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Syria: A very modern conflict

We must be wary of rose-tinted narratives about the past: sectarian tensions have been present, even if non-confrontational, in peaceful times.

Stories about the “good old days” are familiar to any Lebanese who, like me, moved as a child to London to escape the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Our parents and grandparents shook their heads at every outbreak of violence while recalling that they never cared which sects their classmates were from and used to celebrate each other’s holy feasts together. Many still do and they continue to be horrified as new conflicts arise in the Middle East.

A decade ago, Iraqis began to say similar things and now it is the Syrian people’s turn. The Lebanese can only watch sadly as Syria descends more deeply into the kind of bloody and increasingly sectarian civil war with which they are all too familiar. We must be wary of rose-tinted narratives about the past: sectarian tensions have been present, even if non-confrontational, in peaceful times. Yet it would be wrong to see Syria, or the region more generally, as prone to ancient hatreds that are reasserting themselves today.

To represent the civil war as purely sectarian is as reductive as it is dangerous, because policy decisions are often based on such interpretations. Dan Snow’s BBC documentary A History of Syria (broadcast in March) took this line, neglecting the political and economic interests that are the real causes of violence in the country.

In common with many western commentators, Snow presented the civil war as an inevitable uprising of Sunni conservatism against Bashar al-Assad’s secularist government. By way of a supporting argument, he stated that Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. It is true that religious sects exist and that memories of violence understandably return when tensions rise again but it is an altogether different thing to say that sectarianism is an inherent and retrograde aspect of life in the region.

It is more useful to think about what is happening in terms of what I would call “sectarianisation” – a recent process, rather than a phenomenon that has always existed and prevents the Middle East from becoming modern and democratic. Instead of conflating sectarianism with religious belief, we should focus on the people who profit, politically and economically, from those identities and divisions.

The Syrian uprising began in 2011 in the small, southern city of Deraa as a way of expressing grievances against corrupt local officials and the regime’s repressive measures. This was taken up as a non-sectarian movement for reform and democratisation throughout the country. Early slogans and calls to demonstrate emphasised the inclusive nature of the revolution. Prominent Alawites and Christians supported it.

Assad’s immediate accusations that the rebels were foreigners and Salafists were exaggerations, if not fictitious, but as the crisis has dragged on, more and more foreign jihadists have entered Syria to fight against him. Assad has manipulated sectarian divisions ruthlessly to maintain power. By presenting the opposition as Sunni extremists, Salafists and al-Qaeda supporters who want to wipe out minorities, he has been able to mobilise Alawites (11 per cent of the population), Christians (12 per cent), Druze (3 per cent) and Shias (2 per cent) to support him. As the war has progressed, increased violence and massacres, such as those at Houla and Qubayr last year, have turned sectarian divisions into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is not difficult to find instances of sectarianisation throughout history. The British and French built links with Alawites, Druze, Christians and other minorities, ostensibly to encourage equality, but mostly to use them to gain economic and military inroads into the area. Some minorities, particularly the Alawites, had been neglected under the Ottoman empire, suffering poverty and a lack of education. The French mandate of 1920-46 created an autonomous Alawite region around Latakia and recruited Alawites, Druze, Circassians and Armenians into their troupes spéciales. Partly as a result of this, the Alawites maintained a strong sense of identity even while remaining poor. Syrian independence and Arab nationalism motivated them to work their way up through the military.

Regional events seem to be shaping up along sectarian lines. The recent incursion of the Lebanese Hezbollah into Syria and Iran’s plan to send troops to support Assad signal a Shia alliance across the region. The oil-rich Sunni monarchies Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the Syrian rebels. This is not a return to age-old religious differences. Sectarianism is created and re-created at different times and in different contexts.

Lana Asfour is a writer based in London and Beirut

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.