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.
Published: 13 March 2013
Syria was the first modern Arab state to come into existence and the first Arab republic to elect its president, and it had the first Arab army to procure arms from the Soviet Union. Syria was also the first Arab democracy to elect an Islamist to parliament (Mustapha Al-Sibai in 1947), and the first Arab dictatorship to witness an armed jihadist insurrection (waged by the Fighting Vanguard, 1975–1982).
Syria, then, has something of the pioneering spirit; where its elites have led, other Arabs have tended to follow. This is especially true of the Islamists, whose journey from the ballot box to violent insurrection, and now seemingly back to the ballot box once again after the Arab Spring, appears largely to have been foreshadowed in the story of one organization in particular: the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. It therefore came as something of a bittersweet irony for me, a Syrian, to learn that the first authoritative political history of that organization was written by a young Frenchman at Cambridge University.
That is not to take away anything from Raphaël Lefèvre, who, in his encouraging first book Ashes of Hama: The Perilous History of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, seeks to bridge the considerable gap in the knowledge of the Syrian Brotherhood’s ideological evolution and internal politics without resort to partial sources. In the process, he has written a work of tremendous importance to anyone seeking a nuanced understanding of the dynamics driving the revolution in Syria, whose violent and sectarian turn has left many looking for answers.
Unlike many of the offerings of late, this book on Syria has not been written hastily, lazily or politically. Lefèvre comes across as a scholar with a delicate appreciation for continuity in an area of the world where history moves slowly. He correctly identifies the origins of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the Salafi movement of 1860s Damascus, where a number of reformist religious scholars attempted a selective revival of Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought.
Ibn Taymiyyah was a pioneer in his own right, and he was ‘Syrian’ inasmuch as he was an influential theologian of fourteenth-century Damascus. Although he is not considered progressive today, his ideas nonetheless provided the intellectual ammunition for many reformist movements within Islam that sought to confront the challenges of European domination through fundamentalism. Whether in the Salafi movement of the Najd, theIkhwan (Brotherhood) of Egypt, the Sanusia of North Africa, or the contemporary worldwide jihadist current, Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas on what it means to be a “real” Muslim were hugely influential.
In Syria, this brand of revivalist Islam accommodated for democracy when the elites that championed it were able to play the parliamentary game. Once the country slipped under Ba’athist dictatorship, however, those elites had to find alternative arenas to probe and challenge. With an eye firmly set on the present, Lefèvre reminds the reader of the formative impact of Syria’s first (and failed) Islamist ‘revolution’ of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which in turn profoundly shaped the Syrian government’s attitude to the current one. Sectarian strife, regionalism, class struggle, the fragmentation of the army, and the jihadist phenomena: all these have their antecedents in Syria’s not-so-distant past.
Ashes of Hama, then, is a sophisticated study that treats the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria less as a local franchise of a global brand and more as an organic expression of a largely middle-class and urban Sunni conservatism. Relying on a large number of first-hand interviews and the memoirs of key players, Lefèvre charts the Brotherhood’s rise from humble and relatively moderate beginnings to becoming the Syrian government’s most dangerous enemy, membership in which is still punishable by death. It is a voyage into the murky underbelly of an organization where truth and rhetoric are difficult to prize apart, and where codes of silence and a culture of opacity has made Lefèvre all the more enterprising.
Where the book is letdown is where Arabic words have been misspelt, or where there are gaps in the knowledge. For instance, the social and ideological roots of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hama and Aleppo factions are dealt with superficially, and there is no mention of the negotiations that took place in 1979 between Brotherhood leaders and Hafez Al-Assad prior to their declaration of an all-out jihad that same year.
These, however, are minor oversights that take little away from a book that is highly readable, well researched, and long overdue. As a study it breaks new ground; my only wish is that it had been written by a Syrian.