Syria’s Brotherhood: Doomed to Repeat the Past
In Istanbul last month, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood launched a new political party known by its Arabic name, Waad (“Promise”.) It will be led by Mohamed Walid, a Brotherhood figure, but his deputy will be Nabil Kasis, a Christian. The party will include a number of minorities, reputedly a third of the membership, while the other two-thirds of the party will be reserved for Brotherhood members and independent Islamists. According to its founders, the aim of the party is “to support the oppressed, to stand with the weak and to uphold justice, and to restore the rights of the Syrian people regardless of ethnicity.”
There are a number of things wrong with this announcement. The first is that the Egyptian Brothers have attempted the same recipe before: the Freedom and Justice Party had a fair sprinkling of Copts and unveiled women. It didn’t work.
The second is the matter of its timing. Coming as the civil war deepens, resulting in the near-total extinction of political life as we know it, the relevance of such a party remains unclear. Some have speculated that it is the result of internal politicking within the Muslim Brotherhood machine, an attempt by a faction within the organization at political re-positioning, but not much else.
But there is something far more problematic. What the Muslim Brotherhood appears to believe is that as long as it demonstrates a willingness to share a political platform with members of religious minorities, and adheres to the language of secular politics, then this alone will be enough to allay the fears of minority communities. This is a naive delusion born out of a fundamental misreading of Syria’s modern history and its own peculiar sectarian problem.
To understand the frame of mind of Syria’s minorities—that is, the collective mindset of Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis—one needs to appreciate the trauma that was the Ottoman experience. The modern history of the Levant has been shaped by minorities vowing never to fall under Sunni Muslim overlordship again and strategizing (rather successfully) to that end. The strategies that these minorities have come up with led directly to the modern nation-states of Syria and Lebanon as we know them today. By recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies, the true extent of the Brotherhood’s folly in investing in the Waad Party becomes all too clear.
When the Ottoman Turks retreated from the Levant in 1918, non-Sunni minorities faced an acute dilemma: how to survive and flourish within societies that were overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The Maronites of Mount Lebanon came up with a survival strategy that was not at all original: secession. They successfully lobbied France to be separated from Sunni-majority Syria, and to be given a state where they could enjoy a monopoly on political power. Thus, the State of Greater Lebanon was created, later to become the Republic of Lebanon.
For the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of Syria, it was a different story. The Alawites and Druze initially went along with French plans to have their own mini-states, but the hostility of the economically influential Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie scuttled plans for independence. Long-term discrimination and neglect by the Ottomans denied the Alawites and Druze the chance to form their own states, while quasi-independence under the Ottomans and long-term French patronage enabled the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon to fly the coop. Politically and economically, the non-Sunni Muslims of Syria were too weak to go it alone.
The Alawites and Druze opted to be part of a unified Syrian Republic not out of choice, but out of necessity. They still had to meet the challenge of surviving and thriving in a Sunni Muslim-majority country where democracy would entitle them only to a minority share of political power, not enough to clearly guarantee that the Ottoman experience would never be repeated.
Instead of seeking independence, as the Lebanese Christians had done, the non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Syria did quite the opposite: they embraced a secular, socialist brand of pan-Arabism and adopted it as their own. The Ba’ath Party became a magnet for young, aspiring and poor Alawites, Druze and Ismailis, who were drawn to the party’s secular and egalitarian creed.
By adopting pan-Arabism, the minorities had performed a great feat of one-upmanship: they had demonstrated to the Sunni Muslims that they were über-patriots, prepared to relinquish centuries-old sectarian loyalties encouraged by the Ottomanmillet(pluralist) system for the benefit of the entire Arab nation. By appearing to be so, they laid down a challenge to the Sunni Muslim majority to live up to this idealized vision of what it meant to be Syrian.
In reality, it was a ruse. At first, the Ba’ath Party campaigned on issues of social justice such as agrarian reforms, which benefited poor Sunnis as well as impoverished Alawite peasants. But the minorities were not content with remaining farmers. The religious minorities of Syria were still very much obsessed with the Ottoman trauma, and nothing short of a complete capture of power would allay their fears of returning to second-class status. One institution was open to them: the military. It was through an active mass enlistment campaign, and a simultaneous policy of de-Sunnification of the officer corps following the 1963 Ba’ath Party coup, that enabled the minorities to first catch glimpse of the political power that they could enjoy under the guise of pan-Arabism and class warfare.
Ultimate power would eventually be won by a certain Hafez Al-Assad, a scheming Ba’athist air force pilot and son of a minor Alawite notable. The state that he created reflected the collective anxieties of minorities. It was decidedly secular, socialist and obsessed with “national unity.” It was, for all intents and purposes, a reaction against the confessionalism-based, class-riven but pluralistic Ottoman conception of how society should be ordered.
Herein lies the core problem with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Waad Party. Its philosophy is essentially a reworking of the Ottoman model, with its de facto domination by Sunni Muslims (the Brotherhood themselves) and its millet-like quota set aside for representatives of minority communities (Christians, Alawites and Druze). Syria’s minorities, however, have long moved on from that system and are unlikely ever to go back to it willingly. As an attempt to appeal across the barricades of war-torn and religiously-polarized Syria, the Brotherhood’s new party faces a daunting task. As an attempt to form a new social pact between Syria’s warring communities, it is doomed to fail.