The Construction of “Sectarian Politics” in Syria

By Basileus Zeno
Submitted to Session P5025 (Sectarianism: States, Parties, and Representations, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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In this paper, I argue that the discursive re-articulation of sectarianism in Syria, as a form of “cultural politics,” was constructed during the transformative period 2011-2013 not only to defy the regime’s dominant discourse of “political culture” and its repertoire of “Pan-Arabism” and “resistance,” but also to demobilize nonsectarian actors among the opposition.  I examine processes of “sectarinization” by using “groupness,” as analytical category, rather than “sects,” as unitary actors, which provides a critical insight into intra-conflict amongst various groups and the conflict over meanings, social powers, public spheres and subjectivity (Alvarez, Dagnino & Escobar 1998; Brubaker 2006; Wedeen 2002; Wimmer 2013).
With the transformation of the Syrian uprising into a proxy war, the utilization of sectarian symbols and rhetoric has become increasingly prevalent among dominant armed groups and Syrian activists. Notwithstanding, that was not the case when predominantly peaceful protesters took to the streets in Syria on March 2011 during the context of the “Arab Spring.” How the objectives of the social movement[s] in Syria have been transformed dramatically from popular demands for political reforms to a “Revolution for all Syrians,” and to the ongoing bloody civil war with an increasing visibility of sectarian and exclusive discourses? How has sectarianism moved from the private to the public sphere; from suppressed and peripheral spaces to the center of contentious politics founded upon exclusion?
Methodologically, this paper is based on discourse and content analysis of 146 statements, videos, slogans, and images disseminated and promoted by both mainstream media(Al-Jazeera) and social media (the Syrian Revolution Against Bashar al-Assad 2011Facebook page) between 2011-2013. This paper is also informed by first-hand observations, fieldnotes, and regular weekly meetings with activists in Damascus during the Syrian uprising until August 2012. The data and discourse analysis was further supported by 20 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with Syrian activists who participated in the uprising but currently residing in Washington D.C, where the interviews were conducted in August 2014.
I conclude with a discussion of how the conjuncture of four main dynamics (certain grassroots organizations; sectarian entrepreneurs; regional actors; and Arab satellite outlets, such as Al-Jazeera, and social media) contributed to the sectarianization of the public sphere and laid the necessary conditions for constructing exclusionary symbols and rhetoric which transferred sectarian politics from the private to the public sphere; from suppressed and peripheral spaces to the center of contentious politics founded upon sectarian-based groupness.