Stop Trying to Make Syria's War Into a Sectarian Conflict

There's more to the country's ongoing strife than religious differences.

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A resident walks with children along a street in Deir al-Zor on March 13, 2013. (Reuters)

As the U.S. contemplates a more active role in Syria, many journalists and policymakers are focused on the civil war's sectarian violence. A December 2012 UN Commission of Inquiry stated that "as battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian."

A headline in the Atlantic Wire on March 4 warned ominously that "Syrian Troop Ambush in Iraq Heightens Fear of Bigger Sectarian War." PRI's The World reports that, "the sectarian fighting has echoes of the Sunni-Shi'ite violence that dominated the middle years of the war in Iraq."

Sectarianism is a real possibility in Syria. But it isn't the only one.

That's dangerous -- because while the Syrian civil war isn't yet a sectarian conflict, the discussion itself could make it one.

To be sure, a compelling story is making the rounds. Such voices as Patrick Cockburn at The Independent , Joseph Olmert in The Huffington Post, and countless others describe the Syrian war as an armed conflict pitting Sunnis, who make up the majority of Syria's population, against the Alawites, who back the Assad regime, and their Shiite allies, Iran and Hezbollah. In this telling, Christians and other innocent minorities are under siege, caught in the crossfire and afraid they will be oppressed by a Sunni majority in a post-Assad Syria. This would make Syria just the latest in a long string of Middle Eastern countries riven by intractable sectarian differences that lead to interminable chaos and violence. Because religious divisions define people's identities in this region, the story goes, history tells us that there is no choice but to let them "fight it out" while we do everything in our power, including possibly arming the opposition, to ensure that those who support U.S. interests in the region prevail.

This all-too-familiar story appeals to a range of interests inside and outside Syria. It paints a picture of a Middle Eastern conflict in which religious and sectarian differences inexorably determine political outcomes. Because it suggests that such violence is inevitable and may even be biologically or culturally predetermined, it exonerates the Assad regime and other countries that have failed to act even in the face of extreme state-sponsored violence against innocent civilians -- as when Syrian government forces bound and shot 49 children during a massacre of 108 civilians in Houla last spring.

The sectarian story is also wrong for a less obvious reason. Syrians -- the real people on the ground who happen to live in Syria -- don't conform to the sectarian stereotypes that policymakers and pundits are promoting with such gusto. Of course, some Syrians identify strongly with their ethnic or religious communities. But like people all over the world -- including here in the United States -- many Syrians hold multiple allegiances, sympathizing with more than one sectarian identity or none at all, or are of mixed backgrounds. Such individuals do not fit neatly into the boxes of religious identification demanded by the narrative of sectarianism. This narrative's logic insists that an individual be this or that--rather than both or neither. Individuals who refuse to define themselves in these rigid terms are put in an impossible position: Either they are compelled make political claims based on sectarian identities, or they are left with no grounds from which to speak. This happened in Bosnia in the 1990s, when individuals who called themselves atheists before the war suddenly found themselves publically identified -- and divided -- by a newly salient and inescapable religious identity.

But this narrative -- and the devastation that could come from it -- can be avoided if we debunk at least three myths. First, sectarianism is not about intractable religiosity. As civil rights attorney and Middle East commentator Yaman Salahi observed recently in Al Jazeera, "religiosity is not a prerequisite to today's sectarianism (if it ever was), as even those who never fast or pray will not hesitate to indulge in it."

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project and associate professor of Political Science at Northwestern University.

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