Enduring Myths of Sectarianism in Syria

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Over the last six months, analysts have shifted from describing the Syrian uprising-cum-civil war as a democratic uprising to highlighting its increasing sectarian dimensions. For those watching closely, sectarian undertones were evident early on. Most distinct were the regime’s attacks against the Sunni neighborhood of Baba Amr during the “Siege of Homs” in February 2012. After Syrian forces leveled the neighborhood, armed militants targeted Homs’s Christian population, which numbered around 800,000. Subsequently, 90 percent of Homs’s Christian population was erased.1 As the uprising increasingly militarized, the politics of revenge became business as usual.

Virgin Mary statue in Damascus (Photo by Kathryn Cook)
Virgin Mary statue in Damascus (Photo by Kathryn Cook)

Leading media outlets have discussed sectarianism in all the wrong ways; the discussion of Hezbollah’s role in assisting regime forces in the June 2013 capture of Qusayr stands out as the most egregious example. Sectarianism was reduced to anachronism by journalists who highlighted its ancient origins rather than its contemporary political utility for what Mark Lynch has called “entrepreneurs of cynical sectarianism.”2 This essay highlights three myths of sectarianism presented by reputable American media outlets. Dominant assumptions within these myths simply fail to be supported by historical evidence. Sectarianism is an incendiary issue by nature, but clarity on what it is and what it is not can prompt more informed discussions of this complex historical phenomenon and help us move beyond the narratives that sustain it.

Myth #1: Sectarian conflicts are primordial conflicts

The New York Times is the newspaper of choice for informed American intellectuals, yet it has promoted numerous myths about sectarianism in its recent Syria coverage. Many of these myths, including the primordial nature of interreligious strife, are familiar to American audiences because they have been used to explain sectarian violence in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Journalist Thomas Friedman repackaged the primordial argument in his Sept. 7, 2013 article about Syria entitled, “Same War, Different Country.” The title really says it all: The particulars of Syria simply do not matter since it is the very same war, a timeless battle between Sunnis and Shiites witnessed previously in Iraq. Friedman, considered the Times’s Middle East expert since the 1980’s when he wet his heels as a war journalist, offers an emotional plea to those skeptical about a possible American intervention in Syria:

“But, please do spare me the lecture that America’s credibility is at stake here. Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend—the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism, and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism—and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so.”3

In this excerpt, Friedman with a wave of his pen dismisses the entire 19th century—a century that ushered in the modernization of the Ottoman economy, the development of a nascent feminist movement in the Ottoman and Arab press, and enhanced political reforms that left most intellectual communities ripe for democracy after World War I. What is conveniently forgotten is what came between this intellectual florescence in the 19th century—referred to as an Arab Renaissance (“al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya”) by scholars—and the present, when a series of Western interventions foiled liberal democratic development when and where it took root. In the case of Syria, a series of covert American operations there beginning with the toppling of Shukri Quwatli in 1949 ushered in an era of military dictatorship.4 In spite of these events, Friedman denies Syria modernity, and issues the most egregious of anachronistic explanations for the conflict in Syria—that it is grounded in 7th-century rather than modern conditions.

How then do historians understand sectarianism? As a scholar who has used the Syrian archives extensively since the late 1990’s, I can say that instances of communal violence between Muslims and non-Muslims are hard to come by before the targeting of Christians in the 1850 Aleppo massacres. Historian Ussama Makdisi best reflects scholarly consensus when he writes, “Sectarianism is an expression of modernity. Its origins lay at the intersection of 19th-century European colonialism and Ottoman modernization.”5

Published over a decade ago, Makdisi’s work charts the decades leading up to the first outbursts of violence on Mount Lebanon, noting the role that Ottoman reforms granting non-Muslims equality played in creating Sunni resentment. Sectarian violence between the Druze and Maronite communities of Mount Lebanon in 1860 spread to Damascus where Christians were attacked, marking the first major regional sectarian event in Ottoman history. The pogroms intensified in the latter part of the 19th century. Sultan Abdul Hamid II launched his pogroms against the Ottoman Armenians (1894-96) in the eastern provinces. These were followed two decades later with the ethnic cleansing of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians in the eastern provinces, who were killed and deported en masse.

