This is a dangerous keg of powder due to the fact that national borders have been drawn by the old British Empire (God bless their hearts) to divide religion and tribes for the purpose of creating a need for the British to arbiter or interfere in any conflict (The worst case I know of is in southeast UAE where there is a small patch of land totally land-locked that belongs to Oman). It’s true that the history between Sunni and Shia is wrought with enmity but not if one considers him/her a national of a country first before they would identify themselves as part of one religion or another. Syrians must protect their religious identities by letting their national identities lead their nation.
This brings me to the question of Sunni and Shia in Syria.
During my education at Champville School in Lebanon, I had five or six best friends. One was Nabil Makki, a Shia from South Lebanon (I only learned he was a Shia many years later and I am sure it was the same for him). I have not heard from Nabil for a long time and I hope he is doing well. My other best friend was Ghazi Wazne. I saw Ghazi in the US some 30 years ago and again some 10 years ago on Lebanese TV discussing democracy and co-existence.
Both were the smartest students at Champville. My memories of these days and the close friendship we had have ingratiated me with the same sense of responsibility today that we both can shed our history and co-exist together. My hope is to accomplish the same feat in Syria.
Syria is one of those rare countries, so close to Jerusalem, where religion flourished for long time under different periods. My native city of Aleppo, for example, boasts of many Synagogues and a vibrant Jewish community that long ago immigrated to Israel as a result of oppression and hate. Damascus is home to Sitti Zaynab Shrine for the Shia and at the same time a majority Sunni population proud of the Omayyad period.
Between these facts and these religious symbols, it is not impossible to create an atmosphere of peace. The problem has always been the lack of will for a unified voice in that direction.
Ba’athism was supposed to deliver a Nationalistic identity in lieu of a religious one. But because the principles of the Party were based on the Nazi Nationalism, it failed our country miserably. What Syria needs is not another political party but rather a leadership committed to a free school education with no political ties of submission (Ba’athism) or religious either (Muslim Brotherhood).
Lebanon in the 70’s (Prior to Hezbollah and the Iranian Mullahs) co-existed peacefully with a large Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia population with one exception that Syrians must learn from. Lebanon, involuntarily, ignored the needs of the more impoverished regions of the south where the Shia made it their home. This unforgivable mistake must not be repeated in Syria. If the Shia are full partners in building Syria with equal opportunities, they will identify with their country first the way every other group will under the same circumstances. The same goes for every religious sect, including the majority Sunnis.
Many are skeptical of such Utopian ideas and rightly so. The tasks are monumental and they are fraught with unrealistic expectations. But not if we start by cleaning house in the two most extremist countries in the region starting with the Mullahs of Iran. The success of Hezbollah is mainly due to neglect and the Mullahs of Iran taking advantage of it. When the Mullahs are replaced with a free and democratic Iran and the next generation of politicians work with all the religions to insure that social and economic equality is achieved, the raison d’Ãªtre of organizations like Hezbollah will cease to exist.
Our Utopia is partially in our own hands and of our own making. But it is also partially in the will exercised by the international community to uproot religious extremism in the region. We are willing to perform our duties but when will others help us achieve the goal of a region free of extremism beyond just al-Qaeda?
We cannot ignore the economic interests of giants like China but finding just the right ingredients to eradicate religious extremism should be the subject our diplomats must diligently pursue instead of concentrating all their efforts on concluding peace between two countries, one of which is a spoiler for religious extremism.