Syria has been the bloodiest chapter of the Arab Spring. It’s estimated that in November alone, 3,400 Syrians were killed, with the total being estimated at between 30,000 to 50,000.
That it involves alliances and disputes betweens Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Alawi Muslims, Salafis and secularists, peaceful protesters and armed fighters, only makes it a more complicated and fraught scenario.
I sat down with Adnan Zulfiqar, Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, to hear his take on the conflict. Zulfiqar recently traveled to Turkey, meeting with Syrian opposition figures, religious scholars, rebel fighters, Turkish officials and Turkish think tanks, in an effort to get a handle on what’s happening in the Syrian civil war as it approaches the two-year mark.
What did this trip tell you about the role of religion in the Syrian opposition?
Simply put, Syria is a religious country—something even atheist defectors recognize. Practically speaking, religion’s had a number of roles.
First, it’s the most potent rallying cry. Nationalism doesn’t have the same appeal as other parts of the Arab world, because nationalist slogans are a mainstay of the ruling Baath party, and religious rhetoric also gives the revolution a higher purpose. Likewise, secularism is associated with the Assad regime, and is thus tainted by the regime’s authoritarianism.
Second, Friday congregational prayers were the only place Syrians could gather en masse at the revolution’s start. The regime vigorously restricted citizens’ activities to suppress dissent, but stopping people from going to the mosque on Fridays was impossible. Hence, Friday prayers became a challenge to the regime’s absolute control.
Third, videos of regime-backed forces demanding their captives chant “there is no deity but Bashar” (a distortion of the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no deity but God”) have gone viral, awakening passionate sentiments even among the least religious. They’ve also furthered the narrative that this is a revolution against God’s “opponents.”