Syria: Birth of a Nation?

by Mark Krikorian

Just because presidential candidates have largely ignored foreign policy, it doesn’t mean it’s gone away. Take Syria (please). Andy McCarthy has been warning of the danger of getting involved there, while I’ve made the point that America’s interest is in having the civil war there drag on as long as possible.

But a recent post by the multi-talented Razib Khan I think is helpful for Americans to get their heads around what’s going on there. After noting that the Alawites (Assad’s community) were an oppressed minority for a long time, Khan offers this analogy:

How to communicate the depth of the chasm, and the high stakes? It may shock Americans because of our perception of who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are, but I think one might conceptualize the Syrian rebels as the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan. The Alawite ascendancy is viewed through tradition, as well as democratic legitimacy, an as aberration to many Syrians. Not only that, but unlike the Christians or Syrian Jews, Alawites were not a “middle-man minority” with an exceptional record of professional or business success. Rather, they were marginal Mediterranean peasants, who delegated the running of the economy to the Sunni merchant princes.

In other words, the majority Sunnis have always seen rule by the marginalized Alawites as an inversion of the natural order, and many of those trying to overthrow Assad are basically trying to put the uppity subordinates back in their rightful place.

Khan concludes:

By offering up the analogy to the American Reconstruction I indicate that here you have a group which was not given the due rights of full humans (i.e., Muslims) during the Ottoman era, which now finds itself in a position of supremacy. This is not a stable position because of the force of numbers on the side of the Sunnis. But, the example of Reconstruction should indicate to us that democracy is not a means of government which always engenders maximum liberty and coexistence.

You can say that again — as we’re seeing in Egypt, for societies not mature enough to support a liberal order, “democracy” just means two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.

I think the Reconstruction analogy extends beyond Syria and Egypt, though. The purest form of it is in the Islamic world’s view of Israel. What galls Muslims, both rulers and the public, is not a particular apartment building in Jerusalem or a settlement in Samaria or Shebaa Farms in the Golan Heights — it’s the very idea of Israel. In the natural order of things, the Jew should walk while the Muslim rides, the Jew obeys while the Muslim commands, the Jew defers while the Muslim asserts. The very idea that the Jew should ride while the Muslim walks is an abomination that cannot be accepted.

But while the subordination of blacks in the South (and the North) had many of the same elements, there are two differences. First, any Christian or Jew or Alawite can escape Islamic Jim Crow by simply converting — “passing”, if you will, an option not available in 19th century America to many people with African heritage. That would suggest a more flexible, less oppressive order.

On the flip side, this equivalent of Jim Crow is embedded in the Islamic faith in a way that can only be changed through fundamental alteration of the religion. Slavery and Jim Crow here, though, always had to swim upstream against the basic tenets of Christianity; there’s no equivalent in the Koran of “