Stephen Mansfield Doesn’t Get Islam

Former pastor and New York Times best-selling religion writer Stephen Mansfield has made his living exploring the intricacies of American religion, from the faith journeys of Barack Obama and President Bush to an analysis of Oprah’s role in American religion. It’s a shame, then, that a recent article he wrote for the Huffington Post on the Syria civil war trades complexity for Islamophobic stereotypes.

Mansfield’s piece, entitled “Bad News for America: Religion Enflames the Syrian Civil War”, locates the “heart” of Syria’s Civil war in religion: specifically, the divide between the Sunni majority and the ‘Alawi Shi’a minority that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad belongs to.

Mansfield implies that the primary reason for Assad’s brutality is his religious desire to wipe out the Sunnis. Ditto for Syria’s largely-Sunni opposition, who wish to “restore the glory Islam [sic] to the world.”

He concludes by condemning the whole of the Middle East’s society, simply based on the fact that a Jordanian friend of his once expressed a desire that Jordan would someday control Mecca. Mansfield writes, “We are witnessing carnage that is fruit of a culture in which hatred is holy.”

And if Syria’s civil war is not about independence but instead about tribal vendettas, then why not, as Sarah Palin said, “let Allah sort it out?”

It’s discouraging to see Mansfield, whose work explores the intricacies of religious belief in politics, resort to such lazy generalities when talking about the culture of the Middle East.  Mansfield’s assessment of Syria is low on facts and high on stereotype. His Middle East, obsessed with territory and reprisal, seems to be lifted straight from Lawrence of Arabia.

Most of Mansfield’s assessments of the situation on the ground are roundly contradicted by expert opinion. Mansfield’s assessment of the ‘Alawis is perhaps the most off base: they are far from the monolithic foundation of state power that Mansfield makes them out to be.

Peter Harling and Sarah Birke’s “The Syrian Heartbreak,” written for the Middle East Report this spring, points out that ‘Alawis have not exactly thrived under the regime of Assad; rather, they have a “troubled sense of identity.” On the one hand, they have been somewhat protected by Assad’s regime from the historical discrimination they have suffered, but on the other hand, Bashar al-Assad and his father have largely worked to dismantle the traditional structure of the ‘Alawi community, “Sunnify”-ing it and generally treating those who could be strong leaders of the community as potential enemies. Harling and Birke write that the ‘Alawi community relies on Assad for pragmatic, desperate reasons, not ideological ones,

“This state of utter disarray is, paradoxically, the secret of the regime’s extraordinary resiliency: ‘Alawis have everything to lose, nowhere to go and no one to follow, other than a leader they profess to love and in reality loathe.”

Mansfield’s assessment of Syria’s Sunnis is also innacurate. Mansfield seems to view Sunnis as fairly narrowly motivated by the return of the Mahdi. Syria expert Adnan Zqulfiqar, in a late 2012 interview with Religion Dispatches’s own Haroon Moghul, argued that Syria is a religious but moderate country. For Zqulifiqar, religion in Syria served as a “potent rallying cry” and a point of union for the rebels, but was unlikely to lead to an Islamist government because “political Islam has no constituency in Syria.”

Often, looking at the religious aspects of a political situation can allow us to see it in new ways, and expand our knowledge of what motivates political actors. But Mansfield’s article, like much Middle East reporting, does the opposite: by focusing on religion, Mansfield reduces a complex situation to old Orientalist tropes: tribalism, inherently-violent Islam, and pointless hate.

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