Last month, while we waited at the Lebanese border for our papers to be processed so that we could return to Syria, a woman traveling in our shared taxi pointed at the clouds gathering in the sky and said, “The Orthodox will be happy.”
She was referring to the annual contest between Syrian Catholics and Orthodox Christians — whose religious calendars diverge at Easter — that looks to meteorology to settle which church crucified and resurrected Jesus on the right weekend that year. The winning combo is a rainy Good Friday with a perfectly clear Easter Sunday.
It was the day before Orthodox Good Friday and it had begun to rain. Catholic Good Friday, a month before, had been a garishly sunny affair. A Catholic herself, the woman congratulated an Orthodox woman in the car. We all laughed.
Our driver, a young man who we learned was Sunni, didn’t want to be left out of the fun. Once he understood, he looked at us in the rearview mirror and said, “So it’s like us and the Shiites?”
And then in what has become a post-revolution ritual among many Syrians, everyone quickly affirmed that they had friends from every sect, a means of reassuring others that despite what was being said around us and about us, our pluralistic Syrian space still existed, and we would guard it. We were also reassuring ourselves that years of friendships and warm neighborly relations were real — that we had not just dreamed it all.
Straddling the border between Syria and Lebanon, I remembered how lucky Syrians used to feel, compared with the Lebanese and “their” sectarian self-cannibalism. The assumption had been that the same couldn’t happen in Syria.
Sectarian strife is not where the Syrian uprising started, but it is where many players — President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Arab Persian Gulf states, Iran and some in the West — want it to go.
While sectarianism has become the vehicle of the Syrian conflict, it was never its impulse. But distinguishing what caused the uprising from what sustains it is crucial, so that proposed interventions and resolutions aren’t as woefully ineffective as they have been thus far.
The conflict began with grievances about corruption. Beginning in the 1980s, economic policies reflecting the interests of the government and economic elites forced most Syrians to depend on state largess and subsidies. After 2005, subsidies were slashed, leaving most Syrians in dire straits. Severe drought made matters worse, displacing hundreds of thousands of families and creating an army of angry and politically disaffected Syrians in the countryside and small towns who incited the popular uprising in 2011, together with small numbers of longtime activists in the cities.
Although individual Alawites close to the Assads’ inner circle have been the biggest beneficiaries of corrupt policies, most of Syria’s economic elites are actually urban Sunnis. And many Alawites not tied to the regime are poor.
But such details have been ignored. For those seeking to maintain or gain influence in the Middle East, the most proven and expedient method is to invoke and provoke sectarianism and the existential fears that come with it. It’s a reliable way to win willing recruits and a constituency — and set the place on fire.
And it’s always been easier than developing an actual political philosophy. Likewise, sectarian chaos has proved more exploitable for outside countries looking to gain a foothold in the political, economic and social affairs of other states.
This is not to deny that sectarianism exists, but blurring the distinction between what caused the conflict and the ugliness it has spawned limits our capacity to imagine viable solutions.
For the West — tired of trying to understand the Middle East and averse to examining its own dirty hands — sectarianism is a familiar paradigm that can be lazily borrowed from other contexts and imposed on Syria. It permits the apathy needed to watch the disintegration of societies with a shrug, as if the whole mess were inevitable.
Of course, this is what the Assad regime wants. Fighting mostly for domestic legitimacy, it prefers to paint itself as a government that battles organ-eating fanatics rather than one that tortures and kills ordinary Syrians. From the outset, Mr. Assad warned he was the only bulwark against sectarianism, though in the coded language between dictator and dictated, Syrians understood this to be a threat that would be made good on.
As we drove that afternoon, now at ease with one another, we commented on the changes along the road that leads from the border to Damascus.
The billboards didn’t advertise much other than Mr. Assad’s steadfastness and divine protection. The traffic going the other way seemed to have increased, reminding us of all the friends who had permanently left or been forced out.
There was new destruction and new checkpoints, but everyone by now knew how to submit. Cars patiently queued, rolled down windows, popped trunks and presented the IDs of both the men and women. Some passengers were obsequious; others friendly, casual, parental or even flirtatious — whatever they believed would grant easy passage.
As we waited at each subsequent checkpoint, I studied the facial hair of the soldiers and the men in other cars. Was that a Hezbollah beard, a Salafi beard or just a vanity beard? When I saw the button one guard had pinned to his fatigues, I came to learn that there were also “I Love Bashar” beards.
I arrived at my family’s house in central Damascus, where my grandmother had first lived as a new bride from Hama in 1949. I was leaving Syria in a few days, not knowing when I’d come back and what I would or wouldn’t find. I spent that weekend saying goodbye to everything, alive and dead, sentient and inanimate. On one of my last days, I stood on our front balcony, running my fingertips farewell over the leaves of the bitter orange tree, whose upper branches reached our second-story house.
Our street is narrow, and one can easily talk to the neighbors across the way on their balconies. We saw one another there every day — when we had our morning coffee, still in our bathrobes; when we wrung and hung the laundry at midday; when we smoked an afternoon cigarette; when we watered the plants at sunset; and when we cracked sunflower seeds and gossiped at night.
After the violence started, we’d often rush out onto our balconies and meet to figure out what had just happened and, really, to be a little less alone in our fear. Christian and Muslim, we’d always wished one another a healthy year during our respective holidays, shared our best home cooking, and ululated for the neighborhood’s new brides and grooms when they left their parents’ homes.
That day last month, as I smiled at the family across the street, a gust of wind came through, and we all heard a crash. We looked around until one of the neighbors’ children pointed to a higher balcony next door. A birdcage had fallen onto the roof of a shop below and a colorful parakeet was hopping around, dazed.
The bird’s owner came running out onto his balcony. “Salaam,” he greeted all of us, and we hurriedly told him what had happened, gesturing to the bird on the loose. Someone yelled down to the young boys kicking a ball on the street, telling them to scale the shop’s roof and catch the bird before it could escape.
Instead, the boys startled the bird and it flew to my balcony. Everyone yelled at me to grab it, but it fluttered and perched out of my reach. The owner told us not to worry; this bird wanted to come back to its cage, he assured us. We all tried to coax it back, but then it flapped frantically and suddenly flew away in a flash of green and yellow.
“Freedom!” laughed the owner.
“At least for him,” someone answered.
We looked around nervously and hoped that no loitering regime informant had heard our transgression.
“Poor thing,” a woman covered for us all. “A cat will get him.”
Alia Malek is a journalist and civil rights lawyer and the author of A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab- American Lives.