See this article on the Syrian situation. Without re-reading the post, I can tell you what stuck with me: Although Syria presents itself as something of a secular state, all Syrians together, and all Arabs too, there is a great fear of other "sects" resulting in a willingness to believe the worst of them. Many Syrians fervently want to believe that they are and can be all Syrians together, but do they dare lower their defenses? The well-documented fear of instability is easily justified by reference to what happened in Lebanon and Iraq when a long-standing modus operandi or religious truce broke down, and various parties grabbed for power out of greed or self-righteousness or perhaps mostly insecurity. And of course that fear of instability comes close to being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
(And the other thing that stuck with me from recent reading about Syria is the fear and loathing that so many have for the idea of an Islamic Republic; as logically follows.)
Well, I knew about many of these internal religious divisions, but hearing people discussing it NOW, and urgently, has made a big impact on my effective understanding of the "Muslim Middle East," to wit, I now think a lot, in the front of my mind about the fact that however important Islam has been in the Middle East since the 7th century, and however sweeping the claims various Muslims have made, and whatever wishes for an Islamic society have been wished, it's always been at least this divided. The divisions haven't always been active, but like so many fault lines in an earthquake-prone region, they've been there.
Think about the religious history of the United States, as another instance. So many people think it can or should be summed up in a phrase. How wrong they are.
So what does this have to do with the Crusade era, which I will again be teaching in the fall? I will have to think about something that Christopher Tyerman has said in a couple of places -- that the rulers and political and military actors "on both sides" were immigrants or recent descendants of such. And if religious justifications for their actions and regimes were important (if not always appealed to), it is just wrong, wrong, wrong to attempt to explain the developments of the era merely by casting it as two religiously homogenous societies battling it out. Even if that was the way some contemporaries, and influential ones at that, visualized reality.
It will be a challenge to strike the right balance.
Image: The Assad family, late 20th century -- Syria's most famous Alawis, a term you should look up.