Judaism has been ravaged in its long exile from Jerusalem. Its adherents have faced pressure from the Church to convert throughout European history, persecution from Sunnis during the decline of Spain and by Shiites in 19th century Iran. But it’s been a fortunate minority to survive and adapt to its surroundings. Other minorities have not been so lucky, and Bashar al-Assad’s people maybe following the path to extinction.
The Alawis have a dogged history, particularly over the last 200 years: called heretics by both Sunnis and Shiites for centuries; targeted for conversion by missionaries; caught in the middle of a power struggle between Egypt and Turkey. Alawis faked conversions to Christianity and Sunnism to avoid persecution, giving up the new identities once the Ottoman Empire collapsed. But in the 20th century, Shiite Islam gained unprecedented power over the Alawis, amplified by the Assads’ vital alliance with Iran.
If the Assads lose power now, the Alawis may not have the strength to forestall the intense evangelism of modern Shiism. Compounded by a surge in secular lifestyle, agnosticism and atheism, Syria’s Alawites will be picked apart without the state institutions that the community’s religious leaders have come to depend on.
Islam is a diverse, legalistic religion that’s seen its share of sectarianism. Just like Orthodox Judaism, people consider the ins and outs of every commandment: what’s permitted and forbidden what’s preferable and detestable; what’s heretical and what’s kosher. Judaism has intellectually thrived by its penchant for legal scholarship. The same goes for Shiite Islam and its main school of law, the Jafari school. Sunni Islam has four major schools, the one most popular in Ottoman Turkey having been the Hanafi school.
But the Alawis don’t have that entrenched tradition and pride for transmitting tradition. Many Alawis, like the Druze that Jews know of from the Carmel and the Golan, simply don’t learn the ins and outs of their religion’s core principles. That’s left to a select few, a tradition developed after centuries of oppression.
In the 1800s, American missionaries targeted marginalized groups like the Alawis for conversion and Hanafi Sunni preachers combated them; they were also sent by the Ottoman government to finally bring Alawis into line – the Sunni line. Come the end of World War I, when Alawis relieved themselves of their fake religious turns, some didn’t return. Some had become schooled in religion like they never had before and were lost to other faiths forever, an allusion to things to come.
Teasing Alawis with Independence
France granted them their own province – Latakia – in its occupation of Syria, fit with an Alawi-administered court system independent of Hanafi Sunni law. They were promised inevitable independence. But a wave of nationalism hit the Sunnis in Latakia as hard as in Damascus and Aleppo. These nationalists pretty often dedicated themselves to a vision of Arab nationalism where language, culture and religion were uniform: Arabic, a modern patriotism and ties to Sunni Islam. The atmosphere applied more pressure on the Alawis to modify their beliefs. To avoid losing their new-found independence, they needed to break away definitively – to justify their permanent separation from the Sunnis. Alawi sheikhs and chiefs saw the answer in distinguishing its court system, but they didn’t have the legalistic traditions of Sunni or Shiite Islam.
The Shiite Takeover of Alawi Religion
Enter Sulayman al-Ahmad. Al-Ahmad was a champion for Alawi identity in this political and religious chaos. His intellectual and philosophical arguments appeared in Arab political journals and newspapers. He was well-connected. He was friends with Muhammad al-Husayn Al Kashif al-Ghita from Iraq, the grandest of the Shiite Grand Ayatollahs living in the 1920s. That relationship profoundly impacted Alawi history; al-Ahmad chose the Jafari Shiite school’s interpretation of Islamic law as the source for the new Alawi court system. Ever since then, the community has begged or forced other Ayatollahs to vindicate their Islamic legitimacy: Musa al-Sadr in 1974 and then Hasan al-Shirazi in 1976; solely to avoid persecution. After the Iranian Revolution, the Assads threw their support behind Ayatollah Khomeini; Khomeini reciprocated.
