Tag Archives: sectarianism

I am very honored to host this post by Budour Hassan, a Palestinian anarchist law student living in Palestine. She writes about Nawar Qassem, a Syrian activist who was detained on June 28th by the Assad regime. You can follow Budour on twitter @Budour48.

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Nawar Qassem: Challenging the Discourse of Sectarianism in Syria

It is an arduous task to write about someone you have never met or talked to, but it is even harder to explain how that complete stranger has invaded your thoughts and haunted your dreams.

Nawar Qassem, an incredibly courageous young man from Tartous, has turned into just another number on an endless list of nameless detainees in Syria. I first read about Nawar on Twitter upon his arrest – or abduction, to be precise – by Syrian regime forces from his parents’ house on Wednesday June 28th. Nawar had been shot in the thigh earlier this month and his injury requires a surgery outside Syria. Sounds like a tediously familiar story, doesn’t it?

As desperately as we try to deny it, most of us have normalized mass-killings in Syria. We have lost count of the number of martyred, injured, detained, disappeared and displaced Syrians since the start of the Syrian uprising. In today’s Syria, a day is considered relatively “quiet” if the death toll does not exceed 50.

In today’s Syria, the sudden, painless death by a sniper’s bullet is a luxury many Syrians dream of: before his arrest, citizen journalist Hassan al-Azhari from Latakia said that he preferred death over arrest. But even that was too much to ask. He was arrested and tortured to death.

In today’s Syria, the basic rights of paying farewell to your loved ones, mourning them in peace, and burying them properly are privileges that thousands of bereaved families have been deprived of.

In today’s Syria, having a name is a curse in life and death. Few dissidents afford to reveal their identity out of fear of persecution, arrest and torture. At times, even the dead must remain unnamed since the mere mention of their names may be too great a threat for their families and comrades.

In today’s Syria, martyrs have become numbers flashing across our TV screens and their stories remain untold. Think of the man who was killed a few days before his wedding. Think of the medical students who were shot dead a day before their graduation. Think of the little girl who fled the heavy shelling on Baba Amr only to be murdered along with her entire family in Deir Ezzour.

In today’s Syria, there are tens of thousands of detainees; most of them do not get Facebook pages calling for their release or trending campaigns raising awareness to their plight.

In today’s Syria, only one side bears the burden of proof. And no, it is not the side that has enslaved Syrian citizens for four decades. The oppressed in Syria have to protest, document the protest, get shot and shelled, treat the injured, live-stream the shelling while risking their lives in the process only for couch “anti-imperialists” to reject their reports blithely because they are anonymous peasants who do not have celebrity status or hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers like Tahrir Square’s superstars; because their reports are unsubstantiated; because some of the pictures posted in social media are outdated or unverified which must mean that the entire uprising is fake or exaggerated. It matters not that with so many massacres across Syria, we get virtually identical images of charred corpses and graphic injuries. It matters not that spreading unverified or false photos and news is not by any means exclusive to the Syrian uprising, but rather transpires everywhere including in Palestine; it matters not that the very people demanding utmost accuracy from Syrian protesters in the name of integrity unthinkingly quote sources sympathetic with the Syrian regime.

In today’s Syria, massacres and protests define towns and cities with the stench of death replacing the scent of jasmine.

Why, then, at a time when massacres and mass arrests became a routine, has Nawar Qassem’s story occupied my mind and touched me so profoundly? Perhaps because it challenges the paradigms and stereotypes that have come to characterize the Syrian uprising and dominate the discourse over Syria. Nawar is an Alawite. And it is painful that we are obliged to mention a person’s sect to show that the revolution is not a Sunni insurrection. Nawar is a Syrian Alawite who has been active in the revolution since its outbreak. Nawar has dedicated his time and energy to assist Homsi refugees, working in Tartous, a city that has been a stronghold for the regime. Nawar is a Syrian Alawite non-violent activist meaning that he faces a serious risk of torture and an extremely vengeful, wrathful punishment at the hands of his jailers.

It is precisely because Nawar Qassem does not fit the accepted narrative that you will not hear about him in the media. Writing about a guy from the “minorities”, who is one of many activists working behind the scenes, does not sell copies like the “Sunni market” story. Speaking about solidarity and unity in Syria is not as contentious as publishing Adnan Arour’s disgustingly sectarian statements. Covering the protests of Salamiyeh – a mixed town of Ismailis, Sunnis, and Shia Twelvers, all of whom have been protesting since the very beginning of the uprising as well as aiding the injured and the displaced – does not serve the narrative that “minorities” staunchly support the regime.

