By Noor al-Bazzaz
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 10/05/2011
So long as sectarian tensions are bubbling beneath the surface of Arab society, the threat of civil conflict will always be a possibility – one frightening enough to paralyse any opposition to the ruling elite. It is through the manipulation of these sentiments that certain Arab leaders have managed to cling on for so long. Now, Arab societies must invest in education to prevent such tensions being passed to future generations.
On Saturday, Syrian tanks loyal to President Bashar al-Assad surrounded the predominantly Sunni coastal city of Banias. There are also claims by activists that the Syrian army is mainly targeting Sunni districts in a bid by the Syrian government to ignite sectarian tensions and divide the opposition against it.
There is no denying that as the protests have developed since the beginning of March the rhetoric of the Syrian government has turned more and more sectarian. Syrian state media has continuously accused protesters of a sectarian plot led by Salafist extremists (an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam) intent on gaining control of the secular Syrian society.
This narrative is designed to incite the sectarian sentiments of the Sunnis and bring fear to the Alawite minority, which the president himself is part of, as well as the Christians and the Druze. The same narrative is also likely to have gained strength in post-revolutionary Egypt on Sunday, as a group of Salafists clashed with Coptic Christians. The relative success of this narrative in inciting fear and tension within Syrian society – the homogeneity of which is often praised and held as an example in the region – is extremely alarming.
The Syrian example is not unique. The protests in Bahrain, which began as a relatively unified defiance of the ruling Sunni monarchy, were soon rephrased by the state and its media as an isolated Shia conspiracy, backed by Iran. Similarly in Iraq, now categorised as a "democracy", the recent protests against corruption were labelled as Ba'athist by a government willing to play on a history of fear to paralyse a largely nationalist opposition composed of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.
The sad case of Iraq demonstrates too well the dangers of sectarian tensions, as Iraqi society has been involved in a vicious cycle of political manipulation before and after the 2003 invasion, with sectarian resentments peaking during the civil conflict in 2006. The invasion of Iraq also ushered in a political institutionalisation of sectarian identity that risked rephrasing politics in terms of sectarian concerns rather than national interests.
Similarly, in Lebanon, the structure of the political system encourages sectarianism in wider society.
These examples show that in any post-revolutionary (or indeed post-conflict) society, democracy can only flourish if deep-seated attitudes concerning sectarianism and identity are addressed.
If we look at the history of racism, slavery and antisemitism in the west, it becomes evident that education played an important role in developing tolerance and understanding of "differences" as well as promoting human rights. With the rise of multiculturalism in Europe, education in primary schools has played an essential role in teaching children about equality and discouraging prejudice. While it is important not to overstate the level of tolerance or lack of tension in multicultural communities in Europe, the significant development of social attitudes in the last 52 years is undeniable, with education playing a key role.
A promising start to addressing sectarianism at an early stage in life is the Play It Fair educational programme, launched last week in Lebanon by various NGOs. The programme aims to promote human rights and tolerance to encourage children to "peacefully coexist".
The significance of a programme such as this is that it is developed and taught by grassroots organisations and volunteers, rather than by a state-controlled education system. What's more, whereas previous attempts to control sectarian sentiments have involved the suppression of certain identities by the state – for instance in pre-2003 Iraq – programmes such as this aim instead to provide the skills necessary to live in a pluralistic society where different identities and beliefs do exist.
It is true that such educational programmes do not address the sectarian structures in political systems such as those in Iraq and Lebanon, and therefore cannot exist as an isolated tool for reform. However, they can play an important role in altering the attitudes of future generations, likely to be scarred by the sectarian conflicts of today.
Whether or not this programme will have a significant effect in breaking the cycle of sectarianism, it is a step – one that has yet to be tested in the Middle East and one that is certainly worth a shot in the current climate of the region.