Syria: Secularism Takes a Backseat in Latakia

Free Syrian Army fighters rest in Haresta neighbourhood of Damascus 31 January 2013. (Photo: REUTERS - Goran Tomasevic)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Saturday, May 11, 2013

Latakia – News of nearby clashes continues to unsettle the people of Latakia, Syria. The battles in the adjacent mountains have cast a shadow on this coastal city, with residents fearful that battles will soon come to their quarters.

Mourners in the city hail from different sects. The sound of bullets fired ceremoniously hardly ever stops during the almost daily funerals: casualties of the army and security forces who have fallen in battle.

Aside from the funeral services and the nagging rumors, many young men throughout Latakia are now convinced that they need to in a “permanent state of readiness,” especially after shells fell on Qardaha. Consequently, civilians bearing arms has become a contentious issue, drawing the ire of Latakia residents who want to see arms only in the hands of the authorities.

Meanwhile, secularists in the city have reproached the government for its dismal conduct throughout the crisis, which they said was only an extension of its mistakes in previous years. This, they say, is to blame for engendering the ongoing crisis that will take generations to undo.

Amer, a university student from the town of Jableh, spoke angrily about the arrest of dissident http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/13004, member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC). The pro-opposition student is unconvinced by the Syrian government’s denial over Khayir’s arrest. He says that the regime was never honest and that the Syrians are used to its lies.

The participation of Hezbollah fighters in Qusayr countryside battles is another major topic in Latakia, with some in favor and some against. The latter are wary of a non-Syrian entity bearing arms, even if they belong to the Resistance. Others believe that it is the Resistance's duty to do right by the country that shared all its resources.

But perhaps the most disturbing upshot of the “existential war” between the regime and its opponents in Latakia is the retreat toward religion. In a city that has long been known for the secular-leaning and open-minded attitudes of its residents, many have now sought refuge in their sectarian identities.

Clerics have staged a comeback, having had suffered a great decline in recent years. Of particular note is the clerical gathering known as the Islamic Alawi Council of Syria and Overseas. Though founded in 2007, most Syrians have never heard of this council.

The council’s application for a permit with the Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowments is still pending, but under Syrian law, this does not mean that the council does not have the approval of the government.

Many members of the Alawi community are opposed to the council, which they believe is perpetuating sectarianism. The council shot to fame after Alawis opposed to President Bashar al-Assad held a meeting in Cairo. The council contested the meeting’s claims about representing the Alawi community when, according to the council, the conferees only represented themselves.

However, this prompted some Alawi Syrians to wonder whether the council, too, represented anyone else but themselves. Such quarrels are now endemic to the Alawis, a community without a central religious leadership or hierarchy.

Sheikh Muwaffaq al-Ghazal, member of the Islamic Alawi Council, spoke to Al-Akhbar. He denied rumors that the council was seeking to become the marja’iyya, the reference point for all religious affairs, of the Alawi community.

Sheikh Ghazal also denounced the attacks on the council that coincided with the Alawi meeting in Cairo, and suggested that the council’s critics were in agreement with the anti-regime Alawis who gathered in the Egyptian capital. The Alawi cleric also claimed that the mandate his council received from 100,000 members of the community meant that the body was indeed a legitimate representative of the Alawis.

Sheikh Ghazal does not deny his ties to the fighters of the “Syrian resistance” in the mountains of Latakia, or that he has taken part in military operations of the Syrian army and the National Defense Army. But Ghazal said that his involvement comes as a fighter and not as a cleric, given the inclusive “national line” of the Syrian resistance, as he put it.

A large number of Latakians are asserting their sectarian affiliations, but say that they champion national unity against schemes for partitioning Syria. A vast majority of the city’s residents also reject any separatist move and staunchly criticize those who bear arms from outside the Syrian army. However, their strong support for the army often leaves no room for any criticism of its conduct.

Indeed, regardless of their broad resentment against Latakia Governorate officials, the city’s residents often make calls for facilitating the army’s task of stopping the advance of opposition fighters.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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