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This article was downloaded by: [74.71.124.129] On: 17 April 2014, At: 07:28 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

This article was downloaded by: [74.71.124.129] On: 17 April 2014, At: 07:28 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltdhttp://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccri20 Sectarianism in Syria: Anthropological Reflections Christa Salamandra Lehman College, New York, USA Published online: 22 Oct 2013. To cite this article: Christa Salamandra (2013) Sectarianism in Syria: Anthropological Reflections, Middle East Critique, 22:3, 303-306, DOI: 10.1080/19436149.2013.818195 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19436149.2013.818195 PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content. This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms- and-conditions " id="pdf-obj-0-6" src="pdf-obj-0-6.jpg">

Middle East Critique

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Sectarianism in Syria: Anthropological Reflections

Christa Salamandra a

a Lehman College, New York, USA Published online: 22 Oct 2013.

To cite this article: Christa Salamandra (2013) Sectarianism in Syria: Anthropological Reflections, Middle East Critique, 22:3, 303-306, DOI: 10.1080/19436149.2013.818195

PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE

Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content.

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any

substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms- and-conditions

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Middle East Critique, 2013 Vol. 22, No. 3, 303–306, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19436149.2013.818195

Downloaded by [74.71.124.129] at 07:28 17 April 2014 Middle East Critique , 2013 Vol. 22, No.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19436149.2013.818195 Sectarianis m in Syria: Anthropological Reflection s CHRISTA SALAMANDRA Lehman College, New York, USA Throughout their two-year struggle, peaceful anti-regime activists have continued to cry out for Syrian unity: ‘One, one, one, the people of Syria are one’ [ wahid, wahid, wahid, al-sha‘b al-suri wahid ]. The call has moved to social media sites now that armed conflict largely has displaced peaceful protest. This plea for unity both reflects and rejects competing sentiments. As a conflict that had begun with peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations and later evolved into civil war, sectarian distinctions increasingly inflect activist, rebel and pro-regime discourses alike. Western media question the role of sectarianism, calling on the policy-oriented political scientists and think-tank analysts, who dominate the literature on Syria and determine its concerns, to confirm that the real issues have nothing to do with sectarianism but rather are related to persistent authoritarianism, political economy, and foreign relations. Anthropologists rarely operate within this frame of reference. Yet an ethnographic exploration drawing on how Syrians perceive, experience and reconfigure religiou s-based differences can elucidate the very issues raised, and often insufficiently answered, in policy-oriented discussions. My fieldwork during the early 1990s revealed that sectarian affiliations were re­ emerging, alloyed with those of class and region, in a form of sociability I termed a ‘poetics of accusation.’ The politics of heritage preservatio n, promotion and marketing rendered these distinctions salient. Discussions of movements to preserve and celebra te the Old City of Damascus, and representations of the city in the arts and mass media, often unleashed a torrent of animosity toward powerful ‘Alawis from rural backgrounds who allegedly sought to destroy Old Damascus and undermine the forms of power still wielded by the city’s politically disposed elites. Conversely, those excluded from elite Damascene circles, and particularly those from minority groups, emphasized the weddedness of regime and Damascene business interests—including actual weddings— and stressed that the city’s Sunni businessmen had benefited much more than many ‘Alawi villagers. Vitriol targeted not the regime directly, understood as the ultimate Correspondence Address : Prof. Christa Salamandra, Department of Anthropology, Lehman College, City University of New York, 250 Bedford Park Blvd. West, Bronx, NY 10468, USA. Email: christa. salamandra@lehman.cuny.edu 1 C. Salamandra, A New Old Damascus ( 2004 ), p. 22. q 2013 Editors of Middle East Critique " id="pdf-obj-1-8" src="pdf-obj-1-8.jpg">

