“Alawi Identity in Syria,” M.A. Thesis by Torstein Worren

Fear and Resistance: The Construction of Alawi Identity in Syria
By Torstein S. Worren
Master thesis in human geography at the University of Oslo – February 2007:

Download PDF-version
/ Abstract / External link (University of Oslo)

Dear Mr. Landis

Being a fan of your blog, I thought I should send you the result of my two-year research master's programme in human geography at the University of Oslo, Norway.

The thesis deals with how the Alawis of Syria construct their identity discursively, based on a social constructivist theoretical framework and also based on fieldwork in Syria. There is nothing new or groundbreaking, but it attempts to organise what is largely known about how they see themselves and their world. The analysis (chapters 5,6, and 7) is divided according to their construction of history and theology, social and cultural differences, and politics.

 I was hoping you would make it available through your blog or could publish a link in order to spread it to the academic community since there is fairly little research done in English on the Alawis of Syria that does not deal with the Alawi political elite. My point of departure has been 'normal' Alawis.

Keep up the good work.
Torstein S. Worren
Oslo, Norway


The Alawi minority of Syria – the sect of president Bashar al-Asad and his father and former president Hafiz al-Asad – figures in the media and academic writings as ‘an extreme Shi'a sect.' Although there are deep religious cleavages between the Alawis and Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, this thesis argues that religion is only one aspect of how Alawis construct their collective identity in the Syrian context.

First-time visitors to Syria will experience a tolerant and heterogeneous country where people of different religions live side by side. This is maintained by the Official Discourse of the regime, which forcefully imposes the notion that Syria 's heterogeneity is a blessing and that Syrians get along irrespective of religion. Yet, Alawi collective identity is formed in an antagonistic relationship to this Official Discourse, and above all, to the Sunni discursive hegemony. Their identity is constructed in several different dimensions, but what their history, culture, and politics have in common are that they are all constructed in a relational way to the Sunni majority.

Their history is connected to the present by the hatred they believe that the Sunnis nurture for them, meaning that the persecution and massacres of the past are still part of the present day. Culturally, they portray themselves as opposites to the Sunnis and see themselves as more similar to the Christians than to other Muslims. And politically, the fact that so many key figures in the regime are Alawis actually makes the Alawis feel even more threatened because it only gives those who hate them yet another reason to do so. Alawi discourses are therefore centred on fear: a fear of the future based on history and history's contemporary reincarnation in the form of Islamic extremism.

Using discourse theory and based on fieldwork in coastal Syria , this thesis argues that Alawi identity is constructed in direct opposition to the Sunni majority, where the Sunnis become ‘The Other' that restricts ‘Us.' This means that while they define themselves as Muslims, arguably the greatest dilemma in their identity construction, they also define themselves as everything that the Sunnis are not. Yet, having no public arenas for their struggle to challenge the Sunni religious monopoly, their oppositional discourses take the shape of hidden transcripts out of sight from the majority.


Here is the Table of Contents (I have omitted the theoretical chapters)

4. The Context. 38 People and history. 38
The Alawis. 43
The ‘secular’ state and the Official Discourse. 49
In conclusion. 52

5  Constructing History. 53
In the beginning, there was the name?. 53
Origins and beliefs. 55
The Golden Age. 57
The Decline and Trauma. 58
Domination and resistance. 60
The Regeneration. 61
Antagonism and discourse. 63
The Islamic Discourse. 64
The Critical Discourse. 66
In conclusion. 67

6   Constructing Society. 69
‘Us’ and ‘Them’ 69
Inter-sectarian relations. 72
Relations between Alawis and Sunnis. 75
Relations between Alawis and Christians. 77
Hegemony and disguise. 78
In conclusion. 82

7    Constructing Politics. 84
Proving history right 84An ‘Alawi’ regime?. 87
The durability of fear 91Political circumstances and their impact 94
Alawi support for the regime. 96
In conclusion. 97

8   Conclusions. 99
The Sunni hegemony. 99
The Islamic Discourse and the Critical Discourse. 101
From discourse to identity. 102
In conclusion. 103 

References. 104 Online References. 107

Comments (24)

DJ said:

links are not working..

June 20th, 2007, 12:25 pm


Torstein said:

don’t think they’re meant to. you have to download the whole document

June 20th, 2007, 4:34 pm


Enlightened said:


I read the whole thesis; good work I dont really like to comment on beliefs as I was brought up to believe that these are all personal issues.