These 19th-century convulsions are the experience of modernity in the Middle East. The sectarian discourse continues to reverberate in the discourse of peddlers of hate, political groups, and elites that seek to use this rhetoric to mobilize identity for political gain regionally.

Myth #2: Sectarianism appeared in Syria with Hezbollah and Iran’s involvement

Hezbollah’s entry into Qusayr to support regime forces quickly piqued the interest of many media pundits and Middle East analysts. On June 1, 2013, the New York Times published an article entitled, “As Syrians Fight, Sectarian Strife Infects Mideast,” portraying sectarian tensions as a byproduct of Hezbollah’s alliance with the Syrian army during the military campaign in Qusayr.

“Fighters are inspired by religious passions rooted in the seventh-century battles in what is now Iraq over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad,” Kamel Wazne, a Beirut-based analyst and founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies, is quoted as saying. “After the bitter defeat of the faction that gave rise to the Shiites, the victors captured the prophet’s granddaughter Zeinab and took her to Damascus, where Shiites believe she is buried beneath the gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab.”6

The writer notes the presence of a Shiite shrine in Damascus to revisit seventh-century history rather than focus on the modern conditions that produced an unlikely alliance between Hezbollah, a Twelver Shiite Lebanese militia and political party in Lebanon, and the Assad regime—a staunchly secular regime comprised of a core of Alawites (a distinct offshoot of Twelver Shiism). Such an alliance should prompt the question of how unusual the pairing is rather than its treatment as a normative fixture of regional politics. Easily assuming the naturalness of a Hezbollah-Assad alliance only highlights what’s missing in the conversation, namely, that the regime’s collaborators come from a variety of social, religious, and economic interests that often have very little to do with religion. Clearly, coverage rarely highlights the non-sectarian features of the conflict and instead gravitates towards easy essentialism and intrinsic religious differences.

In this case, Wazne is the New York Times’s “native informant” offering authenticity to the narrative while confirming in large part what the West already thinks about sectarianism and its ancient origins. The sloppiness in this reasoning can be best appreciated when one considers the contemporary form sectarianism has taken through a combination of outside meddling by the U.S. in Iraq and the sectarianism promoted by traditionalist clerics hailing mostly from Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq created a political vacuum and then secured Iraqi Shiite supremacy (sometimes referred to as the “Shiite Crescent” by other peddlers of sectarian mythology) after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, resulting in unparalleled sectarian violence that depleted Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity. The U.S. intervention parallels the 19th-century interventions in Mount Lebanon that produced the largest sectarian violence for that century. Yet, earlier periods of anti-Christian violence are dwarfed by the mass exodus of 500,000 Iraqi Christians—half the total population— since the US invasion in 2003, which permanently altered the ethno-religious landscape of Iraq.7

Saudi Arabia and its ideological mainstay Wahhabism have created a new form of sectarianism in Iraq and now Syria. Saudi Arabia, one of the major financiers of the armed opposition in Syria, is also home to sectarian ideologues who advocate for violence against Shiites via fatwas issued on traditional television programming, YouTube, and Twitter. This sectarian trend among Sunni clerics has some classical origins in the writings of Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), but have been harnessed in the very modern tensions between Saudi Arabia and its Shiite minority since the 1990’s. Some of Saudi Arabia’s most reputable clerics, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz and Adul-Rahman al-Jibrin, have openly declared Shiites apostates and informed their audiences that killing them is religiously justified.8 These fatwas resurfaced over the last decade during the power struggle in Iraq between Sunni and Shiites to condone the murder of Shiites. As of April 2013, Saad al-Durihim, a Saudi Wahhabi sheikh, posted a Tweet (a fatweet perhaps?) in which he said that jihadist fighters in Iraq should adopt a “heavy-handed” approach and kill any Shiites they can get their hands own, including children and women.9 Although he claims to be non-sectarian, Shaykh Adnan al-‘Ar’ur, a Salafi cleric from Hama, has repackaged much of this earlier anti-Shiite discourse as anti-Alawite rhetoric in the Syrian struggle. His televised speeches have incited his supporters to attack pro-regime Alawites and “feed their flesh to dogs.”10 While the regime has also done much to dehumanize its political opponents, this particular use of Muslim clerics and their juridical rulings to peddle sectarian hate, and mobilize political factions, has its origins in Saudi Arabia, not Syria and Lebanon.

