12/07/2012, 00.00
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Syria, from the Arab spring to war between Sunnis and Shiites

by Samir Khalil Samir
Many players have entered the Syrian conflict: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, China, USA, Europe. All are dominated by a conflict within Islam. Christians in the most difficult situation: a choice between political dictatorship or Islamic dictatorship. Radical Islam on the rise in Europe, but the West does not seem to care. Part two of the analysis by the great scholar of Islam.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - In Syria, what began as an Arab Spring, eager for greater dignity, work and freedom, has slipped out of hand to become a regional and international conflict in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fighting against Iran , Turkey and Israel against Syria, Russia and China against the United States and Europe.

At first efforts were concentrated on the demand for greater dignity, but after receiving only violence as a response from the government, the Spring has become a well armed rebellion. Many army officers have defected and organized an armed response. Now both sides are fighting with weapons.

A conflict within Islam

Syria, unlike Egypt, is a multicultural and multiethnic country: there are Druze, Christians (9%), Kurds (7%), Sunni (70%), and other small groups, and this country, so far, is dominated by the Alawite (12-13%).

All this leads the Syrian tensions to a regional conflict. The fear, for Sunnis and the majority of Arab countries, is that Syria, religiously tied to Iran, could become increasingly instrumental to the spread of Shiism.

It must be said that Iran's enemies, rather than Israel, are Sunnis. On the other hand, the fear of Islam is the fear of Shiism, which is advancing in every Islamic country. Last week, in Cairo (Egypt), I came across a group of Shiite Muslims for the first time in more than a millennium, who were promoting their religion there. They were stopped by Sunni leaders. I have heard that the same phenomenon is occurring in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and in many African countries.

In the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, the religious dimension is a pretext for a political struggle. The conflict arose after Muhammad's death (in 632). In his farewell speech, in Ghadir Khomm, Muhammad wanted as his successor in command, his son Ali. In his place, however, there was Abu Bakhr, the father of Fatima, the wife of Muhammad, who was from another tribe. Then there were two other caliphs, Omar Ibn al-Khattâb and Uthman Ibn 'Affân. The Shiites are those who defend the line of the power of Ali and the family of the prophet. So, from the very outset the conflict is ethnic in origin, almost a family feud. Up to this very day, the Shiites, when they recite the Muslim blessing, they bless Muhammad "and his family" (wa-âlihi). And from this one can immediately recognize that they are Shiites.

The tribal, ethnic and political opposition is here to stay for eternity. I was in Najaf (Iraq) last month, and every day there were lectures and broadcasts against Sunnis, especially against Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabis. This conflict is even more bitterly imbedded than the hatred between Palestinians and Israelis. The conflict in Syria is the result of this wound, because there Shiism is in power and the Sunni majority is excluded.

What future?

Syria's future is still unclear. One of the solutions mentioned is to divide Syria - according to an Israeli-American plan - into diverse sectarian cantons, undermining Syria as power and crumbling it up into many small states.

The crumbling of Syria is likely to cause an earthquake in Turkey, another multiethnic and multicultural country, where there are millions of Kurds and Alevis million, and several other groups. At the same time, Turkey wants to exclude the existence of a Kurdish nation on its borders, involving the Kurds of Syria, Iraq and Iran.

We are at a monumental impasse and with no solution in sight for Syria unless the international community intervenes. The rebellion can not do anything without international help.

On the other hand, the international community is afraid to enter the Syrian cauldron because there are also many radical fringes of Islamists and al-Qaeda in the opposition. There are also those who attest that the Islamist solution is better for the United States, in safeguarding economic ties with America.

By now, the solution is no longer in the hands of the Syrians. The problem is regional and international. Iran and Turkey are the two powers that have the possibility of expansion. The rest of the Arab world does not have it, either from the point of view of the population or the military. Therefore, the common opinion in Syria: "There is no way out and we are waiting for an international decision."