However just one point that was a recurring theme in the thesis about Alawite beliefs and the one on one personal realtionship with god! Is this belief not similar to the sufi trend? If it is why did you not touch on it in your thesis.

But a very good piece of work.

June 20th, 2007, 10:43 pm


Torstein said:

Thanks, that’s nice to hear.

About beliefs and the Sufi view of God I actually didn’t want to get into a whole theological debate or focus too much on the issue of beliefs, but couldn’t avoid it either since people kept coming back to those points.

The similarity to Sufism wasn’t mentioned to me by any of my sources and I therefore didn’t delve into it either as that would have defeated the purpose of focusing on what the Alawis (or at least my sources) themselves highlight. The issue is really interesting, but a different kind of work. There are already a number of texts that draw grander lines and try to fit Alawi beliefs into Islamic and non-Islamic history and religious developments (Khoury, Izady) and I don’t really feel qualified to do that kind of work anyway.


June 21st, 2007, 10:49 am


Wassim said:

Very interesting, well done.

June 21st, 2007, 12:53 pm


Shanfara said:


I have not read your thesis but to say the Alawis see themselves as closer to Christians is a display of ignorance of Syrian society and Alawis themselves. Yes, there are certain allegiances, but you really have to experience many Alawis who are firmly rooted in an Islamic culture, are quite Arab nationalist, etc. If you hang in Syria you will see there are many of the young intellectuals who are Alawi who identify closely with Ismailis and Druze. I can’t judge your work based on your abstract and anyone who endeavors to learn about other cultures must be admired, but there are relationships of power and representations that concern me. You make a mistake like that and then you become an expert on Alawis. How can it be the Western Academia can accept it? Anyone who has lived in Syria would never say that Alawis find themselves closer to Christians? Did you have ever live with Alawis in the mountains of Jabli? Did you ever hang out in a military officers barracks with Alawi, Druze, etc soldiers? I am sorry but that sentence really offended because as a trope it is connected to typical Orientalist desires of finding the anti-Islam within Islam. Please look up Sylvestre de Sacy? Can you prove with statistics that Alawis feel a kinship to Christians in Syria? By the way, which of the 18 sects of Christianity do you mean? Maybe it is the whole enterprise of social sciences that bother me. I am not sure, but please prove to me the validity of that sentence. Please let me know that you are really some person that spent years traveling through Alawi villages? Representation of one group does have to come from native, but surely there must be some level of intensity that allows for representation. I will stop, but I would appreciate a response that does not escape the basic question–do Alawis feel culturally more closer to Christians than the other Muslim Sects? Please prove it! and no it is not because some Alawis also drink Arak…

June 21st, 2007, 8:51 pm


Shanfara said:

You are correct about some levels of animosity to Sunnis, but can it be scientifically proven that this is the main issues of concern to most Alawis.

June 21st, 2007, 9:04 pm


Alex said:

Dear Shanfara,

You have a valid point. Thorstein did not conduct an opinion poll, and it is impossible to get straight answers even if you decided to try such a poll.

However, your counter point is not valid either.

Alawis are not one homogeneous group. I have many Alawi friends (and Ismaelis, and Druze and Sufis …) … each member of each group is different! .. some are indeed closer to Christians, some are closer to many other things including Islam (sunni Islam or Shiite Islam). Some are very much Muslims .. just like any other Sunni Syrian Muslim.

It is an endless topic for discussion. It gets philosophical and in that respect, we can not even make claims of “closer to” Islam or Christianity … closer in habits?, in which holy book you read?, in your philosophy in life? in drinking or not Drinking Arak? …

June 21st, 2007, 9:08 pm


Torstein said:


I think what you refer to as ‘science’ is not what I consider science when it comes to social phenomena. I have never called myself an expert on Alawis and am not one. What I wanted to do was to give an account based on actual research and from the present day since most of what is written on the Alawis is based on old texts and travels. Furthermore, what I reitterate throughout the thesis is that my findings cannot and should not be generalised to all Alawis. My fieldwork is primarily from Tartous and Latakia and their surrounding areas (and incidentally, one of my sources is actually from the Jableh area). Alawis growing up in Damascus are for example not covered at all and they probably have very different views and experiences.

My perspective is not to ‘prove’ anything. Instead, I have tried to give a picture of how MY sources describe their realities. When they speak of cultural similarities to Christians, that either means their ideas of European (no longer so Christian) culture, or the Christians that live among them.

