Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule. He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.). He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today. So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents. But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:
The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned. As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended. Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized. As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.
Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive. The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.
A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia. A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation. Both are worth reading.
By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events. The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion. It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures. When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else. Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.
Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading
What’s in a name? News outlets (e.g. here and here) are reporting increased violence in Latakia province, a province on the Syrian coast with a population which is majority Alawite and from which the ruling Assad family itself comes, in an offensive by Syrian rebel groups Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham (labeled “Sham al-Islam” by al-Jazira) and Ansar al-Sham (probably not the branch of the Iraqi Ansar al-Islam, but rather the Latakia branch of the Syrian Islamic Front) labeled “Anfal.” In a long sentence like that, with all those things to look up, it can be easy to miss the codename adopted for the jihadi offensive. It’s just a word, right, not people, guns, or territory?
Words are also power, and names mean stuff, especially in Arabic. “Muhammad” (محمّد) means “someone highly praised,” and the name of the Muslim general who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, Saladin (صلاح الدين), means “the righteousness of the religion (of Islam).” The Syrian president’s last name, al-Assad (الاسد) means “the lion.” So what does “Anfal” mean? A quick look in an Arabic dictionary gives it as a plural of nafal (نفل), meaning “plunder, spoils of war.” (Entertainingly, Google Translate only suggests the meaning “clovers,” if it is not a proper noun.) So if we stop here, we are left with the impression that the jihadis are advertising the fact that they are just in it for the money, boasting that they are sell-outs.
That seems unlikely. Much more likely, and important whenever dealing with jihadi names, is to look to the Qur’an. In this case, the eighth chapter (or sura) of the Qur’an is entitled “al-Anfal.” Traditionally said to have been revealed after the Battle of Badr, the verses of this chapter attribute victory by a smaller Muslim force coming from Medina against a larger and better-equipped Meccan army to divine assistance (Q 8:1, 5, 9, 12, 17, 30) due to the Meccans’ opposition to Muhammad’s new preaching of the unity of Allah (Q 8:6, 13, 36-37). The chapter paints the Muslims’ enemies as beyond any possibility of redemption, not listening even though they claim to hear the message, and they would even turn away from Islam if they did at any point heed Muhammad’s message (Q 8:23). Applying that situation to the present day, the jihadi rebels seem to be likening the regime forces to the Meccans, alleging that they are not valid Muslims, and expecting God’s assistance even against a larger and better equipped force. (It is not unusual for al-Qa’ida to assert that Alawites, Shiites, and even Sunni Muslims who reject al-Qa’ida are not Muslims.) With this parallel reading between the traditional past and the bleak present, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies may be trying to boost morale by appealing to verses such as Q 8:26:
And remember when you were few and considered weak in the land. You were afraid that people would capture you. Then He sheltered you and supported you with His help (naṣr, related to Jabhat al-Nuṣra’s name), and He provided you with good things so that you may be thankful.
There are several other verses which might appeal to the extremist rebels at the present time (exhortations to fight to expunge false religion, for example, in Q 8:39, or how Allah is said to distort the appearances of relative numbers in Q 8:43-44, or threats against those who retreat in Q 8:15-16). There is a lot more here, and of course, all of these verses need to be interpreted through the hadith and commentaries (tafasir), both medieval and recent, which comprise the sunna (something like “traditional norms”) from which Sunni Islam derives its name. (There is no analogue of sola scriptura within Islam.)
But there is perhaps also another, more recent, echo of the name “Anfal” in a military context, which may be on the minds of Syrians, and should cause greater concern. Just over a quarter century ago, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein authorized his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid to massacre tens of thousands of Kurds (and other minorities) in northern Iraq, and to seize anything of value, in a campaign code-named “al-Anfal.” The poison gas attack in Halabja in March 1988 is the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian-inhabited area in history, and the campaign as a whole attempted to accomplish genocide and forced Arabization.
It would be surprising if extremist Sunni jihadis were deliberately evoking the genocidal campaign of a secularist Ba’athist dictator in Iraq. (Despite US government allegations of links between al-Qa’ida and Saddam Hussein’s government, subsequent investigations have denied any evidence of links, and there was little ideological sympathy between the two groups.) But if they are, they could be using their own “al-Anfal” campaign as a planned attempt at genocide against the Alawite majority in Latakia province, perhaps attempting to terrorize their opponents into submission. Even more insidiously, since the port of Latakia is the point of egress for the regime’s chemical weapons, it could be that the jihadis are hoping to intercept these chemical weapons shipments and use them against the civilian population, just as Ali Hassan al-Majid did in Halabja in 1988.