U.S.-fortified Shiite rule in Iraq, along with Iranian hegemony through its alliance with Syria and Hezbollah, have increased the stakes for Muslim extremist sectarian discourse. One could view this potent sectarian discourse as foreign policy for the many elites who seek to facilitate the hegemony of Sunni competitors in the region, Saudi Arabia and militant Salafism, to combat perceived Shiite gains in the Bush Administration’s reordered Middle East. Considering these developments, the seventh century is hardly the context for contemporary violence in Syria.

Myth #3: Minoritarian rule is beneficial to minorities

One of the most pervasive myths of minoritarian rule, often propagated by the regimes themselves and their subject populations, is that it has brought direct benefits to other minorities. Studies have shown that the financial and political benefits in the case of Syria were not as profound as claimed. Historian Nora Arissian has documented, for example, Armenian participation in Syrian politics, which was more visible prior to the ascendancy of Hafez al-Assad, but gradually declined after he assumed power in 1970. The myths of inclusion are quickly dashed as her evidence reveals how Armenians were occasionally appointed as ministers or military personnel rather than elected into parliament.11 Marginal Armenian political participation in Syrian politics is at odds with the durable and diverse political institutions that exist within the community, where political parties, clubs, churches, and social committees flourished.

This gradual decline in Armenian participation in Syrian politics should be taken into account when considering the comments of Andrew Tabler at the AIPAC-affiliated think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.12 In an interview with NPR, this much-publicized Syria analyst argued that Christians get “very good business contracts, positions in government and the Syrian military.” He continued, “They get preferential treatment and protection of their places of worship.”13 Surely, both the Assad regimes continued the Ottoman practice of allowing freedom of worship for religious communities, but recent scholarship has shown that Christians were not the major benefactors. In fact, economic concerns were among the most cited grievances by Armenians who chose to leave Syria over the last century, according to Simon Payaslian, who estimated that the population had dwindled to as low as 58,000 by 2012.14 Recent scholarship by Bassam Haddad highlights the Sunni capitalist elites who were the primary benefactors of economic opening under Bashar al-Assad’s neoliberal reforms.15 These benefactors of “crony capitalism” were a mix of family members, old Sunni bourgeoisie, along with a new Sunni bourgeoisie class created by the economic reforms of the last decade.

As recently as 2012, Bashar al-Assad appointed an Armenian woman, Dr. Nazira Farah Sarkis, as Minister of the Environment, whereas Sunni elites obtained the higher and more influential offices of Defense Minister (Mustafa Tlas), Prime Minister (Mustafa Miru), Foreign Minister (Faruq al-Shar’), and Vice-President of Foreign Affairs (‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam).16 In the context of marginal Armenian representation, one could read this singular appointment in 2012 as an effort to garner the support of Armenians during a period of protracted fighting when Armenians stayed neutral. The myth of minoritatian rule as beneficial to minorities has had devastating effects for everyday Syrians, who are approached as the primary collaborators with the Assad regime when, in reality, every community has been coopted to one degree or another in the complex webs of collaboration.

Rather than primordial or ancient, sectarianism is the experience of modernity in the Middle East. It did not make its way into the Syrian conflict with Hezbollah’s involvement; rather, it has been a widespread regional issue since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and much earlier if we include Wahhabi sectarian rhetoric from the 1990’s, which continues to be preached by clerics and militants in the region. The final myth in this essay—that Christian minorities, and Armenians in particular, reaped large benefits from the minoritarian regime in Syria—has been largely absorbed by militants in pursuit of regime collaborators. The utility of sectarianism as the primary lens for understanding the conflict is exhausted once the legs upon which its myths are sustained are removed.



[1] See Kim Sengupta, “The plight of Syria’s Christians: ‘We left Homs because they were trying to kill us,’” The Independent (Nov. 2, 2012), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-plight-of-syrias-christians-we-left-homs-because-they-were-trying-to-kill-us-8274710.html; and Daniel Brode, Roger Farhat and Daniel Nisman, “Syria’s Threatened Christians,” The New York Times (June 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/29/opinion/syrias-threatened-christians.html?_r=0.

