Saturday, July 09, 2005
The Enigma of Damascus is a long piece in The New York Times Magazine on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They probably did a little bit of Photoshopping, but this image of Assad and his British-born (Syrian ethnicity) wife makes them look pretty Western, and Asma Assad's tousled "honey colored" hair and slightly parted lips with a come hither glance seems aimed at the Babes of Lebanon crowd (this picture suggests that she's a somewhat less attractive version of Mary Kay Letourneau) .
I have talked about Syria now and then partly because I've long had an interest in the sects that dot the Middle East, from explicitly non-Muslim ones like the Yazidis of Kurdistan to splinter Islamic groups like the Alawites (Assad's group). It is a peculiarity that the profusion of Muslim sects blossoms near the heart of the Dar-al-Islam,1 though many of these groups have survived in the face of persecution on the part of the Sunni orthodoxy through dissimulation and retreat to isolated locales. The Alawites come out of a somewhat murky milieu on the traditional borders between Byzantium and the Caliphate where Christians of various sects and heretical Muslims took refuge and synthesized disparate traditions (after the Turkic conquest of Anatolia the focus of power was still in the west of the peninsula, leaving heterodoxy space to the east). Because of the tradition of dissimulation whereby one hides one's truth beliefs there is difficulty in pinning down what exactly the Alawites believe (you will see a great deal of variance in the source materials), but it seems plausible that if you tallied "characters" and constructed a cladogram it would be difficult to place them unambiguously in either the Christian or Muslim clade. Though within the past few years they have become identified as Shia Muslims, usually this is seen as a politically expedient catchall for non-Sunnis (I think Mormon:Christian is a good analogy for Alawite:Muslim). Across the border in Turkey as many as one out of five individuals are "Alevi," which is the Turkic form of the Alawite sect. Again, because of dissimulation Turkey is generally reported as a 99% Sunni nation when in fact there is a large religious minority which is hostile to Sunni orthodoxy (thanks to centuries of persecution and libels by Ottoman authorities). And just like the Alawites in Syria the Alevis in Turkey tend to support the secular regime because of their past history of persecution at the hands of religious Sunnis. In an interesting historical point, the religiously ambiguous milieu of eastern Anatolia was the source of the Sufi movement which catapulted the young Shah Ismail to the conquest of Iran in the 16th century. Once the nation was under his control Ismail and his successors converted the whole region to Twelver Shiism, which in recent years has become the ideological bedrock on which the Islamic regime of Iran rests. So, it is I think somewhat ironical that the distant cousins of the Alawites, who in many ways enforce the mostly religiously liberal of the Arab regimes, were historically crucial in the foundation of a Twelver Shia culture in Iran which serves as the inspiration for a narrow Islamic state. My point in fleshing out these obscure details is that I worry that such nuance, which I think is important, will be lost in the next few years as Syria becomes our possible next target. Iraqi Christians flee to Syria precisely because the Alawites, though "Muslims," are less likely to be hostile because of the traditional similarities between the two groups. From the article:
Such facts are intelligible only against the religiously complex background of the Syrian borderlands, where the line between kufir and believer was more obscure and subjective than elsewhere.
Finally, I would like to add one observation about democratization in the Middle East. Over the past few months I have been reading a fair amount of European national histories, because sometimes I feel there are holes in my knowledge base. So far I have read about England and Scandinavia. What strikes me is the gradual nature of democratization in these nations. The "Left" tended to shift from conservative Whigs, to classically liberal "National Liberals" or Liberals, finally to the culmination of Social Democracy with the attainment of universal suffrage. Those who argue for the democratization of Arab states should keep in mind that here you have a situation where you are shifting from extreme despotism to universal suffrage in a matter of years. Say what you will about the dysfunctions of Arab culture, and they are manifold, but I am skeptical that any culture is robust enough to make such a sharp political transition with grace. I think it is clear that in the Most Perfect World Assad and his wife (who is a Sunni by background) would like Syria to be a liberal democracy, but I also suspect that if suffrage were to become universal tomorrow the Christians of Iraq who have resettled in Damascus would flee to Lebanon at the first opportunity, and the Alawites and other sects would join them. There are all too many Sunnis who yearn to breathe free...so that they can blot out the kufir from their lives.2
1 - The further you move west (past the Suez) or east (past Pakistan) the higher the frequency of Sunni Muslims. I think in Asia this might be a function of the fact that there are still many non-Muslim groups so that there hasn't been the emergence of a frankly quasi-Muslim identity which religious minorities can take refuge in in the face of persecution from the Islamic majority (even in Iran the Bahai drew their support in part from Zoroastrian converts, and initially that religion perceived itself as a reformist Twelver Shiism). The case of the Maghreb is harder to explain because there is a long history of heterodoxy in that region of the world, and its uniform Sunnism is a relatively new development.
2 - And I do not deny that some of their resentment is richly justified, just as I believe the fears of the Alawites and Christians based on historical precedent are also justified. These are not black and white issues and none of the choices is wholly satisfactory, rather, they dictated by one's priority of principles.