Myth-Making and Sectarian Secularists in the Middle East

September 1, 2016

Let’s start with full disclosure: “Cyrus Malik” and I are friends. I am also somewhat familiar with pseudonyms, as I used one myself — Londonstani — for years writing for the since retired Abu Muqawama blog. Cyrus and I both deal with the politics of conflict in the Middle East and focus extensively on Syria. However, we work with different sides. As a result, our frequent tea sessions in the Middle East’s various hotspots are generally characterized by the rapid and sustained exchange of accusations and punctuated by shawarma chomping, nargile smoking, and the sipping of tea (not usually in that order). Although I was surprised to see Cyrus airing his views in a public forum, thanks to the well-established tradition of rhetorical trench warfare between us, I already had a good idea of the arguments contained within the two War on the Rocks articles he wrote recently on sectarianism in the Middle East and U.S. policy.

Cyrus makes the case that the U.S. foreign policy community is all wrong about sectarianism in the Middle East and has been following a faulty approach as a result. Policymakers, he argues, have been seduced into supporting the sectarian ambitions of a group of unrepresentative Sunnis, while commentators lobby for more robust action against the sectarian extremists’ enemies — especially the regime of Bashar al-Assad. For my part, I don’t get the impression the U.S. government is blithely supporting ISIL-light groups. And, considering the Obama administration shied away from limited strikes after the 2013 chemical weapons attack, I don’t think columns of analysts and commentators are going to prompt regime change now.

However, the verbal hand grenades and carefully aimed facts really start flying when Cyrus suggests regimes, such as that of Assad, represent a counter balance to the ISIL and al-Qaeda worldview and, therefore, Washington should ease off a little. In 16 years working in the region — first as a Middle East correspondent and then as an advisor working with political and military groups — I have spent a lot of time with people who are looking to overthrow their regimes. Having also lived for long periods in their countries, I have some idea as to why.

In his articles, Cyrus uses Syria as a case in point, and it does serve as a good example. Over the longer-term, the U.S. position towards Syria has been relatively benign, particularly when you consider Syria was aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, serves as conduit to Hizballah, supported Hamas, and is Iran’s main ally in the Arab world. It was during the Cold War that the United States sought approving nods from Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, when negotiating regional peace deals. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria contributed 14,500 soldiers to the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm against Iraq. And, despite rumors that President George W. Bush was planning to roll tanks into Syria right after he was done with Iraq, the United States continued to render men it detained in the global war on terror to Bashar’s prisons right up to 2005. The United States and Syria might not have been the best of friends, but they weren’t enemies in any real sense either. U.S. policy towards Syria’s government changed in 2011 when its security forces tried to stop unarmed, non-sectarian, non-religious, pro-reform demonstrations by killing protesters. In the 41 years between Assad senior’s seizure of power and that point, the regime failed to make any real moves towards reform. Instead, it just became increasingly corrupt, cruel, and greedy.

The dictatorships of the Arab world — whether they claim to be religious or secular — don’t genuinely care about ideology. What they care about is staying in power, and their cack-handed efforts to do so have caused the multi-decade governance catastrophe that has allowed sectarianism to flourish. Cyrus and I agree that we don’t think regime change is a good idea and we want to see the regimes reform. But where he is willing to take the likes of regime advisor Bouthaina Shabaan at face value when she says internal reform is taking place, I don’t think Syria or the Arab dictatorships in general are genuinely willing to change or capable of enacting it on their own.

In his first essay, Cyrus claims there are similarities between Egypt under Nasr and his successors, and Syria under Assad. In both, he claims, citizenship and secularism trump sect. As someone who spent most of his twenties living in Egypt and travelling around the region, I dispute that characterization but I do think there are useful similarities between the two autocratic systems that are worth exploring. One of Egypt’s defining characteristics was its ability to portray itself in whatever guise was most convenient: Arab nationalist, secular, religious, traditionalist, or modern. This wasn’t a case of a country with many facets but the calculation of a cynical governing elite. For example, a TV anchorwoman might be sacked for wearing a headscarf, while the authorities organize sexual assaults against largely secular, female activists demonstrating for a more democratic government.

