Are the press exacerbating sectarian tension in Syria?

The Guardian has published a genuinely interesting and informative ‘timeline of Syria’ map to help explain the background of the Syria crisis. However, included on the map is a list of Syria’s ‘ethnic groups’, with shaded areas to denote where these groups form a majority.

These geographical concentrations are presented in quite a crude fashion. Census data is not readily available so I’m not quite sure what sources were used. In particular, there seem to be two glaring inaccuracies that should be noted:

Firstly, the ethnic breakdown of the cities is completely ignored. About half of the Syrian population lives in either Aleppo or Damascus and they are both ethnically diverse. The map implies that Christians, Alawis and Druze are concentrated in just a few geographical areas, but that ignores the very large numbers that reside in these cities which, according to the map, are ‘Sunni-dominated areas.

Secondly, the map’s view of the coastal region as Alawi-dominated is inaccurate. There are large parts that have an Alawi majority and it is where most Alawis live, but many areas have a Sunni majority. Indeed, the area should probably be multi-coloured or grey rather than ‘all orange’. Take the cities along the coast as an example. Tartus is probably the only city where more than 50% of the population are Alawi. In Banyas, Jableh and Lattakia, the Alawis do not make up more than 50% of the population, yet according to the Guardian’s map they do.

In my opinion the western press should be very cautious about how they portray ethnic and sectarian conflict and tensions in Syria (and indeed everywhere). There IS a sectarian component to this conflict, but it is not (yet) the dominate theme and narrative of the uprising, which remains political – against an autocratic regime.

By emphasising the ethnic divisions in Syria (and not even portraying them accurately), coverage such of this (which I’m sure has been done with no such ill intent) is feeding a certain narrative that this is purely a sectarian dispute.

In the end it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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One thought on “Are the press exacerbating sectarian tension in Syria?

  1. Professor Phillips makes a cogent point about the news coverage of the chaos engulfing Syria. Media coverage has taken a prominent role, at least in America, for garnering support. Technology as Facebook, Twitter, and other social avenues on the internet has only heighten the need for publicity.

    The value of propaganda is quiet old–Egyptian hieroglyphics reflects the recognition of rulers to convince their subjects of victory and glory. Each new addition to communication was added to the repertoire of governments–from Caesar’s retelling of the conquest of Gaul to Napoleon’s bulletins to Matthew Brady’s photographs of the American Civil War to Charles Urban’s World War I’s movies to television’s coverage of the American Civil Rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests to today’s video phones that post highly subjective images of what is transpiring in Syria.

    Ten years ago, the United States underwent an intensive publicity campaign to win over opinion to invade Iraq. Books have been published detailing how the major media outlets flooded print, broadcasting and internet with support for the 2003 attack. There are a number of parallels with Iraq and Syria. Editorials from leading papers such as The New York Times and Washington Post or commentary by columnists and those academics pushing for intervention. There is a strong crossover of individuals who supported the Iraq war with those advocating military action against Damascus. The Syrian National Council is all too eerily similar to the Iraqi National Council. Concerns of Asad’s WMDs sounds all too similar to Saddam’s.

    Contrary voices or testimony is in less evidence with Syria than Iraq. The report of an Qatari survey reporting that the majority of Syrians support Bashar al-Asad is not given attention. The Arab League team’s comment that outside agents have provided arms and equipment to insurgents have contributed to the escalation and deaths of civilians is ignored. Reports of causalities fail to differentiate between civilians killed by military personnel, armed insurgents being killed by military personnel or the killing of civilians at the hands of the rebels.

    Questioning the bandwagon of regime change in Syria is given no attention by the major media outlets–not even individual voices on the editorial pages. To find anyone arguing against the prevailing political wave one must go to internet sites. These few sources fail in alerting Americans to question everything they read and see produced by the major outlets as they cannot compete in the communication market.

    Americans are aroused by what the media presents to them–outrage at civilian deaths at the hands of dictators like Asad but not the deaths of a million central Africans which was covered. Even now, there are Americans that remain convinced that Saddam had a nuclear arsenal and was a collaborator in the September 2001 attacks. Those who most effectively manage the media are the ones who effect policy. Truth or lies, fact or fiction, right or wrong become meaningless under relentless propaganda. George Orwell’s Winston Smith would find the 21st century a familiar place.

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