On Syria’s Alawis

CM10 cover_0Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.

Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.

From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.

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All Things Considered (Again)

Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).

Download Mp3

Beyond the Sunni/ Alawi Dichotomy

Nader Atassi (of the great Darth Nader blog) takes on the twin myths that the Syrian regime is Alawi and that the revolution is Sunni. To divide and rule, the Assad regime has cleverly exploited sectarian tensions for decades. (A great Syrian blogger of previous years, Karfan – or ‘Disgusted’ – described the regime’s repression of the Alawi community and its religion here – a must read.)

A Slaughter of Alawi Innocents

For the first time there is proof of a large-scale massacre of Alawis – the heterodox Shia offshoot sect to which Bashaar al-Assad belongs – by Islamist extremists among Syrian opposition forces. In its context, this disaster is hardly surprising. It follows a string of sectarian massacres of Sunni civilians (in Houla, Tremseh, Bayda and Banyas, and elsewhere), the sectarian ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from areas of Homs province, and an assault on Sunni sacred sites such as the Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, the Umawi mosque in Aleppo, and the Omari mosque in Dera’a. It follows two and a half years of rape, torture and murder carried out on an enormous scale by a ‘Syrian’ army commanded by Alawi officers and backed by sectarian Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, and by Alawi irregular militias. Assad and his backers have deliberately instrumentalised sectarian hatred more effectively than the Americans did in Iraq, and they must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the dissolution of Syria’s social mosaic. Next, the counter-revolutionary forces in the West (chief among them the United States) must be blamed for obstructing the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army, a policy which has inevitably strengthened the most extreme and sectarian jihadist groups (some of whom, such as the foreign-commanded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are actively fighting the Free Army). Human Rights Watch’s important report on the massacre of Alawi villagers is summed up in the video below. Sadly, HRW fails to adequately distinguish between Syrian and foreign, and moderate and extremist anti-Assad militias. The excellent EAWorldview critiques the report here. Its conclusion:

The HRW report illustrates the dangers of conflating the various factions of the insurgency under the heading “armed opposition groups”.

Coincidentally, that conflation is a tactic of the regime who seeks to portray the insurgency as extremist-led, largely foreign fighters rather than an extension of the indigenous protest movement that took up arms after Assad’s forces used violence to quash it from March 2011.

By this conflation, HRW (a fine organisation which has done great work in uncovering the truth of the Syrian conflict) veers dangerously close to the orientalist/racist stereotyping of the Syrian people’s struggle now dominant in both the rightist and liberal/leftist Western media.

It goes without saying that the crimes committed against Alawi civilians in northern Lattakia province are grotesque and idiotic, and constitute another strategic blow against the revolution and the survival of the Syrian state.

Aziz’s Story

aziz cellThis was published at NOW

The Syrian city of Selemiyyeh lies to the east of Hama, where the fertile crescent becomes barren. The ruins of Shmemis castle, dating to the late Hellenistic period, cling to the cone of an extinct volcano nearby. The major historical site in the city itself is a shrine containing the tombs of Imam Taki Muhammed and Radi Abdallah. Some believe that Imam Ismail, the foundational figure of the Ismaili sect, is buried here too.

Although it’s an ancient city, with ancient links to the Ismaili faith, the ancestors of its present population were 19th and 20th Century migrants from Ismaili hill towns to the west, places such as Qadmous and Misyaf. The town, which also houses significant populations of Sunnis, Twelver Shia and Alawis, has long been a model of sectarian co-existence. Its secularism has been real – a genuine popular tolerance for difference, not the debased, propagandistic ‘secularism’ of the regime.

Along with Homs, Darayya, Dera‘a and Kafranbel (each one for different reasons), Selemiyyeh has become one of the capitals of the Syrian revolution. As a predominantly non-Sunni community which has since the start stood solidly for freedom and against the regime, its example proves both the mendacity of Assad’s sectarian narrative and the oversimplified western media discourse which portrays the fight as one between Sunni extremists and minority-secularists.

As part of its divide-and-rule strategy, the regime has spared Selemiyyeh the aerial bombardment and rocket attacks it has visited on majority-Sunni areas, but the city has suffered as much as anywhere from detentions and disappearances. Its revolutionaries, like all revolutionaries in regime-controlled areas, live underground.