The brazen nature of the regime’s complicity in the 2005 “Black Wednesday” sexual assaults was particularly shocking. I was covering the demonstrations that day and saw uniformed senior policemen deploy violent criminals rounded up from jail cells against defenseless women. The police even ordered their men to block escape routes. Sometimes they physically restrained the women until the thugs could reach them. Commentators at the time put the regime’s behavior down to confidence. A senior official later told me the government believed the United States would keep its criticism muted due to its fear Egypt may step back from its role at the time as a mediator between Palestinian factions and between Palestinians and Israelis. Other less well-known incidents include arrests of gay men during raids on parties and nightclubs and their subsequent prosecution on charges of “contempt and despite of heavenly revealed religions.” Leaders from the beleaguered Egyptian human rights community said in private they saw the incident as an attempt to trap them into presenting themselves as defending homosexuality. Monitoring the local press, I would see hundreds of arrests a year of men and women, such as Manal Wahid Mana’i, across the country who seemed to run foul of the country’s supposed secular courts for nothing other than their religious beliefs.

Despite regular and often quite grotesque violations of the principles of secular government and abuse of those that called for them, the regime had no problem presenting itself as the last bastion of enlightened, secular rule when talking to its supporters abroad. In 2006, Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, traveled to Washington to lobby senior Bush administration officials, including Vice President Dick Chaney, following U.S. criticism of Cairo’s heavy-handed tactics against peaceful pro-reform demonstrations. One of the members of Gamal’s delegation later privately said the younger Mubarak had told their hosts that if they pushed a democratic agenda too far, they risked having Islamist parties come to power across the Arab world.

When I used to interview Egyptian officials and their Islamist opponents, I was constantly struck by the similarity in their views regarding power. Both groups felt they had the right to arbitrarily dictate the parameters and details of public life. In most cases, the fundamental point of difference between them was the issue of who got to wield power rather than how it should be done.

Syria’s ruling elite is similarly adept at maintaining a secular, progressive image while resisting all efforts to reform a brutal, callous, and regressive core. Cyrus says he is not calling for it to be supported but the narratives he outlines about the nature of the Syrian conflict cohere very closely to the regime’s talking points. On close examination, what you see is that — much like its Egyptian counterpart — the Syrian regime is quite capable of shamelessly presenting itself as progressive and secular while exploiting religious, ethnic, or social differences to serve its own purposes.

In his book, Years of Upheaval, Henry Kissinger describes negotiating with Hafez al-Assad to facilitate what would eventually become the Camp David Accords: “His tactic was to open with a statement of the most extreme to test what the traffic would bear. He might then allow himself to be driven back to the attainable.” Assad the younger has followed a similar ploy in his approach to public diplomacy in the aftermath of the uprising against his rule, but he replaces “attainable” with “tolerable.”

The regime’s “most extreme” statement is “the opposition are all extremists.” Cyrus is reflecting this when he writes:

When the uprising started in Syria… Insurgents in Syria had created failed state zones, power vacuums full of militia and a conservative Islamist Sunni population mobilized on sectarian grounds.

This effectively airbrushes out those ordinary, mostly young Syrians who first stood up to the regime by demanding the regime really become what it claims to be. Further down, Cyrus dismisses these people entirely by stating that they “have no influence because they have no militias.” This isn’t exactly true. The overarching goals of the 2011 uprising against the regime were generally understood to revolve around the principles of freedom, dignity, and social justice. When Syrians who oppose the regime are asked what sort of government they want to see, the answer pretty much always includes reference to “an inclusive state” and “freedom of religion and religious practice.” Public opinion is now an inescapable fact of politics inside Syria. Opposition groups fighting the regime routinely reflect these desires in their founding documents. The Army of Revolutionaries, which fights in the north, in a similar fashion to many other groups denounces “racism and sectarianism.” Assad is trying desperately to draw attention away from the fact that opposition to his regime is driven by a desire to have a government that actually is the things the it claims to be but isn’t.

The “tolerable” position the regime allows itself to be “driven back to” is that individuals “have made some mistakes.” This encapsulates Cyrus’ claim that the horrific civilian massacres of Banyas and Houla were carried out by “ill-disciplined local Alawite militiamen [who] exacted revenge on Sunni communities housing insurgents, targeting civilians as well.” Somewhat ironically, this sympathetic characterization recalls Israeli explanations of Sabra and Shatila.

The view of the opposition and many observers is that that these massacres and others like them were part of the regime’s core strategy to generate sectarian overtones to the opposition, thereby retroactively proving its claims. The regime, understandably, is interested in countering these claims.

