Syria’s Culture War

Here’s a recording of a short interview I did with the Watson Institute for International Studies here at Brown University. I wrote about some of these themes in a piece for the Times last year (“Syria’s Defecting Bloggers”), which you can find here, and have generally been interested in the problems of representing reality in this conflict.

In light of the conversation that’s going on in the comment section of the last post, I’d be curious to hear what people think of this idea of a culture war.

Also, speaking of Brown University, please be sure to check out this brand new postdoctoral fellowship that we’ve just announced in Middle East Studies. Pass it on to any interested parties.


29 thoughts on “Syria’s Culture War

  1. QN,

    I think the terminology is misleading. It is not a “culture war”. Both sides have basically the same culture. It is just a manifestation of the fog of war and the fact that there are so many conflicting interests at play. People have to summarize in a few words a very complex situation, and obviously all that they say is inaccurate on both sides.

    I think that at the most basic level this is a war about the consent of being governed. Some people do not consent anymore to be governed by Assad and others do not consent to be governed by any likely Assad alternative, democratically elected or not. And as now Syrians view the conflict as existential, they will say whatever they believe will help their side irregardless of what reality is. And they will find ways to justify all their actions. It is very hard to snap out of this devastating mode of conflict.

    Posted by AIG | November 28, 2012, 1:09 pm
  2. Some people do not consent anymore to be governed by Assad and others do not consent to be governed by any likely Assad alternative, democratically elected or not.

    Those people who do not consent anymore to be governed by Assad are the ones who are morally correct in this instance, since, by definition, the Assad regime is an anathma to the UN’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    If the UN had a modicum of spine, they would prohibit countries membership to the UN if they fail to live up to the UN’s own standards. That includes Palestine.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 28, 2012, 1:30 pm
  3. If the UN had any modicum of spine, the country that should be prohibited membership is Israel. It plays by its own rules.

    Posted by JY | November 28, 2012, 2:11 pm
  4. AIG

    I do think there’s a culture war in addition to an actual war taking place in Syria. The culture war is not unlike the one we’ve seen in Lebanon over the past seven years, what we see in the U.S., and what is going on in Egypt right now. There’s a war of ideas going on. For some people, it’s a war about very abstract principles (like liberalism vs. Islamism, etc.) and for others it’s a more partisan battle.

    As we both know from our years at Syria Comment, this war of ideas did not exist among most Syrians, even just a short while ago.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 28, 2012, 3:14 pm
  5. QN,

    Then why not call it a “war of ideas” instead of a “culture war”?

    Posted by AIG | November 28, 2012, 3:21 pm
  6. I suppose because “war of ideas” sounds very airy-fairy and abstract, when there’s a rootedness to the debate that should be acknowledged. In the US, the ideological debates that have raged between progressives and reactionaries (I mean conservatives) seem to be emblematic of a larger cultural divide, not just a war of ideas. A “war of ideas” suggests that there’s a debate going on that can be settled once and for all, whereas “culture war” recognizes how entrenched certain attitudes are and how they are bound up with social and economic realities.

    It’s more or less the same notion, but we academics are paid to obfuscate so there.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 28, 2012, 3:27 pm
  7. War of Ideas NewZ


    Just think, two years ago it was illegal for the average Syrian to have their own “ideas”. The times they are a changin’… no?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 28, 2012, 3:31 pm
  8. “If the UN had a modicum of spine,..”

    The problem with “having a spine” is that, oftentimes, it just leads to more trouble, if the opposite of having a spine is to collaborate, even when there are huge differences.

    Posted by Pas Cool | November 28, 2012, 3:52 pm
  9. This is definitely a cultural war and not just in Syria. We are witnessing the demise of the leftist, progressive, nationalistic ideologies and the rise of the Islamist ideologies. May you all live (another 50 years) in interesting times.

    Posted by Vulcan | November 28, 2012, 4:10 pm
  10. the 2 resident zionists are the first to post, do you guys have the same shift in your base off tel abib ? off langley?

    Posted by 3issa | November 28, 2012, 4:17 pm
  11. 3issa, you should really boycott this blog and while you’re at it boycott the internet too and many other things you enjoy, thanks to the Colonial Jews.

    Go concentrate on liberating Palestine and fester in your vile, racist backward mentality. But of course being the hypocrite you are, you cannot do that, you rather insist on exposing us to your stupidity. The Arab world is what it is because of ignorant douchebags like you.

    Posted by Vulcan | November 28, 2012, 4:40 pm
  12. مغفورة لك يا أخي

    Posted by 3issa | November 28, 2012, 4:55 pm
  13. QN,

    Was the Spanish civil war called a “culture war”? How about the Yugoslavian one? Or the Lebanese one? “Culture wars” are “wars” about Christmas or gay marriage. I would like to insist that this is a bad name. Call it “religious war” or “sectarian war”. Or perhaps a “culture war” is one aspect of a civil war? In any case, I fail to see what is so special about the Syrian civil war that merits this new moniker.

