In his recent book “Islamic Exceptionalism,” Shadi Hamid argues that the United States should encourage Muslim-majority countries to pursue democracy even when their democratic choices lead to illiberal outcomes. For instance, he says, in Egypt we should have welcomed the duly elected Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi and denounced the violent coup that overthrew him. Instead we did the opposite.
Because Islam is an inherently political religion, Hamid claims, continued suppression of its political ambitions will only lead to more radicalism and instability. Embracing those ambitions and allowing Muslims to create organic societies will begin to lay the foundations for a more stable regional order.
It’s a provocative thesis, to be sure, especially since it admits of both logic and morality. “Why shouldn’t Egyptians, Jordanians, or Turks have the right to try out an alternative ideological project outside the confines of liberal democracy, however much we disagree with it?” Hamid asks. “That should be their choice, not anyone else’s.” He adds, quite correctly, “Forcing people to be liberal or secular, particularly when they don’t want to be, doesn’t tend to work well.”
But while empowering Muslim majorities seems logical, it also seems scary to anyone concerned about the welfare of non-Muslim minorities. History, and very recent history, demonstrates that Islam-inspired regimes don’t usually bode well for Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Alawites, Druze, or any of the other ethno-religious minorities who make up around 12.3 percent of the Middle Eastern population.
Can one support freedom and security for both majorities and minorities? This isn’t just a question for Hamid: It is the biggest question looming over U.S. policy in the Middle East, and one that looms especially large in the context of our involvement in Syria.
Integration Doesn’t Always Make for Peace
Hamid proposes limits on Muslim-majority power through a combination of constitutional protections and international pressure. Given the ways politics usually go in the Middle East, neither is likely to make defenders of minorities feel very secure. Hamid does suggest another solution, albeit indirectly, that is connected to his strong belief in the importance of difference. “Not all peoples, cultures, and religions follow the same path to the same end point,” he says. “We aren’t all the same, and why should we be?”
A basic recognition that some divides are just too profound to be overcome leads Hamid to note the utility, and sometimes the necessity, of separating groups that don’t get along. It’s an idea that Hamid admits is anathema in the West because it “undermines a core tenet of the liberal faith: If only opposing sides talked to each other in good faith, then reason would prevail.”
But he also notes that our liberal faith often bears little connection to reality. “This faith in our better angels is commendable,” he writes, “(and probably a good way to lead a happier life), but that doesn’t necessarily make it an accurate reflection of life as it’s lived and politics as it’s practiced. Sometimes,” Hamid continues, “reducing contact between opposing sides and allowing for autonomous communities are ways of accepting that some differences cannot be bridged. The best that can be done is manage them.”
This idea of “reducing contact between opposing sides”—i.e. separation—isn’t always desirable or pretty, but in the Middle East of 2017 there seems to be no other way forward. Hamid’s entire book rests on the premise that most Muslims long for a state governed by Islamic law; yet non-Muslims want the exact opposite. Pretending like this clash of worldviews doesn’t exist in the Middle East is the surest way to guarantee another century of bloody conflict, and anyone looking for proof of this need look no further than the embattled and fragmented country of Syria.
Islamist Majority Versus Non-Muslim Minorities
The Syrian civil war is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our era. Between 300,000 and 500,000 Syrians have been murdered since March 15, 2011. The International Red Cross estimates that about 5 million others have fled the country and 6.3 million are displaced within its borders.
The basic story of the war is this: a ruling and repressive minority is using whatever means at its disposal to defend against an angry majority dedicated to throwing off minority rule. The Syrian regime is comprised mainly of Alawites, members of a sect that is considered heretical by most Muslims, yet about 75 percent of Syrians are Sunni Arab Muslims. Since 1970, the country has been controlled by Alawite leader Hafez al-Assad and, since 2000, his son Bashar. The Assads have been known for brutally responding to the Islamists who have repeatedly sought to overthrow their regime. The Sunni majority sees the Alawites as illegitimate rulers and infidels; the Alawites see the Sunnis as an existential threat to all they hold dear.
This fundamental tension between a Muslim majority seeking to install an Islamist government and a non-Muslim minority seeking to survive through brutal force is the central dynamic driving the Syrian civil war. The rest is really a story of outside powers exploiting this dynamic for their own interests.
The Sunni-Alawite tension isn’t new. It has plagued the modern state of Syria since before the state was established. During the 23-year French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, the legal and political entity that preceded Syrian independence, France understood the ethno-religious tensions well enough to divide the territory into self-governing enclaves that didn’t interfere with each other. These included an Alawite state along the coast, a largely Maronite Christian state of Greater Lebanon south of that, a Druze territory, and a predominantly Sunni state (albeit with its own sizeable minority bloc) that included the subunits of Aleppo and Damascus.
Lebanon eventually split off to become its own sovereign entity in 1943. The rest of these enclaves, with all their competing visions of the cultural and political, were forcibly incorporated into the larger Syrian Arab Republic in 1946.
Brutal Majority Rule Is Scary
The grand merger incurred considerable warnings from the country’s minority communities. The Alawites in particular were pessimistic about the prospects for coexistence with their Sunni neighbors. In 1936, none other than Suleiman al-Assad, grandfather of Bashar, took up the pen with five other Alawite leaders to beg a leading French political party not to abandon the Mandate for Syria and annex their community to the interior.
