6th October 2012
Syrian activists reach across sectarian divide
While the Syrian conflict has been characterised by fighting between the Sunni majority and ruling Alawite minority, it has also given birth to some movements which aim to bridge the sectarian divide, as Samer Mohajer and Ellie Violet Bramley report from Beirut.
Nabeel, a 24-year-old Alawite doctor from Homs, describes how he and other Syrian activists first decided to start campaigning against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the summer of 2011.
“A bunch of us were having coffee in Homs,” he said. “We wanted to have some influence on our revolution, so we tried to do something to express ourselves, to express our opinions.”
The result was the creation of the Nabd (or Pulse) Gathering for Syrian Civil Youth – one of the many cross-sectarian movements that have emerged from Syria’s 18-month-long revolt.
They are designed to campaign against the regime, but also to promote unity among Syria’s religious sects in the face of the increasing role of foreign and jihadi fighters and the characterisation of the struggle along sectarian lines.
“We started our work in Homs, addressing the dangerous subject of sectarianism,” explained Nabeel. “We organised some protests involving guys and girls from all sects, distributed flyers and put posters up. We campaigned against violence and distributed flowers.”
Next came a sit-in, in the Khaldiyeh neighbourhood of Homs attacked by security forces, and a week of national unity.
Quickly, “things escalated until we had cells in every city – Damascus, Salamiyah [an Ismaili Muslim town], and Latakia [an Alawite centre],” said Nabeel.
‘Civil and secular’
The movement now boasts a Facebook membership of nearly 8,000. Events are designed to be inclusive, combating sectarian divisions in Syria through civil action.
Another founding member of Nabd, Sunni journalist Rafi, describes the movement as civil and secular.
He outlines more early activities – reconnaissance missions to Khaldiyeh preparing to send medicine; Alawite girls smuggling mobile phones into anti-regime areas; Alawite women visiting women in Sunni neighbourhoods to seek common ground.
The group’s Facebook page draws attention to members of minorities detained by Syrian security forces.
Much is made of sectarianism in Syria’s conflict. The country is 80% Sunni Muslim, with significant Christian and Kurdish minorities and Muslim sects that include President Assad’s own Alawite minority.
Nabeel admits that sectarian tensions do exist, but says the regime is the main culprit.
“They for decades pursued sectarianism to divide society, and they made all the people stay close to their sects,” he said. “Alawites, like all Syrians – Sunnis, Christians, Ismailis, Kurds – have their own fears about getting involved in civil war, because they think what is happening in Syria is armed groups slaughtering and stealing.”
The uprising is frequently pitched as Sunni versus Alawite, but Nabeel says the situation is not that simple.
Many Alawites and Christians are supportive of the uprising, but are unable to protest in their neighbourhoods. This failure to protest is read, often wrongly, as the result of pro-regime sentiment.
Nabeel argues that the international media is partly to blame for failing to convey the complexity of the conflict, characterising it simply as an Islamic revolution or a Sunni revolution.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the collection of defected army units and armed civilians fighting the Assad regime, are often referred to as wholly Sunni, but Nabeel says he knows of many FSA members from minority groups and even some Alawites.
“The true activists in the FSA and in the non-violent movement know that there are lots of Alawites working for this.” Nabeel is quick to point out that, while he respects the decision of those who join the FSA, Nabd is “100% against violence”.
“The Alawite activists are doing us a big favour. Lots of communication devices, medical supplies and relief materials wouldn’t pass to the FSA without their help and that of other minorities,” he said.
Nabeel is hopeful that movements like Nabd will play an important role in Syria’s future, and that the shared experiences of activists during the revolution will eventually bring Syria’s different sects and regions together.
“When we sit and talk about our sects we find that this revolution brought us closer to each other,” he said. “We know about Deraa, Hama, Homs, about lots of villages. We see how they are surviving, how they are protesting. They are teaching us how to be brave.”