PBS: Understanding Syria (minus any nasty religion stuff)

So here we go again. This weekend I mentioned an online explainer piece served up by The Washington Post that pointed readers toward essential Twitter feeds linked to the civil war in Syria. The news-you-can-use pledge: Read these Twitter feeds and you'll know what you need to know to understand the chaos and bloodshed in Syria.

Maybe, maybe not.

I thought it was interesting that, after looking these Twitter feeds over a bit, it appears that the Post thinks that religion plays no role whatsoever in the fighting in Syria between the Islamist rebels and the heretical (from a Sunni Muslim point of view) Alawite minority regime that is hanging onto power. Oh, and then there is the plight of other religious minorities -- Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, primarily. This is an angle of the Syria story that is often mentioned in places like -- well, to name two -- Rome and Moscow.

Now, here is another explainer piece -- care of PBS. The headline aims at similar terrain: "Your Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict."

One of the most crucial aspects of the Syria story is that this land is a tense patchwork of groups that are defined in terms of ethnicity/tribe and religion. Right? Thus, PBS tells us:

What is Syria?

Syria is a nation of about 21 million people -- roughly 2 million more than the population of New York state. It sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle East.

The nation is about the same size as Washington state and slightly larger than North Dakota. Syria is run by the minority sect known as Alawites, which make up 11.8 percent of the population.

Interesting. The Alawites are a sect of what religion?

Later on in the piece there is this question:

Why the Civil War?

A series of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 triggered an increasingly violent backlash from the government of Bashar al-Assad that in turn led to a full-fledged civil war.

The current death toll, according to UNHCR's Peter Kessler, now stands at more than 100,000 people. The number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million. The group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 40,146 civilians have been killed, including more than 4,000 women and more than 5,800 children.

Uh, by WHY is there a civil war? What are the fault lines in this conflict, the civic cracks that define it? The Arab spring caused everything to fall apart and that's that? Really?

And then there's the matter of the Reuters info-graphic that ran with this piece.

The pie chart -- you'll have to visit the PBS site to see it -- breaks the Syrian population down this way. Pay special attention to the use of the word "Arab."

Readers are shown that Syria is 59.1 percent "Arabs (Sunni Muslim)," 11.8 percent "Alawites (Arab speaking)," 10.9 percent "Others," 9.3 percent "Levantines (Arab speaking)" and 8.9 percent "Kurds (Mostly Sunni Muslim)."

Now, as always, it is important to remember that "Arab" does not equal "Muslim." Yes, millions of Arabs are Muslims, but many Arabs are not Muslims. Also, millions and millions of Arabs are Muslims, but millions and millions of Muslims around the world are Indonesia, Pakistani, Turkish, Lebanese, etc.

Also remember that one of the keys to the history of Arab nationalism is that Christian Arabs and others were anxious to stress a common identity with other Arabs that was not automatically linked to Islam.

So, why does this chart identify Syria's "Arabs" as Sunni Muslims, period? There are no Shia Arabs? And up in that "Other" category, there are no Orthodox and Eastern Rite Christians who are Arabs? Really? Even in the ancient church of Antioch? Also, it is true that the Alawites have often viewed themselves as separate from the Arabs, for religious reasons. But is that division strictly true when the pie-chart discussion is primarily ethnic? Experts will argue about that.

Once again we face the same basic question I aired this weekend: Can readers and viewers truly understand what is happening in Syria and the sectarian bloodbath that almost certainly looms in the future without knowing something about the makeup of the nation, the faith-driven fervor of the rebels and the precarious position held by the land's religious minorities?

Really? Why should the excellent researchers at PBS omit religion from this picture and view the term "Arab" in this slanted manner?

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