Alawites, Alevis, and Secularism in the Middle East

I’ve written before on CLR Forum about the plight of the Middle East’s Christians. As religious minorities, Christians favor state secularism; the revolutions of the Arab Spring, which have tended to bring Islamist parties to power, offer Christians as much to fear as to praise. But Christians are not the only religious minorities in the Middle East. As this very interesting essay by Baylor historian Philip Jenkins explains, Alawites in Syria and Alevis in Turkey — two different groups, despite the similar-sounding names — number in the tens of millions. Both groups consider themselves Muslim, but some of their beliefs and practices differ dramatically from both Sunni and Shia Islam. For example, Alawites and Alevis drink wine and celebrate some Christian and Zoroastrian holidays; they do not veil women. Most Muslims, and certainly most Islamists, dismiss them as heretical.

Like Christians, Alawites and Alevis have tended to support secular parties: the Ba’ath Party in Syria and Kemalist parties in Turkey. Jenkins explains:

[B]oth movements . . . represented powerful bastions against religious extremism in the region, as they had everything to lose from any enforcement of strict Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. Both sects were powerfully invested in secularism, which in a Middle Eastern context usually meant supported ideologies of nationalism and progressive reform. This was all the more attractive in a country like Syria, where Alawites actually held power, and ruthlessly suppressed any moves to Islamist organization.

Turkey’s Alevis loved that country’s secularist regime. When Turks moved to Europe in their millions from the 1940s onwards, Alevis were very well represented, which explains why those migrants coexisted so happily with local socialist or Communist parties. Their women regarded the veil with about as much enthusiasm as American Christians might have done. Potentially, they were poster children for integration.

Jenkins writes that American support for revolutions in the Middle East ironically has empowered Islamist parties that want nothing to do with the secularism that has protected religious minorities like the Alawites, Alevis (and Christians). These groups “outlived the Caliphate and the Ottomans,” he writes. “Can they survive the Americans?”

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