Mosul’s lost diversity

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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

The Islamic State’s (ISIS) destruction of Mosul’s ethnic diversity is more heart-breaking than the erasure of its architectural and cultural heritage.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Coexistence and multiculturalism. These two terms are often used to describe London, as well as much of the Western world, as though this is an exclusive privilege that can only be found in these areas of the globe. But that is not entirely accurate. I knew the daily reality of living both concepts, as did my parents, grandparents and their ancestors. Iraq, and especially Mosul, embraced people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. In fact, the Iraqi nation is in itself a mixture of various groups.

Iraq’s population is predominantly Muslim, both Shia and Sunni, and the majority are Arab, although there is a sizeable Kurdish minority of about 6 million. Christians, including Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics and Armenians, numbered as much as 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion, but today the population has dwindled to as few as 450,000. In addition, there are also the following minorities: Turkmen (approximately 2 million), Shabak (up to half a million), as well as a small number of Circassians, not to mention the Yazidis, Mandaean-Sabeans, Baha’is, Kaka’is (also called Ahl-e Haqq and Yarsan),  and the handful of Jews who remain as a reminder of what was once the longest continuous Jewish presence in the world. Moreover, there are approximately 1.5 to 2 million black Iraqis, 100,000 Bedouins, as well as Marsh Arabs, Palestinian refugees, most of whom were born in the country,  and Roma (Dom or Ghagar).

This was the beauty of Iraq, the cradle of civilisation. In addition to the major contributions Mesopotamia made to the world in science, medicine, literature, art and music,  it also introduced the idea of living with others regardless of their background, ethnicity and faith.

This was the world I first opened my eyes to witness. My nanny was Kurdish (my favourite person at the time), I attended a Christian school that had its own church which I often visited with my classmates, while my best friend was Christian and, to this day, we are still very close. The teachers were Muslim, Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi, and all of them were equally respected and liked. I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, where the neighbours were mostly Armenians, and we would often visit each other and exchange gifts of food.  Never did any of us question each other’s faith or background nor did we ever think that we were superior to one another.  In fact I only discovered the words ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi’a’ when I came to live in the UK, when people started asking me to which sect I belonged. Maybe my ignorance of the matter is not something I should boast about but it symbolises a simple concept that has plagued Iraq for more than a decade, sectarianism or division among one nation is an imported one.

That was the Mosul I knew and loved: a city that was like an umbrella that protected and embraced everyone. Today, to see the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) destroy one of the most important and fundamental elements of Mosul, its ethnic make-up, is more heart-breaking, for me, than seeing the erasure of the city’s architectural and cultural heritage.

When ISIS took control of Mosul, it carried out a large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder. Its fighters ordered Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Turkomen, Shia, and basically anyone who did not convert to Islam or who was not a Sunni to leave their houses and the city that is their home. Many of those banished were also robbed on the way out of Mosul, escaping with only the clothes on their backs.

Certain things can be forgotten or restored but how can all the people that were forced out ever feel safe again when (and if) they return? Will they be able to resume their previous lives? Can trust between people be restored after the division that was created by ISIS. Ironically, foreign fighters who shared nothing with the people of Mosul took it upon themselves to divide a population that had for centuries lived side by side.  One middle-aged lady informed me how when she phoned her Christian co-workers in Irbil to ask of their well-being, she was met with verbal abuse and accusations of being an ISIS sympathiser, along with all Muslims. The lady was very upset and put down the phone in tears at how a relationship that had lasted more than 20 years could be destroyed in months.

A natural question which forces itself and many are asking is why the people of Mosul have allowed foreign fighters to dictate life in their city in this way? How can they stand by while their neighbours, friends and colleagues are persecuted and expelled from their own homes?

The answer is simple: fear of ISIS.  One middle-aged man, a very respected lawyer, objected to the expulsion of his Christian neighbours and confronted ISIS, only to be arrested for obstructing the ‘law’. A few days later, he was found dead.  It is also important to remember that many people had fled Mosul as soon as ISIS entered, some got stranded in tents while others struggled to cope financially, whether in Turkey, Jordan or Iraqi Kurdistan (before the Kurdish authority closed all its borders). The people who have opted to stay behind know that they are trapped and must adhere to ISIS rules in order to survive and ensure the safety of their own families.

