Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Who are the Alawites

that have ruled Syria for decades?  Michael Totten links to an article in the New Republic that gives some insight.  The article is titled "The Cult: The Twisted, Terrifying Last Days of Assad’s Syria."  A taste:

It would be interesting to know more about the ideology of those who are imposing this regimen of killing on their fellow citizens. Twenty-six hundred citizens, say the human rights organizations, have been killed so far, with no end in sight. Are the army units doing this in the name of religion?

Just about every observer who has analyzed the conflict in the western press—Robert Fisk in The Independent, Anthony Shadid in The New York Times, Malise Ruthven in The New York Review of Books—has reminded readers that beneath everything else in Syria, there lies the bitterness of the Sunni-Alawi rivalry. There are about three and a half million Alawis in Syria (out of a total population of 22 million). It will not do to impugn an entire religion, but those who’ve written about this topic do not fail to observe that the most influential positions in the army are occupied by Alawis, that the all-powerful mukhabarat, or secret service, is dominated at every level by Alawis, that Alawi officers have superintended every large-scale episode of killing in Syria in recent years (at the Tadmoor Prison in 1980, in Hama in 1982, and now in Deraa, and Hama again), and that the family which has been inflicting this variety of civic calm on Syria for the last 40 years has been an Alawi one.

I lived in Syria from 2007 to 2010 (and I have since returned three times, most recently this past June and July).When I first moved to the country, I had been reading the same writers everyone reads—Thomas Friedman, Patrick Seale, Robert Kaplan. As a student in a Sunni academy in Damascus, I could see right away that there was indeed an ominous force in the city, and that it didn’t dwell in the neighborhood mosques, but rather emanated from the higher spheres—the mountaintop palaces, the defense ministry, the interior ministry. That is to say, it emanated from the seats of Alawi power.

One of the first things one learns in such academies is that the secret police are everywhere. They drive the taxis, they pray next to you in the mosques, and they are listening to your phone conversations. The second thing one learns is that however affable the stranger next to you seems—and many are lovely—he will betray you. If the officer who betrays you is not himself an Alawi, he will turn you over to the superstructure of Alawite authority in Syria. Now you are in trouble. Is it because they often have light hair and blue eyes that other Syrians sometime refer to the Alawis as al Almaan—“the Germans”? Or is it because their blood is thought to run very cold?

As a student of Islam in Syria, you’re not supposed to pursue this line of questioning. You’re supposed to be afraid.I had Yemeni stamps in my passport. Yemen is a stronghold of the Sunnis. Try to get a new passport, I was told. I used to ride my bike through a neighborhood, near the president’s house, in which the mukhabarat stood on the street corners, day and night, surveilling the passing traffic. Are you crazy? people asked me.

Beards are an issue in Syria. If you have a bushy, pious religious-seeming one, you’re straightway identified as a Sunni. This can invite the attention of the mukhabarat. Ditto too much loafing in the mosque. Ditto religious clothing and language. “Hey whassup, sir. Wanna cigarette?” is an appropriate and safe way to greet someone who might work for the security services in Syria. The formula I learned in Yemen, “May Allah open the way for you, brother,” is dangerous.

Actually the student of Islam in Syria is in a strange position. Every day his teachers ask him to meditate on the power of almighty Allah, the king of all the worlds, and every day his teachers tremble before the mightier, more fearsome power of the Alawi. The teachers are positively transfixed. Nor will they explain the situation. Either they are too worried or they work for the secret police or some combination of these circumstances is at work.

Given all this, you can see why the think-piece writers often place the Sunni-Alawi divide at the center of their analyses. But their analyses are not quite correct. The dark force in Syria is not really a religious rivalry. It’s not a single family either. What might it be?

Anyone hoping to uncover the dark strain within Alawism by exploring the doctrines themselves will be disappointed. Maybe a better way to say this is, if you’re looking for a pleasant religion that harmonizes with the natural elements, this is the faith for you.

