Today, it has become very common to hear that Islamists are not sectarian. After the 2011-2012 Arab Spring, a Islamists political parties have been democratically elected into power. All of them claim that the accusations made against them, of being sectarian, are stereotypical and not true. They assure us that they will in no way oppress any of the minorities in the countries they are elected to. Since we cannot look into the future to prove it, let us take a look at the past. Let us explore the history of Islamists and their relationships with the other religions and sects of the Middle East.
For the sake of simplicity, let us focus on one specific country; let that be Syria. Syria is one of the six main countries in the Middle East involved in the Arab Spring uprisings. Of these six countries, which are Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, Syria has the most diversity in its religions and sects.
Relative demographics of the various religions/sects in Syria:
1. Sunni Muslims:
- 72% of Syria and are the majority.
- A branch of Shia Islam
- the largest minority group in Syria
- Make up about 13% of the total population.
- Mostly found in the mountainous northwestern province of Latakia (where they are the majority)
- They are the second largest minority in Syria
- Make up about 10% of total Syrian population.
- Most of are Orthodox; however, there are also many Catholics, and a few Protestants.
- They make up about 3% of the total Syrian population
- Known to be found in the southern mountainous province of Sweida (where they are the majority)
5. Shia Muslims:
- They make up approximately 1.1% of the Syrian population
- Mostly found around Shia pilgrimage sites such as the Sayida Zainab, Sayida Ruqiya, and Ommayad mosques.
- Only about 1% of Syrian population.
- Most reside in the mountainous regions west of Hama.
- Originally emigrated from southern Iraq to the northern Syrian-Iraqi border.
- Make up less than one percent of the Syrian population
- Found in the northeastern corner of Syria along Iraqi border near the Sinjar Mountain area.
- Today there are less than 200 Jews left in Syria (numbers were much more significant before the establishment of Israel). .
Today, when we look at Syria, we see all of these religions and sects coexisting in peace side by side as equal citizens. But was this always the case throughout their history? Sometimes, we are told that Syrians are tolerant people who have lived side by side with one another for centuries. This, unfortunately, is a wistful statement. As much as Syrians try to hide, forget, or modify their history, it will remain a fundamental matter in their relationships with one another.
In reading the demographics, you might have noticed that many of the minorities in Syria, such as the Alawites, Druze, Ismaelis, and Yazidis, are concentrated in mountainous regions of Syria. This is not because Syria is a mountainous country, nor is it by coincidence. Mountains have long been known to be the most secure landscapes to hide in and/or attack from. These minorities sought mountainous regions for their own protection. This brings us to the next question: Protection from what?
The terms Salafi and Wahabi are intermittently used; they basically mean the same thing. Wahabi is the first term given to describe the followers of this ideology, the term itself comes from the pioneer, Abdul Wahab. In Syria, this ideology is more commonly referred to as “Salafi”.
Basically, what these people believe is that they are obligated to prevent Islam from being “amended”. They are against Islam having multiple sects; they believe there is only one Islam, which is the Sunni one. Thus, they target peoples who have “divergent” Islamic beliefs, such as the Shias, Alawites, Druze, Ismaelis, and even other Sunnis with minor belief interpretation differences.
The Wahabis have a history of destroying ancient artifacts and historical sites, even ones that are Islamically signifacant. According to them, the appreciation of objects and places is a form of “idolatry”, and this is one of the greatest sins in Islam.
In Syria, minorities belonging to “divergent Islam” sects make up approximately 30% of the population. These include the Alawites, Druze, Ismaelis, and Yazidis. Christianity and Judaism are excluded as they are not primary targets of the Wahabi ideology.
What did the Wahabi-Salafis do to the Minorities?
The Wahabi ideology was first introduced to Syria when a Salafi cleric,Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), came to be a prominent figure in the Islamic society. He played a major role in spreading the first seeds of sectarianism in Syria.
Ibn Taymiya was the first to issue a fatwa, or an Islamic command, that declared all divergent sects of Islam “non-Muslim”, “non-believers”, and “enemies to Islam”. This was a vilification to the Alawite, Druze, Ismaeli, and Yazidi minorities, and it justified animosity against them. Unlike the Christians and Jews who, according to Islam, are considered “believers”, these sects were considered infidels.
