There is a tendency among different religious groups in the Middle East to ignore certain facts or to be ignorant of them when necessity demands we understand the breadcrumbs left behind in a region known for wars and conflicts for over 2,000 years.
As Basem Shabb described, in an article in The Daily Star of Lebanon, the make-up of the Christians of Syria and their geography, it is also important to understand the Levant Sunnis within the framework of the region’s Sunni history. So let me try and make it the purpose of this Blog even though my scholarly knowledge on the subject does not qualify me to journey but superficially or to analyze but on the basis of mutually recognized history. While doing so, bear in mind the first Caliphate of the Omayyad (Sunni Muslims), under Muawiya bin Sufyan, was based in Damascus.
Like the divisions in Islam between Sunnis and Shia, such schisms exist also in Christianity the earliest of which are the schisms between the Roman Catholic Church and its extension the Eastern Roman Church; schisms between the Roman Empire when Christianity was born and the later Byzantine Empire extended from the Roman Empire three hundreds years later when Christianity bifurcated slowly; first through change of venues (Rome to Constantinople) then through language (Latin to Greek) in the 7th Century. In the 11th Century, the geographical and the language split pegged both sects unto a collision course described as the Great Schism. It centered mostly on the jurisdictional powers of the Pope and other ecclesiastical disputes. These schisms remains very much a reality in Syria today between the Catholic and the Syriac Greek Orthodox churches.
Similarly, in Islam the split between Sunnis and Shia was the result of over who would lead Islam after Mohammad. A next of kin (Shia) or the best qualified (Sunni). The schisms (More associated with the split of Protestants from Catholics than the Greek Romans from the Roman Catholics) started as a dispute in 632CE but erupted into bloody wars very quickly with the aim of deciding, not agreeing to, the winner of one or the other argument. Muslims have been fighting for almost 15 centuries with one purpose in mind: One winner. Even though, a winner in the historical sense, has little impact on modern societies considering the main currency of today’s life is not religion but an economic formula enabling people to pursue happiness without barriers to their freedom or threats to their personae.
This leads us to the Omayyad reign when Muawiya bin Sufyan became its first Caliph. Under the first Caliph of Abu Bakr, Muawiya became the Governor of Syria. As a figure, Muawiya, the first Caliph in the Omayyad Dynasty in Damascus, was maligned by the Shia for breaking several treaties he concluded with Hasan ibn Ali, including one promise for Yazid, Hasan’s son, to succeed him and for poisoning Hasan through his wife. Several battles between Muawiya and Ali’s followers ensued, including the first inconclusive Siffin Battle between the splitting pro-Ali and anti-Ali forces. The Sunnis-Shia schisms have ever since been a violent undertaking. They perpetually re-engineer themselves to highlight the historic facts or perceptions Arabs and Muslims have been carrying on their backs for over 1,400 years. That’s the sad reality of our backwardness.
But even with this heavy luggage, there exists courageous and noble acts by the leaders of the past (By Sunnis and Shia alike) that may shed light on the subject matter here.
One of the most important, in our opinion, is that Muawiya in Damascus encouraged peaceful coexistence with the Christians. D. Bryan Rhodes, in a long essay in St. Francis Magazine entitled “An Examination of “The Heresy of the Ishmaelites” with special consideration given to the Religious, Political, and Social Contexts during the Seventh and Eighth Century Arab Conquests” quote Muawiya as saying “Peace and prosperity for Christians and Arabs alike”.
But simultaneously, while Muawiya protected the Christians in Syria, during his reign, he attacked any Byzantine symbols of power and waged a long campaign against Rhodes, Crete, and Constantinople (Modern day Istanbul). Those were the seats of power of the Greek Orthodox Church, which today enjoys the full protection of the Assad regime and which Basem Shabb refers to its geography as the same geography of the Alawites in Syria (Sahel region and Damascus).
The Orthodox Church in Syria traces its history back to the Byzantine times and is considered to be closely associated with the Russian Orthodox Church of modern times, which officially became an umbilical extension of the Byzantine Roman Christianity when Prince Vladimir I of Kiev officially adopted its Rites in 988. In essence, Muawiya encouraged co-existence with Christianity but indirectly fought the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine era; today’s Assad era protects the Greek Orthodox Church but fights the Omayyad Sunnis. Our civil war today with Russia supporting Assad and the west supporting the Syrian people is but a snapshot of that complex history.
Sunnis in the Levant have always co-existed with the Christians, the Druze, and all the other minorities. It has not been a perfect marriage but it has led to understanding rather than wars, to discussions rather than conflicts. As Muslims, we would not be who we are today had it not been for the kindness and openness of the Maronite Christian Lebanese Community. Without knowing any details, we are certain that similar stories can be told about Muslim kindness towards Christians in Lebanon or Syria because when it comes down to human interactions, good and evil Muslims exist and so do good and evil Christians, as well as good and evil Alawites.
Many have long concluded that dumping in one basket a group of people who belong to one religion, one race, one sect, or share a past history is what leads to conflicts and wars. It’s really not about religion but about what men can do to each other using religion or its conflicted history as an excuse. It’s about how they treat each other regardless of what background one belongs to. Under this Litmus test, the Assad era of oppression, as much as the Muawiya era of fighting the Byzantines, should not and must not dictate the agenda of modern times. Today, look at how the Alawites are treating the Sunnis of Syria or the Sunnis are treating the Shia of Bahrain to fully grasp the ugliness of judging a whole group of people on the basis of their religion, history, or affiliations. Especially if history has shown that would-be-oppressed at the hands of another group become the factual oppressors themselves as falsely claimed by Suleiman al-Assad in his letter to the French when he predicts Muslim massacres of the minorities when in fact the opposite is taking place today.
The Sunnis of Lebanon and Syria are not the Sunnis we meet in Afghanistan or Pakistan or even Saudi Arabia or Qatar. They have co-existed for over 2,000 years with Christians because they know that such arrangement benefits their nation and their people and because deep down they believe, like myself, diversity strengthens a nation. There are Sunni Muslims fighting alongside the Alawites ruling the people of Syria today because they view the Assad regime from a non-religious prism and many Muslims in Syria fear other Muslims, like the MB, more than they fear any other groups or religion.
Next time you hear someone claim the alternative to Assad are Islamists, think again. If Islamism is his alternative, many of the bad Alawites terrorizing Syrians today would have long ago migrated to other countries.