In the Syrian town of Salamiyah the Ismailis are suffering—but are determined to keep control of their storyby Faisal Devji / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
It often seems as if the extraordinary pluralism of Middle Eastern societies, religious as much as ethnic, tends to be brought to the world’s attention only once it has been destroyed. The civil war in Syria, for example, has made communities like the Yazidis, Alawites, Druze, Assyrians and Kurds newly familiar to a global audience. The sudden prominence of their desperate plight serves only to confirm the stereotype it should dispel—that of a monotonously Islamic society. Because they have been rendered into mere victims, such groups tend to be written out of a story, whose only permanent diversity is exhibited as the supposedly age-old enmity between Islam’s two major sects, Sunni and Shia.
It is undeniable that the war in Syria and Iraq has resulted in the targeting of smaller ethnic and religious communities. Yet by focusing so obsessively on war victims, we ignore these ethnic, religious and sectarian complexities, in the process giving too much credit to the transformative power of violence. Taking the Middle East’s pluralism to be dead encourages us in the west to match the Middle East’s violence with our own visions for the region’s forcible transformation.
The problem with taking on the identity of a victim is that it ends up supporting violence, though more by default than design. Tales of horror push us towards a zero-sum conception both of the Middle East’s present and its future, stripping victims of all will and volition. We can either descend into pessimism and indifference, or adopt a kind of counter-violence. One reason why the Kurds battling Islamic State (IS) have been invested with such fervent hopes, for instance, is because they appear to have thrown off their identity as victims—in their case by fighting back.
But there are other ways of refusing such an identity than taking up arms. In the Syrian town of Salamiyah and its environs in mid-May, IS fighters killed dozens of civilians, beheading women and dismembering children after smashing their heads in with bricks, as they sought to push into government-controlled territory. This is an area dominated by the Ismailis, a small Shia sub-sect which has desperately been trying to stay out of the war, but who are regarded by militants as apostates deserving of death. Surely no better victims can be imagined than these horrifically murdered innocents. And yet one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of Ismailis bewailing their condition, and throwing itself on the mercy of the international community.
The Syrian Ismailis are part of a small but multi-ethnic religious minority scattered across the globe, in places like India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and as immigrants in Europe and North America. It includes wealthy populations entirely capable of broadcasting the plight of their Syrian brethren. And yet they make no attempt to do so, even as Ismaili leaders are assiduous in providing relief to Syrian refugees in countries like Germany and Sweden, and are working behind the scenes to ensure the security of those still in Salamiyah. Long considered heretics by many if not most of their Muslim co-religionists, Ismailis remain suspicious of attracting too much attention, or at least of inviting publicity they cannot control.
The Ismailis have not been short of opportunities to be identified as victims. But through their bitter experience, they have always grasped that to be identified as such aggravates the problem. Not only does giving the impression of vulnerability result in the rise of opportunistic attacks, but self-identifying with this role also imposes an enormous psychic burden. Even those victims who occasionally become the subjects of global concern inevitably lose control of their own causes, and find themselves suddenly abandoned for newer arrivals. This is today true not only of Syrians, but also Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bosnians, Tibetans or Vietnamese in the past, to say nothing of Rwandans or South Sudanese. In all these cases the uncertain benefits of global attention stand in contrast to the victim’s loss of moral and political autonomy.
This realisation first came to the Ismailis in 1972, when the dictator Idi Amin expelled all people of Indian origin from Uganda. Unable to rely on the assistance of western countries, whose governments had to manage anti-immigrant feeling, the Ismailis’ spiritual leader the Aga Khan made arrangements with Canada to guarantee the financial security of Ismaili refugees. He chartered all the aircraft available in east and central Africa to fly out Ismailis and other Asians, most ending up in Britain and Canada, and went on to found a relief agency of the community’s own. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, similar arrangements were made. Then there was Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s and now the crisis in Syria.
Through all this, the violence and trauma they have to deal with is carefully sequestered from the community’s identity, which they understand must remain unsullied by violence if it is not to become a site of paranoia and visions of revenge. Even today, when the circulation of gory videos on social media are used to fire up indignation on all sides of the Syrian conflict, most Ismailis ignore them. And if they possess certain advantages, such as a wealthy diaspora and influential leader, vulnerable Ismaili populations have generally been poor and unarmed minorities in rural areas.
By denying the logic of victimisation, Ismailis refuse to acknowledge one of the modern world’s most important identities. This doesn’t make their efforts to deal with violence ideal: there is much that could be improved on. Crucial, however, is their recognition that victimisation is a language shared by the bitterest foes, one that allows neither to escape this brutal intimacy. If anything, IS fighters possess a more intense idea than their enemies of the Muslim victim’s suffering, and so the need for violence to avenge it. Victimisation and violence are thus interlinked, and if the history of a small sectarian minority can tell us anything, it is that we must abandon one to reject the other.
Upturning the accounts of sectarian loyalty that define the Syrian conflict, Salamiyah was the second town in the country to rise against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Its Free Army, however, was soon disbanded as none of the other groups in the opposition would have anything to do with people they considered heretics. Subsequently pro-Assad factions have arisen among Ismailis, though the sect’s leadership has refused to resort to arms in support of the regime, whose protection of them thus remains both casual and cruel. Instead aid dispatched by the Aga Khan’s development network supports the town, which has become a magnet for Sunni refugees from elsewhere in Syria. Clearly identities are far more complex than most imagine, and a pluralist society is still possible, even in the middle of what is seen as a sectarian war.