Interview: Josh Landis

Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Professor at University of Oklahoma


Q: Could you briefly describe what’s happening in Syria right now?

JL: On March 15, 2011 the Arab Spring hit Syria in full force.  It hit strong in the agricultural region of Deraa, where 15 school kids were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti. The government was taken aback, was very flat-footed, didn’t understand Facebook, didn’t understand this new world of social media that had hit it.  Young men in these dusty little towns in Syria, can hold up their phone and take photos of police brutality and regime misbehavior and feed it out through the internet to Al-Jazeera, which loops it and plays it all day long, “Live streaming from Syria!”  The video phone, which is sort of like the six-shooter in the old west, is an equalizer.  It’s very powerful.

Now today, the Syrian government has gotten much smarter. It’s also taken off all gloves, it’s smashing the opposition.  The military in Syria has remained loyal to Bashar Al-Assad, the president, unlike Tunisia and Egypt . It’s going to be a very hard fight for the demonstrators to win I believe.  Syria is a divided society both along ethnic and most importantly religious lines. It’s like Iraq.  The minority rules it, the Alawite minority.  To get rid of them, there’s going to have to be sectarian war.

 Q: You mentioned one way in which the situation in Syria differs from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, but could you mention other ways this uprising in this country is different, and do you think its important to make that differentiation when explaining it to people?

JL: It’s very important.  Because the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have not seen major demonstrations.  This is not about the capital city, hundreds of thousands of people pouring out and overwhelming the government. This is about rural Syria, small cities like Homs where Sunnis and Alawites live together. And it implies some sectarian undercurrent to Syria.  And that’s very different, because if America puts it shoulder to bringing down this regime, who’s going to take it over? In Libya there was an opposition and the country had split in half, and many government people had resigned. In Syria there is nothing like this.  There’s no territory that’s been liberated, there are young demonstrators, but there’s nobody for America to get behind, in terms of militarily supporting an overthrow of the government.

Q: Would you say that the recent events in Syria were surprising to you? Were you expecting this?

JL: I did not expect this.  I had drunk the Kool-Aid a little bit. I believed in Syria in 2005 when President Bush tried to destabilize Syria after the Hariri murder and he had been unsuccessful.  I believed that Syria had proved itself. It had not. The Arab Spring was big. The economic problems in Syria, which are there for anybody to see, the poverty and so forth got an articulation, this indignation, the desire for dignity and a role in government.

Q: I know it’s complicated, but can you talk about who’s protesting the regime, what groups are involved, and why?

JL: Right, there are many, but we can make some generalizations. Young.  Overwhelmingly men, although there have been some important women’s voices have joined the protest, but what you see out there is gobs of men. Young men.  This is not an upper class phenomenon, and it’s probably not even a middle class phenomenon.  Because they’re young, they’ve got their whole future ahead of them, and they’ve never lived through a civil war situation. Things have been getting worse for many Syrians. 32% of Syrians live under the poverty line, which according to the UN is $2 a day or less. Those people are heavily weighted in the countryside of Syria.

One other element is the sectarian. The minorities back this regime, by and large, the Christians, the Druze, are backing the Alawites who back this regime.  So the minorities, the religious minorities, that’s about 25% of the Syrian population, back this regime because its secular, it has been very favorable to minorities, and it protects against the Muslim Brotherhood, and so forth.  And what many minorities fear, is that if this regime goes down, they’re going to get some element of more religious government that will discriminate against them.

Q: Can you explain why there have been more protests in the agricultural regions than in the major cities like Damascus and Aleppo?

JL: Well, Deraa was particular because of this one incident. Syria has in the last four years undergone a terrible drought that has ruined agriculture.  The estimates are that almost a million people have migrated from particularly the North East, around Jazeera area near Iraq, and from the Deraa region, to the outskirts of cities so there’s these new big poor slums that have grown up. But that’s because of agricultural failure, it’s also because of this giant youth boom that we’ve been seeing, this bubble.  Population growth of almost 3% which is very high. And there’s tons of joblessness, there’s lots of poverty, and this has hit 2 other major phenomenon that are going on, one is that the regime is trying to globalize and switch from socialism to capitalism, and that means dropping subsidies, which hurt the poor the most.  And the second is rising commodity prices in the entire world.  Wheat prices in the last two years have gone up by 100%.  The average basket of food for the Syrian has gone up 20% in the last year.  So these poor people, who don’t have a bright future to begin with, are being hammered by the movement towards capitalism, and the fact that Chinese and Indians are becoming middle class, and want to eat a lot more calories. This drives up prices.

Q: Would you also say that there are more people that are loyal to the regime in Damascus and Aleppo?

