Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011
The Alawi Dilemma – Revisited
For Syria Comment
June 20, 2011
You are completely right when you say that most Alawis these days either support the regime (better to say that they support Assad family rule) or are living in complete denial of the situation.
I have discovered that a number of my fellow Alawis who used to be staunch critics of Asad family rule are now championing of Bashar. Some who used to curse anytime the name of the ruling family was invoked (in private of course), have now replaced their own identity with Bashar’ s on their Facebook page.
Why do they do this? To understand such odd phenomenon I recommend everyone to read or re-read the essay written six years ago by Karfan. He explains the psychological underpinnings of this occurrence in a most precise way. The post title is: “Myth No.7 : Alawi is still a religious sect”.
I will avoid quoting from it here as it is still available on the net for of all to read. I direct all interested in the subject to read it.
The gist of his argument is that Alawi identity has been transformed by Assad rule. No longer is it centered on religious, cultural or tribal life. Because Alawi life has been so transformed over the last century, the single common bond uniting us is Assad rule itself. Our identity as Alawis is defined as “that minority sect ruling this country.”
Alawis have been living in a complete sub-conscious denial of this fact for decades now and only few, such as Karfan, had ventured into admitting this reality.
What is it to be an Alawi exactly?
Is Alawism a religion? Alawi beliefs as ideas are too shallow to constitute a religion or a sect of a religion. Actually “Alawism” is built on tribal and communal attachment or quasi-ethnicity rather than being centered on ideas. You become an Alawi by being born Alawi.
Courtesies aside, the “initiation ritual” of male Alawis into the religion consists of kissing a few hands and memorizing a seriously ridiculous script in a small memo book. Frequently, one is given the script without his “teacher” or initiator ever bothering to see afterwards whether you memorized it or not. Most of the time your “initiator” knows that your opinion of the whole process and the script is as high as your opinion of “Tom & Jerry” cartoons. Yet he considers you an Alawi and relies on you as such, simply because you are born one and expected to be one.
Female Alawis are “lucky” enough that they do not have to go through this meaningless ritual, yet they are expected to be staunch Alawis because they are born Alawis.
Note that this expectation is not one sided. All other sects and groups around you in Syria and elsewhere expect you to be an Alawi if you are born an Alawi. Hence the usual question “where are you from in Tartous or Latakia?” If you are born in an area where Alawis live, then that’s what you are; end of the story.
If you want to venture into further scholastic study, you will know that the secret books dealing with Alawi beliefs number about five. Their content is as inscrutable and meaningless to a twenty first century person as is the book of rituals. This does not include the Shia theological works, which fill the libraries of most informed Alawi Sheiks whether they regard themselves as true Shi`a or not. I refer here only to those works that are devoted to pure Alawi theology.
It is true that Jews define themselves by culture and ethnic belonging as do the adherents of similar religions. All the same, Jews have an established doctrine and philosophy, but if it does not suit them, they can simply declare that they are “non-practicing Jews.” They can define themselves as Jews as a cultural and ethnic affinity.
There is no such thing as “non-practicing Alawi,” which is something many of us have struggled with. This is a problem in no way unique to Alawis. All the Arab/Islamic sects suffer from this short coming. To call yourself a “non-practicing Muslim” is to be laughed out of mosque. We, young Arab Muslims — and Arab Christians for that matter — do not have the luxury of being able to identify with our religion as a cultural and identity, without being required to buy into the complete religious “package” as it was defined centuries ago by a handful of doughty scholars.
Then what are Alawis exactly?
It is not wrong to surmize that our collective Alawi identity is centered largely on our culture, the coastal accent, the special celebrations, the habits, etc.. Most of these differ considerably from one geographical area to another. However we all have one thing in common: we are united by our common sense of injustice and persecution over the past centuries. Many will argue that the statute of limitations has run out on our sense of persecution, particularly as Alawis have dominated Syria’s security state for almost fifty years. “How can such feelings continue to this day,” many ask. But they do. A common sense of persecution is an important identity marker. It does not matter that we have been able to flex our muscle for decades. The shared sense of persecution is alive and well in our collective psyche.
Alawis also differ from the Sunni majority in their customs. “Difference” from Sunnis is corner stone of our identity. We perceive ourselves as the “other.,” those who are “different“ from them! This also is hardly unique to Alawis; minorities the world over define themselves in opposition to the majority “other.” This truth seems so obvious and uninteresting to me today, but in my teen years it was a source of considerable consternation and confusion. When my sister put on the hijab, she was castigated by my father who insisted that “We don’t wear the hijab.” This, despite his insistence over the years that “Alawis are Muslims no different from them.”