I believe I cover opinions of Alawis who are definitely rooted in Islamic culture (although tending towards a critical/Shia point of view). Furthermore, I agree with you that Arab nationalist thought is widespread and that is covered in the thesis.

I WISH there it was possible to do surveys and put together statistics on this in Syria, but it is not. And in any case, I believe statistics need to be coupled with qualitative research to give a comprehensive picture of such a complex issue.

And NOT LEAST, I WISH I had the opportunity to hang out in military barracks with Alawi conscripts. Alas, it is not possible 🙂

Then again, your comments makes it clear to me that I should rewrite the abstract, which apparently gives the wrong impression and is not very well written anyway.
Feel free to comment if you have a chance to read the whole thing, though. You’ll find my e-mail on my pages as well.

June 22nd, 2007, 10:02 am


Shanfara said:

Torstein and Alex

Thanks for your responses and first I agree with interpretation that Alawis are not homogenous as a group… What group is? I was not trying to say that Alawis are more Muslim, Shia or Arab identified. My main issues was just with the one sentence. I went further to read the thesis and learned a lot. I tried to write in my comment that I had yet to read thesis so any critique would not be so valid. Any kind of accusation said explicitly or implicity, I should not have done as I did not read the whole work. So excuse me for focusing on one sentence, but it was like an explosion for me. However, I still think the sentence should be changed.

June 22nd, 2007, 3:15 pm


Torstein said:


Thanks for pointing that out. I don’t wish to give the wrong impression so for the moment I have replaced the sentence with:
‘Culturally, they construct stereotypes of conservative Sunni society and liberal Christian society in order to highlight their own perceived social freedoms.’
Don’t know if I’ll be able to change the abstract on the university pages though.

None of what you wrote was taken as accusations and I appreciate your feedback.

June 22nd, 2007, 3:55 pm


Joshua said:

Dear Torstein,

I understood Shanfara’s first reaction to your statement that Alawis see themselves as closer to Christians. My wife always reacts as he did when this suggestion is made.


1. First, Alawites consider themselves Muslims and base their religion on the Koran and read it. They do not read the bible. In Syria, they are legally defined as Muslims and attend classes in Islam for the 12 years of primary and secondary school rather than Christianity. In terms of theology, Alawites are closer to Muslims, particularly since the 1950s.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Alawite and Christian communities of the Coastal Mountains have lived in closer proximity, share greater cultural affinity, and give each other greater political support than have Alawis and Sunnis or Christians and Sunnis.

When the French first began carry out a census in the province of Latakia, they discovered that Sunnis and Alawis lived together in no village or town that had more than 200 inhabitants. Christians and Alawis often shared villages and towns.

This stark demographic segregation quickly began to change in post Ottoman Syria. Today, Sunnis and Alawis live side by side in all major coastal and inland cities.

My father-in-law, for example, only ate meat, when he was a child growing up in his village, two days a year. They were on the two Christian holidays of Easter and something else. He explains this was a custom adopted from the Christians of the region.

Today, I suspect that very few Alawis, if any, observe Easter or other Christian holidays with special foods. Many observe Muslim holidays with special foods and partake much more in the rhythm of Muslim religious life than in Christian religious life.

Christians often assume that Alawites feel closer to them because they are both minorities. When this assumption is vocalized, most Alawites I know feel uncomfortable because they do not like to be categorized as non-Muslim and work hard to fit into Muslim life.

In some respects, however, it is still easier for Alawis and Christians to associated. I suspect that Alawi-Christian marriages are more common than Alawi-Sunni marriages, although this may be changing. It would be interesting to know.

Best, Joshua

June 22nd, 2007, 4:39 pm


Alex said:

Dear Joshua and Torstein,

It can get a bit more complicated.

For example, you might want to look at this photo and read the hand writing.

June 22nd, 2007, 7:42 pm


bakri said:

Alex ,,this picture is important and it give an idea on the secessionist wish of some alawite tribal leaders who had made it clear to the french government that they dont belong to Muslim Syria.
And the picture show it well,the alawite children are surrounded by european nuns and monks.
I’m not sure about the story of mixed alawi christian villages in coastal mountains before the french mandate,for example the villages around of Safita , wadi nassara were completly christians and they had strong ties with the syrian inside to Homs and Tartours but also many of them studied in constantinople for the notables and the clerics in greece,lebanon or aleppo ,coastal cities were mixed christian sunni but with no alawite inhabitants.The alawite lands are very poor and extensive agriculture was not possible,unlike their neighbors they lived isolated in a great misery…

June 22nd, 2007, 10:14 pm


Alex said:


I agree that Alawite villages were generally poorer than Ismaeli, Christian and Sunni Muslim villages or towns in the same area. I remember when I was 5 or 6, my grand father rented a Land Rover (local Dreikeesh Taxi) and we drove over large rocks to reach some of the Alawite villages… they had no paved roads. A beautiful life style. They were poor but looked happy.

