If we are to have any chance of understanding the civil war in Syria and the U.S.-led response to the use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad, we have to unpack the religious demography of the country. (For the U.S. unclassified report on evidence of chemical weapons used by the Syrian regime, click here.)
When we begin to grasp the role of Sunni and Shia Muslims in Syria, and especially of the ruling Alawite minority, usually described as an off-shoot of Shia Islam, we begin to see that there's nothing simple about the picture there.
Add in a Christian minority of perhaps 10 percent of the population and you have a religiously diverse nation with lots of tensions -- all exacerbated by a ruling family with the morals of a vacuum cleaner.
The list of cruel, savage leaders who have wounded the world in the last 75 years is breath-taking: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Benito Mussolini, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden. . .on and on. And now Bashar al-Assad adds his name to this dishonor roll. Notice, however, that although religion certainly has played a role in some of the atrocities committed under the guidance of many such goons, it sometimes played little or no role at all.
As for Syria itself now, its record on religious freedom is not good. And as the Syria section of the 2012 annual report on religious liberty from the U.S. Statement Department noted, "While opposition to the government began as a series of peaceful protests calling for reform and an end to regime abuses, the regime framed the protests and subsequent armed resistance in sectarian terms, maintaining that protesters and oppositionists were associated with 'extreme Islamist factions.'”
All of this should give us pause (which is what President Obama did Saturday) as we react to the evil the Assad regime has committed. It's complicated out there.
Also: For a really good Washington Post piece explaining the essentials of what's happening in Syria, including some theories about the religious components of the story, click here.
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THE POPE FOCUSES ON SYRIA, TOO
Speaking of Syrian, Pope Francis has condemned the civil war there and set this coming Saturday as a day of fasting and prayer for the troubled country. Too bad the Syrian people can't simply ask the pontiff to come be their ruler. What a difference that would be over the thug there now.