Syria's Shades of Gray
- New York Times: Op-Ed 6/7/2003
Syria's Shades of Gray
By WILLIAM DALRYMPLE
The United States has probably never been more engaged in the Middle
East than now, with an American army of occupation in Iraq and
President Bush promoting a Israeli-Palestinian road map to peace.
Yet the Bush administration has virtually ignored Syria, which
physically links Iraq and Israel, except to single it out as a target
of occasional bellicose threats.
There has been no question of constructive engagement with Iraq's most
powerful Arab neighbor. Instead Syria is seen merely as an unofficial
adjunct to the Axis of Evil, ripe for reform if not outright invasion.
That's unfortunate, because Syria, despite its many justifiably
condemned policies, stands out in the Middle East in one respect that
American policy makers should take into consideration. This aspect of
Syria is most starkly on display at Saidnaya, a large Orthodox
monastery north of Damascus.
The monastery sits on a great crag of rock overlooking the olive
groves of the Damascene plain, more like a Crusader castle than a
place of worship. But what is most striking about Saidnaya is that on
any given night, Muslim pilgrims far outnumber Christian ones. As you
walk into its ancient pilgrimage church, you find the congregation
consists largely of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded
wives. As the priest circles the altar, filling the sanctuary with
clouds of incense, the men bob up and down on their prayer mats. A
few of the women approach the icons. They kiss them, then light a
candle. Ordinary Muslims in Syria, it seems, have not forgotten
the line in the Koran about not disputing with the people of the
book - that is, Jews and Christians - "save in the most courteous
manner . . . and say we believe in what has been sent down to us and
what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one."
The religious pluralism that the pilgrimage church represents was
once not uncommon across the Levant. Throughout the region until very
recently, villagers of all faiths would converge on the shrines of
Christian saints to ask for children and good harvests. The Eastern
Christians and the Muslims lived side by side for nearly one and a
half millennia because of a degree of mutual tolerance and shared
customs unimaginable in the solidly Christian West. From Bosnia to
Egypt, Christians and Muslims as well as many other religious
minorities managed to live together. If that coexistence was not
always harmonious, it was at least - with a few notable exceptions
- until the beginning of the 20th century, a kind of pluralist
Only in the last 100 years has that pluralism been replaced by a new
hardening in attitudes. Across the former Ottoman dominions, the 20th
century saw the bloody unraveling of that complex tapestry - most
recently in Kosovo and Bosnia, but before that in Cyprus, Palestine,
Greece and Turkey. In each of these places pluralism has been
replaced by a savage polarization. In dribs and drabs, and sometimes
in great tragic exoduses, religious minorities have fled to places
where they can be majorities, and those too few for that have fled
the region altogether. Only in Syria has this process been firmly
arrested: there alone, you still find five or six religious sects
coexisting in villages across the country.
Since the coalition's victory in Iraq, Syria has frequently been given
notice that it could well be the next target of American wrath. Yet
the Middle East is not a place where simplistic notion of good guys
and bad guys makes much sense. It is a place of murky moral gray, not
black and white. Torture, repression of minorities, the imposition of
military law and the abuse of basic human rights happen every bit as
frequently and as unpleasantly in states that are American allies as
they do in states that are not.
Certainly most would agree that Syria has much to reform. It is a one
-party state where political activists are suppressed and the secret
police fill the prisons with political prisoners who will never come
before a judge. Violent opposition to the regime is met with
overwhelming force, most horribly in the case of the armed rising of
the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982: the city was sealed off and
at least 10,000 people were killed. Yet the balance sheet is not
entirely one-sided, and with the Pentagon busy drawing up invasion
plans even as Iraq still contends with postwar anarchy and the
Taliban resurfaces in southern Afghanistan, it is well to consider
carefully exactly what would be lost if Syria's president, Bashar al
-Assad,were to be deposed.
For if Syria is a one-party police state, it is a police state that
tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of
politics. And if political freedoms have always been severely and
often brutally restricted, Mr. Assad's regime does allow the Syrian
people cultural and religious freedoms. Today, these give Syria's
minorities a security and stability far greater than their
counterparts anywhere else in the region. This is particularly true
of Syria's ancient Christian communities.
Almost everywhere else in the Levant, because of discrimination and
in some cases outright persecution, the Christians are leaving. Today
in the Middle East they are a small minority of 14 million; in the
last 20 years at least two million have left to make new lives for
themselves in Europe, Australia and America. Only in Syria has this
pattern been resisted. As the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo,
Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, told me on my last visit: "Christians are
better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than
Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can
really feel the equal of a Muslim."
He added: "If Syria were not here, we would be finished. It is a
place of sanctuary, a haven for all the Christians: for the
Nestorians driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians
driven out of Turkey, even the Palestinian Christians driven out by
the Israelis" in 1948.
The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can't help
notice the minute you arrive in the country. This is particularly so
if you arrive from eastern Turkey. There, until very recently,
minority languages like the Aramaic spoken by Syrian Orthodox
Christians were banned from the airwaves and from schools. For
Christianity in eastern Turkey is a secretive affair,and the
government has closed all the country's seminaries. But cross into
Syria and you find a very different picture. Qamishli, the first town
on the Syrian side of the frontier, is 75 percent Christian, and
icons of Christ and images of his mother fill shops and decorate
every other car window - an extraordinary display after the
furtiveness of Christianity in Turkey.
The reason for this is not hard to find. President Assad is Alawite, a
Muslim minority regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretical and
disparagingly referred to as "little Christians": indeed some scholars
believe their liturgy to be partly Christian in origin. Mr. Assad's
father, Hafez, who was president from 1971 until his death in 2000,
kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of
Syria's religious minorities through which he was able to
counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority. In the Assads'
Syria, Christians have done particularly well: in his final years,
five of Hafez's seven closest advisers were Christians. The
Christians are openly fearful that if the Assad regime should fall,
their last real haven in the Middle East will disappear and be
replaced by yet another fundamentalist government, as may be the case
All this does not excuse the repressive policies of the Assad regime.
But in a region where repression is the rule rather than the
exception, it is important to remember that the political rights and
wrongs are rather more complex than the neoconservatives and Pentagon
hawks are prepared to acknowledge - or perhaps even know.
William Dalrymple is author of ``From the Holy Mountain: Travels
Among the Christians of the Middle East'' and ``White Mughals: Love
and Betrayal in 18th-Century India.''