Vali Nasr had an interview with CFW on the violence in Syria and its implications. Nasr has become a sort of go-to expert for all things Middle Eastern and politically Islamic in recent years, which is slight departure from his true expertise: Islamism in Pakistan. I have no problem with generalists or in someone using expertise in a specific area more broadly—critical thinking is an asset to be broadly applied, and Vali Nasr’s is a first-class intellect—but Nasr seems to me to intentionally play into the media spotlight and he sometimes loses fidelity to “ground truth” by focusing on epiphenomena.

The Shia Revival was misunderstood by the grand public as a threat by an upsurging minority bent on political dominance across the Middle East, threatening all that we understood (or thought we did) about the balance of power in that region. The misunderstanding as has much to do with King Abdullah of Jordan’s coining of the term “Shia crescent” as it does the habit of the general public not to fully read books or to latch on to sensational aspects of them. Really, all he was pointing out was that religion still mattered, that it had political effects, and that it mattered in the Middle East in terms of the old split between Sunni and Shia. This was just the local manifestation of what Samuel Huntington had pointed out ten years before in The Clash of Civilizations, where he argues that such identity politics would become the norm. Both books elide nuances in order to make a larger argument on a grand scale, but like with other grand theorists, there’s something there that nitpicking the details doesn’t dispel.

In this piece, I think Nasr is right in his overarching argument that the violence in Syria is part of a reshuffling of power between interests groups more so than a fight for democracy, but he misrepresents the sectarian and ethnic divisions in antebellum Syria as being a case of minority repression. Unlike what Nasr states here, the Alawi in Syria have not exerted tyrannical control over a mostly Sunni population; the Assad regime, which is Alawi, has exerted tyrannical control over the entire Syrian population, which is mostly Sunni.

The Alawi population owes much to the regime—it derives social and economic privilege, and by some reports, its entire identity now derives from the regime vice any theological or cultural distinctions—but the regime derives little from the Alawi. Alawi make up a large percentage of military elite, but the business and other elites are Sunni or Christian, etc.

Syria is a complex tapestry. That’s an overused expression, but in this case (as with Lebanon) it’s a good one as the whole society is knitted together, knots on knots, with no real sense of how the whole thing hangs together beyond faith. Ok, maybe not a tapestry; more like macramé.

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