    Posted by AIG | November 28, 2012, 5:02 pm
  14. 3issa, this is noble of you, I apologize for offending you with my harsh language.

    It is so frustrating to see people being so intransigent, this will achieve nothing but more suffering for those you claim to defend. The suffering of Palestinians will not end by insisting on the extermination of Israel.
    This conflict could be solved if both people accept each other’s rights. The Jewish people have every right to self determination, so do the Palestinians, each have made many mistakes and there are many injustices but the solution will never be achieved with more violence and hate. No matter how hard this may sound to you, peace negotiations are the only way out of this terrible conflict.

    Posted by Vulcan | November 28, 2012, 5:22 pm
  15. I think the problem with throwing around words like “Culture” war begs the question as to which side represents what “cultural” aspect precisely.

    Are the insurgents the Muslim zealots, hell bent on sending Syria back to the Stone Age? Are they the secular democrats? Are they left-leaning? Right leaning? Revolutionaries fighting for the right to self-determination? To the right to proper representation?

    And what of the government itself? Shrouding itself under what is ostensibly “socialist” and “leftist” and “nationalist” ideals. Where do they stand? Are they simply to be referred to as the Anti-Imperial Muqawamists? Or vanguards of Pluralism in a Middle East that does not look too kindly on those who are different?

    I read a lot of people asking about the “Progressive” voices that apparently are silent. Whose voices are those? And what makes their views “Progressive”.

    Is this a war of Progressives against Regressives?

    Is it a war of Old Order vs. New Order? A war of Generations? A generation that have come to accept being put under the boot of horrid dictatorships, vs a generation that tweets and IMs in a world that has shrunk so small?

    Posted by Gabriel | November 28, 2012, 8:25 pm
  16. Gabriel,

    Just MHO, but it’s a mixer of ideologies at play. Not only is it the muslim zealots “hell bent on sending Syria back to the Stone Age”, but it is also the secular Assad-idoling Baathists, and the Iranian and Saudi mercinaries. Top that off with a disinteredted arab/muslim world who only cares about boats breaking the Gaza blockade, and your left with a tiny group of freedom seekers who have no voice or power.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 28, 2012, 8:46 pm
  17. AIG

    I’m not saying that the conflict in Syria is a culture war, but rather that there is a culture war going on alongside the real war.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 28, 2012, 11:36 pm
  18. QN,

    “I’m not saying that the conflict in Syria is a culture war, but rather that there is a culture war going on alongside the real war.”

    But isn’t that a trivial thing to say? It seems that in almost all wars there is a culture war going alongside the real war. I am hard pressed to find an example of a war in which there was not also a cultural divide between the belligerent parties.

    Posted by AIG | November 29, 2012, 1:07 am
  19. It’ll be a few years until I’m able to apply for that. :/

    Posted by idnavigator | November 29, 2012, 3:28 am
  20. QN – thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you all for NOT calling it a Paradigm Shift 🙂

    How about Revolution? calling it culture war or civil war and comparing it with ex-Yugoslavia or even Lebanon equates between the two sides. As you said in the interview, its not two coherent sides with the same definition of problems or a minimum of consensus over how to view them. It is an established order, with its ideas, that has collapsed and is being challenged by a multitude of ideas and alternative orders that could emerge. There is no linearity in that process and it could go anywhere from here. Part of that is a mind game, a war of ideas or a culture war because it challenges a dominant and old established political culture.

    Two sides also implies that one would win over the other which is deterministic, but you do not fall into that trap. Thus moves history – and your interpretation of how it does classifies you firmly in a non-Marxist camp.

    A generation ago someone like you would not be able to get a date.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | November 29, 2012, 5:26 am
  21. AIG said: “But isn’t that a trivial thing to say?”

    And a very good morning to you, sir.

    Nadim said: “A generation ago someone like you would not be able to get a date.”


    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 29, 2012, 9:53 am
  22. QN,

    Sorry, that came out wrong, it was not meant to be or sound like an ad hominem. It is common to use such language in analyzing an idea in philosophy. I think though there is an issue to address here. The general question is whether a culture war as you define it, is not always part of any war and to what extent. Looking at historical examples I can’t see anything unique about the Syrian conflict.


    A revolution or a coup can deteriorate into a civil war as has happened over and over again in history. And that is what has happened in Syria. Calling something a war does not equate between the two sides. It simply means the two or more sides are using violence to attain their goals. Calling the war between the North and South in the US a “Civil War” as all people do, does not mean that people think that the North and South were equivalent in all aspects or that they were both fighting a just war. And of course the American Civil War was over ideas and culture and the very nature of society. By the way, I highly recommend going to see the movie “Lincoln”. My bet is that you will like it very much.