Contrary to reports by the mainstream media, ISIS’s brutality is not reserved just for ethnic minorities but it extends to anyone who does not follow their draconian rules and guidelines, and to people who have worked with the central Iraqi government, including soldiers, police and local politicians. Just as Christians, Shabaks and Shia had a letter painted on their houses to indicate their affiliation, in a bid to ‘legitimise’ the act of taking ownership of the properties and adding them to the treasury of the Islamic State, the same thing was done to the homes of policemen, soldiers and political figures. The key difference was that these officials were not given the chance to leave as they were instantly imprisoned, tortured or killed. For instance, a female doctor and University of Mosul lecturer, Zeina Al E’nizi, who happened to be a parliamentary candidate in 2014, was executed on Friday 5 September.  Another female candidate fled to another town in fear of being assassinated but ISIS fighters soon caught her and she was summarily executed. Even Mosul’s governor, Atheel Alnujaifi could not escape ISIS acts completely, despite fleeing, along with his family, to Iraqi Kurdistan the minute ISIS fighters entered Mosul. In his absence, all his assets, houses, horses and stable were taken and his father’s house was burnt down. Not many people sympathised with Alnujaifi’s loss, as he had lost the trust and respect of Mouslawis the minute he deserted them at the first sign of trouble, to face ISIS alone, without a leader.

ISIS’s invasion of Mosul not only changed the ethnic make-up of the town but caused a near-earthquake in its social structure. People who had the financial means or relatives and family outside Mosul left, as did many university lecturers, teachers and other professionals who sought jobs in other parts of Iraq.

There is a new shift in power as ISIS started recruiting people to their ranks offering a monthly salary of $5,000 to $10,000, plus accommodation (presumably one of the houses that ISIS took from the original owner) and a guaranteed wife, locals who saw the recruitment leaflets say. Suddenly, people who were imprisoned, criminals and thugs at the bottom of the social hierarchy, gained power they had never experienced before in return for growing their hair and beard, dressing as jihadists and declaring themselves ISIS fighters.

Whether ISIS leaves or not, and when, is not so much the issue. The real question is: can Mosul reclaim its identity? Will everyone return to their homes? Can people relearn to trust one another and live together? ISIS originally came to Mosul as foreign fighters. However, after months there, that is no longer the case, and many locals were lured by the incentives that are offered or brainwashed by a political ideology which I fail to understand. Mosul is not fighting a ‘foreign’ invasion anymore but its own people’s greed and division. Mosul is battling to survive one of the most difficult times in its modern history and to save its identity and people.

 Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

For more information about Iraq’s population, see the report by the Institute for International Lay and Human Rights entitled Iraq’s Minorities and Other Vulnerable Groups:Legal Framework, Documentation, and Human Rights.


*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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A successful caliphate in six simple steps

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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.


This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Syria’s Sunni v Shi’a myth

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Insisting falsely that the Syrian conflict is sectarian will tear the country apart once Assad  is gone and place the Alawite minority in grave danger.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

A recent poll on Al Jazeera Arabic’s website asked who was responsible for turning the Syrian revolution into a sectarian conflict: the Sunnis or the Shi’a? Around 95% of those who voted blamed the deterioration on the Shi’a.

Although this result is shocking in its own right, what I find more confounding is the question itself. One would expect of a reputable Arab news channel not to play the sectarian game and reduce the conflict in Syria to a simplistic Sunni v Shi’a equation.

In unspoken recognition of this, Al Jazeera quietly changed the options to “the regime and its allies” or “the jihadists”, though this did not go unnoticed on social media.

And it is not just Al Jazeera that has been guilty of this intellectual folly and dangerous reductionism. Many segments of the Arab and the international media have been occupied with the supposedly growing clash between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

“The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders,” the New York Times informs us. In an article for the Sunday Independent, veteran British war correspondent Robert Fisk warned that the region was now in the grips of a “titanic Islamic struggle” between Sunnis and Shi’a which “now dwarfs the Arab revolutions.”

I am well aware of the Sunni-Shi’a schism which dates back to the very dawn of Islam. I also recognise that a growing number of those involved in the Syrian conflict, especially foreign volunteers (both Sunni and the smaller number of Shi’a jihadists), increasingly see the conflict in such glaring sectarian terms.