The fate of Christians

In this context, the situation of Christians is by far the weakest. They have no one to rely on. In some ways similar to what happened in Iraq, where it seems that Christianity is in the process of disappearing, maybe in 50 years there will be no more Christians in this country. In Lebanon, unfortunately, same phenomenon is in act, a land emptying of Christians, due to insecurity and emigration. Yet there is no ostensibly "religious" discrimination or wars, it has occurred due to economic and sometimes cultural reasons.

Of course, Lebanon, in the middle of the last century, attempted to build a pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious social structure. It is the only country to have attempted this and remains a model - albeit fragile - in the Middle East, as mentioned Pope Benedict XVI when he came to visit last September. But the future outlook is a difficult one.

In Syria Christians fear an Islamist future, and the same can be said for Egyptian Christians. The attitude of the Christian leaders in the face of rebellion has often been criticized. But we must try to understand. No one argues that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is good, even less democratic. Everyone knows that political freedom is almost non-existent, as well as freedom of speech. Everyone knows that anyone who opposes the policy of the regime ends up in prison and subjected to torture.

On the other hand, unlike many Muslim countries, Christians enjoy total religious freedom in Syria, thanks to the doctrine of the Baathist regime (that of Baas = Ba'th created by the Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq). Syria does not distinguish between Muslim (to whatever group one belongs) and Christian: everyone is an equal citizen. But state control is everywhere, for everyone. Like all dictatorships, order and security are guaranteed. None of these advantages are to be despised.

And since the majority of Christians have no political ambitions, nor intend to enter into politics, they live in peace and freedom by accepting the limitations set forth by the Baathist  power. So, knowing that there is no perfect system in politics, they choose the lesser evil: a guarantee of life, safety, freedom of religion, renouncing political freedom.

Their approached is consoled by the fact that no-one knows what the alternative could be. Looking at the evolution of the Arab-Islamic world, the alternative seems to be a fundamentalist Islamic regime, which is worse because it touches the deep convictions of the human person. In other words: the only choice is between a political or religious dictatorship. The latter would seem far more frustrating.

If we compare the situation of Christians in Syria and that of Egypt, no doubt the lot of the Syrians would seem preferable: Christians enjoy the same rights of all Syrians, contrary to the Egyptians!

What the future will be, no one can predict. Certainly it will take courage: a defeatist attitude is not worthy of the Christian vocation to rebuild, along with all other citizens, a more human city.

The West's attitude

The West, preoccupied with its economic and political problems, does not seem to care much about the Islamist drift. But it does not realize that this Islamization has many consequences and repercussions for the West itself.

Islamic fundamentalism is becoming increasingly obvious in the Muslim community in Europe. The last survey in France, by the IFOP, on how the French view Islam, shows that the situation is getting worse: more than 60% of the French believes Islam is incongruous to the West, unable to integrate.

This negative view comes from the fact that the Islamic world clearly rejects the West, which it considers "atheist" and "immoral". Added to that the current debate on gay marriage, on civil unions (PACS), on adoption by unmarried couples. For the fundamentalist Muslim world, the West is against God and therefore is to be fought, and in the Islamist discourse, the West is the "new Jahiliyyah," the new paganism.

For the West, Islam is impossible to assimilate and the Muslim seems unable to integrate into European culture. It is therefore to be rejected. Western secularism (especially French) is atheism for the Muslim world. So talk of secularism is automatically rejected by many. Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Medio Oriente" September 14, 2012 (No. 29), highlights this: " Some Middle Eastern political and religious leaders, whatever their community, tend to look with suspicion upon secularity (laïcité) as something intrinsically atheistic or immoral. "

Instead the model suggested by the pope is another:

"A healthy secularity, on the other hand, frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.

No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds."

Therefore the West's attitude towards religion has some repercussions on the Islamic world's attitude towards the West. And Europe should be taking this into account.

(End of Part Two. For Part One see here: Unfinished: the Arab Spring's Islamic winter)


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See also
Fr. Samir: Arab military coalition possible peacekeeping force to guarantee pluralism
Fr. Samir: Christians together, the small flock and hope in the Middle East
Unfinished: the Arab Spring’s Islamic winter
The springtime of the Arab world
Lebanon's nightmare of war: hostage to Israel and Hezbollah


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