Sectarianis m in Syria: Anthropological Reflection s

CHRISTA SALAMANDRA

Lehman College, New York, USA

Throughout their two-year struggle, peaceful anti-regime activists have continued to cry out for Syrian unity: ‘One, one, one, the people of Syria are one’ [wahid, wahid, wahid, al-sha‘b al-suri wahid ]. The call has moved to social media sites now that armed conflict largely has displaced peaceful protest. This plea for unity both reflects and rejects competing sentiments. As a conflict that had begun with peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations and later evolved into civil war, sectarian distinctions increasingly inflect activist, rebel and pro-regime discourses alike. Western media question the role of sectarianism, calling on the policy-oriented political scientists and think-tank analysts, who dominate the literature on Syria and determine its concerns, to confirm that the real issues have nothing to do with sectarianism but rather are related to persistent authoritarianism, political economy, and foreign relations. Anthropologists rarely operate within this frame of reference. Yet an ethnographic exploration drawing on how Syrians perceive, experience and reconfigure religiou s-based differences can elucidate the very issues raised, and often insufficiently answered, in policy-oriented discussions. My fieldwork during the early 1990s revealed that sectarian affiliations were re­ emerging, alloyed with those of class and region, in a form of sociability I termed a ‘poetics of accusation.’ 1 The politics of heritage preservatio n, promotion and marketing rendered these distinctions salient. Discussions of movements to preserve and celebra te the Old City of Damascus, and representations of the city in the arts and mass media, often unleashed a torrent of animosity toward powerful ‘Alawis from rural backgrounds who allegedly sought to destroy Old Damascus and undermine the forms of power still wielded by the city’s politically disposed elites. Conversely, those excluded from elite Damascene circles, and particularly those from minority groups, emphasized the weddedness of regime and Damascene business interests—including actual weddings— and stressed that the city’s Sunni businessmen had benefited much more than many ‘Alawi villagers. Vitriol targeted not the regime directly, understood as the ultimate

Correspondence Address: Prof. Christa Salamandra, Department of Anthropology, Lehman College, City University of New York, 250 Bedford Park Blvd. West, Bronx, NY 10468, USA. Email: christa. salamandra@lehman.cuny.edu

  • 1 C. Salamandra, A New Old Damascus (2004), p. 22.

q 2013 Editors of Middle East Critique

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  • 304 C. Salamandra

culprit, but other groups of Syrians perceived to profit from and help perpetuate the status quo. My more recent research among creators of Syria’s largest cultural industry, television drama, reinforces this interpretation. Dissatisfactions and disappointments often are expressed through sectarian idioms. Syria’s fictional drama industry—dubbed the country’s ‘field of art’ [majal al-fann ] in the absence of other permitted outlets for cultural expression both reflects and critiques sectarian distinction. As in other sectors of Syrian society, TV industry figures perceive group affiliation as determining access to positions of power and influence. Some drama creators who are critical of the industry argue that it epitomizes the merging of Damascene and regime interests. They point to the high-ranking members of the ‘Alawi-dominated security services who act as patrons for private drama producers, some of whom hail from the old urban merchant class. 2 Indeed, the industry’s most popular exports, aired on Gulf Cooperaton Council-owned Pan-Arab satellite, are nostalgic evocations of early twentieth-century Old Damascus, such as the five-part blockbuster ‘the Neighborho od Gate.’ 3 Other drama makers mainta in that the commercialization of the industry reflects a peasant—or conversel y military—mentality that undermines the progressive ideals of urban intellectuals that inform the contemporary social realist works. Social drama set in Damascus distinguishes the Syrian industry, but it is increasingly difficult to finance. I attributed the poetics of accusation to the contradi ction between the Ba‘th Party’s stated project to rid Syria of subnational distinctions, and the al-Asad regime’s policies that exacerbated them. This profound irony was not lost on the Syrians I came to know. Noting a deliberate divide and rule policy, they nevertheless fell under its sway. In my writing, I pointed to the implications of both perceptual and real cleavage s and warned against confusing a strong state with a sentiment of nationhood. 4 Yet my analysis of Syria’s complex intersectionality often was misread as insufficiently attuned to ‘politics.’ Some colleagues (whom I prefer not to name) felt that, in pointing to a discourse of sectarianism, I had privileged primordialism over more dynamic distinctions. Others argued I had overstated discord, having failed to grasp the social agreement underlying the agonism I documented. Yet sectarian distinctions that gloss class and regional difference now fuel an increasingly violent conflict, warranting a reexamination of their recent history. The al-Asad kleptocracy built over four decades under a cloak of socialist secularism, feeds perceptions of sectarian privilege. For a small segment of Syria’s heterodox Shi’i ‘Alawi community—today an estimated 10 – 15 percent of the population—a stunning reversal of fortunes occurred within living memory. Before the 1960s, elite urban families—primarily from Damascus and Aleppo—dominated political and economic life in Syria. They had little in common with the majority population, beyond a Sunni Muslim affiliation. With the Ba‘th (Renaissance) Party takeover in 1963, political power shifted to a largely rural military elite, among whom ‘Alawis dominated. Damascene s and Aleppines

  • 2 Interviews and fieldwork conducted intermittently, 2004 – 13.