However, the reality of the situation is that the civil war in Syria, though it has escalated tremendously, remains essentially a clash between an authoritarian, ruthless leadership and its associated elite (as well as those who feared instability) and the masses tired of bowing their heads.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite does not make Syria an “Alawite regime“, as some contend. There are those who point to how the army’s top brass is dominated by career Alawite officers.

But this is partly a legacy of the divide and rule of the French mandate with its view that the Alawites were the only “warlike race” in Syria, as well as the fact that the military is often one of the few means for the marginalised to get ahead. In addition, fearing how some Sunnis viewed his ascent to power, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, surrounded himself with some of the loyalist of these Alawite officers.

In addition, most of the regime and the Syrian civilian elite which profits from it are Sunnis. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Alawite population still festers in poverty and marginalization – and many of these are struggling against the regime.

Over and above this, influential segments of the Alawite intelligentsia are on the side of the opposition, such as the courageous journalist and writer Samar Yazbek, who was jailed, discredited and persecuted for her opposition. “My heart is broken and I’ll never be at peace again, but I will not stop fighting Assad’s regime, no matter what the post-Assad future holds,” she wrote defiantly.

More fundamentally, the state’s official ideology is pan-Arabist, secular Ba’athism, which though authoritarian is, in principle, blind to ethnicity and religion. Appropriately enough, the original Ba’ath party was established by a Christian (Michel Aflaq), a Sunni (Salah al-Din al-Bitar) and an Alawite (Zaki al-Arsuzi).

This makes secular Syria’s alliance with theocratic Iran in recent years all the more puzzling. There are those who attribute it to some form of Shi’a solidarity or even a sinister Shi’a plot to subvert the Sunni order. But the Syria-Iran axis can be explained simply – and better – using classical geopolitics.

When the Syrian and Iranian regimes first became strategic allies during the Iran-Iraq war, it was more out of a shared opposition towards Iraq than any admiration for each other. More recently, the two countries’ increasing isolation, as well as western hostility towards them, brought them ever closer, as did their common animosity towards the United States and Israel.

However, under less desperate circumstances the two regimes would have likely been enemies. Their ideologies and political visions are mutual anathema, and as for any supposed Shi’a solidarity, Iranians, like Sunnis, traditionally perceive Alawites as heretics.

In fact, it wasn’t until Hafez al-Assad became president that any real effort was made to integrate Alawites into the wider Shi’a community. Seeking recognition for his sect, the former Syrian president, who seized power in a 1970 coup, managed to persuade Musa Sadr, an Iranian-Lebanese cleric, to issue a fatwa recognising Alawites as Shi’a.

What about Hizbullah, some might ask? Doesn’t its close ties with Syria and the fact that it is fighting on the side of the regime betray this sectarianism?

No, not really. If anything, it reveals careful and cynical political calculations. Hizbullah does not want to lose one of its major backers, while the Assad regime needs all the firepower it can muster to survive.

Those who suspect the Assad regime of harbouring overpowering sympathies for the Shi’a of Lebanon need only rewind to 1976. In this early stage of the Lebanese civil war, Syria intervened not on the side of the Shi’a but on the side of the Maronites to push back the advancing PLO-Lebanese National Movement forces, and sat by and did nothing when Israel invaded the Shi’a-dominated south of Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad even allegedly helped install the Maronite Elias Sarkis as president.

Despite all this evidence to the contrary, some insist on the Sunni-Shi’a dimension. But this folly has potentially very serious consequences. If the sectarian idea gains further traction, then it will likely tear the country apart once the Assad regime is defeated, derailing future efforts to rebuild.

More ominously, once the guns fall silent, the hapless Alawite minority could pay a heavy price for this mythical clash if the Sunni majority decide to blame them collectively for Assad’s abuses, conveniently forgetting the fact that most of the regime is Sunni.

Beyond Syria’s borders, if the conflict continues to be viewed through the Sunni-Shi’a prism, there is the danger that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and ignite the flames of sectarianism across the region.

The current conflict in Syria (and the tensions in the wider Middle East) are not about some ancient feud regarding the status of Ali, but were and remain essentially a battle between the disenfranchised population and the entrenched and corrupt establishment.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 30 June 2013.

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