HESP November 1, 2017

“Insights into the contemporary tensions in Syria can be found by examining the legacies of some of the policies implemented by the French under mandate rule.” (6 Country Profile)


When reading the Syrian profile from Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project it becomes obvious that many types of violence have been perpetuated against the people of Syria. Complicated intersections of class, religion, historical grievances, and colonial legacies have created an intricate web of problems that are almost impossible to separate from one another. It is clear that much of the violence (both direct and structural/cultural) is the result of neoliberalism, unexamined colonial legacies, and the manipulation of religious (or anti-religious) sentiments by nationalistic or outside forces.

Bashar al-Assad has regularly used the rational that he is fighting religious extremism as an excuse for crushing opposition using direct violence. The rejection of so-called ‘extremism’ by the Syrian government is a form of cultural violence as it has legitimized even the most extreme of responses. Galtung writes, “Cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right” (291 Country Profile).

While it is true that the current fighting has moved into the third stage (which has seen an influx of foreign jihadists), in reality, the civil war has its roots not only in colonial legacies but also within the rejection of the neo-liberalism embraced by Bashar al-Assad. His policies “led to a dramatic rise in unemployment, an increase in those living below the poverty level, and the concentration of the nation’s wealth in the hands of an increasingly smaller percentage of its citizens” (10 Country Profile). These policies compounded the already fragmented relationship between many of the diverse groups within Syria and led to structural violence perpetuated by groups such as the ‘ulama.

Al-Assad has also tried to concentrate his power by courting religious groups. Once again we see an example of a strongman trying to manipulate religious influences, only to have it backfire. The intersections, mentioned in the country profile, created by al-Assad in an effort to shore up support have instead provided “a platform for Islamist groups to offer a counter narrative that many who are consistently marginalized find compelling” (10 Country Profile). This destructive manipulation of religion is an example of cultural violence and is a modern response to colonial policies, which fragmented groups and shunned public expression of religion.

Much of the structural violence perpetuated by the French during colonial rule has been so internalized it is now no longer questioned by the society. The fragmentation the French implemented in order to maintain power is ingrained as a part of Syrian society. The government style encouraged by the French pushed certain types of Islam into the private sphere and encouraged secularism. Later, this form of Laicism was also cooped by al-Assad. ‘Good religion’, as in religion in the private sphere, was encouraged, while ‘dangerous religion’, religion in the public sphere, has been used as a justification for direct violence.

In Syria today, neoliberal policies mixed with colonial legacies have led to a situation wherein cultural violence is used to legitimize direct and structural violence against various groups. This, in turn, means that each individual faction is anxious to protect its own interests. Furthermore, outside actors have remained active within Syria because of its attractive global position. The cultural violence initiated by the French has been used to legitimize modern structural and direct violence.

Given the extreme nature of the situation in Syria, it seems obvious that the direct violence being perpetuated must be the initial focus of any peace effort. However, if we, like Omer, try to focus on peace-building strategies that go “beyond the view of peace as the cessation of direct or explicit violence” and emphasize “a comprehensive approach that attempts to confront and transform root causes of a conflict and also to envision peace as a process designed to tackle systematic or structural violence” (Omer 5), it is important to examine the symbolic and social boundaries that exist as a result of neoliberal and colonial structures. Unless these structures are addressed, while a truce may be reached in relation to the direct violence, negative peace (Omer 51) is the best that can be hoped for.

The hermeneutics of citizenship provides a framework for new types of discussions and methods to approach peacebuilding. It is clear that the neoliberal ‘secularism’ of al-Assad’s government must be reinterpreted and reexamined, especially in the context of colonialism. As with the example of Israel, the marginalized groups within Syria could offer new ways to examine the situation. Even if the only starting point that can be found is the ‘willingness to kill people you don’t know’ (Omer, Lecture 5, E1520). Moreover, examining the context of colonialism, in which it was completely acceptable for international actors to break up a country and empower a certain group over another, may create more space within the discussion and allow the different sides to recognize some similar experiences, which could be the first step to deescalating the conflict.

References and further reading:

Country Profile: Syria. Religious Literacy Project, Harvard Divinity School; 2014.
Donatella Felice is Head of Editorial at HESP.
This essay was written for Dr. Moore’s Class: Religion, Conflict, and Peace in Contemporary Global Affairs.

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