JL: These cities represent about 50% of the population of Syria.  And there is a class basis for this, its not just sectarian. It’s also the upper class Sunnis and middle class Sunni who live in these big cities who don’t want the unknown. They’ve got a lot to loose.  They’ve got businesses, they’ve got projects for the future, they don’t want to be like Iraq or Lebanon. Those were both horrible civil wars that spit out millions of refugees and displaced lots of other people and just ruined business. And that’s why there’s this sort of silent majority of the middle and upper middle classes.  Syria’s not like Egypt or Tunis, where the military would just step aside, throw out the president, and then step back in, and there’d be stability.

Q: Are there any Islamic revival movements in Syria that are involved in the uprising and if so, what role are they playing?

JL: Yes there are.  They haven’t been dominant.  The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the best known and I suppose the most important current along the Islamic fronts was caught flat footed.  They were scrambling to catch up because they were older and they weren’t savvy.  But there was a new generation of Muslim brothers, particularly ones in exile who were on this, were all over this uprising.  And the most important facebook page, which is called “Syria Revolution 2011” is maintained in Sweden by a Muslim Brotherhood member who’s the head of the Muslim Brotherhood chapter in Sweden.  I’ve written about him a few times on my website Syria Comment.  But he has been very articulate, he has been a driving force, there are 200,000 people attached to his page.

Anybody who’s been to Syria, most political analysts in Syria over the last 25 years have written something about the growing piety and Islamic character to Syrian society.  30 years ago almost nobody wore headscarves at the University of Damascus or at school, the women didn’t.  When I went to University of Damascus in 1981-2, that was the time of Hama was happening during that year.  The Muslim Brotherhood uprising against the Syrian regime was at its height. Maybe 20% of the girls at the University of Damascus wore hijab then, the head cover, the simple scarf. Today it’s probably 80%.  So there has been a growth.  And your film is about this and about the various voices of piety in Syria.  And that’s a major element of what’s been happening culturally in Syria for the last 25-30 years. So that voice is going to come out. Where it is in this whole activist uprising is very unclear.   So they may be a factor in the future but they haven’t been a dominant voice and they certainly haven’t been a major voice so far.

Q: That being said, would you say the Islamic revival is playing a part in this uprising, whether or not it is being stated publicly? And if so, how does that manifest?

JL: Yes.  It’s hard to know, hard to say, to what extent this is general growth in piety, Islamic movements.   But I think that there has been a growing, in a sense, culture of resistance to the regime, with the growth of piety.  Because part of that is a resistance to corruption in the society, the lack of freedom, and you migrate internally people’s consciousness, you cannot do anything to change the outside world. And what they’ve done in some ways is that they’ve tried to build up a hard shell of Islamic culture, dress, religion, to demonstrate to the world “I’m not part of this materialistic corrupt society that is surrounding me.  I live in it, I have to function in it, but I understand what’s right and wrong, I understand what God is, I understand what morality is, and I’m following the Qur’an, I’m going to dress modestly, and I’m going to create for myself a moral small universe that I can live in, that will be in my household, my reading groups, my school.  I’m going to do everything to protect my kids from the corruption of this greater society, greater bad world.” And that tack over the last 25 years I think has created the sort of environment in which an Arab Spring catches on like wildfire. Because it gives a political voice to something that’s already been going on, and this division between this sort of secular government world which is seen as corrupt and an internal world of morality that seems pure and wants dignity.

Q: Can you talk about a social movement like Houda’s and how it relates or does not relate to the political uprising in Syria?

JL: Well it relates because it’s a Sunni Islamic world which is trying to create some order and explanation for society, a moral universe and a moral compass to orient young people and anybody who’s trying to provide a moral compass for their children and for their household.  And you go to the Qur’an and you go to find it in its most basic precepts of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s right action and what’s wrong action. And that, in a country like Syria, where so much is taboo, you’re not allowed to talk about religion, sect, corruption, openly.  And yet the world is so corrupt.  Bribes are being handed out at every little level.  And there’s also a high degree of violence.  Its not overt violence, its not violence where you’re getting beaten up, its violence of man to woman, older people to children, people to animals, I hate to use that, but I was shocked at the way animals were treated.  But it starts with the male patriarch. But the government is the macrocosm of that – there is this authority figure and he is right all the time. And to disobey him is tantamount to treason. You can’t do it, as a kid.  Even when you know your father’s wrong, you can never confront him with his error.  The world of the Qur’an and the world of these piety associations that you’re talking about provide you with relief and they provide you with a counter narrative about what is right and what is wrong. And they allow you in many ways through interpreting the Qur’an to explain a set of precepts that are somehow going to right and counter this corrupt world that you see around you and that you have to participate in at some level and that you feel, on almost a daily basis you feel dirty through your contact with it.  So the purity, piety, and this cleansing ritual in a sense of going through this re-education, relearning and reading is very important.

