Editorial: Alawites Don’t Have Horns, and Other Notes from the Syrian Diaspora in Revolution

By: Mohja Kahf

At a meeting of the Syrian Youth Activism Network (SYAN) in Chicago on October 23, 2011, one participant, a bright, US-raised adult child of immigrants from Homs revealed, toward the end of the weekend, “I don’t even think I’ve ever seen an Alawite in person.”

“Let me tell you all about them. First, they have horns on their heads…” quipped a smiling participant who had been chatting with her over the course of the weekend. Then he stuck out his hand and said he was glad to be her first Alawite friend.

According to the regime’s own Ministry of Expatriates, there are twenty-three million Syrians abroad, making expatriated Syrians as numerous as the twenty-three million inside Syria. Many Syrian expatriates live in Saudi Arabia and other Arabian peninsula states, or in the United States and Europe.  In both the Peninsula and the West, those Syrians who are Sunni and religion-oriented often lose touch with Syrians of other sects. Peninsular states have no indigenous Alawite (or Druze, or Christian) communities; a few have tiny Shia minorities who suffer exclusion from the mainstream of those states. Syrian Shias and Syrian Christians , let alone Alawites, pretty much have horns, so alien are they to a lot of Syrians who have been a generation or two in Saudi Arabia. For quite a few Syrian Arab immigrants in the West, the mosque or the church often becomes the axis of connection to the immigrant roots and the heritage language. Syrian expatriates who are Kurdish, Armenian, or Assyrian often congregate at ethnically based community centers where they are in touch with other Kurds, or Assyrians or Armenians, from Iraq and Lebanon and other countries, but not with a diverse array of Syrians. Sometimes, their children grow up learning Kurdish at home—or Syriac, or Armenian—and the language of their host country at school, without learning Arabic. The axis of identity may shift in the next generation—and there are Syrian families who have been in exile since the 1960s. Today, the revolution has called a shift back to the Syrian pole of identity, for many.

Muslim Brotherhood or former Brotherhood members, and their numerous progeny, even if the latter are not MB themselves, are a large population of abroad Syrians whose family experiences primed them to support the revolution as soon as it began.  This readiness to show up is, in part, why the Muslim Brotherhood was able to wield influence within the Syrian National Council, while not having much grassroots presence inside Syria. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood has been a capital crime in Syria since 1980, a fact which drove tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Syrian Islamists into exile. Some of them and their descendents experienced a fading of their Muslim Brotherhood worldview or evolved into more liberal sorts of identities; the political Islamism of others intensified toward Salafism; a few left the MB to form rival Islamist groups; some stayed the course as “card-carrying” Muslim Brethren. The experiences of this entire sub-set of Syrian exiles has been one of relentless regime persecution for their religio-political affiliation (which those who espouse a political Islamist worldview tend to see as inextricable from persecution for their religiosity).

My parents left Syria with me and my little brothers in tow in 1971, long before the death-imposing ban on the Muslim Brotherhood—which my maternal grandfather helped to found in Syria and with which my father affiliated in his college years—but nonetheless they left in large part because they saw the repressive writing on the wall. While Syria always remained deeply in the texture of my life, my self-identification shifted toward an “American Muslim” pole, then toward a more secular, Arab American axis, until the aftermath of September 11, 2001 drove me back into the Muslim American sphere, although without the political-Islamist worldview that forms part of my family history.

Like other sorts of immigrants, many MB-heritage Syrian exiles tend to battle “home country freeze,” a phenomenon whereby their notion of the home country is frozen in time around what they experienced in their lives “back home.”  Add to that the feelings of this community after the increased hostility toward Muslims in some Western countries since September 11, 2001. Experiences of persecution—genuine persecution, which was injust and deserves legal and ethical redress—can sometimes grow into a barrier to understanding that even such a group does retain the power to exclude and oppress other people in certain contexts. This victim-mentality residue, which is not limited to MB-heritage Syrians can, because it is grounded in genuine loss and suffering, create a defensive barrier against understanding that all Syrians must work toward a much larger, more inclusive vision of Syria, one that addresses but goes beyond addressing their specific victimization.

There is too much of the feeling among certain politically Islamist Sunni Syrians, both in the Gulf and in the West, that “It’s our turn.” It is everybody’s turn. It is time for dictatorship to end in Syria.  This is a revolution for a free and democratic life to become possible in Syria. Too many have died to keep it on that path, and too many Syrians are committed to keeping it that way, for it to be swerved—we hope.