  • 3 Select episodes of Bab al-Hara are available accessed August 17, 2013.

on:

3_ﺓﺭﺎ_ﺏﺎﺑ,

  • 4 C. Salamandra, Moustache hairs lost (1998), pp. 227 – 246; C. Salamandra, Consuming Damascus (2000), pp. 182 – 202.

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Sectarianism in Syria: Anthropological Reflections 305

systematically were displaced from key positions. The urban bourgeoisie was forced to do business with their erstwhile social inferiors: ‘Alawis from coastal villages whose daughters only recently had served in Damascene households. A cold peace ensued, anchored by shared interests, but laced with mutual resentment. Each group assumes the other’s advantage: ‘Alawis point to the enduring prosperity of Damascus’ ‘merchant princes;’ Damascene s to well-placed ‘Alawis’ control of licensing and smuggling. The majority of ‘Alawis suffer an inaccurate association with privilege. Urban Sunnis sometimes acknowledge that many ‘Alawis remain impoverished. Nevertheless, the notion that ‘all ‘Alawis are connected to power’ has become a frequent refrain, even among intellectuals. More than a reference to Shi’i heterodoxy, the term ‘‘Alawi’ connotes class and region; avowed atheists hurl sectarian accusations against each other. This has intensified during the conflict. As a Damascene friend put it, people are no longer afraid of criticizing the regime; they now fear each other. Discourses of resentment, fueled by a combination of official doublespeak, skewed access to resources, and radical exiled Islamists, instill fear among minorities and Sunni secularists alike. Paradoxically, the urban elites who have long resented what they saw as an ‘Alawi parvenucracy have been slow to back the opposition. They have learned to live (well) with the status quo, and fear its likely alternatives. Secularists, among them Sunni believers who reject the Islamization of public life, dread the influence of the puritanical Salafism that may accompany the Saudi and Qatari­ backed opposition. Islamists’ rise in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt worries them. The recent influx of al Qaeda-linked militias overshadows the democracy and secular elements of both peaceful activism and armed rebellion. Staunch nationalists fear NATO interference. Most Syrians, urban and rural Sunni Muslims suffering from unrelenting oppression, unbridled neoliberalism and devastating drought, have less to lose. Underclass youth swell the ranks of peaceful protestors, opposition militias, and shabbiha, armed gangs of regime supporters. Given the media blackout, gauging support for the opposition is difficult. Talking heads are quick to offer percentages; those of us who know Syria well, and the Syrians I speak with, acknowledge that degrees of support for regime or opposition are impossible to determine, and ever shifting. The concept of a silent majority frequently invoked in journalistic accounts obscures more than it reveals. One thing is clear: as is common in civil war, the conflict has split not only regions, classes and religious groups, it has torn apart friends and families. The three-way divide described to me by a Syrian friend early in the conflict offers an insight:

My father, who has never benefited from the regime, is 100% for it, and thinks the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy. My brother has been arrested at protests. My father watches (pro-regime) Dunya TV, my brother, al Jazeera, and I think both channels are lying. There are many divided households. 5

Like many who are devastated by Syria’s present and care about its future, I seek ways in which a reckoning with sectarianism and all the divisions it elides might unite rather than divide the nation in the post-war era. The uprising has afforded Syrians the freedom to

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acknowledge, discuss and overcome sectarian divisions, once as taboo as they were salient. An understanding of these complex fault lines should inform reconciliation efforts to which anthropologists and others hopefully will contribute.

References

Salamandra, C. (1998) Moustache hairs lost: Ramadan television serials and the construction of identity in Damascus, Syria, Visual Anthropology, 10(2 – 4), pp. 227 – 246. ———. (2000) Consuming Damascus: Public Culture and the Construction of Social Identity, in: Walter Armbrust (Ed.) Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond, pp. 182 – 202 (Berkeley: University of California Press). ———. (2004) A New Old Damascus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).