The Post-Human Dynamics of Politics and Religion in Syria

By: Maximilian Lakitsch

March 24, 2021

Responding to: Religious and Sectarian Identity in Syria

The Post-Human Dynamics of Politics and Religion in Syria

Ten years into the Syrian war, the very role, nature, and roots of its politics-religion nexus is still the subject of lively debate. Mostly, religion is rejected as a sufficiently explanatory conflict factor. After all, the regime’s cross-sectarian ties—which were already forged under Hafez al-Assad—have endured all these years. Accordingly, many Sunni Muslims who economically and politically relied on the regime never ceased to support Bashar al-Assad. Conversely, many Alawites and Christians who are commonly regarded as allies of the regime supported the opposition. Thus, economic and political factors are not to be disregarded.

At the same time, however, many atrocities from all sides displayed unmistakably a religious or sectarian character. Those seemed to be driven and fueled by the growing Sunni-Shia divide that was not only increasingly reflected rhetorically in the region, but also through diplomatic and economic shifts bilaterally and within the Arab League. At times, it seemed as if the regional divide was the main reason for Syria’s desperate plight. From other angles, the Syrian war appeared to be at the heart of those regional dynamics from where it further fueled the Middle East’s sectarian divide. Given all these disparate and partly contradicting accounts, how can we adequately characterize the nexus between politics and religion in the Syrian war? Given the complexity of the issue, simplifying answers seem to fall short of the actual situation. An adequate characterization is not least of relevance for any peace initiative.

The Syrian war and its dynamics of politics and religion become more accessible within a post-human ontology.

The Syrian war and its dynamics of politics and religion become more accessible within a post-human ontology. It unfolds itself based on the rejection of the humanist presumption of the world as given to the human subject and therefore modifiable at will along rational considerations. In contrast, post-human thinking embraces the notion of the human subject as fundamentally interrelated and co-constituted with an incomprehensible infinity of human and non-human factors: among others, human beings, non-human animals and organisms, environmental forces, machines, phenomena, or hybrids of those entities. As a result, politics as the human endeavor to make ourselves a home within the world is impossible. 

Humankind is not sovereign in its political doing. Any political intervention is always fundamentally influenced by human and non-human forces beyond one’s reach—ontologically and geographically. Acknowledging the fact that any kind of crisis situation fosters an intersection between politics and religion, the post-human context of the Syrian war locates the sources and factors that influence the politicization of religion beyond the national and beyond the human. The following paragraphs introduce five interrelated dimensions that are of fundamental relevance for constituting the post-human context of the politics-religion nexus in Syria. 

The post-human context of the Syrian war locates the sources and factors that influence the politicization of religion beyond the national and beyond the human.

The national human realm. The post-human dynamics of the Syrian war have a historically grown national basis. French colonial rule provided the foundation for the intersection of religion and politics. In order to diminish eventual challenges to French rule, power was diverted away from its traditional Sunni centers and distributed among the Christian, Alawi, and Druze communities. On this foundation, the Syrian Baath Party under Hafez al-Assad later carefully crafted an alliance among the religious communities to ensure its rule and to curb Sunni claims for dominance. While the Baath party thereby fostered a Syrian national identity, it inscribed sectarian identity into national law at the same time and made sure to present itself as a bulwark of Syrian unity against disintegrating sectarian forces. Thereby, the regime made sure that politicized religious sentiments were dormant and intact at the same time. Not unexpectedly, this provided a foundation that was anything but immune to unexpected interference from the realm of the post-human beyond the Syrian people’s sphere of control.

The more than national: the transnational. The first post-human realm that is of relevance for the dynamics of religion and politics in Syria is the transnational. It represents the widely reflected notion of other states shaping and determining the fate of the Syrian war. Accordingly, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, the United States, or the EU materially and ideologically fuel the war dynamics, and most of these states specifically exacerbate the Syrian foundations of politicized religion. In addition, Salafist jihadist groups still attract women and men from all over the world to join their holy duty and fight the regime and other apostates. While each actor’s intentions might not be characterized as beyond human comprehension, the resulting dynamics that unfold within the transnational network encompassing the Syrian national context appear to be contingent due to their complexity. 

The resulting dynamics that unfold within the transnational network encompassing the Syrian national context appear to be contingent due to their complexity. 

The more than analog: the virtual. The online sphere that is permanently accessible through social media, virtual platforms, or any kind of website via—above all—smartphones has become a second nature to humankind. It is therefore of significant relevance for human self-constitution and self-understanding anywhere in the world. While information of sheer unlimited amount and scope from websites and social media accounts—such as the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—might influence war dynamics in many ways, jihadi online fora specifically add to the politicization of religion. Regionally relevant religious scholars—such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, with his worldwide audience through Al Jazeera or his Twitter account—are also of substantial influence, not least when they question the religious legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The realm of the virtual is omnipresent and, therefore, beyond control at the same time. 

The more than human: the ecological. The more and more obvious effects of climate change such as growing weather instability or the rise of sea levels, but also the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, cataclysmically introduce an infinity of non-human actors as fundamentally relevant for human life and the sphere of politics. In this line, the drought in Syrian from 2006 to 2010 and the rising food prices led to recognizing climate change as an important factor that helped to spark the war. Whether this notion is exaggerated or not, the non-human remains a crucial and unpredictable factor. Accordingly, warfare has taken a heavy toll on the country’s vegetation and livestock. A lack of resources and further increases in fodder prices do not allow farmers to sufficiently care for most of the remaining livestock. While this domain is not of immediate religious relevance, it nevertheless does further increase the crisis and precarity on the ground, further driving the politicization of religion. 

The drought in Syrian from 2006 to 2010 and the rising food prices led to recognizing climate change as an important factor that helped to spark the war.

The more than worldly: the transcendent. Religion is not only a relevant factor in the Syrian war as an identity marker, but also in its sacred and spiritual dimension. As such, it transcends worldly hardships and elevates them to a divine duty. It therefore adds to the spiritual dimension of politics, strengthening the religion-politics nexus even more. With duty located beyond the human and non-human worldly realm, the transcendent dimension represents a particularly volatile element of political-religious war dynamics. 

While these dimensions might each for itself have aspects that appear to be at some points more and at some points less beyond human comprehension and control, they all interrelate with each other and thereby constitute the contingent character of the overall dynamics. Given the resulting post-human character of the dynamics of religion and politics, an ideal solution that might be characterized as peace does not seem to make much sense. However, local agreements of disengagement and disrelation from this complex network of interrelated dynamics might at least provide safe havens to not only shelter life but to allow for its blooming. Furthermore, while the transcendent dimension seems to be among the most volatile factors, it nevertheless allows for religious authorities—as mediators and interpreters of god’s will—to engage in settlement initiatives where no other authorities could intervene.

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