Q: would you say that in some way people like Houda are trying to encourage, though the teaching of Islamic verses, a meritocracy model verses the model of corruption?

JL: Yes, within limits. Religion is all about meritocracy. Its about who’s more religious and knows more about the religion. Of course its not meritocracy in the sense that if a Christian or a Jew or a heathen or an Atheist knows something, they’re not going to be better because they don’t believe.  There is a meritocracy within this constrained world of religion.  Learning is rewarded, and good behavior is rewarded.

Q: I’m thinking specifically about how Houda is stressing girl’s education, and how through learning about your religion, she uses that to begin the process, but through that process she is encouraging girls to take their secular education seriously.

JL: Yes, well this has been one of the major debates about these sorts of movements about women entering into this theological world, and learning about the Qur’an. Because its very empowering, it is an intellectual process, and if you become good at this you can defend yourself against the sort of obscurantism that patriarchy had used against women to keep women down. You can liberate yourself in a sense by using, deploying the Qur’an and Hadith against people who would oppress you or who would shut you out, or try to silence you in some way. On the other hand you’re internalizing a lot of the patriarchy and categories in a religion that can be sometimes discriminatory against women and define women as having half the rights inherited, and not being as well endowed by God as men.

Q: When we interview Houda, she stresses that her movement is non-political. Can you speak about why someone like Houda cannot politicize her movement in the way that Syria stands right now?

JL: Well, if she politicized it overtly she’d be shut down. So she has to stay away from politics. She has to protect herself and protect her movement because the government looks at these movements with great anxiety and fear. Because they see this Islamization, they see people taking on the veil, and if you’re an Alawite or a Christian, that makes you very nervous. You see it in some ways as a rebuke to everything you stand for because what your trying to do as a minority in the society is teach secularism and promote secular values and get everybody to leave their religion in their home. So when they come barging out of their home wearing all these scarves and talking to men in a particular way and not wanting a fringe of their hair to come out underneath the scarf and even covering their neck and every little piece of flesh that might be desirable to a man it makes the minorities very nervous. They think, this is a rebuke to me and what I’m trying to promote. And it is to a certain extent.  And so the government doesn’t like these things.

Q: What, if any, are seismic shifts that could potentially play out in the region, in the Arab world, as a result of a shift in power in Syria?

JL: If the Sunnis take over from the Alawites, which is in part what this revolution is about, it’s about the majority ruling.  And Syria’s been ruled by a minority now for 40 years.  More than that, 45 years. In 1966 the Alawites took over. It would have a profound shift.  I think that there would be a move away from Iran towards Saudi Arabia and certainly the same with Turkey.  Hezbollah would become dissociated in some ways with Syria. Syria could very easily fall into civil war and it would leave a big dark hole in the middle of the middle east.  And that would change things a lot.  What you would see is a situation like Lebanon where external powers are fishing in troubled waters and deeply penetrating the state, where they’re playing a big role by supporting Sunni on the one hand, or Shiites if you’re Iran, or this kind of thing. And having a very weak state.  And you can have that.  That’s what you had the 1940’s and 50’s and Iraq and Egypt really were the two main contenders for influence in Syria, but so was the Soviet Union and the United States, and Syria was a mess. There were coups, about 20 coups in a period of about 20 years.

Q: We heard you discussing in another interview how the Arab Spring is part of a change from a colonial to a post-colonial stage of power.  Could you discuss?

JL: What we’re seeing throughout the entire region, not just Syria, but Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria is really an attempt to get beyond this post-colonial order that was left behind by the French and the British.  In order to rule Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the French and the British empowered minorities and put them over the majority.  This was colonial order. That is being overturned.  Its taking a long time because it’s a bloody process.  Buts its being overturned today, we saw it overturned in Iraq where the Shiites took over from the Sunnis. In Lebanon the Muslims have asserted their authority, its not finished yet in Lebanon, and in Syria it’s only beginning.

Q: Do you think that the Assad regime is going to survive this?

JL:  The regime has survived the initial onslaught, they are tough and they have a strong army. But the culture of opposition has sunk in and the international community is determined to bring down the regime. Gulf Arabs are putting in a lot of arms and money, making it a game changer. The balance of power is slowly changing in Syria. Syrians are also horrified by the regime and it’s turning into a classic ethnic battle. The Sunnis are abandoning the regime and this alliance between Sunni and the minority Alawites has allowed them to survive. This alliance has all but collapsed. A deep culture of opposition has sunk in.  Young Syrians are politicized today.  Two months ago they were not. That’s not going to go away.  They’re passionate, they’re driven, they’re willing to sacrifice, they’re well-organized out there in the Ethernet.  Syria will slowly begin to starve. That’s the most obvious future. But how quickly the regime collapses, I don’t know.