Saturday, June 15, 2013

Don’t believe everything you read about “sectarian strife”

I’m in Jerusalem now, but I wanted to add one final note about the supposed sectarian battle that is said to be taking place all over the Middle East and especially in Syria.

I spoke to a lot of people in Lebanon, both Sunni and Shia Muslim, and I can report that there is plenty of evidence to refute that overly simplistic view – or at least to suggest that such sectarian hostilities are not universal.

First, none the Shia Lebanese I spoke with – mostly Hezbollah supporters – expressed antagonism to the Syrian rebels or to Sunni Muslims in general in religious terms.  As I wrote earlier, the Shia I met were relatively relaxed about religious observance in and around their communities.  In the neighborhood of South Beirut where I stayed, there were women in hijab and others completely uncovered, even wearing sleeveless tops, walking right by the Al-Hassanein Mosque, which is the principal Shia shrine in the city.  Hezbollah claims it is  fighting in Syria to  protect its community in Lebanon, defend its political ally Bashar al-Asad and secure its supply route through Syria.  There are few Shia in Syria and though the Alawi community that is considered Asad’s core of support is sometimes described as an offshoot of Shia Islam, that is not how it is seen by the "orthodox" Shia of Iran or Lebanon.

Second, although the more extremist Sunni opposition to Asad in Syria and to Hezbollah in Lebanon is often expressed in sectarian religious terms and even in genocidal language, this doesn’t represent the entirety of Sunni Muslim opinion in the region.  Though it may be true that the anti-Asad rebels are based primarily among the Sunni majority, this is not universal. In Syria, the government and the army have considerable support among Sunni Muslims, as among all other ethno-religious communities.  Many more Sunnis simply want the fighting to stop and are not ardently supporting either side. In Lebanon, there are Sunni clerics who support Hezbollah (to their considerable peril), and Shia clerics who support the opposition.  Moreover, you never hear Hezbollah speak in religious terms against the Syrian rebels, except to call them “takfiris” – that is Muslims extremists who consider their nonconforming co-religionists as Kaffir, Muslim apostates or heretics.  By comparison, the Shia of Lebanon are distinctly “live-and-let-live” in religious terms.

A few examples.

I already wrote about the easy-going ways of the Shia Hezbollah-supporting village I stayed at near Baalbek.  My host spoke with pride about his large Hamie clan being widespread in Lebanon and including branches who were Shia, Sunni, Christian and Druze.  He himself was married to a Catholic woman, with no problems in his otherwise Shia community.

When I visited the British war cemetery in Beirut I spoke for a long time with Yahia Bsat, its supervising gardener. He is a Lebanese Sunni Muslim married to a Catholic Palestinian woman whose family was exiled from Haifa in 1948.  His good friend, Naim Kurdy, a Syrian Sunni Muslim, joined us for coffee.  Naim spent his childhood in Beirut and was now back again with his son Mohammed to escape the fighting.  All of these Sunni Muslims expressed little liking for Bashar al-Asad, but agreed that the religious fanatics among his opponents were more threatening than he was.
Yahiya on the right; Naim, center; Mohammed, left
I heard the same sentiment from a quite religious Sunni Muslim Palestinian teacher in Sidon, Kheireddin Kawash, and from his school director, a Lebanese Sunni woman named Shaden Jabai.  She was very afraid of the loss of rights for women in Syria if the Sunni extremists took control.  In fact, I met only one family in Lebanon who expressed unreserved support for the Syrian rebels.  That was Khaireddin’s cousin Mustafa, from Homs, who was also refuge from the fighting in Lebanon. He said he was a backer of the Free Syrian Army.

This brief survey of opinion is far from scientific, of course.  But it does point out that the usual story about sectarian identity and ethnic hatred can be overstressed as an explanation for strife in Syria and how opinion lines up on either side -- at least apart from the minority of Sunni fundamentalists who are mobilizing across the region.  Religious, ethnic, local and tribal identities tend to be multifaceted and to cut across stereotypical divisions in various ways.  Don’t believe everything you read in the news or the pundits who spout clichés without really knowing  what they are talking about.

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