Two sides of the same coin?

Secularists and Islamists alike have long suffered under the shadow of autocratic rule. What is required now is the strength and courage to actively integrate and mix so that we can be rid of the corrosive prejudices which threaten what this revolution stands for

The Syrian street has grown accustomed to mocking the outcomes of meetings between representatives of Arab countries at any level. Our “so-called” representatives have often been found wanting in their ability to find consensus. On such occasions daily news headlines may well be prefaced with, "The Arabs have agreed to disagree". This has deprived the people in the region of having any meaningful platform which carries weight in international forums. This paralysis can be attributed to the fact that all Arab dictatorships are subservient to external parties, making them unable to take any decision in the national interest.

But now it seems that this curse has spread to the Syrian people as well - agreeing not to agree at a time when we desperately need to unite our ranks. This divergence of views throws up a couple of interesting questions: is this proclivity to squabble symptomatic of multiple international actors intervening in the Syrian conflict or is it, as some political commentators would have it, attributable to Syrians actually not being intellectually ready for democracy and pluralism?

The Syrian Revolution has gathered under its wing a wide cross-section of Syrian society, all opposed to the system of authoritarian rule. However, the divisions amongst this broad array of actors have continued to be the true master of the situation. Since the start of the revolution, the Syrian opposition abroad has witnessed sharp divisions and has been hitherto unable to demonstrate complete unity in its ranks to the extent that even the wording of press releases are not agreed upon. Personal differences are prevalent, creating a climate of frustration among the opposition at home. Despair at the in-fighting and rivalries amongst opposition elements has completely overwhelmed people at home. A more recent and disturbing development has been the re-emergence on the ground of a rivalry between Islamists and secularists in Syria. Evidence of the extent of this cleavage can be found on a number of social networking pages.

Islamists, who make up the vast majority of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), point an accusatory finger at secularists for not taking up arms. Islamists  - and here I mean the Sunni community – consider themselves to have been the ones who have borne the heaviest burden and suffered the largest losses in the revolution to date. Thus, you can find among the Sunni community a general feeling that they are the vanguard and have the right to lead the many different groups and sects which make up the Syrian street.

On the other hand, there are a lot of young people belonging to other minority sects who have tried to join the ranks of the FSA only to be refused on the basis of their belonging to a minority sect. Saleh, an Alawi activist who had been detained by the regime’s security services in prison for a month, told me: "I tried repeatedly through a contact to volunteer with the FSA, but they kept deferring without giving me any reason. It wasn't until someone told me that my request had been completely rejected because I wasn't Sunni, that I understood."

Jamal belongs to the Ismaili sect. His anti-regime credentials are as good as any - he had been arrested twice for a period exceeding six months for his role in documenting and participating in peaceful protests. Despite this, Jamal felt it necessary to pretend to be Sunni to gain acceptance into the FSA: "I've started practicing Sunni rituals even though I still consider myself Ismaili. I had to, so that I could engage in combat and be a part of the FSA." He told me.

Given that membership of the FSA is seemingly out of bounds for members of minority sects, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who oppose the regime gravitate towards secularist opposition groups. Sunnis on the other hand are overly represented in the FSA while those who favour non-violence can be found in secularist opposition groups. Increasingly, secularists are becoming more vociferous in their condemnation of some FSA actions which are seen as sectarian and of the FSA's uncoordinated and unbalanced military policies. Secularists in Syria are beginning to feel the imminent danger of being marginalised in the face of the growing power of Islamists who have taken up arms. A large percentage still believe in peaceful means as the best path towards a more democratic and liberal society. Meanwhile, the Islamists, who have borne the brunt of the regime's brutal violence, look on disdainfully - referring to secularists as “rich kids playing at being revolutionaries.” 

Recent developments provide us with a stark reminder of this struggle between Secularists and Islamists for the soul of the revolution.  Approximately one month ago elements of the FSA cut off the water supply to Selemiyeh and its surrounding villages, because the predominantly Ismaili population refused to carry arms and continued to adhere to the principle of peaceful protest. This collective punishment on the part of the FSA seemed all the more shocking given that that Selemiyeh has provided refuge to more than 80,000 people, mostly from the Sunni community, who have been forcibly displaced from the nearby war-ravaged cities of Hama and Homs.

How do we proceed with the revolution - peaceably or by means of an armed struggle? The question here is why do Islamists and secularists feel they are in opposing camps? When I asked a few young fighters from the Ali bin Abi Talib battalion of the FSA what they understood by the term secular, they gave a terse reply: "Secularism is contempt for our faith and it means we cannot practice our religion freely." Of course this is not how secularists in Syria, like myself, understand the term. For me, the separation of state from religion follows the popular slogan "religion is for God and the homeland is for all." It means that the freedom of religion, like other freedoms is sacred. At the same time, it also means that religion cannot control the policies of the state and should not define its national identity. It is a recognition that the homeland we call Syria is made up of numerous faith communities and a celebration of plurality which is not at the expense of any one group.

When I asked a gathering of young secular Syrians on a Facebook forum why there was so much fear concerning Islamists, the response drew striking parallels with how similarly aged members of the FSA had viewed secularists. "The Islamists want to impose Islamic law on us and prevent us from exercising our personal freedoms." Islamic law, of course, does not mean this. Justice, ethics and religious freedom are the cornerstones of Islamic Law. This is neatly encapsulated in the well-known quote from the Qur'an: "There is no compulsion in religion". The Noble Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet - on which Islamic Law is based - gave people the complete right to follow whichever faith they want. When the law imposes a system of Islam on minorities, this does not mean that it is an Islamic regime but an autocratic dictatorship. For the FSA to follow this path would be a betrayal of the revolution it originally set out to defend and protect. We would only be substituting one despotic regime for another.

It is the absence of communication between Islamists and Secularists that will certainly widen the gap between the two camps and strengthen the preconceived and misguided ideas they have of one another. It is thus that sectarian identities become ossified. From the conversations I have had with both secularists and Islamists, I really do not see much distinction in their principles and ideas - the only difference lies in how best to reach the goals of the revolution. Everyone is afraid of being marginalized and made irrelevant by the other.  Both parties have long suffered under the shadow of autocratic rule. What is required now is the strength and courage to actively integrate and mix so that we can be rid of the corrosive prejudices which threaten what this revolution stands for.

Thousands of thanks for Tahir Zaman for translating this article.

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About the author

Rita is a Syrian opposition activist, she lives in Damascus and studies at Damascus University.