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 a…