Alawis believe all humans were once stars, that by a seven-step process of metempsychosis, a pious soul can regain his place in the Milky Way and that impious souls come back as animals. Alawis celebrate the Zoroastrian holiday Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring, and sometimes celebrate Christmas. It’s not very Islamic to drink wine. It’s very un-Islamic to read esoteric meanings into the Koran. Alawis use wine in their rituals and believe that the manifest meaning of the Koran (and the Sharia) is a veil that covers truer, deeper meanings. Traditionally, Alawis have not built mosques but have rather prayed in the family home, or out of doors. They are said to worship the sun and the moon because these are aspects of the divine; the air, because god has dispersed himself into the ether; the stars, because one’s ancestors abide there; and the fourth Caliph, Ali, because he is the patron of their sect.

The religion emerged in the tenth century in a pocket of coastal mountains in northeastern Syria. These hills remain their homeland. When I first arrived in Syria, I was under the impression that if you walked up the right dirt roads in this alpine corner of the country, you would eventually come across villages in which the old faith flourished. I was under the impression that if you came on weekends you would spot the luxury sedans of regime apparatchiks who had driven up from Damascus. They would have come home to be among their own, to walk through the orchards for which the region is famous, and to renew their acquaintance with the stars. Whatever darkness there is within Alawism, I assumed, would make itself known to whoever studied Alawism here, among the cherry trees and the apparatchiks.

You cannot do this, it turns out. In the first place, Alawism is essentially a secret. It doesn’t proselytize as Sunni Islam does but rather selects its initiates from the male children of Alawite families, and only from those deemed worthy of instruction. In the second place, Alawism doesn’t exist anymore.

Perhaps some ethnologist will yet discover traces of it in a valley somewhere, but, these days, Alawis in Syria describe their beliefs in the same terms Sunni Muslims use. They believe in a single god, that one should pray to Mecca (never to the sun), and that Christmas is for Christians. One’s ancestors, for their part, are in their graves, awaiting the day of judgment, which is where Sunni Islam believes them to be. It’s true that you hear rumors of still-extant Alawi rites now and then, but it’s hard to find anyone who takes these ceremonies seriously. “The ‘initiation ritual’ of male Alawis into the religion consists of kissing a few hands and memorizing a seriously ridiculous script in a small memo book,” wrote a blogger calling himself “Khudr” recently on the website Syria Comment:

Frequently, one is given the script without his “teacher” or initiator ever bothering to see afterwards whether you memorized it or not. Most of the time your “initiator” knows that your opinion of the whole process and the script is as high as your opinion of “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.

It might seem unfair to accuse the most famous Alawi of them all, Hafez Al Assad, of killing Alawism but he is almost certainly the guilty party. More than any other bit of evidence, his motive damns him. When he assumed control of the country in 1971, he came with visions of a Baathist utopia shining in his eyes. He needed three and a half million ultra-loyal, ultra-motivated helpers to persuade the Sunnis (74 percent) and the Christians (10 percent) to love the Baathists. The variety of ultra-loyalism Hafez Al Assad valued precluded loyalty to a religious sect. The solution: Cancel Alawism. If the Alawis wanted a religious identity, Hafez Al Assad declared, they could very well be Sunnis.

In 2005, a Syrian dissident, “Karfan,” at the website Syria Exposed, described Assad’s program of “Sunnifaction.” “The extreme policy,” he wrote, “took the shape of so many aspects that everybody here [in Syria] knows very well”:

Introducing only pure Sunni Islam education to all schools; Banning any public manifestation or even mentioning of any Alawie religious activities; Banning and oppressing any Alawie religious organizations or any formation of a unified religious council or a higher religious authority; … Building Sunni-style mosques in every little Alawite village and encouraging people to perform the pilgrimage.
I find this article very curious for a few reasons.  First, when I was in Middle Eastern Studies at THE Ohio State University, we were taught that Alawites are Sunnis, only that they are a particular, exclusive sect of Sunniism, mostly coming from one village in Syria.  Most analysts apparently view them that way, but it seems the Alawites and Sunnis do not view themselves that way.

Second, Alawites celebrating Zoroastrian holidays is very intriguing.  I wonder how much of it is a remnant of the Sassanid Persian clashes with the Romans in Syria.  It does hint at something that has been whispered about Iran for some time: that there may be a lot more adherents to Persia's traditional religion of Zoroastrianism than are generally believed.  Most Zoroastrians practice in secret because of harrassment from the mullahs.  Removal of the mullahs could spark a revival of Ahura-Mazda as a backlash against the mullahs' enforced worship of a dark interpretation of Allah.

Read the whole thing.

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