Syria: Alawites, Religious Minorities in the Losing War

The Arab Spring started in Middle East as a political crisis, led by liberal secularists regardless of their religious background. Ironically, it is also the making of one of the bloodiest sectarian wars in Islam's modern history.

Of the Syrian population, 75% were Sunnis. The main minorities are the Alawites and Christians, each counts for approximately 10%. Syrian President Assad and the majority of his army belong to Alawites while the majority of the current opposition groups are Sunnis. What should we know about this ruling minority and what will be likely to happen to them in post-Assad Syria?

A Hybrid Religion

For many centuries, the Alawites were the weakest, poorest, most rural, most despised, and most backward people of Syria. Since the French mandate, they have transformed themselves into the ruling elite of Damascus, dominating the government and the army. How the Alawites managed to escape their traditional confines, how they rose to power, and the way they are currently either waging the war or suffering from it, are closely linked to the very nature of their faith. So, who are the Alawites?

About a thousand years ago, the sect split from the main branch of Shia. It was strongly influenced by ancient Gnostic teachings that predate Islam, believing that the way to salvation and knowledge lies through a succession of divine emanations. And since that divinity is vested in Ali (Mohammed's son in law), thus the name Alawites, meaning the followers of Divine Ali.

However, the whole religion is actually a mysterious cocktail of Islam, Christianity, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism with several others, such as Phoenician paganism, Mazdakism and Manicheanism, thrown in for good measure. Amongst this rich cocktail of beliefs and 'isms, Christianity is the most obvious. Some even accused Alawism of being a secret Christian proclivity because it has a holy trinity, celebrates some Christian holidays and honours many Christian saints. On top of that, alcohol is permitted. Wine has a sacred role for it represents God, pilgrimage to Mecca a form of idol worship, and Alawite women seem to enjoy more freedom. This gender equality is actually the side-effect of gender inequality since women traditionally did most of the hard labour and did not have to veil or cover their hair.

The most striking characteristic of Alawism is that the sect is extremely secretive. Alawites holy books and rituals are restricted to only a few believers that are carefully chosen and very gradually introduced to the religious doctrines. Ignoring this rule can mean punishment by death.

The obsessive secrecy of Alawites, together with unveiled women, wine drinking rituals, and night ceremonies have long been the sources of suspicion and hatred, that the Alawites have been hiding ugly sexual practice. Even the Alawites themselves are not sure how to explain or justify their practice, mainly because of their own religion's secretive nature. Prior to 20th century, all five fatwas issued by Sunnis scholars directly or indirectly targeted the Alawites, viewing them as heretics outside Islam. During the 1970s, they managed to be granted two fatwas, this time from prominent Shia scholars from Iran, recognizing them as part of the Shia creed. However, according to an unofficial survey in Syria, they are still not considered proper Muslim.

My Syrian friend Hani knows it best. When he was small, his teachers would tell other students that the Alawites forced sisters and brothers to sleep together, and that they all have tails. "Help! I don't have a tail, this means I am not Alawite!" – Hani remembered running home crying, deeply scared because he obviously did not have the "proof" of being Alawite.

In another example of how anti-Alawite sentiment has become embedded in his life, Hani's grandmother used to tell him: "Why are you in such a hurry? IT'S as if you are rushing to kill the Alawite in the souk?" It is a saying, that is based on the historical hatred for the Alawites. Hani's young life had been based on a lie for self-preservation.

The "Chameleon" Alawites

What would you do if you were under this threat of persecution? The Alawites have a solution, a fundamental and distinctive principle of adaptability to the environment. A chameleon-like capacity to flex their practices in a manner that aids their survival in the face of less flexible customs. The fluid attitude to religious practice would easily take any forms, any shapes, and any channels to blend into the background for their survival. They sought an affinity with Christianity to gain sympathy from France when Syria came under its mandate, and they were willing to adopt Sunni practice to be more accepted in a Sunni majority country. In short, like other sects of Shia origins, Alawites practice taqiya (religious dissimulation), which allows them to lie about their religion, or to imitate practices and pretend to be part of other religions, all for the sake of avoiding persecution and being accepted.