In a free society, the cultural part of sub-national identity can be expressed openly and proudly without undermining the overarching national community and bond of citizenship. The minorities in such mature societies can live in harmony with other citizen groups, without having to stifle or hid their communal affinities and habits.
But let’s return to Karfan’s analysis. Common Alawi cultural identity was not allowed to be institutionalized or proudly expressed. Even Druze, Ismailis and the various sub sects of Sunni Islam, such as the Sufi orders, for example, have been forced to go underground and reform themselves almost out of existence as it were. In the 1940s and 1950s Syrian place names were changed to reflect our new “national” existence at the price of erasing local identities and heros. I agree with Karfan that Hafiz al-Assad and his top leaders, such as Ali Douba, perpetuated and deepened this effort to wipe out and obscure sub-national identification. Baathism, amplified the prejudices of Arab nationalists against local, religious, and cultural peculiarities to an absurd degree. It would have been suicidal during the late president’s rule to establish any sort of gathering or group of Alawis under any cultural, social or religious banner. We couldn’t even mention the name of our communities openly. We lived in a stifling world of taboos and social conformism.
The only meeting ground or assembly point for Alawis, where we didn’t have to pretend that we were something we weren’t, was deep in the inner sanctums of the security state. We found ourselves in the clubby security of the secret services, the Republican Guard, the army officer academies, and the worker and agricultural syndicates in the coastal area. These were all regime sanctioned and established institutions that linked our identity to the security state and Assad rule.
This is where Karfan comes from when he states that we have been systematically deprived of any attachment to our religious, cultural and social identity under Hafiz rule. Thus, you can see where his claim comes from: “We were turned into identity-less supporters of “Asad’s” rule… meaningless tribes ranked by how much we support “him”.”
The full ramifications of this fact were not visible or even felt among Alawis until the current crisis challenged us with the notion of radical change. Alawis are subconsciously realizing that being an Alawi means nothing outside of Asad family rule. We haven’t much history – at least not that we have documented. We have been too busy pretending that we are no different from Muslims to build our common identity. We suffer from a devastating lack of institutionalized cultural or social institutions and marker apart from those connected to the Assad regime. We don’t even know much about our religion to grasp on to. Alawis have defined themselves over the past 40 years as the rulers of Syria, and not much else.
You can then understand why almost all Alawis, even those who had shown fierce opposition toward the Assad regime, are turning into “Basharists” now that the entire edifice is under attack. A subconscious fear of losing our identity supplied by Assad rule and the security state is consuming us and taking precedence over rational thought.
Again, this is not something new. We saw it in Germany or Japan during WWII. Two very civilized populations turned into blind followers of a crazy elite that committed atrocities and led their nations to destruction. In both cases, the very identity of the nation was linked to the person of the leader, Hitler and Showa. To defend the leader in the minds of the people was nothing less than to defend their own identity.
We should be careful not to compare too closely the situation in Syria to that of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. His Sunni followers certainly identified with Saddam and his rule, but they had a confident Sunni identity to fall back on. The Sunnis have long fashioned themselves as the natural leaders of the Arabs and Islam. They can point to uninterrupted dominance in countries stretching from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. They have an illustrious history and established religion. They did not need to fight to the last breath to protect their heritage and they did not.
Alawis today believe that they are under attack – not because anyone is actually attacking them as a group of people or community; they are not. Rather, they feel under attack because the regime is threatened and may fall. This is tantamount – at least subconsciously – to their identity being shattered. Similar to those German and Japanese who wasted their lives fighting a lost battle street-by-street, the Alawis will fight to the end. It is hard to convince someone fighting for such high stakes to abandon their cause.
The Syrian opposition, of course, does not have the benefit of the American army, as Great Britain had in WWII or the Iraqi opposition in 2003. There will be no street-by-street fight. My point is, whether the Syrian opposition is able to marshal Western economic sanctions against the Assad regime, or mobilize continued demonstrations with the effect of paralyzing the Syrian economy, or even attracting limited foreign intervention, it should expect staunch resistance. In all likelihood most Alawis will stand behind the Assads.
If no alternative is found for Syria other than confrontation to the bitter end, then I am afraid the closing words of Karfan continue to ring true: “another thing that is common to us Alawis: We have no future, at least not one that is worth looking forward to.”
*Khudr has written several other excellent articles for Syria Comment in the past. They are “What do Sunnis intend for Alawis following regime change?” and Asad’s Alawi dilemma