Selemiyyeh has also bled (in January and February) from bomb attacks, probably organised by Jabhat an-Nusra, which targetted the regime’s shabeeha militia but also killed many innocent civilians. Despite such provocations, Selemiyyeh’s revolutionaries have cooperated with the Salafists of Ahrar ash-Sham, who have brought food aid to the city. And the community has done a great deal to house and feed its brothers and sisters of all sects fleeing violence in Homs and Hama. Pioneers of the early non-violent protests, many of Selemiyyeh’s residents are now engaged in the armed struggle.

When I met Aziz Asaad, an activist from Selemiyyeh, across the Turkish border in Antakya, I asked him why the community was so revolutionary, why it hadn’t been scared into fencesitting or even grudging support for Assad by the Islamist element of the opposition. His answer: “We read a lot. We’ve always read books.”

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Burning the Mosques

The Umawi mosque in Aleppo has burnt. Its thousand-year-old minaret has fallen. The minaret of Dera‘a’s Omari mosque, built in the seventh Century by Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, has been destroyed. And today the Khalid ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, built around the mausoleum of the famous Muslim general and companion of the Prophet, was shelled and burnt. These are ancient mosques of enormous significance to Muslims, and they are world heritage. They were. They survived the Mongols, but not Assad.

It’s clear the Western media does not understand the religious, cultural and historical importance of these sites. Assad’s cultural vandalism and civilisational provocations are worse than the Taliban’s assault on the Bamiyan Buddha. Am I wrong to think that an attack by rogue elements of the Syrian resistance on a major Shia shrine would raise a far greater noise?

Many Muslims too are strangely quiet. If the Israelis were to hit a mosque of such vast symbolic resonance, you can bet there’d be furious demonstrations from Casablanca to Jakarta, from London to Lahore.

What’s happening is no secret. The shabeeha write it on the walls: “Al-Assad or We’ll Burn the Country.” The world worries about Islamists, about hypothetical future persecutions, about the chess game between America and Russia, Israel and Iran. Meanwhile the country burns. The people and their history burn. And the flammable poison of sectarian hatred seeps out from Syria, to east and west.

Thomas Pierret on the Syrian Revolution

a scene from the sectarian massacre in al-Bayda, May 2013
a scene from the sectarian massacre in al-Bayda, May 2013

I hate to link to the Angry Arab for various reasons. This is the man who, on the one hand, was only able to mention Juliano Mer Khamis, the martyred Palestinian founder of Balata refugee camp’s Freedom Theatre, in the context of slandering his mother’s ethnicity (yes, she was an Israeli Jew, but one who chose to marry a Palestinian – and Juliano was a man who could have used his mother’s identity to live between the bars and beaches of Tel Aviv, but chose to live and work in occupied Nablus instead). On the other hand he slanders serious scholars like Mearsheimer and Walt, men who have done such important work on exposing the machinations of the Israel Lobby in the US, by accusing them of anti-semitism. (I wonder why he, an American-based academic, has had so much less trouble with people like Campus Watch than real intellectuals like Edward Said and Norman Finkelstein, who made much less dramatic anti-Israel statements). His coverage of the Syrian Revolution has been appalling. He has relied on informants such as ‘an American friend’ to inform his readership that the revolutionary suburbs of Damascus are ‘like Kandahar’ (usually he is overquick to accuse Western commentators of Islamophobia). He has consistently exaggerated the barbarism and sectarianism of elements of the Syrian resistance while consistently underestimating or ignoring the sectarianism and barbarism of the Syrian regime. The questions he poses in this interview with Syria expert Thomas Pierret expose his sectarian bias, but Pierret’s responses are so clear and well-informed that the post deserves reposting here.

“1) You and I have disagreed on Syria, do you think that Syria experts have been wrong in the last years especially with the regular and constant predictions of the imminent fall of the regime?

The generalisation is problematic. Such predictions were rather made by journalists, who have the good excuse of not being Syria experts, and Western officials, who often did so for a bad reason, i.e. in order to justify their inaction: if Asad is about to fall, then there is no need to do anything to stop him.
 
“Experts” did not collectively agree upon the imminent fall of the regime. In early April 2011, I published an op-ed in the French newspaper Le Monde. The last sentence said this: “Nothing guarantees the success of the Syrian revolution, and if it happens at all, it will certainly be long, and painful” . I was not the only one to think that way. I clearly remember a conversation I had at the same time with Steven Heydemann, who was even more pessimistic than I was: he predicted that the regime would use its full military might against the opposition, and that none would act to stop it.
 
I must admit that later developments made me over-optimistic at times, but overall, I do not think I have seriously under-estimated the solidity of the regime.