By no means am I trying to paint the Syrian uprising as a utopia or as a perfect uprising. It is not. The revolution has indeed been stained by sectarian sentiments and random violence at times. While it is the regime that is chiefly responsible for sowing sectarianism and driving revolutionaries into armed – and at times religious-motivated – resistance after months of largely peaceful protests, sweeping the flaws of Syrian society and the Syrian revolution under the rug is wrong. So, too, is condoning sectarianism and any crimes committed by the Free Syrian Army against civilians.

The Syrian uprising is our window into the Syrian society; after years of being accustomed to viewing the Syrian society through the eyes of the regime, we finally got the chance to see a different, unfiltered Syria with all its flaws, tensions, heroism and accomplishments. Despite the savagery of the Syrian regime and the insistence to portray the revolution as a civil war, acts of sheer courage, creative non-violent resistance and inspiring – albeit criminally under-covered – solidarity shine through amidst the incitement and hate-mongering.

Nawar Qassem was shot and arrested because he shakes the very foundation of a regime built on fear mongering and divide and rule tactics.

The Syrian regime proves again that the clever signs of Kafranbel, the cartoons of Ali Ferzat, the lens of Bassel Shehadeh’s camera and the roaring chant of “The Syrian people are one” pose a much greater threat to its existence than any armed battalion.

It’s horrible that it’s come to this. I never want to delve into stupid sectarian politics. But alas, the pro-Assad right-wing forces have made the sect of the Houla victims part of their propaganda campaign to exonerate government forces with regards to the Houla Massacre. So it has come to this.

Directly after the Houla Massacre happened, many directly began claiming that the victims were Shia or Alawite. The reasoning for this is because if the victims were Shia or Alawite, then it can automatically be assumed that the perpetrators of the massacre were extremist Sunni militants allied with the opposition in Syria, because Shias and Alawites, according to conventional wisdom, are assumed to be government supporters(although this claim itself is patently false as there are many members of the Alawite minority in Syria who are supportive of the opposition as well as many members of the Alawite minority who have been thrown in jail for voicing their opposition to the regime). This rumor spread, and many pro-Assads accepted this is as fact.

The claim was granted even more legitimacy after a report by the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This report was picked up by the conservative American magazine The National Review, which stated:

“But according to a new report in Germany’s leading daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Houla massacre was in fact committed by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and the bulk of the victims were member of the Alawi and Shia minorities, which have been largely supportive of Assad.”

A brief look at the names of some of the victims, however, shows that this claim is most probably false. The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies has an excel sheet (in Arabic) that documents the names of the victims that were killed and the method of killing. Many of the names of the victims are names that are culturally understood to be names of Sunnis. For example, victim number 27 on the list’s name is Umar Mahmoud Al-Kurdi. Umar is generally a name given by Sunni families to their children, due to its association with Umar ibn-Al Khattab. Without delving too much into Islamic history, Umar ibn-Al Khattab is generally an Islamic figure who is regarded positively in Sunni theology, but is regarded negatively in Shia theology. Because of this, it’s very culturally rare that a Shia or Alawite family would name their child “Umar”. Thus, it is unlikely that the Al-Kurdi family, one of the three main families that was massacred in Houla, was indeed of Shia or Alawite origin.

The second family who was targeted in the Houla Massacre was the Al-Sayyid family. A look at some of the names of their family members also shows a trend for naming names that are traditionally associated with Sunnism. Victim number 90’s name is Ahmad Muawiya Al-Sayyid, and victim number 91’s name is Muawiya al-Sayyid. The name ‘Muawiya’ is a name also associated with a figure in Islamic history that Shias regard negatively. Muawiya is not a common name in the Arab world as a whole, but is common among Syrian Sunnis as Muawiyah was at one point the governor of Syria. It is very unlikely that a Shia or Alawite family would name their child “Muawiyah”, as Muawiyah is a reviled figure in Shia theology.

The third family who saw lots of members massacred in Houla was the al-Razzaq family. Victim number 59 on the list’s name is Aysha Abd al-Khaleq Abd al-Razzaq. “Aysha” was the name of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. She is also generally regarded positively by Sunnis and negatively by Shias for historical reasons.

In each of the three main families that was targeted in the Houla Massacre, there are names of children that are names that are culturally Sunni. It is highly unlikely (although certainly not impossible) that Shia or Alawite families would casually name their children after figures that are reviled according to their own theology. This is certainly not any kind of conclusive evidence, but it certainly throws the claim reported by FAZ and pro-Assad propagandists into extreme doubt. One anomaly may be possible, but  in each of the three families that are reported to be Shia or Alawite, there are names that are normally associated with Sunni theology.