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Syria: The religious dimension

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30 March 2011 14:20

As I watched coverage of the pro-government rallies in Damsacus on al-Jazeera, it was instructive to note the camera dwelling on the senior Syrian religious figures (both Christian and Muslim) atop a balcony in an obvious embrace of sectarian unity.

That image illustrated one of the issues that separates the Syrian unrest from most of the others in the Arab world — religion is a major factor in the current unrest, even if it isn't the cause. 

With the exception of Bahrain, none of the recent unrest has had a sectarian tone about it. Even in Yemen, the anti-government protests directed against the Saleh regime have been led by the youth and disaffected tribal elements. The Zaydi al-Houthi movement has sat on the sidelines, as the protest is played out.

But in Syria, the Ba'thists for all their repression, brutality and disingeniousness have displayed a high degree of religious tolerance (unless you're Jewish). Of course when the leadership is a religious minority itself, there is significant self-interest at work in this approach.

It is no coincidence, for example, that the highest Sunni religious authority in Syria, the government-appointed mufti Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun is a Sufi, whose tolerance for esoteric interpretations of Islam, gives legitimacy to the claims of the 'Alawite Assad's to be practising Muslims.

The fear of Sunni fundamentalists' ability to destabilise the state as the Muslim Brotherhood did in the late 1970s, until they were massacred in Hama in 1982, sits not far below the surface for many Syrians. Syria's 'Alawites and Christians constitute close to a quarter of the Syrian population and secular Sunnis account for the bulk of the merchant class. Both have the most to lose in any protest movement that had religious overtones.

The Government knows this and has been playing on these fears. The Syrian Government's official spokesperson Buthaina Shabaan has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the violence in Latakia, targeting 'Alawites and Christians in the city. Earlier, Syrian state television accused the Muslim Brotherhood's coordinator in Syria, Riyad al-Shaqfa, of relaunching the Brotherhood's armed attacks against the Syrian Government.

The degree to which Sunni fundamentalism is playing a role in the current Syrian unrest, is likely wildy overstated by Damascus and conveniently ignores the decades of political repression.

But, there is no doubt that the television images of religious minority leaders in happy embrace during the pro-government rallies yesterday, was designed to send a message to large sections of the population — better the 'Alawite you know than the Sunni you don't.

Photo by Flickr user fchmksfkcb.

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