The main lines of action in this strategy are to claim at every opportunity that sectarianism and extremism are the only motivations of those opposing the state, while working to make that claim seem credible. To survive, the regime needed to make its narrative of its enemies, as savage religious extremists, seem credible. To stoke the sectarianism it so desperately needed, the regime resorted to massacres, mass arrests of activists, releases of violent Islamists from prison (including founding members of groups Cyrus identifies as sectarian Sunni extremists, such as Ahrar al-Sham), and avoided fighting ISIL until much after the mainstream rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

The regime’s fixed position, in public at least, is that it is the victim in all cases of violence and the perpetrators are foreign or foreign-backed conspirators. Everything else is denied (including barrel bombs). Opposition negotiators who attended indirect talks with the regime in Geneva told me the regime made backchannel and informal references to its “mistakes.” It’s clear that this is the “tolerable” outcome the regime would allow itself to be “driven back to.” If key Western audiences accept this narrative, the regime has increased its chances of survival in power, which is its sole, unalterable aim. If U.S. policymakers and wider circles accept that the horrendous bloodshed is not the result of a callous attempt to preserve power but the isolated acts of a few “ill-disciplined” individuals, the regime can respond by sacrificing scapegoats to war crimes trials. If, on the other hand, the regime’s (possibly more reality-based) calculation had been to respond to the countless video and first hand news reports of its forces firing on unarmed civilians by accepting the obvious reality, it would then risk being pushed back further. If the regime accepted unequivocally its forces had used lethal force, questions would then be asked as to who issued the orders, what the regime’s command and control structure looked like, and perhaps even how the regime maintained its control over the country (i.e. by exploiting societal fissures, not working to treat them).

The region’s escalating problems are down ultimately to the decisions and actions of the rulers and elites that rule its countries. Yes, “asteroid strikes” as Cyrus terms U.S. policy mistakes such as the invasion of Iraq, have caused violent upheaval, but ultimately the demons of sectarianism, bloodlust, political incompetence, and extremism were born within these dictatorships themselves. The U.S. role in the mess has not been to indulge unrepresentative Sunnis but turn a blind eye to despots whether they claim to be religious or secular to meet short-term goals.

I don’t think such states should be spared censure and pressure to reform, including through military threats if their actions warrant it (by, lets say, for example, using chemical weapons). Cyrus might see these states as redoubts of secularism in a sea of sectarianism, but they are in fact its cause. Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf makes the point in his book In the Name of Identity that state repression pushes people to take refuge in their base identities:

When a society is riddled with suspicion, the last solidarities to survive are the most visceral ones: when all political, trade union and academic freedoms have been shackled, religious assemblies become the only places where people can gather together, talk and feel united in the face of adversity.

Maalouf here is just talking about the psychological impulse that comes from living in a repressive state that generates suspicion. This is without factoring in the result of police brutality, poverty, corruption, and other trappings of autocracies and dictatorships.

So, ruling elites in states like Syria, who use progressive discourse and liberal lifestyles as window dressing to disguise their kleptocracy, have been generating these potentially destructive outlooks for decades. They’ve just been buried under a veneer of statist loyalty. When these inherently weak states — only able to survive due to outside assistance — inevitably fail, the conflict that follows quickly takes ethnic, sectarian, and religious dimensions.

Cyrus and I agree that U.S. policy — and Western policy in general — should be encouraging reform. But, Cyrus reels at the idea that the Salafi Saudis and not the “secular” Assads get the gently-gently approach. In my opinion, constant and sustained pressure for reform should be applied to friend and foe alike in a manner appropriate to the circumstances. Syria should be a priority due to the devastation the conflict is causing. The classic Arab dictatorship cannot survive the era of better informed and more easily mobilized publics. They should not be allowed to double down on their old tactic of leveraging extremists in a desperate attempt to maintain power. This is what regular, mainstream Syrians from every sect and ethnicity mean when they say, “ISIS is an outcome of the regime.”

For the future of the region, the focus today should be on “holding the ring” so that a new political environment can emerge organically. This would mean standing robustly for freedom of expression and against politically motivated arrests or violence. “Robust” in this sense means not just strongly worded statements but provisos attached to trade deals, loans, and arms sales. Pressure should be public and private based on the understanding that the United States sees the development of stable societies as dependent on the ability to freely engage in politics. There are vast and deeply established economic interests in the Middle East. They fear a rapidly changing world, and they will do whatever is in their power to maintain their interests. Influencing their reaction to that change will require a long-term approach as opposed to short-term patches subordinate to the needs of domestic U.S. political issues. When push comes to shove, it will be harder than it sounds, requiring huge policy discipline and coordination.


Amil Khan, occasionally known as Londonstani, has spent 16 years working in the Muslim world. First as a journalist reporting on conflict, politics, and extremism and later as a government advisor. He works for specialist strategy and communications consultancy InCoStrat, and is a Deployable Civilian Expert with the U.K. government’s Stabilisation Unit. The views expressed here are his alone. @Londonstani