[2] March Lynch, “The Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 14, 2013.

[3] Thomas Friedman, “Same War, Different Country,” The New York Times, Sept. 7, 2013.

[4] Douglas Little, “Cold War and Covert Action: The U.S. and Syria, 1945-1958,” Middle East Journal 44:1 (Winter 1990).

[5] Makdisi, Culture of Sectarianism, xi.

[6] See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/world/middleeast/sunni-shiite-violence-flares-in-mideast-in-wake-of-syria-war.html.

[7] See http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/Olive-Press/2013/0910/After-more-than-10-years-of-hardship-Iraqi-Christian-calls-it-quits-on-Iraq.

[8] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (W.W. Norton, 2006), 237.

[9] See “Saudi Wahhabi Sheikh Calls on Iraq’s Jihadists to Kill Shiites,” http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/04/wahhabi-sheikh-fatwa-iraq-kill-shiites-children-women.html. The original Tweets can be read from April 23, 2013 at https://twitter.com/Saldurihim.

[10] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9NA96kVad0 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW04Vvxx0ac.

[11] See http://www.aztagarabic.com/archives/5558.

[12] See p. 21 of Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearshimer’s “The Israel Lobby,” http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/A0040.pdf.

[13] P.J. Tobia and Dalia Mortada, “Why Did Assad, Saddam and Mubarak Protect Christians?” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2011/10/mid-easts-christians-intro.html.

[14] Simon Payaslian, “Diasporan Subalternities: The Armenian Community in Syria,” Diaspora 16:1-2, 2007, 118.

[15] Bassam Haddad, Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford University Press, 2012).

[16] Eyal Zisser, As’ad’s Legacy: Syria in Transition (Washington Square, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2001) 20.

Elyse Semerdjian

Elyse Semerdjian

Elyse Semerdjian is Associate Professor of Islamic World/Middle Eastern History at Whitman College. A specialist in the history of the Ottoman Empire and Syria, she authored “Off the Straight Path”: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo (Syracuse University Press, 2008) as well as several articles on gender, non-Muslims, and law in the Ottoman Empire. She received her M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University. Semerdjian is a two-time Fulbright awardee to Syria. She currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies and as a book review editor for the International Journal of Middle East Studies. In the Spring of 2013, she was the Dumanian Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies in The Department of Near Eastern Cultures and Languages at the University of Chicago. She was awarded a Cornell University Society for the Humanities Fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year to support her new book project, Remnants: Gender, Islamized Armenians, and Collective Memory of the Armenian Genocide. Semerdjian is also an occasional contributor to the Armenian Weekly.


  1. This is an excellent article. We need more scholarly articles like this to puncture the myths created by the media to sway public opinion one way or the other. I am familiar with Prof Demerjian’s 2008 book and the favorable faculty reviews it got. I wish her all the more success in her career as a historian and teacher.

  2. I agree with the first two points the author makes. They’re observations that are spot on. I would, however, care to make a distinction on myth and point number 3. I would venture out to say that myth no. 3 is not so much that minoritarian rulers in the Middle East offer a more level playing field and opportunities for civil and social advancement for minorities like the Armenians and other Christians but simply a more tolerable atmosphere to work and live in. As in Iraq under Saddam, so in Syria after 1945 and especially during Asad the Senior, Armenians have benefited from a generally benevolent attitude from those governments so long as they themselves precisely never got mixed up in politics. An environment was created that Armenians could operate their own businesses and make a living without undue harassment and persecution from authorities.

    This did not necessarily translate into Armenians becoming the primary benefactors of minoritarian rule, as the author correctly notes, but neither was poor economic prospects the leading reason as to why the community’s size in Syria diminished. For example, some Aleppo Armenians whom I know left because they did not wish to have their sons drafted into the army and others were quite fond of living there had not other reasons come into play.

  3. Armen, I think you raise an excellent point about military draft being motivation for Armenians leaving Syria over the last 5 decades. It was in fact my own father’s reason for leaving Syria in the 1960s. Both military service and economic reasons are cited in Payaslian’s study. I will consider your constructive comments are I continue to draft a larger article on Myth #3 for another journal.

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