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5 June 2006updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

The many and the happy few

Syria - Politically repressive, the minority Alawite rulers have encouraged a surprising religious t

By William Dalrymple

Across the length of what was once the Ottoman empire, in the 20th century a savage polar isation replaced pluralism. In dribs and drabs, and sometimes in great tragic exoduses, religious minorities have fled to places where they can be majorities; and, when they are too few in number to do that, have fled the region altogether, seeking out places less heavy in history such as America and Australia. While Europe became more multicultural in the 20th century, over the same period country after country in the Middle East changed, in the opposite direction, into a series of monolithic, mono-ethnic blocks.

That Syria offers a hopeful exception to this rule may seem surprising. Strategically vital, it has been virtually ignored by both the US and the UK since the end of the Iraq war – except when it has been at the receiving end of a stream of bellicose threats. The Syrian leadership is never consulted on matters concerning Iraq and Israel, and the Bush administration’s only policy towards the country seems to be to put it on notice that if it does not be-have itself it could well be America’s next target. Donald Rumsfeld, among others, has taken frequent pot-shots at Damascus, accusing it of aiding the Iraqi resistance, sponsoring terrorism, assassinating Leb anese leaders and sheltering refugees from Saddam Hussein’s regime. There is no question of constructive engagement with Syria. Instead, it is seen merely as unofficial adjunct to the “axis of evil”, ripe for reform if not outright invasion.

Yet the Middle East is not a place where simplistic notions of good guys and bad guys make much sense. Torture, repression of minorities, the imposition of military law and the abuse of basic human rights happen every bit as frequently and as unpleasantly within states ruled by western allies, such as Egypt, Israel (and the occupied territories) and Saudi Arabia, as they do in states such as Syria and Iran.

Few would deny that Syria has much to reform. It is a one-party Ba’athist state where political activists are suppressed and an extensive network of secret police fills the jails with political prisoners, many of whom will never come before a judge. Violent opposition to the regime is met with overwhelming force, most dramatically in the case of the armed rising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982: the city was sealed off and at least 10,000 people were killed.

Yet the balance sheet is far from one-sided. With the Pentagon already draw-ing up invasion plans, while Iraq slides ever closer to civil war and anarchy, and with the Taliban resurgent in southern Afghanistan, it is well to consider carefully what would be lost if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to be deposed.

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Syria may be a one-party police state, but it is a police state that tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of politics. And while political freedoms have always been severely and often brutally restricted, both the current and the previous president, Hafez al-Assad, have allowed the Syrian people widespread cultural and religious freedoms. Today, these give Syria’s minorities a security and stability far greater than those of their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

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This is particularly true of Syria’s ancient Christian communities. On my last visit, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibra him, told me: “Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim – and Lebanon, of course, has many other problems. If Syria were not here, we would be finished. It is a place of sanctuary: for the Nestorians driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians driven out of Turkey, even the Palestinian Christians driven out by the Israelis.”

The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can’t help noticing, particularly if you have arrived from eastern Turkey. There, until recently, minority languages such as the Syrian Christians’ Aramaic were banned from the airwaves and the classroom. Christianity in eastern Tur key is a secretive affair and the government has closed all the country’s seminaries. But cross into Syria and you find a very different picture. Qamishli, the first town on the Syrian side of the frontier, is 75 per cent Christian, and icons of Christ and images of his mother fill almost every shop and decorate every other car window – an extraordinary display after the furtive paranoia of Christianity in Turkey.

The reason for this is not hard to find. The Assads are Alawite, a Shia Muslim minority regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretical and disparagingly referred to as Nusayri, or “little Christians”: indeed, their liturgy seems to be partly Christian in origin. Bashar kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s religious min orities through which he was able to coun terbalance the weight of the Sunni majority. In the Assads’ Syria, Christians have always done particularly well: in his final years as president, five of Hafez al-Assad’s seven closest advisers were Christians.

This does not excuse the repressive policies of Assad’s regime. But in a region where repression is the rule rather than the exception, one must remember that political rights and wrongs are more complex than neo-cons and Pentagon hawks are prepared to acknowledge – or even realise.

William Dalrymple is the New Statesman‘s south Asia correspondent

Rage against the regime

The Television Evaluation and Selection Directorate is a name worthy of the dystopian society in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Syria, the directorate vets scripts before production begins, and many programmes get the chop. But a new wind is blowing, with television becoming the best avenue to sneak unpalatable truths into the homes of millions of viewers in Syria and the wider Middle East. Layth Hajo, a television director, is an expert in conveying political messages by stealth. His dramas portray Middle Eastern societies awash with corruption and religious intolerance. Sabah Fakhri is the grand-daddy of Syrian music, even crooning his way into the record books by singing for ten hours non-stop. He restored interest in fading forms of traditional Arab music, and represented artists as a member of parliament. Ali Ahmad-Said, also known as Adonis, has been writing poetry for over half a century.

In 2005, he was one of the main contenders

for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was won by Harold Pinter. As far as artists and gallery-owners go in Syria, Issa Touma is a rare breed of an even rarer species. After writing about his “dispiriting bureaucratic battle with faceless officials”, he might exhibit some of his photographs, or end his day curating an international photography exhibition.

Nkem Ifejika