This March, Hurst Publisher’s will release “Cycle of Fear: Syria’s Alawites in War and Peace” by Leon Goldsmith (Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman). The publisher’s description follows:
In early 2011 an elderly Alawite shaykh lamented the long history of ‘oppression and aggression’ against his people. Against such collective memories the Syrian uprising was viewed by many Alawites, and observers, as a revanchist Sunni Muslim movement and the gravest threat yet to the unorthodox Shi’ah sub-sect. This explained why the Alawites largely remained loyal to the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad.
But was Alawite history really a constant tale of oppression and the Syrian uprising of 2011 an existential threat to the Alawites? This book surveys Alawite history from the sect’s inception in Abbasid Iraq up to the start of the uprising in 2011. Goldsmith shows how Alawite identity and political behaviour have been shaped by a cycle of insecurity that has prevented the group from achieving either genuine social integration or long term security. Rather than being the gravest threat yet to the sect, the Syrian uprising, in the context of the Arab Spring, was quite possibly a historic opportunity for the Alawites finally to break free from their cycle of fear.
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 Read more
An interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about the dire situation of Syria’s Christians, “Can Syria’s Christians Survive?” The secularism of the Assad regime has provided a space for Christians, mostly Catholic and Orthodox, who make up roughly 10% of Syria’s population. The opposition “Free Syrian Army,” made up principally of Sunni Muslims, has murky ties to Islamists, and Christians worry what will happen to them if Islamists ever gain power – as Islamists have done in other Arab Spring revolutions, like Egypt’s. One possibility the article suggests is a restoration of classical dhimmi restrictions on Christians. (I’m not sure where the reporters got that idea; even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt hasn’t seriously proposed restoring the dhimmi rules). The more likely outcome is that Christians will be caught in a crossfire between Sunnis and Alawites — the sect to which the Assad family belongs, which Sunni Islam sees as heretical — and be forced to leave the country, as Iraq’s Christians did in the last decade.
This is an informative short interview that I heard yesterday on NPR concerning the rise to political power of the Alawites in Syria, of whom current President Bashar Assad is a member. The Alawites, as Steven Heydemann explains, were once a marginalized minority Shia sect, but they were recruited for military purposes by the French during the period of French occupation of Syria (1920-1946). It was during this period that the Alawites began to move from outsider group to a position of greater political and military strength.