The Islamist Tones of the Syrian Uprising
By: Karl Sharro
Published Friday, August 3, 2012
It’s not hard for anyone observing the Syrian uprising closely to notice its increasing “Islamization” over the past year. This development was not inevitable, despite what many sceptics insist on telling us. The Syrian regime’s lack of flexibility and violent suppression of the protests turned the uprising into a struggle for survival. In tandem, the arming and mobilization of the Shabiha militia escalated sectarian friction and undermined attempts to portray this as a struggle between the state and rogue elements. The extent of bloodshed made any compromise inconceivable without fundamental change.
In parallel, it became obvious a few months into the uprising that the political leadership of the uprising had failed to live up to its responsibilities. The fractured opposition failed to unite around common goals and to produce a convincing political program or a coherent transitional plan. This failure to develop an authoritative political narrative cost the uprising the support of a significant portion of the Syrian people who had not been swayed by its arguments. It is ultimately this political failure that has led to the rise of a form of ‘religious’ mobilization.
It is important to keep the extent of the ‘Islamization’ of the Syrian uprising in context, but it is also crucial not to deny its existence and recognize its implications in a religiously and ethnically diverse country like Syria. There are increasing reports of Syrian Christians and Alawis having to abandon their homes in response to direct and indirect threats by supporters of the uprising. While it is clear that this is not actively encouraged by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it represents a strong indication of daily sectarian frictions.
It can hardly be expected of the average Syrian Christian or Alawi to watch the armed opposition videos with their explicitly Sunni imagery, chants and historic associations and not feel threatened by their tone and rhetoric. These videos are actually a very important tool of the FSA and other armed groups in terms of broadcasting their war against the regime and mobilizing support. The political message of those videos, however, is increasingly becoming harder for non-Sunnis to relate to.
A Syrian opposition supporter made the observation that most of the “Allahu Akbar” chants heard on Youtube videos “are just a bunch of people who had no idea what else to chant.” There is indeed a lot of truth to this observation, as it reveals both the instinctive resort to Islamic chants and the lack of alternative political or patriotic slogans. This is hardly surprising considering that the uprising was not driven by a specific ideology or political platform but by the mounting frustration with a repressive regime.
But as the uprising takes an increasingly militarized form, the continuing absence of the opposition’s political vision, beyond the stated desire to unseat Assad, seriously raises the prospect of a war of attrition in which regime supporters will have no incentive to compromise or even consider switching sides. Far from being a theoretical luxury, a coherent political vision would have convinced those reluctant to join of the merits of a post-Assad future.
But as it stands, the political leadership of the opposition has not only failed to produce a political vision, it has also failed to establish control over the armed groups within and outside the FSA. Neither the now almost irrelevant Syrian National Council (SNC), nor the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) possess that sort of authority over the armed wing of the uprising. The SNC has also eroded its authority further by failing to establish a foothold within Syria as it tries to control events from abroad.
In the absence of a clear political vision and credible leadership, the role of religious mobilization is then becoming increasingly important. Not only does it serve as a vehicle for solidarity and finding common purpose but it also gives meaning to the struggles and sacrifices that people are making.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that this is an indication of a religious agenda that is driving the uprising. Religious narratives are being used as tool for stoking communal solidarity, but the exact influence that Islamization will have in the future has by no means been determined yet. There will be political battles to overcome this issue, heralded by the competition that the “mainstream” sections of the FSA are engaged in with more radical elements, some of which are coming from abroad.
There is a useful comparison to be made between the FSA and Hezbollah in this context. The FSA’s “religious” tone by no means exceeds that of the Lebanese party which, after all, is known as the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s explicit Islamist and Shia identity did not prevent it at a certain point from becoming quite popular in the Arab world and among Sunnis. It also had and still has support among some Christians and secular leftists in Lebanon.
The FSA is lagging behind Hezbollah in terms of political clarity, discipline, and centralized command structures, but there’s nothing to say that it won’t be able to reconcile an Islamist identity with a broader national appeal. Hezbollah effectively abandoned its aim of pursuing an Islamic republic as a precursor to participating in the political arena, while retaining its Islamist narrative. The FSA can emulate Hezbollah’s pragmatism in that respect, even if such a discussion seems premature under the current circumstances amid a lack of certainty.
What is certain, however, is that like Egypt and Tunisia before, Islamists are set to play a significant role in shaping Syria’s political future. Their success will depend on the extent to which they manage to achieve the transition without alienating minorities and increasing the risk of the fragmentation of Syria. The outcome so far still remains highly uncertain. There are positive signs in the vibrant activist groups that have evolved over the past sixteen months, which can play an important role in shaping this transition. But there are also negative signs of increasing sectarian frictions that should not be ignored.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.