We had a summer house near Dreikeesh and we took weekly excursions to all the neighboring towns and villages. I think I have seen them all.

I had lunch last week with an American and a British historian who are heading to Damascus next month. They told me that opportunities for research in Syria are tremendous… our rich history still has so many untold stories.

June 23rd, 2007, 5:59 am


Torstein said:

Although it is interesting, it was never my intention to get into a debate about theological similarities or shared beliefs between Alawis and Christians and this is based on a badly written sentence in the abstract that has now been changed. It is the cultural affinity that Joshua mentions that is the issue, and, as I argue, it is just as much the scepticism to the Sunnis that make them feel closer to Christians than any direct cultural or social similarities.

(I guess we can interpret this in whatever way we want to and such we can turn the whole thing on its head, saying that Christians and Alawis get along because the Alawi interpretation of Islam is easier to understand and accept than the Sunni interpretation. However, this is all beside the point as religion is never static or isolated from society (hence the huge differences between Sunnis across the Islamic world) and therefore explains very little on its own.)

It was never my intention to give the impression that Alawis are not Muslims. On the contrary, I argue throughout the thesis that they are, only that it is the power of definition that rests with the Sunnis that is the crux of the problem. None of my sources say that they are not Muslims (although a few almost wish they weren’t because they feel it restricts them as the Sunnis get to define what a “Muslim” is), but instead complain that they are not allowed to call themselves such because of certain traditions or beliefs that are considered non-Islamic by the majority (Sunnis).

I would really like to reiterate this point because this is why my thesis does not follow Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes and others in judging Alawis from the outside and based on outdated sources. Today, Alawis are Muslims because they call themselves Muslims, yet the problems are related to the debates ranging within Islam as to what constitutes a Muslim/believer.

What I find most interesting (and sad) is that many Alawis feel they are forced to conform to majority (Sunni) Islam to be acceptable Muslims instead of defining themselves on their own terms and seeing their beliefs as just as Islamic as other Muslims’ beliefs. Many do, but in secret since there is no arena for them to fight that particular discursive battle in the public sphere (which would have given non-Alawis a chance to understand them better) since issues of religion and sects are repressed by the regime (as Joshua’s excellent article on religious education shows).

Phew, hope that made sense and that the whole Christian-Alawi comment has been cleared up.

June 23rd, 2007, 11:18 am


bakri said:

There is an unanimity opinion amongst muslim scholars that alawite beliefs and practices are not in accordance with Islam.But Alawites as other shia derived sects are characterized by an hermetic curtain surrounding their religious teaching and a lot of mystery and strange stories will always remain because of their intentional secretive attitude.Surprisingly there is a lot of similiraties in the narrations of Ibn Batuta the Morrocan traveller who visited the area in the 14 century and the european travellers of the 18 and 19 centuries like the french poet Gerard de Nerval and specially Volney.But of course so was the near past ,the things are going toward further integration of the alawites in the syrian body.

I beg to disagree that alawites are culturally more close to christians than sunnis.Is that because of the appearance of their women or because they drink alcohol ?Those are not valid criteria to allow such deductive reasoning.
And also i disagree about what was said above on the mixed marriages in Syria,yes there is only rare cases between sunnis and christians or alawite men and sunni women ,but if we take into consideration the fact of alawites women married to sunnis it is quite common.

June 23rd, 2007, 1:48 pm


bakri said:

And i forget to add ,alawite -christian marriages are almost nonexistent.

June 23rd, 2007, 2:49 pm


Alex said:


In what way do you see Alawites not being close to Christians in culture?

I am not saying that they are. The point I wanted to reiterate is that their religious beliefs give them the freedom to be closer to whatever they believe is right. Some end up praying and fasting and quoting the Quran frequently, just like a religious Sunni Syrian, others end up living a lifestyle that is relatively closer to Syrian Christians.

And any combination in between, and on the side… we can’t limit them to “closer to Sunnis, or closer to Christians”.

Bakri, Alawites are basically free to chose how to interpret their religion … they are not living everyday afraid that they will go to hell if they did something not according to some strict religious list of sins.

