A multi-part series by Al Jazeera special correspondent Nir Rosen, who recently spent seven weeks travelling throughout Syria with unique access to all sides.
Part one — The guardians of the throne: As we left the central Syrian city of Homs, Abu Laith pulled a 9mm Llama pistol from under his shirt, loaded it and placed it in the gap between our seats. He was a sergeant in Syria’s State Security and drove a small Chinese-made taxi to avoid the attention of armed men looking for members of the security forces. Heading north to his village of Rabia, in Hama, we passed shops covered in gashes from gunfire.
“There was a sniper here,” he said at one point on the road. “He shot six military buses.” We drove by a Military Security building that had been attacked by armed opposition fighters.
“Here was a statue of the late President Hafez,” he pointed at a now empty pedestal. Visibly offended, he added: “They took it down and put a live donkey there instead.”
Abu Laith belongs to the Alawite sect who make up about ten per cent of Syria’s population. Sunni Arabs comprise 65 per cent, while Sunni Kurds and Christians constitute ten per cent each. Druze, Shia, Ismailis and others make up the remainder. Since the Baathists seized power in Syria, sectarianism has been taboo, ever-present but unspoken of, with perpetrators of incitement harshly punished.
Prejudice in all its forms – racism, sexism, sectarianism – exist in all societies, but, in times of crisis, collective identity often comes to dominate social relations. Identity is complex and membership of ethno-religious sects is only one part of Syrian identity.
Social class, profession, nationalism, regional identities and other factors are all very important. But one is born into a sect and few but the wealthy elite transcend these classifications, typically revealed by one’s name and place of birth. As in the Balkans, religious identities are often cultural identities and lead to ethnic-like divisions, even within same-language groups.
In the Arab world, the Sunni exercise a hegemony which has often made minority sects feel insecure. Shia and heterodox sects – such as the Alawites – have been persecuted.
Little is known about the history of the Alawite faith – even among the Alawite community – as its beliefs and practices are available only to the initiated few. It bears little resemblance to mainstream doctrines of Islam and involves belief in transmigration of the soul, reincarnation, the divinity of Ali ibn Abi Talib – the fourth Caliph and a cousin of Prophet Muhamad – and a holy trinity comprising Ali, Muhamad and one of the prophet’s companions, Salman al Farisi.
A common theme to Alawite identity is a fear of Sunni hegemony, based on a history of persecution that only ended with the demise of the Ottoman empire. Sunni cultural hegemony, however, remains. [Continue reading…]
Part two — An entrenched community: Driving near the high-altitude resort of Slonfeh in the Alawite mountains of the Latakia region, I passed a funeral tent for a Syrian soldier killed in the region the previous week, one of two military “martyrs” Slonfeh had lost to armed opposition activists. When my driver entered the village of Mazar al-Qatriyeh, he asked to be directed towards Sheikh Khalil Khatib, a respected Alawite elder. “Ask the rocks and they will tell you,” said one man. “Everybody knows him.”
The sheikh was an intense old man who lectured me while a television behind him screened the Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar satellite channel.
“You can be called a sheikh for being old or for being educated,” he explained to me. He blamed religious sheikhs for the crisis in Syria. “They aren’t sheikhs of thought,” he said. “They are sheikhs of air, that’s why Syria has all these problems. I am a sheikh of logic.”
I told him that the opposition said Alawites controlled the regime. “This is rejected,” he said. “It’s for justifying the attack against the regime.” He listed ministers, governors, and director-generals and insisted very few were Alawites and most were Sunni.
“Our president is Alawite and we suffer from this,” he said. “There are four million Alawites,” he claimed with some exaggeration. “We don’t have even one per cent of the positions in the government.” He and his guests said they believed Syria was being pressured so it would make a deal with Israel. “If Bashar signs a humiliating peace we are against him,” said Ali Janud, a professor of civil engineering. “I am not with Hezbollah because they are Shia,” he said, “only because they are resistance.”
The sheikh agreed. “We are with the devil if he fights Israel,” he said. If outside powers intervened in Syria it would lead to armageddon, the sheikh said. “If they want to destroy us,” he said, “they are welcome.”
The sheikh conflated the protesters with the armed opposition. “The armed people are ignorant and don’t have any education,” he said. “In the mountains we are all educated,” said one of his guests. “Our orientation is education.” Janud agreed: “This is a conflict between ignorance and knowledge,” he said. Bayda and Baniyas, two coastal towns that had seen demonstrations, had nobody educated in them, the sheikh said, and they were majority Sunni. “And the Alawite villages around [those towns] are all educated.”
He recommended that I read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic book about a fabricated Jewish conspiracy written in Russia a century ago – but still sometimes believed to be true. This would help me understand how Saudi Arabia was a chess piece in the hands of world Zionism, he said. “Jews are the cause of corruption in the world,” he told me. [Continue reading…]
The preceding parts in this series:
Syria: The revolution will be weaponised (September 23)
Armed defenders of Syria’s revolution (September 27)
Syria’s symphony of scorn (September 30)
Ghosts in the mosques (September 30)
The tides of mosques (October 2)
A conversation with Grand Mufti Hassoun (October 3)