Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Coming Out, Tentatively: Syrian Alawites

Residents walk past posters of slain Syrian soldiers and a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the city of Tartous. The pictures on the wall are death notices concerning Alawite officers killed fighting the rebels.  


A recent headline proclaimed “Syria's Alawites distance themselves from Assad.” The story refers to a document, reportedly authored by a number of Alawite clergymen, that seeks to both clarify and redefine the Alawite faith to make it more suitable for the modern era, while disassociating the Alawite community from “the ruling political power” in the country. The Alawites constitute a small and unique Islamic sect, and members of the sect have taken control of governance in Syria following the April 17, 1970 coup d’état led by Hafiz Al-Assad, father of the current president Bashar Al-Assad. The sect’s well-established relationship to the Assad family makes Article 26 of the document, widely understood to refer to the Assad regime, quite remarkable:

Article (26): The ruling political power, whoever embodies it, does not represent us nor does it shape our identity or preserves our safety and reputation. Nor do we, the Alawites, substantiate it or generate its power. The legitimacy of a regime can only be considered according to the criteria of democracy and fundamental rights.

This move, which has drawn plenty of international media attention, may prove significant on the long run. However, it is unlikely to make a difference in ending the 5-year long Syrian conflict or in sealing the fate of Mr. Bashar Al-Assad.

Indeed, though the Arabic original uses Alawite terms and modes of discourse, the document would appear too elitist and modern to be the product of the traditional Alawite clergy system. It would seem to be more aspirational in character than a reflection of any emerging consensus within the community, or even a major segment within the community. Indeed, the document itself suggests that it is largely meant to “liberate” the Alawite community from certain aspects of its history, as well as its connection to the particular “political power” that emerged from within its ranks. The very title of the document is quite suggestive: “Declaration of an Identity Reform.”

The language of the document and its “certified” English translation seems to suggest that it was authored by a group of educated persons, likely a group that includes expatriates and members of the academia exposed to scholarly writing on the history and doctrine of the Alawite community as well as Syria’s modern history. Alternatively, the document could have been first authored by a group of educated Alawite expatriates, working in tandem with academic advisers, before being presented for approval by a certain group of traditional clergymen.

Considering the British pronunciation in the certified English version, it is even possible that the document was composed as part of an exercise supported by an organization such as Chatham House with funding from the British government. Chatham House has done similar things before.

But whatever its origins, the document does seem to represent a schism within the Alawite community, representing only a small group of educated elites with relatives and contacts in the West, rather than a large or sizeable movement or trend. Indeed, it is likely that, for now, only the authors themselves and close circles of family and friends actually support the statements in the document. As such, it is probably unlikely that this move will have a major impact on current developments in the country, especially in regard to the ongoing civil and proxy war. That said, it could have a more perceptible impact in the negotiations that follow the end of the civil war and Assad rule.  

Importantly, while it is laudable to reject privileged or protected status and to call for democracy, equality and secularism, the document fails to mention the Alawites’ role in the security-military complex. This notable omission suggests that the authors may support maintaining their status in the current structure, as a mode to securing and protecting their interests. At this stage, considering the facts on the ground, these interests are synonymous with territorial holdings and acquisitions. In other words, the soft partition that the country is currently witnessing seems to be the way forward, irrespective of what the authors of this document intend or want.

It should also be noted that the ability of the Alawites to control and manipulate the security-military complex has long been a source of tension in the country. Mr. Assad and his henchmen would not have been able to wage their war against the prodemocracy protesters, the rebels and their communities without the support of the security-military complex and its Alawite officers and recruits, not to mention the backing of the Alawite militias.

The close relationship between the Alawite community and the security-military complex is a hallmark of modern Alawite identity. It is not an exaggeration to claim that every Alawite family is involved in it somehow. If there is going to be a serious conversation between Alawites and other communities in Syria about their future dynamics and the future of the country, the Alawite security relationship cannot be ignored.

Alawites crawling around the grave of Hüseyin Gaz, Turkey. Syrian Alawites are known to have similar rituals. Such rituals are decried as un-Islamic by most Sunni and Shia groups. 

Still, if this document acquires broader support within the community, it will mark an important step towards the establishing of a modern and modernist Alawite identity. This is the first time in the modern era that Syria’s Alawites sought to differentiate themselves from other Muslim groups, especially the Shia, and it’s the first time that they openly tackled some of aspects of their faith long considered controversial by Sunnis and Shia groups alike.

Article (1): Alawism, or the Alawite belief, represent a third model of and within Islam. We, the Alawites, form a separate confession, which is neither textual nor rational as in the models represented by our Sunni or Shiite brothers. The character of Alawism, henceforth, may be qualified as Islam's transcendent (or transcendental) form.

But here too, the document appears to be aspirational rather than reflecting consensus. By rejecting the specific Alawite mazloumiya—the sense of grievance and injustice that Alawites holds against the Sunni majority—the document reflects the complex history of internecine relations more accurately, but it also goes against an established consensus within the community. That position is unlikely to gain popularity soon, and will likely be deemed as an unnecessary concession if not capitulation.

Article (13): This declaration relinquishes the definition of Alawites as a persecuted and oppressed group. Alawites are henceforth defined as am people which had been inspired by their faith and by their community to resist a dual religious and political power waged against them during a specific historical period of time.

Rejecting the existence of other holy books in Alawite tradition endorsing only the Qur’an seems to represent another stand that will prove hard to accept for most traditional Alawite clergymen.

Article (33): The Quran alone is our holy book and a clear reference to our Muslim quality.

On the other hand, the document rejects the “minority label,” which has often been deployed in a dismissive manner. While this rejection seems to represent the position of many Alawite intellectuals, within the context of current Syrian politics, it is in fact apolitical and counterproductive. Not seeking a privileged status is one thing, but failing to seek special protections in a society where sectarianism has been and is bound to be relevant for many decades to come is quite another. 

Article (5): In this new of era of the Alawites, we from now on repudiate to be labelled or defined as a minority in Syria. We divest ourselves from the minority status, with all the hardship but, in equal measure, with all the benefits and privileges that could be associated with this status. Morally, politically and culturally, one shall no longer use the term "minority" to define who the Alawites are and who they are not.

This is where the special relationship between Alawites and the security-military complex again comes into play. Are the authors of this document relying on the continuation of this relationship as a form of protection? If so, and considering the country’s current state of fragmentation, this would represent—in practice, even if the words seek to deny it—an endorsement of the soft partition of the country.

Back to Square One.