An Alawites saying explains the sentiment behind taqiya: "We are the body and other sects are but clothing. However a man's dress does not change him. Whoever does not dissimulate is a fool, for no intelligent person goes naked in the market". This mindset explains very well why Assad's regimes have been successful in encouraging Alawites to act like the Sunni, to pray like the Sunni and even to dress like the Sunni. The magical and swift transformation from a marginalized backward religious group into a well-to-do highly educated community has a lot to thank to this super flexibility that is hardwired into the mentality of Alawites. Having said that, in many ways, the Alawites have also sacrificed their religious idiosyncratic for a share of political power and in exchange of social security.

There is one problem with this "blend-into-the-background-chameleon": the Alawites were never supposed to be linked with the ruling elite and thereby expose themselves in the open. A chameleon is forever destined to blend in with the background, silent and camouflaged from threat. Its survival chance depends on its patience and avoidance of a loud, vivid, specific identity. Needless to say, this was impossible in Syria where no matter how much assimilation the ordinary Alawites citizens tried to achieve, there would be always a group of ruling Alawites that stood out, for good and bad.

Our chameleon has donned an orange hazard jacket complete with reflective strips.

Since the Ba'th Party, the army, and the Alawites rose in tandem, the Alawites who happened to be the ruling elite, the Alawites who happened to be the soldiers, and most importantly, the Alawites who happened to be just a normal Alawites, all of them became the target of the opposition. The Islamist rebels once clearly declared that "every Alawite killed is one Alawite killed because of Assad".

Recently, the German-language news site FAZ was the first to break the news that it was indeed elements of the resistance, not Assad's army, that killed at least ninety in the Houla's massacre. Not random targets, the Houla region is 90% Sunni yet the victims were almost entirely among the Shia and the minority ruling Alawites clans. Islamist rebels marched the streets chanting "Freedom! Freedom! Until all the Alawites are crushed to the bottom". A TV channel broadcasting from Saudi named itself "Sunny blood as one" featuring Sunnis clerics calling for jihad.

Recent report in The NYTimes revealed an even more concerning picture where the hatred has been planted deeply in minds of the next generation. At the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a desolate tent city where nearly half of the 25,000 residents are younger than 12 and desperately bored, many of the children spoke of revenges against the Alawites. The convictions of Heza, 13, were blunt. "We will never live together," he said. "All the Alawites are security agents. After the revolution, we want to kill them."

And of course, some children at the camp were Alawites, Shiites or other minorities. The chameleon strategic way of life is saving them again as they were pretending to be Sunni Muslims for their own safety.

Divide and Rule

"Divide and rule" has been an ancient governing tactic perfected by dictators in the Middle East. The minorities are left next to no choice but siding with the dictators for security and access to power.

In Iraq, the unwritten agreement between Saddam Hussein was loud and clear: "If you don't interfere with politics, then you are provided with a good life". The fact that Saddam himself belonged to Sunni minority in a Shia country assured people that he would protect other religious groups.

The social contract was also seen in Egypt where Mubarak would use both stick and carrot. Masterfully, he stoked sectarian tension, just enough to subtly signal to the Coptic Christians what might happen if the political system changed. Having the reluctant support from 8 million Copts is worth the effort.

The situation is not much different in Syria, a country with even more diversity among different religious groups. But for the Alawites, they were not just left alone like the Christians and the Druze, but were actively involved in the making of the Assad's government and formed a major part of the defense. Politically and economically, they were better off. Religiously, they were encouraged to blend in so to not stand too far from the mainstream. The good news is that the Alawites are traditionally skillful to adapt to the situation. The bad news is that Syrian's Alawites dictator – President Assad- himself refused to blend in to adapt to the situation. His rigorous pursuit in military approach has turned peaceful protests into bloodsheds, and turned an Arab Spring into a sectarian war.

