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The Role of Religion in Postconflict Syria

Interviewee: Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame
Interviewer: Zachary Laub, Online Writer/Editor
July 2, 2013

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The death toll in Syria is now estimated to be upwards of one hundred thousand and shows little sign of abating. The once secular and nonviolent revolt has taken on the tones of a regional sectarian proxy war as Iran and Hezbollah intervene on the regime's behalf while Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey aid the rebels. While acknowledging the role of religion in provoking conflict, Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and coauthor of God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, argues that religious leaders have a critical role to play in negotiating societies' transitions from conflict to postconflict. "In Syria, there ought to be a lot of potential for entrepreneurial religious leaders to step up and pronounce a message of reconciliation," he says.

Three years into the Syrian civil war, any plausible policy the United States might pursue seems bound to raise a host of new problems. With decades of misrule compounded by sectarian differences, how do you begin to think about reconciliation?

This is a conflict where religion matters. It may not be the case that religion is the primary driver of the conflict, but it is certainly mixed up in the causes, both in defining the identities of communities as well as actual grievances. The Bashar al-Assad dictatorship follows a pattern of Arab dictatorship with respect to religion that is very interesting and very fraught. It can be seen as a protector of minorities: it protects the Alawites and Christians, but it follows a pattern of authoritarian rule which my coauthors and I have termed "seculocracy." It is based upon an Arab nationalist ideology that is all about modernization: we want to become more like the West; we want to become technologically advanced; we're based upon this secular nation idea; we want equality and social progress. The view of religion is that Islam is something that very much needs to be contained and managed.

The Alawites, and how they relate to other Shiites, seem to be poorly understood in the West--perhaps more a marriage of political convenience than a reflection of deeply rooted religious affinity. How does this play into the dynamics on the ground?

It does help to explain the relationship between Assad and Iran and then Hezbollah, which are its allies; the Shiite common identity helps to build that geopolitical alliance. In part, what's feared is that if Assad is overthrown this will not become a kind of secular democracy, but Sunni Islamist, and that it will then become an ally of other Sunni Muslim forces around the region.

Across the Shia Crescent, there seems to be a palpable fear that if Assad falls, the fate of Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq becomes much more precarious, making the whole region even more combustible.

"The failure of nationalism creates a vacuum. People's religious identities haven't gone away; they've started to mobilize around them politically. "

There is a kind of transnational Shiite solidarity. I would stress not only the role of religion in the conflict, but the sense of religion being opposed to secular government and a sense that the Arab nationalism project ran out of steam. In the 1950s and 1960s it looked great; they thought religion would disappear as a force, but in the last forty years there has been a resurgence of religion in global politics. Certainly there has been an Islamic resurgence. Meanwhile, the Arab nationalist project has been an economic disaster, often built on socialism, on statist-style economies.

Is the failure of these nationalist projects what brought people back to Islam in this political sense?

The failure of nationalism creates a vacuum. People's religious identities haven't gone away; they've started to mobilize around them politically.

And you see that many Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, proved much more effective than some states in providing services people expect.

Exactly. So in the 1970s you started to see student mobilization, and the Muslim Brotherhood really became a widespread popular force, rather than just a few radicals.

The prospect of a negotiated settlement all sides can sign on to seems completely remote; even as there's broad agreement that there should be a Geneva II peace conference, the conference has been delayed repeatedly--it now seems unlikely to take place before the fall--and disagreement over the agenda and even the participants persists. So where do we go from here?

I am deeply pessimistic. Assad is starting to resurge, and if he thinks he is going to win, he is not going to negotiate. The question for the United States is: Should we arm the rebels, establish a no-fly zone? I'm skeptical. It's unclear who we are supporting and what they represent. It could end up being an Islamist-style government. Al-Nusra is already ruling in the east, imposing a very harsh form of Sharia law connected to al-Qaeda. The response to that is, we should support the moderates and make them stronger, but I don't know that we have that kind of control over things. My fear is that Assad falls and they are going to turn against each other: the more secular democratic people versus the Islamists, because their visions are just as opposed to each other as are either to Assad.