From Ibn Taymiya’s first fatwa, other fatwas against Syria’s infidel minorities came into announcement. These fatwas prohibited marriage from members of the infidel minorities and even made animal meat slaughtered and prepared by them “haram”, or not kosher. It was not too long that the fatwas developed to make all violence and harassment against these minorities Islamically permissable.
These sects were often approached with violent attacks by Islamists who forcefully attempted to convert them. The members of these sects were considered sub-citizens who were treated unequal to their Sunni counterparts. They were not allowed to hold high positions or even own land. The Alawites were especially known to be servants and sharecroppers for Sunnis. The Yazidis, who were unjustly accused of devil-worship, suffered a long history of massacres that came from all directions including the Ottomans and Kurds. The Druze were the targets of President Shukri Al Quowatli (1943-1949) and Adib Shishakli (1949-1954) who referred to them as “dangerous minority. Shishakli was especially known for his infamous quote, “My enemies are like a serpent, the head is in Jebel Druze”. He defamed their religion, and was known for attempting to wipe out their existence in Syria.
These long years of oppression towards the minorities in Syria brought about a revolutionary era in which the Baath party came into power. This party was focused on secularism and Arab unity.
Members of the minorities were equally given important governmental and military positions. This was a very big step forward for equality in Syria. Hafez Al Assad took presidency; he was a member of the Alawite sect. This was unusual to the political policies of the former Syria, which required the Syrian president to be a Sunni Muslim. As a result, this caused major opposition from Syria’s Islamists, who collectively came to be known as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood were not happy with Syria becoming a “secular” country. They did not appreciate being “equal” to people whom they considered “infidels”. And were especially enraged by the idea that an Alawite took presidency. To them, Syria was an Islamic country, and based on their ideologies non-Muslims were obliged to pay taxes to be able to live in it, not be considered equals to them.
The Muslim Brotherhood held demonstrations in response to the new government, however, they did not have popular support. Thus, they came to use more violent practices, such as car bomb attacks, in their rebellions. Although most of these attacks were specifically targeted at Alawite government officials, they took the lives of hundreds of civilians.
It took a very powerful and controversial military force to finally eradicate them in 1982. The Muslim Brotherhood had been concentrated in Hama, where it recieved most of its support. The government sent a series annihilating attacks to the town where, unfortunately, many innocent lives had also been taken.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other sectarian Islamist organization were a threat to the peace and security of Syria. After the Muslim Brotherhood was finally eradicated from the country, the government issued a new law that considered them a terrorist organization, and made any affiliation with them severely punishable. This caused most of the Islamists who wished to spread and pursue their radical beliefs to flee the country.
The 2011-2012 Syrian Revolution
The influence of Islamists on the Arab Spring was evident in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and it is now most apparent in Syria. Because most radical Islamists either fled or were exiled from Syria, the main body of the opposition in Syria is externally based. This explains the sharp contrast between the popular support for Assad within Syria and popular opposition against him outside of Syria.
The Muslim Brotherhood has the most chairs in the Syrian National Council, or the externally based “post-Assad” Syrian government. As for the fighters fighting the Syrian national forces on the ground in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra, a branch of Alqaeda, is most powerful. Jihadists from all over the world have entered Syria through the open Turkish border to join these opposition forces and dedicate their lives to aid them in establishing an Islamic Syrian state.
The jihadists, and Jabhat Al Nusra fighters fighting the Syrian forces on the ground in Syria along with a few paid defectors are collectively known as the FSA, or the Free Syrian Army. Their tactics involve committing massacres against civilians and putting the blame on the government forces. With the help of the Syrian governments’ political enemies’ media networks, the Islamist opposition was able to convince the world that the Syrian government is deliberately massacring its people because they demand freedom. This tactic was successful in significantly increasing the amount of support for the Syrian revolution.
Islamists believe that Syria is an Islamic country that should be ruled by the laws of Sharia, which ultimately recognizes Sunni Muslims to be higher than their counterparts. Their radical ideologies have been the causes of much of the oppression and justification of oppression against members of the other Islamic sects in the country. Today, the Syrian government is strictly secular, and it strongly stresses the importance of equality and coexistence. For this reason it has been very stringent in prohibiting Islamists from spreading their sectarian ideologies. This has resulted the Islamists to feel “oppressed” and driven to demand more “freedom”.