What happened in Iraq and Egypt after the fall of Saddam and Mubarak was well recorded. Half a million Christians in Iraq, 50% of their population, left the country in despair. For the Mandaeans - the world's oldest Gnostic religion- they were given three choices: fled, converted, or killed. The BBC reports that a leaflet was distributed to Christian and Mandaean homes in Baghdad reading 'Either you embrace Islam and enjoy safety and coexist amongst us, or leave our land and stop toying with our principles. Otherwise, the sword will be the judge between belief and blasphemy'". Mandaean women and girls have been forced to marry Muslim men. One cannot be a Mandaean without two Mandaean parents. Hence, the forced marriages are a means of forcing the religion out of existence. As a result, 80% of the Mandaean fled the country.

In Egypt, even before Mubarak was deposed, Coptic Christians were the target of a suicide bombing. With Mubarak gone, Egypt's Copts lost a protector. One day after Muslim Brotherhood was elected, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna called for the world leaders to help prevent a total loss of Middle Eastern Christianity in the very land of its birth. According to CAN, indigenous Middle Eastern Christians do not see a 'Spring' anywhere in sight. To them, the term 'Arab Spring' actually sounds increasingly like a bad joke, black humor. They see, instead, the makings of a 'Arab nightmare' – with dire consequences for the region and the world.

And not just the Coptic Christians, one million Shias in Egypt have been neglected while some received death threats, according to Newstateman. When more than 200 Shia were forcibly prevented from celebrating Ashura in December 2011, the president of Cairo's Al Hussein mosque said: "If they want to practice their rituals, then they should go back to their own country". Ironically, most Egyptian Shias are exactly that: Egyptian. In fact, Cairo was found by the Fatimid dynasty who was exclusively Shia.

Looking at what happened in Iraq and Egypt, one has no difficulties envisioning what will be the future of minorities in Syria's post-Assad. According to the Vatican's Fides news agency, mosques in the western Syrian town of Qusayr have issued an ultimatum that Christians must leave the town. Reports also include the desecration of churches and the murders of Christians. The Christian inhabitants of Qusayr suffer harassment such as no vehicular access on streets and the obligation to "give way" if they meet a Muslim, "as in the days of the Ottoman caliphate," notes the source of Fides. In response, with Druze and Christians setting up militias to protect their own neighborhoods, more and more armed groups came in close proximity. With the presence of al-Qaeda who are basically extreme radical Sunnis, it was said that these new militias would be seen as even more of a target than the military.

For the Alawites, matters can only be worse. How likely is it that a bloodbath will ensue against the once-dominant minority, especially after the announcement of Assad last month that the opposition is the enemy of God?

Because of its link with the regime, it is going to be the first time that the chameleon strategy that has been helping them survive for centuries now becomes the very reason why they are being and going to be severely singled out and prosecuted. This is their fate, unless they realize how desperate the situation is and stage a coup against Assad.

The most recent piece of news I have received from my friends in Syria is that the famous Alawite adaptability has taken to capitalism. With Saudi and Qatar funnelling money and small arms to the Syrian opposition, some Christian rebels were said to shout "Allahu Akbar" to the camera and present themselves as Sunni fighters to the oil-rich patrons.

"They would memorise the whole Q'ran if they have to, as long as the money from Saudi keeps coming to allow them to buy more grenades and AKs". It seems that in a dire situation like Syria at this time, not just the Alawites, but is learning chameleon tactics.

My friend Hani was not that good at being a chameleon. The last thing I knew of him, before leaving Aleppo, was that he wanted to die on his parents' wheat field, with their two cows grazing peacefully nearby.

What has now become of Hani and his dream in the interval I do not know.

                                Phuong Mai Nguyen

Dr. Phuong holds a PhD in Intercultural Communication from Utrecht University and currently teaches Cross-Cultural Management at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.