    And of course one side could win. All that means is that it will have almost a monopoly on use of force.

    Posted by AIG | November 29, 2012, 10:32 am
  23. AIG said: “Sorry, that came out wrong, it was not meant to be or sound like an ad hominem.”

    That’s alright, I’m just busting your (virtual) balls.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 29, 2012, 10:45 am
  24. Shifting the focus from AIG’s virtual balls (a paradigm shift, of course), I agree that there is within this revolution/war/uprising (or all of the above) a culture war.

    I would say there are even two wars here: a culture war and a cultural war.

    A culture war is one in which several visions (as you put it, QN) clash. This is the case for Syria: “inside” versus “outside”, “partisan” versus “gray” (a term which I hate with a passion), “religious” versus “secular” and all the rainbow in between, Gulf-inspired versus Syrian nationalist versus pan-Arabist versus regionalist and so one. More deeply, we are witnessing that the gaps among rural, suburb and city cultures (and visions) are, in fact, huge faults in which many ugly and interesting things are happening. Tension among all those cultures has been there for decades and, with hindsight, was bound to explode one day. This explosion is taking place before our eyes, which explains partly the incredible violence of the Syrian situation.

    A cultural war is one which is waged in the cultural arena and in which cultural tools are used as weapons: Works of past and present authors and bloggers, films, music, songs, puppets, recording (ahem…), photographs… and cultural boycotts, of course.

    A culture war may or may not trigger a cultural war. However, a cultural war seems to be always part of a culture war in the sense that it embodies different visions. Think of the recent boycott war waged by Syrian filmmakers abroad against some of their former colleagues in Syria, or of Ali Ferzat’s increasingly Iran-phobic and sectarian-sounding – if not altogether sectarian – cartoons and writings.

    Posted by Jiim Siin | December 7, 2012, 1:31 pm
  25. Excellent comment, Jiim Siin.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 7, 2012, 2:34 pm
  26. JIIM SIIN,

    You had me worried for a second, but I checked and my balls are not virtual.

    Seriously though, no one would argue with your description of what is happening in Syria (I think the definitions are a little loose but that is not important). The question is whether there is something new in all of this that is unique to the Syrian conflict. Aren’t most if not all wars about culture (partly because your definition of it is so wide)? And isn’t almost always the cultural arena used to bolster the war on the battlefield?

    Posted by AIG | December 7, 2012, 2:59 pm
  27. QN, thank you.
    AIG, I agree that all wars embed culture wars and cultural wars. Even election campaigns have a little of each, as QN pointed out. However, there are two specific characteristics of the Syria culture wars:

    1 – The high number of fronts on which they are waged (suburb vs. city, etc. as I pointed out above).
    2 – The depth of the divisions. While in many culture wars (typically during elections) all parties have some common ground (i.e. France is a republic, with some degree of secularism, with recognized institutions) the Syrian culture wars reveal disagreement about the nature of Syria as a nation-state or even whether it deserves to be one or not.

    Those characteristics still don’t make Syria unique with regard to culture wars, but they make it rank quite high on the violence scale, up there with the Lebanese civil war, Bosnia, Rwanda… Here is how I would think of it although I have neither statistics nor figures to support my analysis: Syria’s current culture wars aren’t about which culture will dominate, they are (so far) often about negating the other cultures within the country altogether. If only for this reason, it is worth singling out Syria’s culture wars as one of the arenas in which Syria’s future is being played.

    Posted by Jiim Siin | December 8, 2012, 6:27 am
  28. JIIM SIIN,

    I think it is just an optical illusion based on technology that there is something special about the Syrian conflict. Other such conflicts in the past did not have the internet and social media to highlight the differences that of course were there. The American civil war for example was a culture war on many different fronts. So was the Russian revolution and the wars that followed it. And our “favorite” the Israeli war of independence was clearly as multi front as the current Syrian conflict. The divides were religious, sectarian, social, political, geographical etc. and of course about what nature mandatory Palestine should take and if a state should exist at all.

    I could give you tens of additional examples to such conflicts off the cuff. There is nothing special about the Syrian conflict. Neither in its extent nor the number of divisions it highlights. it is just the most recent one and has formed a strong impression that is further amplified by social media and technology. But with historical perspective, it is really quite run of the mill.

    Posted by AIG | December 8, 2012, 1:07 pm


  1. Pingback: Syria’s Culture War Posted by Qifa Nabki ⋅… « YALLA SOURIYA - November 28, 2012

Are you just gonna stand there and not respond?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Browse archives

wordpress stats plugin
%d bloggers like this: