Syria appears to be operating as a test-tab for all types of sociological experiments and discoveries. There is overwhelming rhetoric today on the ‘secular’ nature of the Syrian regime being counterposed to the intolerant nature of the increasingly Islamic-influenced rebels, in a tacit rehabilitation process (generally of course preceded by the seemingly-contradictory phrase ‘I do not support but..’). Contributing to the preponderance of this narrative is an unfortunate tendency of so many people on (both) the Right and Left to ‘deduce’ what they think is going on based on pre-established models, relieving them from the burden of examining actual evidence. Syria is so interesting because it is operating almost as a test-lab, which has revealed so many discoveries of how ultimately such currents think when they are stripped of short-term surface-level ‘objectives’.
To illustrate what I mean by an example, many tendencies or characteristics such as the one I am describing in this article would not have been seen in an ‘Iraq’, where the conversation would not surpass the stage of agreement (opposing the US invasion). For many currents within the Left support is conditional on a) being on an opposing side to Western establishments or b) being socialist in character (where both are present it is a bonus). Where a) appears unclear, due for example to US position appearing muddled ‘from afar’ (at best), and is not compensated by b) (seen in supporting Kurdish forces despite the support of US and historically Israel), the understandings of the actual underlying principles that moves such people and how they actually view the world in the end (that was obscured by common cause) are laid out bare.
In this regards it seems that many on the Left feel discomfort of having a regime professing secularism to be associated with fascism, especially in the absence of point a) highlighted above, and would thus prefer to operate on the basis that while a secular state can be authoritarian it is better to reduce as much as possible a description that it is ‘fascist’ (especially in far-removed (far away) contexts, and/or contexts where socialists aren’t the ones under attack); we are arguing for secular models and unless absolutely necessary let us try and not increase the regimes associated with secularism with the adjunct of ‘fascism’ (especially in a region where an Islamic political programme has lorded it over the left as the main anti-establishment force). Whereas on the other hand it is ‘much more likely’ that Islamic factions be labelled fascist by the sheer fact of who they are (rather than what they have or haven’t done).
Rhetoric of ‘Islamic fighters being fascists’ on both Right and Left entails a simple process of laying out ideologically-biased ‘expectations’ that present themselves as ‘intuitive’ (rather than rooted in actually occurring realities). In a sense it is of course very Orientalist because it projects the European-Christian experience (image of Crusaders etc.) on the Middle East, making it assume that Muslims in the Middle East would act in the same way (regardless of the fact that European-secular experience hasn’t been much more better, but that’s a different matter). Muslims who identify politically by sole virtue of that identification therefore can’t protect Christians (wouldn’t want to), sympathise with their pains, visit them in their festivities, sit and converse with them, understand the common concept of the sanctity of holy sites or even have the basic awareness of a shared history of anti-religious oppression. Their belief, in short, makes them ignorant, ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ sub-humans.
Of course there is a sectarian element in the Syrian opposition. Firstly, when you see that the people attacking you are Shia Hezbollah, Shia Iran and Shia Alawite that’s going to obviously exacerbate sectarianism. When communities align themselves with a regime that’s dropping bombs on them on a daily basis, of course there will be ill feeling towards the communities. This is not rocket science and indeed we make the same argument to rebut the implications of ‘Muslims are anti-semitic’. In 2013 in Latakia this ill-feeing was notably acted upon when Alawites were massacred in a rebel offensive, an occurrence that was a stain on the revolution who could not reign in the (often foreign) extremists (even if it was posited as ‘reprisals’ for the sectarian massacres by the regime in Bayda, Baniyas, Houla, etc). Those involved should be brought to account. However this has been by-and-large the exception rather than the rule, and in fact considering the context of the war (and the ongoing attempted annihilation of one sect), attacks on Christians by rebels (non-ISIS) have been surprisingly limited.
The interesting thing about the ‘Islamists = killing minorities’ narrative is that its ‘evidence’ tends to generally consist of repeating the already self-professed description of who these people are rather than a relative and contextual examination of what they have done (i.e. image of bearded religious Muslim fighters ‘expectedly’ being intolerent). The fact that the political programme of the majority of Islamists states that they want a pluralist state, that no main rebel faction has put forward a programme that has claimed that they want to wipe minorities out, and the fact this has been by and large reflected in reality is ignored, regardless of what the presumptuous and removed ‘deducers’ think they could ‘assume’. There is no better nutshell of the falseness of that approach than when Islamic fighters with beards say ‘Allahu Akbar’ in response to a rousing speech declaring that ‘Christians are our brethren who must be protected’, or horror at Christians being attacked.
*Note: I do not generalise to those currents in the Left who go beyond this superficial form of thinking, rather examining the nature of the narratives of those who do. We hope and anticipate that those truly progressives help us in standing up to such narratives.