Alawi leaders, then the ruling Assads turned to Ayatollahs to affirm to the public that Alawis were Shiites. They feared the Sunni revulsion for their power could turn to bloody rebellion and massive pogroms. Associating themselves with the Shiites was their only mediocre hope – it was at least a mainstream branch of Islam that Sunnis would put up with, plus it wasn’t Sunnism.
But the Assads traded so much for that affirmation. Shiism began to legitimately take Alawi converts. Even Bashar’s uncle Jamil converted to Shiism, then became the instrumental activist the religion needed. Iran has facilitated the growth of Shiite religious centers and supported efforts to convert Syrians. Bashar’s father Hafez sent 200 promising Alawi students to Iran to learn Shiite theology. They’ve come back and filtered the religion throughout the country.
The trend has picked up steam: Ismailis and Druze have converted in unusually high numbers. But the numbers are not higher than the conversion rate for Alawis. Major Alawi towns like Tartus and Latakia are watching the flock run away to the Husseiniyas – the Shiite houses of prayer. Religious Arab nationalists have even adopted it out of reverence for Hezbollah, after its war with Israel in 2006.
Zealous converts have muscled some to get land to build more mosques. Some of those mosques have been burned down in retaliation. It might be no coincidence that those incidents have preceded the intense rebellion. Iran’s restored, remodeled and built new Shiite mosques and shrines throughout the country.
One focal point of Shiite growth is Daraya, a small town on the outskirts of Damascus. It’s the home of a Shiite shrine, the Sayyida Sukayna. The area began seeing development with Iranian money including a new mosque and the townspeople weren’t at all pleased:
The town’s residents were aware of the Iranian plans for their city and protested to the mayor, who was favorably disposed towards the residents. However, the Syrian regime, and especially its security agencies, took a harsh stand, fired the sympathetic mayor, and installed another one. The new mayor informed the townspeople that he could do nothing since the security forces had threatened dire consequences for the entire town if its residents continued to protest against the Iranian project. The signs on the shrine and the shops are all in both Arabic and Persian. As a result of the area’s development, land prices and the rent of shops have skyrocketed.
It’s become a center of revolt. A month ago, 200 were found massacred in city. The Shiite influx has become a liability for the regime and a rallying point for rebellion. They have no choice but to back the evasive development plans of the Iranian government, lest their religious legitimacy be completely lost. What is sucking the spiritual life from Alawi religion is helping to compromise its physical security as well.
The Alawi Religion Pushes the Option of Alawi Independence from Syria
If they really want their religion to survive they need to be more aggressive in promoting it among their own. Eventually sheikhs will have to promote religious literacy to save their tradition’s viability. But most importantly, they’ve got to separate themselves from the groups trying to reel them in; the ones pushing the community to convert.
Many politicians and historians have revived the idea of an independent Alawi state, almost exactly as designed by the French 90 years ago. The country would have a viable population: 3 million. It would control two major ports: Latakia and Tartus. It would have legitimacy from another minority group that fears the regime’s collapse to Islamists: Syrian Christians. The country would be an economically and militarily capable state that would shield its traditional minority population in a country where they’d be the dominant forces.
The Assad regime might be containing the situation, but its military forces are spread thin. Eventually, a staged withdrawal to a consolidated area is the smartest idea if the regime wants to retain power over anything:
India was eventually partitioned over irreconcilable differences between its Hindus and Muslims. But it’s not just physical security. The longer Syria depends on Iran for its survival, the more its ruling class’ religion will be vulnerable to Shiite pressures. The Alawi religion’s survival might actually depend on regaining an independent country over the course of this civil war; solidifying the separation from Islam their leaders failed to achieve 90 years ago. If that scenario doesn’t come about, the persecution of centuries ago might just be dwarfed by “ethnic cleansing of Alawites and their close allies.” This map below might be the physical salvation of Syria and its Alawites: a partition of the country. But it would likely also be the Alawites’ spiritual salvation: a long-awaited religious independence.
(This is an abstract of a larger paper I’ve written at Hebrew University in Jerusalem: Christianity, the Sunnis and Twelver Shi’ism: The Alawi Struggle for Religious Independence. To read the full paper, check it out on my site.)