Not a day goes by when we don't see or read stories about the Syrian uprising and the spilling of blood between government forces and rebel troops. The problems in Syria go back to the beginning of the Assad family takeover more than 40 years ago, but religious differences also constitute an undercurrent in this horrific drama.
To understand the background in this conflict, let's not forget Syria is a country in which the majority of the Muslim population is Sunni. The Sunni Muslims are the majority of Arabs in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Authority and North African Arab nations such as Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The Sunnis are a sizable minority in Iraq, even though they were the ruling power in that country until the war began in 2003. The oil-rich Gulf States, including Yemen, also are Sunni. But due to a long-ago schism over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad, the Shiite community within Islam emerged. Today it is the dominant form of Islam in Iran, and the majority in Iraq as well as a major force in Lebanon.
Now we come to Syria's Muslim community. The major branches of Islam are Shiite and Sunni, but there are many offshoot branches of these faiths. There are different subsets of Shiism within Islam, one of them being the Alawite sect. Alawites are about 12 percent of the Syrian population, but their importance cannot be measured in terms of numbers. Syria President Bashar Al-Assad and most of the political elite in Syria are Alawites, and they have governed the Sunni majority with a heavy hand.
In addition to the Alawites, there are two other religious communities that are offshoots of Shiism: the Ismailis and the Druze. The Ismailis can be found throughout Syria and Pakistan, as well as in Central Asia and East Africa, while the Druze -- who trace their descent from the Ismailis -- have followers in Jordan, Syria and Israel. From Israel's beginning in 1948, the Druze community accepted Israeli citizenship and volunteered to perform mandatory military service. I have personally met Druze Arabs serving in the Israeli foreign ministry. The last consul general of Israel who served in Atlanta was a Druze.
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Because the Assad family belongs to an offshoot of Shiism, Syria looks to and depends upon Iran for its survival. Their religious roots are similar and then we see why Hezbollah in Lebanon, who are well known Iran-backed terrorists and also Shiite in their Muslim identity, befriend the Syrians as well. Assad understands that the defeat of his regime will lead to a massacre of Alawites throughout Syria, but it is Iranian political and cultural influence that will disappear as well with the downfall of Assad.
It is important then that we not ignore history when trying to figure out current events in the Middle East. Let's remember that for many decades, the prevailing ideological tensions in the Middle East were between a secular socialism and an equally secular Arab nationalism. Gamal Abdul Naaser of Egypt was the principal advocate of a pan-Arab nationalism in the 1960s, but that time has passed. Now it is a struggle for Islamic hegemony. Where does democracy fit into this struggle for the people to have a voice in their government? Can religion and the state be a model that will adapt itself to the Arab and Muslim civilization?
In the history of the West, Christianity thrived as the Roman Empire declined, but for centuries the struggle between church and state continued to plague Christian Europe. It has only been within the modern era that Western nations have found the constitutional means of achieving an amicable separation between religious and political institutions. Within the Arab world, however, nothing like Thomas Jefferson's wall of separation has found widespread acceptance. Of course Turkey, which is not an Arab country, is unique and closest to this ideal, where in this case the people are Islamic but they live under a secular state.
For conservative Muslims, in particular, the ideal state must embody the teachings of Islam and be governed by its laws. What we are witnessing then in so many Arab states today is not only a political struggle to achieve some measure of democracy, but also an ideological struggle to define the role of religious values in these still emerging nation states.
Only time will tell how this struggle for self-definition will end up in Syria and in the rest of the Mideast. Meanwhile, the people pay the price with their lives as this civil war continues, and that is the tragedy of it all.