Such tactics seem to me doomed to fail. Making clear to the Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria will not cause Bashar al-Assad’s knees to tremble, but will rather redouble his efforts against the rebels. (The grotesque terror tactic has been tried before, such as when one extremist rebel leader cut open an Alawite corpse and bit into an organ.) Even more so, any rebel disruption in the exportation of the regime’s chemical weapons will not only slow down the process, it will also give the regime cover to use chemical weapons itself, since it will be impossible to prove which side used it once it is proven that the rebels have such weapons. (Al-Qa’ida’s desire to obtain such weapons is already documented, for example, at #4 here.) The core of the international argument that the August 2013 Ghuta poison gas attack was perpetrated by the regime is that there is no evidence that the rebels have such weapons. If it becomes clear that some rebel groups also have chemical weapons, that argument will not hold water. In other words, an extremist rebel attempt to capture chemical weapons will most likely result in increasing chemical weapons attacks by both sides.
But even if the extremists’ decision to label an offensive “al-Anfal” does lead to tactics which are ultimately doomed to failure, other countries should not sit idly by while a terrorist group attempts to initiate a genocide, with or without captured chemical weapons. It is not true that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend, and al-Qa’ida and its various affiliates and jihadi allies are enemies not only of Syrians (of whatever sect), but of civilians everywhere. Turkey should take a stronger line against extremist rebels, and may be encouraged to do so by diplomatic pressure. The capture of a border crossing into Turkey clearly shows that the extremists involved expect some benefit to come from across the border. While I doubt Bashar al-Assad would be willing to barter his resignation for UN Security Council approved international military assistance against al-Qa’ida, the fact that Turkey is a NATO member means that action can be taken to the north of the border.
The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor. But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty. This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.
The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses. This is true of political parties. Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians. Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties. The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales. Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure). Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.
This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War. On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’ida. commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend. In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime. The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime. This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War. On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.
On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime. This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups. This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them. They have reason to be alarmed. Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup. When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria. That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces. Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.
The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted. The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights. This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important. If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable. Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them. It is an interesting proposal.
The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way. Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force? Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society? If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime? Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?
With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side. But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime. The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers. When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle. This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces. If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime. On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support. The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.
The best thing I’ve read on Syria in a long while is this New York Times opinion piece, written by Alia Malek. It provides an excellent survey of the lead-up to the current revolt and poignant anecdotes revealing how can everyday life differ from what one reads in the headlines. There is also an amusing discussion about varieties of beards (Hezbollah, Salafi, cosmetic, or now loyalist), amusing in part based on how important the beard identification can be.
More importantly, Malek makes a crucial distinction between what started the Syrian Civil War and what sustains it. To paraphrase her piece, what started the peaceful demonstrations was complaints about financial corruption ruining the economy and impoverishing the vast majority of Syrians. She makes that point that most beneficiaries of the corruption were urban Sunnis, while most ‘Alawis (the sect to which Bashar al-Assad himself belongs) were also impoverished, unless they were close to the President himself. What sustains the revolt now is sectarianism, which has been used both by those who would lead the rebels and by the government to claim legitimacy. Although Malek does not bluntly spell out the import of the distinction she draws, it holds out the hope that non-sectarian help (help provided across sectarian lines and contingent upon eschewing sectarian rhetoric) could de-sectarianize the movement. The success of such interventions, of course, would depend heavily on who was receiving the aid, and who else they hoped to receive aid from.
There is nothing I could say to improve this thought-provoking and excellently written piece, so I will just refer you to her words.
The final installment of the series on George Sabra in Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper was published on Saturday, 17 November, 2012 (Arabic text here). As acting president of the Syrian National Coalition he recently called upon the Free Syrian Army to save Qusayr from being recaptured by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies. Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul to decide on its response to the US-Russian-backed call for peace talks with the regime, which it has previously rejected in calling for the ousting of the regime as a precondition for talks, and to choose the next president to succeed Mu’adh al-Khatib, since Sabra’s position is only acting (temporary) president of the Coalition.
Here is my English translation of the al-Watan article:
Tales of George Sabra (4)
by Ahmad Mansur
George Sabra continues his tales, saying, “During the period when I was arrested after the outbreak of the revolution in Syria – and I have been arrested twice, once for a month and once for two months, as I have already indicated – the prison was full of all parts of Syrian society, accused of participating in the revolution, and the majority of them were ordinary people. And because we do not mingle with the ordinary people in normal life, we are ignorant of the valuable metal in them, and I was taken by surprise with the level of morality, humanity, and courage, and the bravery and valor which belonged to these ordinary people among the uneducated. And I was taken by surprise with their humane character when they find someone to lead and direct them.
“Our number in the ward was three hundred and fifty prisoners, and we had one bathroom. You can imagine that with this number of prisoners using one bathroom, they were standing in a long line and registering their names so that they could get a turn simply to wash their faces or to go to the bathroom. And the ward’s capacity was only a few dozen people, so we were stuck together and could hardly move from the force of the overcrowding. And I was like them when I wanted to go to the bathroom, I would completely surprise those who were ahead of me, and one of them would shout, ‘Make way for the professor, you guys!” Then they all with generosity and agreement and preference were allowing me to bypass the queue, and all of them offer me respect and appreciation. And I still remember that in my life I never thought that three hundred and fifty people could exist in this narrow space and use one bathroom. And despite this they were accommodating one another.