Some end up becoming non believers, some end up more philosophical and creative in their beliefs. But the majority of them are more or less just like you, in values and in lifestyle. The difference is that they freely chose to follow that road.

So, if 80% of Alawites in Syria are 80% similar to Syrian Sunni muslims … would that still be not to your liking as a “proper” Sunni muslim?

June 23rd, 2007, 4:28 pm


bakri said:

Alex,It’s is normal evolution for alawites to be more distant on religious matters.It’s also known that syrian communists who are categorized as non believers were the first to resist asad tyranny.(many of them are alawites).
And syrianity is not synonym with sunnism ,no one asked the alawites or others to be sunnized.I dont care if dalila is alawite,sunni,agnostic or atheist but i fell myself closer to him than mufti of syria or mufti al azhar and by far…

June 23rd, 2007, 9:31 pm


Alex said:

Dear Bakri,

At the conscious level we are all reasonable and fair, or at least we would like to think that we are.

But from your previous comments I noted that there is a lot of energy dedicated to the issue of minorities. I get the feeling it is not such a transparent and neutral attribute but rather an significant factor in the way you judge certain people and their actions.

I’m sorry that I seem to be interfering into your preferences and motivations, but yesterday you left me a message which disappointed me. Despite your obvious intellectual and educational accomplishments, I think there is something not healthy in the way you make judgments. And I have no reason to analyze you personally, but your attitude is representative of many accomplished Syrians I know or I heard or read… it is not enough to make those general statement about tolerance and acceptance. Your decisions, actions, preferences, and judgments count much more.

June 23rd, 2007, 11:01 pm


Joshua said:

Alawi-Christian marriages are not uncommon. My brother-in-law recently married a Christian. Last night I had dinner with a mixed couple. She is Alawi; he Sunni. Her first husband was Christian. Her daughter from her marriage with the Christian was not baptized. She was schooled as both a Muslim and Christian! When the mother was jailed for four years for belonging to one of Syria’s Communist parties, the daughter’s school had her attend classes in Islam. When the mother got out of jail, she changed her daughter’s religion class to Christianity, because that is the daughter’s official religion, adopted from the father. All very interesting.

My hostess explained to me that Alawis share 12 religious holidays with Christians to this day. She said that many Alawites celebrate only 3 or 4 of these holidays, depending on the village and family. Christian-Alawi marriages remain very common, she said, particularly in the villages where Alawis and Christians live together, such as the villages around Tartous.

She recounted a funny anecdote to explain how confusing the whole thing is. When she married her first husband – a Christian – her mother said how nice it was that she was marrying a Christian because they shared religious holidays, which would make things easy. years later after her divorce and when she married a Sunni, her mother congratulated her and said how nice it was that she was marrying a fellow Muslim. There is a reason why we love our mothers. May God lengthen their lives!

June 24th, 2007, 7:28 am


mahmut said:

I have just seen this discussion, I am very glad that I have discovered Joshua’s website and I would like to deeply thank him for this “service”.

I am from Antakya in Turkey (Antioch) and I am an Alawite. As far I can see, the evolution of Alawites in Syria and in Turkey has been very different over the past decades. However the Sunni mentality has not changed at all, as one can see in Mr.Bakri’s hostile comments about Alawis.

I can very clearly tell you that, in Antakya (old Antioch), we, Alawites never trust Sunnis but always trust each other with Christians. We share feasts with Christians, we share meals, we try to go to the same schools and we do business together, we prefer to do that, because we trust each other for hundreds of years. But Sunnis always want to stab Alawites in the back and one would never trust them (I know some Sunnis with a great heart and mentality, I am absolutely not talking about them). Ironically, I have many good Sunni friends from out of my city Antakya, so they are not aware that I am an Alawi and I am always scared that one day they would learn that I was an Alawi and they would start to hate me. That is very sad, isn’t it? This is a historical thing, they just hate us; that’s it, we always feel that we cannot change this fact and we have to live with it! They tried to exterminate us many times and they killed tens of thousands of us. Anyway, our history was very sad and miserable as you all know.

I just would like to emphasize that although Mr. Bakri sounds to be an educated man one can feel that he is still full of hatred about Alawites. I would like to invite him to establish a peaceful life in our region together with no prejudice. Please accept us as we are and do not judge us, as we do for you. Thanks.

August 1st, 2009, 12:40 am


Post a comment

Neoprofit AI