Syria’s Identity: Variety in Minorities

DIALOGUE. IMPACTING POLICY – August 2, 2012 – by Randa Kassis – FIKRA FORUM

Randa Kassis is an anthropologist and author of the book Vault of the Gods.

In the face of the fierce battle that the regime is waging against its people, it has become apparent that the opposition leadership is unable to face this movement. There are many reasons for this: first, the lack of a varied foundation of parties in the nature of the Syrian body politic, with the exception of the Kurdish parties, which have been perpetually involved in activism and boiling points, despite the harsh oppression that the regime inflicted upon them. Another reason is the absence of pluralistic thought in Syria’s culture and society.

The Syrian regime has participated in inciting and operationalizing one trend in the minds of individuals through the construction of a single cultural model, defining it within the framework of information and experiences logged away in our long memories, using these memories to reflect a particular culture, which leads in turn to a unity of vision and strategy.

This cultural model limits the process of understanding for the individual in what is considered constructive and creative processes. These limitations facilitate the process of mental inflexibility and the refusal to accept an alternative explanation of any given situation. As evidence of this, we have observed some resemblance in the rhetoric of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition. Despite the ideological differences and the intense competition between them, we notice that the predominant styles of rhetoric, analysis, and strategy are the same.

The Syrian regime depends on stirring up terror and dread among the minorities (whether ethnic, religious, sectarian, or ideological…) of the political Islam that is present among the ranks of some of those who fight in the face of this regime. This fear becomes an essential card that the regime plays in order to transform the battle from being multifaceted to two-sided (with or against Assad). For instance, this regime depends on stirring up Arab nationalist sentiment, which, on principle, defines all ethnic minorities as necessarily subordinate. We have observed a similar prejudice in the latest Cairo conference for the Syrian opposition in the inflexibility of some towards the process to recognize the rights of the Kurdish people, who are original and rooted to this region.

There are many Syrians who deal with the Kurdish issue as a conspiracy theory. In order to pre-empt such actions [as the recognition of rights], they accuse the Kurds of plotting secession and the establishment of a Kurdish entity in the region. We must remind everyone of the history of the struggle of the Kurdish people against the oppressive Syrian regime. Since the days of Hafez al-Assad, the Kurds have had a role in the greater history of Syrian struggle. The persecution of the Kurdish people began in the fifties, with the peak of racial discrimination against them being the release of the census on August 23, 1962, signed by the President of the Republic, Nazim al-Qudsi, which began the process of programmatic persecution of the Kurds by the Syrian government.

History has proven the affiliation of the Kurdish people with the greater Syrian homeland for all peoples, which will become clear during a transitional period after independence, when citizenship becomes an essential value for all. However, the rising sentiment of Arab nationalism demonstrated the beginnings of discrimination among the spectrum of the Syrian people and the denial of ethnic minorities’ their most basic rights, not to mention stripping 120,000 Kurdish citizens of their citizenship in one day in 1962.

Discussing the Kurdish issue and their suffering, and recognizing the mistakes of that period and working to rectify them, serves this movement and pushes us forward toward building a nation of equal citizens. For that reason, I must speak about the rest of the minorities, particularly the Alawite sect, which is considered an essential part of the solution. Gaining the trust of Alawis could accelerate the process of change and the elimination of the Assad regime by opening channels with people who could be influential gateways to their sect. The opposition should adopt rhetoric of national participation so that they will be included in Syria’s future political process.

The Alawis and other religious minorities suffer from feelings of fear of persecution. It is our responsibility to remember the sufferings of the Alawis in our collective memory, which is full of memories heavy with historical persecution and discrimination from the time of Sultan Abdulhamid. This type of historical remembrance is necessary in order for us to rise from this situation of historical isolation and extreme poverty, which has led to the emergence of clearly marked class discrimination. I discuss these sufferings so that we may understand and overcome this tense situation in which everyone remains continually on the defensive.

What we lack today in this stressful situation is the co-option of the silent groups and those close to the regime, which are operating in a defensive position of fighting for survival, just as the other groups are doing. The addition of these groups could provide additional positive aspects to this uprising, and would better represent a Syria with a diverse national character.

For that reason, I believe that our dependence on the principle of credibility with respect to news and information will work to our benefit, and will satisfy all of the frightened groups that do not have any motivation, given current events, except to return to security, stability, and tranquility.

Therefore, we must note that there are unknown elements in this [revolutionary] movement that are working in the service of Assad and prolonging his time in power. The behavior and violent acts that have been undertaken by some elements associated with this movement only work in pursuit of their own narrow interests. They have been criticized and do not diminish the importance of this movement. Instead, we must expose them and make every effort to distance them and avoid transforming the fight into a sectarian battle, which will only serve the agendas of certain countries in the region.

I can’t help but end this article expressing my great hope for the vision of Syria, the mosaic, a reflection of its long history.