was through obscuring one’s sectarian identity rather than embracing it, which led to the rise of sub- and supra-state identities after the 2011 uprising, after the 2011 uprising, the regime sought to manipulate and instrumentalize a religious discourse. Following such strategy allowed Assad to dismiss any political or economic factors as causes of the conflict, relying instead on how the ulama failed to unite Syrians and prevent division. 

In the regime’s attempt to cultivate religious identities as marker of political loyalty, religion becomes the base on which to reconstruct national unity in the midst of the crisis. Assad further identifies national belonging with following the message of the Prophet Muhammad. Assad says that becoming “Muhammadan” is intimately linked with how the contours of belonging are constructed, using the phrase “We belong to Muhammad only,” which creates a sense of collectivity by reconfiguring Muhammad as the binding force behind national unity that can challenge sectarianism. This can further illustrate that authoritarian regimes such as the Baath regime rely not only on militaristic victory, but also religion as a mobilizing force to ensure survival and to securitize any political dissidence.

Authoritarian regimes such as the Baath regime rely not only on militaristic victory, but also religion as a mobilizing force to ensure survival and to securitize any political dissidence. 

Since the regime’s main concern is now to deter any political dissidence, the official discourse sends an imploring message to Syrians where political protest becomes synonymous with religious sin. This strategy aims to contain Sunni sect by holding them responsible for any political dissent, since a majority who protested against the regime self-identify as Sunnis. In this sense, containment becomes a necessary security strategy, rather than co-optation, coercion, or repression. The strategic employment of faith as a method of counter-revolution can also be seen in Assad’s words: “Our way to resistance is faith. Faith is security and safety.” Security and safety (Al-amin w al-ˈaman) are two words often used by Assad as a way to recall the position those present were living in. He continues: “Faith is the guarantee for our sons and daughters and for our afterlife.” Again, Assad implicitly states that the Baathist state can only be preserved through faith, and this faith is the way to paradise. This links the present with the unlimited and the unknown. Constructing this intertwined relationship between faith, security, and safety thus becomes Assad’s strategy to safeguard his authoritarian rule

Religion, Peacebuilding, and Authoritarianism

There has been a great public debate of whether religion in heterogenous societies acts as a principal catalyst of internal conflicts. Others have emphasized that armed conflicts increase in line with higher fractionalization of religious affiliations. In the Syrian case, the regime has rather used sectarian fractionalization in an attempt to establish a robust social base that is ideologically subject to regime’s authority. While adopting fractionalization of the Sunni sect, dividing the Sunni majority into binaries of loyalists/non-loyalists, sectarianism goes beyond the simplistic notion of the regime’s manipulation of the Alawite sect.

Dividing the Sunni majority into binaries of loyalists/non-loyalists, sectarianism goes beyond the simplistic notion of the regime’s manipulation of the Alawite sect.

The challenges of the post-Assad era lie not only in establishing transitional justice, but in building a robust state that forms its basis of legitimacy through transcending sectarian affiliation. The five decades of Baath rule that varied between instrumentalizing, co-opting, and securitizing sectarian identities have complicated the notion of faith as an authoritarian instrument that can be mobilized for survival. Perhaps what needs to be debated among Syrians—as well as in scholarship on Syria that reduces identities to mere sect-based affiliation—is that faith is a matter of private interaction rather than state-society relations. Empowering the dynamic of neutralizing sect affiliation instead of homogenizing religious identities might be the first step towards creating a new imagined Syrian community that defies the manipulation of religious faith by all actors whether state, regional, or international.

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