“The Alawi people,” they wrote, “who have preserved their independence year after year with great zeal and sacrifices, are different from the Sunni Muslims. They were never subject to the authorities of the cities of the interior.” Al-Assad and his colleagues were adamant. “The Alawis,” they said, “refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawis are considered infidels.” They continued:
The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities of Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.
These Alawite leaders thanked France for its nod toward independence and the installation of parliamentary government, but warned of a naiveté that would put the region’s minorities at risk. “The parliamentary rule…covers up a regime dominated by religious fanaticism against the minorities. Do French leaders want the Muslims to have control over the Alawi people in order to throw them into misery?”
We appreciate the noble feeling which motivates you to defend the Syrian people and your desire to realize the independence of Syria. But at present, Syria is still far off from the noble goal you are trying to achieve, because it is still subject to the religio-feudalistic spirit. We do not think that the French government and the French Socialist Party intend to offer the Syrians an independence whose application will only mean the enslavement of the Alawi people and the exposure of the minorities to the dangers of death and annihilation.
Similar cautionary and petitionary statements were penned around the same time by Jews of Palestine, the Maronites of Lebanon, and the Assyrians and Yazidis of Iraq. These minorities all saw something Western powers did not: Muslims of the Middle East wanted a kind of society that would endanger their freedom and security. Forcing them to live together would only end in bloodshed.
A direct line can be drawn from Alawites’concerns in 1936 to the violence that grips Syria today. For decades the Alawites repressed one Islamist insurgency after another, working hard to maintain their grip on power and preempt what they believed to be certain destruction. In 2011, against the tidal wave of the Arab Spring, their dam finally broke. Syria’s embittered and repressed Sunni population rose up against the regime, and the regime, understanding that the fight was to the death, responded with brutal force. The result has been a vicious and expanding cycle of violence that continues until today.
One can only wonder what would have happened if Western powers had listened to the region’s minorities and not assumed that communities with radically different worldviews could share the same state. Would Syria be the bloodbath that it is today? Would the Maronites of Lebanon be held hostages inside their own country by the Shi’i terror group Hezbollah? Would the Assyrians and Yazidis be victims of genocide in northern Iraq? We’ll never know. But we can still fix our mistake, and Syria provides the perfect opportunity.
Partition Gives Everyone Something They Want
We know two things about the future of Syria: Bashar al-Assad is likely to remain in power, and the Syrian Arab Republic will likely never be unified again. Thanks to strong support from Russia and Iran, plus little resistance from the West, Assad’s place seems guaranteed. At the same time, his regime has committed unspeakable atrocities in its drive to retain power. He needs to be punished, and the international community seems to sense that.
But Syria is broken. Even if Assad goes unpunished, it will be impossible for him to ever govern the entirety of the Syrian state, at least in its previous form. The establishment of the Kurdish-controlled Democratic Federation of Northern Syria has carved out a massive swath of his once-unitary state, and the political ambition of the Sunni population has never been greater. At this point it appears that Assad is too weak to mount a full reconquista of territory.
The choices in Syria are really only two: 1) keep Syria unified, depose Assad, and let the people draft a new constitution and elect a new government; or 2) move Syria toward federalism or full partition, keep Assad in place as the head of an Alawite province or state along the coast, and empower the other demographic regions of Syria to become self-governing provinces or states of their own.
Choice number one leads to an Islamist state with a sizeable non-Muslim minority, and number two leads to a collection of provinces or states, each governing its own affairs and securing its own borders. Only the latter allows the Sunni Arab majority to establish their hoped-for Islamist society and allows Alawites, Kurds, and Christians to establish the kinds of societies that they have been longing for, too. “The least bad solution is a partition of Syria,” Tom Friedman wrote recently in The New York Times (a shocking move for a lifelong liberal), “and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area — protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some U.S. troops.”
The United States has a crucial role to play in pushing the notion of separation in the post-conflict planning for Syria. It will be controversial in some quarters—mainly in Western ones—but it also has the potential for building consensus between the stakeholders by offering a solution that allows everyone to win. A similar, though perhaps less aggressive, policy should be pursued in northern Iraq. Lebanon and Egypt require more finesse, but any step toward creating and empowering Hamid’s “autonomous communities” will be a step toward easing the sectarian tensions in those two countries as well.
Divorce Is Better than Slaughter
Hamid is right. Islam has a liberalism problem, which is to say a minority problem. The solution appears to be, where practicable, separating Muslims from the minorities that fear them—a policy that will allow both Muslims and non-Muslims to live the kind of lives they want, free from domination and fear. It’s an obvious solution, although one Westerners don’t want to hear.
We prefer something more ideal. Drawing hard lines around extended communities within which they can create the kinds of societies they want is repugnant to our liberal sensibilities. Somehow, when we look at other countries, we expect their various cultures to do what we in the West still find difficult: get along.
Aren’t there cases of Muslims and non-Muslims getting along in the Middle East? Yes, many hundreds of thousands of them. But at the level of politics and society these two communities are simply too different to live together in a way that allows both the freedom and security they crave.
Divorce is bad, yes, but sometimes divorce is better than a bad marriage. It is certainly better than a violent marriage. In the case of Syria and some other dysfunctional Middle Eastern states, a divorce is long overdue. In truth, the two sides shouldn’t have married to begin with.