Friday, May 10, 2013

Sectarian polarization over Syria in the Middle East – A Lebanese snapshot

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The heading of this table from a recent Pew Research survey of Middle Eastern attitudes about the conflict in Syria is correct up to a point—Assad and his regime are widely unpopular—but also incomplete and misleading.  There is overwhelming hostility against the Assad regime among Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, including Turkey as well as the Arab world.  Among Shiite Muslims, the picture is different.

I notice that both Iraq and Iran, which have Shiite majorities, are excluded from this table.  Iran, of course, is very actively supporting and arming the Assad regime in the civil war.  I haven't seen polling on this matter from Iran, but I suspect that this tilt is not limited to the Iranian regime, but is probably mirrored to a fair degree among the population.  And in the Arab part of Iraq, all available evidence suggests that sympathy for the Assad regime or for the (overwhelmingly Sunni) rebels breaks down overwhelmingly along sectarian lines.

That sectarian divide does turn up in this table, if we look at the figures from Lebanon.  Among Lebanese Shiites, 91% of respondents were favorable toward Assad versus 8% unfavorable.  Among Sunnis, the figures are 92% unfavorable versus 7% favorable.  That's a pretty dramatic contrast.

(Among Lebanese Christians, the picture is a little less one-sided, but only by comparison.  Most Lebanese Christians hate the Assad regime as a result of Syria's role in Lebanon over the decades; but Lebanon's own sectarian politics are complicated, and there are some pro-Syrian factions among the Christians.  Also, Lebanese Christians presumably worry about the Christian minorities in Syria.  Those factors may help explain why only 63% of Lebanese Christian respondents were unfavorable to Assad, versus 36% favorable.  In Syria itself, however, the available evidence suggests that, on balance, the great bulk of the Christian minority are more afraid of the rebels than of the Assad regime. In fact, I suspect that Lebanon might be the only country in the Middle East where Christians are heavily anti-Assad.)

Hussein Ibish, among others, has argued that Middle Eastern politics are becoming engulfed in a "calamity" of sectarian polarization—between Sunnis and Shiites and, in certain respects, between Sunni Muslims and everyone else—that is both expressed in and promoted by the divisions over the civil war in Syria.
Almost everything in the Middle East is now being defined along sectarian lines, and disastrously so. This is particularly evident with regard to Syria, but also in Egypt, Iraq, parts of the Gulf, Lebanon and just about everywhere one looks in the region generally, and inside many of its states.
These Pew figures from Lebanon help to illustrate the intensity of that polarization.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  I notice that in Egypt 11% of respondents expressed approval for Assad.  Egyptians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, but it so happens that Egypt has a Coptic Christian minority that numbers about 10% of the population (depending on whose estimates one uses).  I would be curious to see those Egyptian figures broken down by religion.

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