Religious and Identitarian Reconfigurations

Axis 3. “Religious and Identitarian Reconfigurations”

Before the outbreak of the revolt, more than two thirds of the Syrian population (about 18 million people) were Sunni Muslims. Other communities included Christians (6%), Alawites (10.4%), Druze (2%), Ismailis (1%) and Twelver Shiites (0.4%). There were also three non-Arab Sunni groups: Kurds (8%), Turkmen (0.6%) and Cherkess (0.4%), in addition to a small Kurdish Yazidi minority (0.1%). All these communities have since 2011 undergone profound reconfigurations, both religious, social and political. In this axis, which is closely connected to axes 1.2, 2 and 4, we will focus on the politico-religious assignment processes exercised imperatively on individuals and forcing them to choose a camp based on their sectarian identity. Indeed, at different levels, everyone is “reduced” in a way to their community membership, their specific political and religious beliefs notwithstanding. Support for the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is widespread among the Alawite, Druze and Christian “minorities,” which is a process fraught with detrimental consequences for the Sunni “majority” (Pinto, 2013).

As Thomas Pierret’s work since before 2011 shows, Sunni Muslims are a diverse group with a wide variety of religious traditions – reformists and traditionalists – of which Salafists were a marginal current. Since 2011, however, the latters have seen a dramatic rise (Pierret, 2015), especially on the military scene, with their various factions increasingly holding sway. This rise in power reflects a revenge by the rural peripheries on urban centers (Ibid.). In addition, it owes much to the mobilizing capacity of a doctrine offering an exclusive definition of the Muslim faith in a context of sectarian polarization between Sunnis, Alawites and Shiites (Ibid.). This rise is not confined to politico-military mobilization, and has been accompanied by attempts at coercively imposing a moral reform on every individual, as well as a homogenization of beliefs, practices and ways of being Muslim. This attempted imposition concerns members of the Christian, Alawite and Druze minorities. Supported by a politics of disintegrating local politico-lineage organizations that had started in the 1970s (Poujeau, 2015), the enlistment of “minorities” by the regime has been accelerated since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.

The issue of “religious enlistment in the revolt and the war” was the subject of a premiere study day organized on December 15, 2016 in Paris. Several presentations (notably those of T. Pierret and A. Poujeau) revealed how insightful videos posted on social media are for a precise documentation of the history of this complex process. This first encounter, which brought together all of our team members, also helped foster common questions equally concerning the Islamist rebel groups (Thomas Pierret), the Sunni women of the Qubaysiyat and the Akramiyin (Emma Aubin-Boltanski), the Christians (Anna Poujeau), the Sufi brotherhoods in Aleppo (Paulo Pinto) and the Kurds of Syria (Boris James): Who are the actors of the local implementation of the politics of enlistment on religious and/or ethnic bases? How are these politics being justified politically and religiously? How do people react to this process of politico-religious assignment that summons them most intimately: their ways of dressing, thinking, praying, interacting, etc.? What are the strategies developed to resist that? What is the margin of maneuver left for those who are “enlisted” under the banner of a particular group or camp just because of their places of residence or religious origins? For Sunnis before the revolution, belonging to a particular current or movement (Sufi, Salafist, reformist and traditionalist) was rarely exclusive. As such, a person could define himself as “Salafist and Sufi” or as “reformist and traditionalist,” etc. (Pierret, 2011; Pinto, 2006). This plurality of persuasions and the game of oscillation that it presupposes (between public and private discourse; between collective and personal practices, etc.) is still ongoing. As we pose  these questions, however, we need to keep in mind the actual radicalization of a large segment of the population. These questions will be discussed in relation to the research carried out in Axis 1.2, which proposes to revisit the period 1979-1982, when the regime of Hafez Al-Assad triumphed over the Sunni majority by crushing both its most religious fringe (Muslim Brotherhood) and its most secular fringe (leftist movements); in Axis 2, which focuses on the stories, actors and chronologies of the revolt and the war; and in Axis 4, which is concerned with territorial, social and economic reconfigurations. A workshop will be organized as part of this axis. The theme of enlistment on religious and ethnic bases will be explored from a comparative perspective. The event will also bring together researchers working on the wars of Lebanon, the Balkans and the African Great Lakes, all having in common strong denominational and/or ethnic dimensions.