As a minority that had benefited from military training and entitlements under French colonial rule (1920-1945), the Alawis were well-placed to seize the levers of power in the chaotic post-colonial aftermath. The pattern is familiar to observers of Arab politics where clannism — rooted in authoritarian patriarchal structures — usually trumps the public good.
In Syria, clannism of the rulers is buttressed by their minority sectarian status. The Syrian model that is now disintegrating is a mirror image of one that applied in Iraq, before the US-led invasion, where the Sunni Arab minority surrounding then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein held sway over a majority of Shiites and Kurds. A similar model applies to Bahrain, where the Sunni al-Khalifas lord it over a majority of underprivileged Shiites, but not to Saudi Arabia, where Shiites are a repressed minority.
However, clannism is only one part of a much larger canvas of sectarian violence that is surfacing in many parts of the world. In some places, such as Burma and Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is confounded with nationalism, it is Muslims who are victims. In others, from west Africa to Southeast Asia, it may be Christians who are under pressure from hardline Islamist groups or governments along with other victims of sectarian strife. In Nigeria, for instance, more than 50,000 people have been killed in ethno-religious violence since 1999.
Some commentators suggest that an overall explanation of this phenomenon lies in the common resurgence of religion in response to modern “materialism” and the global hegemony of secularism. However, a more useful analysis should be based around the idea of “default identities.”
Religious conflicts — whether in Northern Ireland or Syria — have less to do with competing theologies, differences in beliefs about “God” or religious leadership, than with the way in which group identities are formed by the centuries of cultural programming underpinned by religious practices. At the level of beliefs, differences between Sunni and Shiite, like those between Catholics and Protestants, are frequently addressed by ecumenical statements issued by religious leaders condemning violence. They cannot be resolved by them because belief as such is not the real question.
When civil or economic distress generates feelings of chronic anxiety, the quest for certainty is sustained by scapegoating the “other.” In a majority of the world’s regions, that “other” may be followers of an alternative religion, regardless of the theological or leadership issues.
Malise Ruthven is the author of A Historical Atlas of the Islamic World.
(The Guardian uses the old name of Burma for Myanmar.)