“I remember that when I was convicted this past September, 2011, on the charge of trying to found an Islamic emirate in Qatana, and I am actually a Christian from the Communist Party, my family was attending the trial from the beginning of the day until its end, and they observed the presence of three people who were attending the court in a continual manner. At first they believed they were from the security forces belonging to the regime. Then my brother asked them after one of the sessions, ‘Do you have someone inside being tried?’ They said to him, ‘Yes, Mr. George Sabra.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you know Mr. George?’ They said to him, ‘We know him, but he does not know us.’ So he said to them, ‘I am his brother.’ So they insisted on taking my brother with them to their homes, and they were from a nearby village named Kanakir, and all of them were Sunni Muslims.
“I remember that when I came out of prison, there came women all wearing the veil and with them were men all bearded, and they insisted to me that they should take me to their homes. This revolution has embodied the national unity in Syria in a deep and unprecedented way. It is true that the ‘Alawites have made a deep and large problem between them and Syrian society, but the rest of the sectors of the people and specifically the Muslims and the Christians have held together in what they share in an unprecedented way. Just as the churches have been a target for bombing and destruction from the ‘Alawite regime, so the mosques have likewise been a target. It has demolished dozens of mosques and churches which reflect the historical, cultural, religious, and social identity of Syrian society for thousands of years, and it is as if the regime is not only killing people and terrifying them, but it is also wiping out the historical and social identity of Syria and its people. This is one of the greatest crimes in history.”
I asked George Sabra about the strangest thing which happened to him during his time in prison, and he said, “The prison was full of ordinary young men, and I had discovered the inherent metal of these people. When one of them learned that my charge was the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana although I am a Christian, he was in a state of confusion. And when he had been around me in the prison he frequently approached me and his astonishment was continual that I was not a Muslim. And twenty days into our knowing each other, he came with the simplicity and boldness and good-heartedness of ordinary people, and he said to me, ‘Sir, I am amazed. How I could have been with you twenty days and not been able to bring you into Islam, so that you would become a Muslim?’ So I laughed and said to him, ‘You remain Muslim and I will remain Christian so that this national revolution may continue in which the whole people has risen up.’ Our relationship remained good and we did not stop laughing. And when they summoned me to release me after international and internal pressure, the young man came up to me in a hurry and said, ‘Reasonable master George, you are about to leave prison before our Lord should guide you to arise and pray two rak’as!’ [Ed. note: a rak’a is a ritual prostration in Islamic prayer.]
“These are the hearts of the Syrians, whom everyone used to believe that the injustice which has been inflicted upon them for decades had killed in them courage, valor, self-sacrifice, and the fight for freedom.
In this final installment, there are some very important details. He paints a picture of the naturally noble Syrian people which has, one and all, risen up against the tyrant. It is certainly true that the Syrian Civil War is the greatest uprising in Syria against the Assad regime. Sabra is at pains to present a Syrian people united in virtue, and specifically united across the sectarian lines which are being emphasized by jihadi rebel groups and Syrian state media. This non-sectarian paradise is no doubt conjured for the benefit of potential Western backers, for whom a sectarian civil war is a grim specter. The reference to the destruction of historical monuments, even before the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque fell late last month, is also probably intended to evoke Western outrage against the regime.
Nevertheless, these accounts do not necessary reflect well on Sabra himself, as they reveal his classism and lack of prior connection with “ordinary uneducated people.” Sabra also engages in his own sectarianism, blaming the ‘Alawites as a whole rather than the Assad regime (indeed, labeling it “the ‘Alawite regime”) for any sectarian tensions. It is true that most ‘Alawites have sided with Bashar al-Assad, but a pre-revolution fear of post-revolution sectarian reprisals from other sectors of Syrian society is no doubt part of the calculus for many of them. Rather than attempting to woo the ‘Alawites away from Assad, Sabra here seems content to emphasize the ‘Alawite-Sunni Muslim sectarian divide in order to downplay the Muslim-Christian divide which is rather more dangerous to him personally.
Nor does he quite succeed in dispelling all fears of Muslim-Christian sectarian hostility. There is no reason to doubt the stories he tells of being the recipient of kindness and hospitality from Sunni Muslims, but his final anecdote about the “confused” Muslim in prison with him was probably a relatively tense moment, despite or perhaps indicated by the report of laughter. Sabra as a non-Muslim could not respond with any negative statement about Islam in order to explain his allegiance to a different religion without jeopardizing his politics and perhaps his physical safety, depending on the views of the other people in the room. Notice that he entirely dodges the issue by postponing any changes of religion until after the revolution is successful. He was probably not as entirely at ease as his narration presents it.
I hope this series of articles on George Sabra has supplemented the scant data available in English online with additional information, in his own words, indicating his character, some of his background, and his contentions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This additional information will, I hope, allow non-Arabic readers to form a more accurate and nuanced picture of the Syrian Christian who is currently president of two of the more important rebel organizations in the Syrian Civil War, both the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coalition.