On the sectarian issue, it behooves Sunni Syrians abroad who support the revolution, if they find themselves working for the revolution in exclusively Sunni settings, to ask themselves, “How can we increase Syrian diversity in this group, to make it more inclusive and more reflective of Syrian society at home?”  This means, for example, not being satisfied to hold Syrian activism meetings as if they were exclusively extensions of US Muslim events, but actively to seek out local Syrians who may not orbit around the mosque. It behooves Sunni Arab Syrians to acknowledge that, despite regime promotion of sectarianism, there are still contexts in which we have the unstated and unearned privileges of being in the majority. We thus own the responsibilities—of vigilance about inclusion, for starters—which come with that majority status.  Inside Syria, activist Tayseer Karim Radwan is among many revolution activists who model such awareness. The volunteer field doctor (from a Sunni background), who suffered imprisonment from December 2011 to March 2012, told me that before joining any new revolution group in person or on Facebook, he asks, “Is it inclusive? Is it diverse?”

There are many exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood families and “heritage” MB people as well as other exiles who, because deprived of a Syrian passport by the regime, have lived lives blighted by displacement. In general, Syrian expatriates and exiles, of all backgrounds and political stripes, have tended to prosper abroad. In the West and in the Gulf, they have tended to thrive in business and in the professions of medicine and engineering, and often have developed the right-wing economic and political views which tend to go along with economic prosperity.  Gulf-state Syrians and U.S.-raised Syrians culture-clash on a lot of issues, but this much they have in common: most have acquired a middle-class or upper-middle-class affiliation that influences their perspectives on the revolution today.

This business-world conservatism is a factor among others that may help to explain why many of them seem not to understand the immediate and extended dangers that a NATO- or US-led intervention poses to the same ordinary Syrians who started this revolution and are suffering under the regime’s daily slaughter. Rather than grasping the values of citizen empowerment and self-determination at the heart of this revolution, a top-down management model dominates many abroad-Syrians’ view of how the revolution can succeed, leading them to support a military intervention as “the only way” (as they frequently repeat) to bring down such a vicious regime.

Coming back into the collective Syrian scene now, Syrians long abroad need a civic re-education about the diverse composition of Syrian society—and about the Syrian revolution’s core values, its diversity of voices inside Syria.  One may object, “If you explain abroad-Syrians supporting interventionism because of their top-down management model from business prosperity, how do you explain the inside-Syrians who want intervention?”  To which the answer, I think, is “desperation” and “being saved top-down is all they can think of, from decades of being ruled top-down.”

The narrative glorifying heroic militarism as the only path of revolutionists inside, on one hand, versus the regime narrative of half-truths and utter lies, on the other hand, are not the only two narratives at play inside Syria. In every protest locale in Syria, there are also revolutionists of integrity risking their lives on the path to a truly democratic Syria guaranteeing human freedoms, distressed at red flags in the militarized quarters of the revolution, such as kidnappings, torture of alleged regime collaborators, attempted assassinations, and actual executions espoused by some brigades of the FSA. These voices are critical and honest about the elements both inside and outside Syria who may try to ride the revolution for their own aims.

Meanwhile, in some Syrian activism venues abroad, the slightest internal criticism of the revolution is often seen as unacceptable, a betrayal of the fallen, a treason to the cause. This is not a sustainable position; plus our activism on the path to democratic Syria must be conducted with democratic process, and such curtailment of debate is not democratic.

On the issue of the root values of the revolution, including militarization and intervention as well as sect dynamics, Syrians abroad must work to connect more with the local struggles and personal transformations happening on the ground in Syria, and to re-evaluate the top-down model of change they often seem to espouse.  We have not yet grasped how truly revolutionary this revolution is, how it challenges us to re-examine ourselves at every level.

I believe that we—Syrians long abroad, with the help of those inside— must get our heads screwed on straight about these issues for the revolution to progress, even if success rides on many other variables too.  Otherwise, we risk locking ourselves into an echo chamber, hearing only voices matching ours in Syria and in the Syrian revolution community worldwide. Living revolution days in an echo chamber is not conducive to the revolution’s victory.

Source: Mohja Kahf

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