PBS: Understanding Syria (minus any nasty religion stuff)

So here we go again.

This weekend I mentioned an online explainer piece served up by The Washington Post that pointed readers toward essential Twitter feeds linked to the civil war in Syria. The news-you-can-use pledge: Read these Twitter feeds and you’ll know what you need to know to understand the chaos and bloodshed in Syria.

Maybe, maybe not.

I thought it was interesting that, after looking these Twitter feeds over a bit, it appears that the Post thinks that religion plays no role whatsoever in the fighting in Syria between the Islamist rebels and the heretical (from a Sunni Muslim point of view) Alawite minority regime that is hanging onto power. Oh, and then there is the plight of other religious minorities — Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, primarily. This is an angle of the Syria story that is often mentioned in places like — well, to name two — Rome and Moscow.

Now, here is another explainer piece — care of PBS. The headline aims at similar terrain: “Your Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict.”

One of the most crucial aspects of the Syria story is that this land is a tense patchwork of groups that are defined in terms of ethnicity/tribe and religion. Right? Thus, PBS tells us:

What is Syria?

Syria is a nation of about 21 million people — roughly 2 million more than the population of New York state. It sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle East.

The nation is about the same size as Washington state and slightly larger than North Dakota. Syria is run by the minority sect known as Alawites, which make up 11.8 percent of the population.

Interesting. The Alawites are a sect of what religion?

Later on in the piece there is this question:

Why the Civil War?

A series of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 triggered an increasingly violent backlash from the government of Bashar al-Assad that in turn led to a full-fledged civil war.

The current death toll, according to UNHCR’s Peter Kessler, now stands at more than 100,000 people. The number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million. The group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 40,146 civilians have been killed, including more than 4,000 women and more than 5,800 children.

Uh, by WHY is there a civil war? What are the fault lines in this conflict, the civic cracks that define it? The Arab spring caused everything to fall apart and that’s that? Really?

And then there’s the matter of the Reuters info-graphic that ran with this piece.

The pie chart — you’ll have to visit the PBS site to see it — breaks the Syrian population down this way. Pay special attention to the use of the word “Arab.”

Readers are shown that Syria is 59.1 percent “Arabs (Sunni Muslim),” 11.8 percent “Alawites (Arab speaking),” 10.9 percent “Others,” 9.3 percent “Levantines (Arab speaking)” and 8.9 percent “Kurds (Mostly Sunni Muslim).”

Now, as always, it is important to remember that “Arab” does not equal “Muslim.” Yes, millions of Arabs are Muslims, but many Arabs are not Muslims. Also, millions and millions of Arabs are Muslims, but millions and millions of Muslims around the world are Indonesia, Pakistani, Turkish, Lebanese, etc.

Also remember that one of the keys to the history of Arab nationalism is that Christian Arabs and others were anxious to stress a common identity with other Arabs that was not automatically linked to Islam.

So, why does this chart identify Syria’s “Arabs” as Sunni Muslims, period? There are no Shia Arabs? And up in that “Other” category, there are no Orthodox and Eastern Rite Christians who are Arabs? Really? Even in the ancient church of Antioch? Also, it is true that the Alawites have often viewed themselves as separate from the Arabs, for religious reasons. But is that division strictly true when the pie-chart discussion is primarily ethnic? Experts will argue about that.

Once again we face the same basic question I aired this weekend: Can readers and viewers truly understand what is happening in Syria and the sectarian bloodbath that almost certainly looms in the future without knowing something about the makeup of the nation, the faith-driven fervor of the rebels and the precarious position held by the land’s religious minorities?

Really? Why should the excellent researchers at PBS omit religion from this picture and view the term “Arab” in this slanted manner?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    I don’t think the indigenous people of ancient Antioch were Arabs. I know some Christians from that part of the world. They tell me they are the indigenous people and most of them were slowly being forced by onerous taxes to become Muslims. The language of Arabic is now everywhere in that area but that does not turn them into Arabs. The Muslims in Egypt are mostly not ethnically Arab, either. However, one Christians converted to Islam they did start marrying with Muslim Arabs.

    From my reading of the conquest era, there were not many Arabs moving into the conquered areas. They mostly lived on the edges of cities. Arabs were not city dwellers and were happy to continue to live in their tents and collect tribute and the jizra (sp?) tax. Most of the city people remained Christian for many centuries. In the 1800s many Near East cities were still majority Christian. The Catholics I know from Iraq identify as Assyrians – their territory was NW Iran West of the rivers and much of Syria. There was no Iraq until recently. People also like to say that Iran is the modern Persia, but that’s not exactly so, either.

    All these commenters forget that the Ottoman Empire didn’t recognize countries/nations, per se, just governing districts. These modern countries were drawn up by the Brits and French at the end of World War II. Remember what happened at the end of Lawrence of Arabia.

    There has to be some better way of describing the peoples of the Levant, if the media is going to take a stab at describing ethnicities, nationalities and religious groupings. The language a person speaks is not necessarily indicative of their ethnicity or religion or nationality.

    • helen

      “All these commenters forget that the Ottoman Empire didn’t recognize countries/nations, per se, just governing districts.”

      Can’t forget what you never learned… History and geography were taught better a century ago than they are now.

  • Ivan

    That befuddling terminology that we’ve seen making the rounds, as far as I can tell, has come from this Columbia University map.

    • Julia B

      Now that I’ve looked at it, the chart is much better than I expected.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Ismailis are Seveners and Shi’ites, and Alawites are Twelvers and Shi’ites.

    Of course, the historical Assassin group were supposedly Ismailis, so one wonders if the Assassins’ Creed series of videogames has raised the Ismailis’ profile and membership.


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