Of all possible state reactions to insurgency, religious violence or political terrorism – the central Syrian town of Hama represented one of counter-force in its most extreme form – a stark Cold War example of a state utilizing terrorism to fight terrorism. I say 'represented' because the town no longer exists. The events of the early 1980s also demonstrate well the sheer violence of Islam’s internal conflict – that is the various factions and sects which have emerged since the collapse of the Ottoman hegemony & whom now all struggle for political and religious leadership. 1
Syrian politics provides an apt example : like Lebanon, Syria is a geographic construction which houses dozens of ethnic and religious groups at odds with one another. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s (much like the decline of Soviet influence in the Balkans in the 1980s) unleashed ripples of inter-cultural strife. At the time, the Turks regained the North, the British established Palestine, Transjordan (now just Jordan) and Iraq, while the French cut out Lebanon and Syria. The French took none of these internal questions into account – and Syria became a Levantine Yugoslavia, with a multi-cultural Aleppo; Sunni controlled Hama, Homs & Damascus; southern regions controlled by the Druze sect, and the Western mountains were held by the Alawites.3 The French enshrined notions of self-determination for each of these communities (as a way of defusing the possibility of Arab nationalism) – but the majority Sunnis of Damascus tended to marginalize and attack the ‘heretics’ around them wherever possible – and the violence in Syrian cities in the 1930s was on par with the Arab-Jewish violence seen in British Palestine.
These conditions only worsened under independent elections held in 1945 – because each community voted along sectarian, regional lines, and so elected a weak, minority government incapable of establishing order, let alone reform. 4 In ’49, a military coup led by General Zaim overthrew the frustrated government, but six months later in Dec., he himself was deposed and executed by another general, Shishakli. Shishakli was deposed by sectarian elements within his own military in ’54 – and new elections were called, but by ’58, after failed attempts at democratic self-rule, Syria aligned itself with Nasser’s movement in Egypt. The United Arab Republic as it was called, however, buckled as non-Sunnis increasingly resented the majority control of their Sunnis leaders. In ’63, the heavily Alawite military seized Damascus, and a brand of socialism was attempted until, in 1970, Hafez al-Assad took control. 5 But control in such a volatile state often leads to brutality.
Which returns us, finally, to Hama – a town in Sunni dominated Syria – where in February 1982 the Sunni Moslem Brotherhood took control of government buildings, having killed dozen of Alawite soldiers in Aleppo the previous month. Assad dispatched 12, 000 of his army’s soldiers to the plains outside of Hama, which was then shelled brutally for two weeks, then invaded. Entire Sunni neighborhoods were bombed, bulldozed and paved – as an object lesson to other terrorists or political challengers. As many as 30, 000 Sunni civilians are believed to have been killed.
1 However, politically incorrect it might be to point out, Islam is the world’s youngest world religion – and therefore technically some seven centuries behind the evolution of Christianity, to say nothing of Judaism. If you take this into account – can one fairly point out the horrors being inflicted in the name of Christianity seven centuries ago? The whole notion of unconditional religious tolerance is a Western European Enlightenment ideal2 – which grew out of the aftermath of Europe’s bloody Crusades, Inquisitions and religious wars – and is really only 200 years old as a political framework. The Roman Catholic Church has only accepted the notion since Vatican II – just forty years ago. Much of the Moslem world was politically and intellectually cut off from this notion which we now take for granted and which emerged at the same time as secularism. There have been attempts at a Church and State division many times in the history of Islam: most notably in 7th-10th c. Spain, 18-19th c. Ottoman Empire, 20th c. Turkey and Egypt - it has been demonstrated to work. However, it requires political compromise (just as the Reformation did in the West) - which only enlivens the fury of a fundamentalist. As one commentator recently put it: 'Privatization and secularisation are not goals that Islam has yet to achieve; they are spectres that Islam (or some versions of it) pushes away as one would push away death' (Stanley Fish, 'Postmodern Warfare', Harper's, July 2002, 36). That last point is pivotal to each and every discussion of Islam, from terrorism to tea-drinking, and from fundamentalism to Farsi. The so-called experts, like Samuel Huntington (or even worse, Bernard Lewis), have really little or no grasp on the current writings or global scope. Lewis knew about Turkey in the 1960s, Huntington about Central Asia in the 1970s, yet they somehow proclaim constantly on the motives, struggles and ambitions of a non-existent monolithic Islam. It's intellectually sloppy, grossly over-simplified and, given the current atmosphere, actually downright dangerous. My advise: be a little skeptical of any analysis which generalizes about 1.3 billion people, spead across twenty-two wholly different Arab countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, China, etc. Rigorous arguments of this importance demand concrete proofs and evidence, not rehashed 19th century orientalisms.
2 Though tolerance for Christians & Jews is outlined in the Koran, there is certainly no leeway provided for heretical Moslems who stray from the Prophet’s teachings. A major difficulty was (and still is) that Islam has no central administration of doctrine like various divisions of Christianity. This decentralised governance was necessitated as Islam spread from the Basque Shore to the edges of India - but it now means any locally established leader can issue a fatwa. So all manner of ambitious prelates emerge as regional political powers and begin adopting sharia law. All too easily, any unorthodox sect or competing movement are cast as heretics and infidels: witness the bloody Iranian revolution in the 1970s, the wave of assassinations in Egypt through the 1980s, and the brutal wrestling for power, in Algeria & Afghanistan, throughout the 1990s.
3 Both the Druze and Alawite (meaning ‘follower of Ali’) belong to the remnants of Shi’ism which found a home in Persia and Mesopotamia roughly a millennium ago – though the Shiite 'heresy' is the least of the offenses viewed by the wider Sunni community in Syria. The Alawites have adopted Christmas, Palm Sunday and Easter into their holy days, and use wine and bread in their mosques.
4 The overnight imposition of democratization, again and again throughout the post-colonial world, leads to these situations – where without literacy, free mass media, established political parties or any tradition of secularism, free elections are simply used by local mafias or sects to gain a label of legitimacy and access to power. Escalating violence, not law and order, is the most common result.
5 Many accuse Assad of smothering Syrian democracy before it could take root, while others say he restored some sanity to the nation’s governance (Syria’s government had changed hands 21 times in her first 24 years of independence) – which is all the more remarkable since he was one of the Alawite minority (just 11% of the nation’s people).
Sources: Robert D. Kaplan's Eastward to Tartary (NY: 2000), pp. 134-137, Patrick Seale's The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics (Oxford: 1965) & Bernard Lewis' The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years (NY: 1995)
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