Can the case of Iraq, where Sunni-Shia fighting ran in parallel with the insurgency against U.S. forces, inform decision-making, or does it just muddle our thinking about Syria?

U.S. policymakers did not anticipate that after Saddam fell there would be this massive civil war partly between Sunnis and Shiites--you also had the Kurdish dimension. It's because of the failure of American foreign policymakers to understand the power of religion. Saddam, as bad as he was, was keeping all these things bottled, sometimes very brutally. Once you pull this lid off, these sectarian, religiously motivated passions came to the fore; that's something we didn't anticipate. You could see something like that with Syria. I would encourage American foreign policymakers to be aware and remember that religion matters.

How do you make thinking about religion a part of the intellectual culture at the State Department and in the national security apparatus?

"I would encourage American foreign policy makers to be aware and remember that religion matters."

There are some efforts to train people in the State Department and in the political realm in a kind of religious literacy. There has been a State Department working group on religion. If you want to pursue the goals of American foreign policy like stability, democracy, peace, antiterrorism, and so forth, then you've got to work with religious actors and understand the dynamics in building alliances. This is not to ignore the dark sides of religion too, the way that religion can foment conflict, but that too is something that policymakers could understand better.

With the UN Security Council deadlocked, is there a diplomatic avenue that seems promising? Or do we just have to see how it plays out on the ground and let the war exhaust itself?

I suppose that if the United States and Russia could agree on an approach, that could do a lot, but I don't see that happening any time soon. I don't want to seem naive here, but this is a case where religious leaders could make a difference, if you had religious leaders committed to a vision of reconciliation rooted in their religious traditions and were willing to coalesce around that. I think there has been an effort made to bring together Sunni and Shiite leaders, and often you can find agreements among the religious leaders saying,"we can live together in a country where there is going to be protection for religious freedom, there is going to be protection for minorities, and yet we're going to be a religiously informed polity."

Political scientists debate the relative merit of war crimes tribunals and amnesty-granting truth commissions in postconflict transitions. Looking ahead, do you have a take on what would be best for Syria?

Here's again where religious leaders can make a big difference. If it's a little bit unrealistic to think that they are going to make a difference during the war, it's more realistic to think that they could make a big difference after the war. Reconciliation need not reject war crimes tribunals or accountability. Whether or not to have that or amnesty is a pragmatic decision. In an ideal world you would have accountability for war criminals. However, the human rights community and international law community place almost an exclusive emphasis upon trials and rule of law whereas I think a reconciliation paradigm would be much broader, where you would see things like acknowledgement of victims, apology, and forgiveness to overcome some of those past wounds which are getting more and more horrible the more the death toll mounts, and the bitterness and the hatred and revenge, and all that goes with it. It seems to me that if those emotions and those wounds are not addressed, then we can't expect a stable peace in Syria.

Do you think war crimes trials run the risk of alienating armed groups that could potentially be avoided with the truth and reconciliation approach?

One wants to acknowledge the depth and magnitude of the wounds. But, on the other hand, we do have examples of countries like South Africa, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, and Northern Ireland, where through religious leadership there have been real efforts to heal the wounds and to encourage people to reconcile or at least partially reconcile and be able to live together again.

Commentators have raised the Balkan wars as an apt analogy for the kind of communal fighting in Syria. Does their postconflict experience hold any relevant lessons?

The Balkans is a place where there had been some interreligious efforts towards peace, but I wouldn't call it one of the stronger cases in the world of reconciliation. You had the international criminal trial for Yugoslavia, so you did have some progress toward accountability, and that's a good thing in itself. I don't think that it had very much impact on peace on the ground.

Was it a failure of tactics? Could they have done better?

They never succeeded in having any kind of powerful truth-telling process or practices of apology, reparations, or forgiveness. In Syria, there ought to be a lot of potential for entrepreneurial religious leaders to step up and pronounce a message of reconciliation.

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