It was June 2nd, 1978 when the Tunisian football team accomplished a historical win over the Mexicans 3-1 in Argentina during the FIFA World Cup. The victory was the first for an Arab team and was celebrated widely among the Arabs. Forty years later, the Tunisian football coach does not seem to be quite accurate when he told reporters last week that ‘all eyes in the Arab World’ would be looking passionately at his team during their game against Belgium. Indeed, some Syrian Arabs were cheering Belgium against their Tunisian fellow Arabs because as one of them put it ‘Tunisians are playing a bloody game in Idlib’ referring to Tunisian Jihadists who fight in Western Syria.
The 21st FIFA World Cup was launched mid-June in Russia with four Arab teams on board (Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia). It’s very well understandable that sports, in general, and football in particular are powerful enough to invoke identity politics. Since they represent suitable materialistic and symbolic venues to express nationalism. Seen in this vein, the divisions among Syrians over supporting their national team during the World Cup qualifying playoffs last September has proved how fragile the Syrian national identity is. Paradoxically, divisions among Syrians over supporting Arab teams in the FIFA World Cup is demonstrating how fractured the Arab national identity has become as a direct outcome of the ongoing war.
When Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game, pro-Asad Syrians were proudly cheering the victory on social media and also in the streets. Some mocked the Saudi team as team of Salfists and went further to consider the victory a Syrian one. Interestingly, one anti-Saudi football fan summarises reasons behind such stances in an eloquent way. According to her ‘Why support them [Saudi or Tunisian teams]? Because they are Arabs? Well, we have a popular saying: ‘me and my brother shall stand against my cousin, but me and my cousin will stand against an outsider’. Yet, brother and cousin have shed my blood. So why do I not stand with the outsider who helped me?”.
Undoubtedly the post-2011 political map has dramatically ruined the identity balance for Syrians. For four decades, Syrian students chanted the Baath slogan ‘one Arab nation bearing an eternal message’ on a daily base at school. Asad senior has constructed Arab Nationalism as a supra- identity, an umbrella under which the Syrian national identity and sectarian identities were followed.
During both Asads’ tenures, Syria was defined as the beating heart of Arabism. Regardless of the realpolitik and manipulation of Arab Nationalism by the regime, Syrians enjoyed a monolithic sense of pride as Arabs, they even felt more Arabs than the others.
However, the War seems to have ruined this. On the one hand, many pro-Asad Syrians perceive Arab States that back the opposition (namely, Saudi and Qatar) as ‘traitors’. While on the other hand, anti-Asad Syrians believe that these states did not provide sufficient aid to help overthrow the regime, and further, they blame them of cutting supplies that eventually weakened their position vis a vis the regime troops. Additionally, for both anti and pro-Asad Syrians, Arab countries did not address the refugee crisis appropriately, rather states like Egypt and Jordan were accused of mistreating Syrian refugees.
Hitherto, on Monday, when the Moroccan team (Morocco did not take any side in the conflict) played against Spain, Syrians on social media were fervently supporting Moroccans and hoping that they would qualify for the next round. Hence, the shifting balance in identities does not denote a demise of Arab Nationalism as an identity, rather, as an ideology. Arab nationalism constitutes one layer of the Syrian identity (except for the Kurds and other non-Arab ethnicities). In essence, identity entails a group of affiliations that an individual has toward a place, state, religion, tribe or a clan. None of these layers are capable of completely eroding the other. But one layer can prevail over the other and upset the balance. Accordingly, the conflict triggered a shift of Arab Nationalism as a supra state identity that resulted in a vacuum which was filled with ferociously competing sectarian identities. Certainly, this poses lethal outcomes for the future of Syria and Syrians. However, one can counter this by empowering a civic version of the national identity, that is based on citizenship rights. Alas, no fertile ground nor charismatic leaders are there for this mission. Instead, there is a myriad of war lords manipulating identities. However, they should bear in mind that playing with sectarian identities is much more hazardous than playing with fire. Because identities are more powerful than guns, they can burn the whole region.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.