Syria — The Alawi Community and the Fate of Secularism
The events in Syria are often phrased either as an internal, albeit tragic, affair that need concern the international community primarily at a humanitarian level, or as an example of the challenges faced by the West in asserting its values and power in front of a resurgent Russia and a provocative Iran. With depleted political, military, and economic resources, the transatlantic alliance may be in a weaker position to affect the outcome of this conflict, which seems in any case heading to a resolution in favor of friendly parties. But the longer-term moral credit of the West, as well as its interests, is a function of the judicious engagement of these same friendly parties to insure that universal rights and values are respected even on behalf of individuals and collectives that might have breached them or condoned their breach. The fate of the Alawi community in Syria, evidently irrespective of the implication of members of this community in crimes committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime, ought to matter for intrinsic humanitarian considerations. It is also important to rescue some of the progress that this community has witnessed in the direction of a positive socio-political order that could potentially help the desired progress of Syria and the region towards a viable secular democracy.
While the Damascus regime is often described as “Alawi” or “Alawi-dominated” — in reference to the community of President Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafiz al-Assad — the standard note of qualification, were polemics to be avoided, is to underline the fact that the regime neither encompasses the totality of the Alawi community, nor is limited to it. From appeal to other religious and ethnic minorities, to alliances with Sunni Arab tribes and urban mercantile strata, the Syrian regime may indeed have created a wide, albeit precarious, structure of support through which it was able to impose its autocratic, and ultimately kleptocratic, hold on the country. Yet, it would be unrealistic to ignore the fact that the reliable core of the regime stems from the Alawi community, and that the identification of the regime with this community is further increasing with the unraveling of its web of support, and through the self-reinforcing descent of Syrian society into communitarian war.
The atrocities committed by forces and para-military groups loyal to the Damascus regime, many of whom were recruited in the Alawi community, almost certainly promise large-scale reprisal actions upon the regime’s eventual fall. Little tangible effort is being exerted to prevent this dire outcome, which seems at times to be treated as almost inevitable by many in the Syrian opposition. While accusing the regime of deliberately instigating communitarian tensions — to harden the loyalty of its core Alawi constituency and to “expose” the sectarian character of the uprising it has been endeavoring to suppress — opposition figures point to the harsh fact that calls for moderation and communal harmony clash with the reality of understandable outrage at the escalating horrors that the regime is inflicting upon the population. Reports abound of Alawi citizens allegedly participating in the carnage inflicted on their Sunni neighbors. The opposition’s discourse has thus to calibrate its principled stand against sectarianism to avoid alienating the popular base that it seeks to moderate — while also providing the hopeful observation that, with the exception of the deliberate bombing of Alawi-majority neighborhood in Damascus by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusrah group, no major atrocity of a sectarian character has been blamed on the armed opposition.
However, as the Syrian revolution progresses towards its seemingly inevitable conclusion of regime change, the opposition’s nuanced approach to the communitarian question appears to weaken, with harder sectarian views asserting themselves on the ground. As the internal opposition has metamorphosed into an armed insurgency, its nomenclature and slogans are increasingly drawn from the religious and historical heritage of Sunni Islam. Few and far in between are the expressions of pluralism — beyond those uttered in international conferences — while the religion, culture, and mores of the Alawi community face a seemingly unending online barrage of denigration and verbal assault. This on-going transformation may not yet be indicative of the lasting prevailing of Islamist ideologies in the yet unreached post-regime era. It is however a solemn declaration of communitarian factionalism.
At the still-elusive conclusion of its conflict, Syria, it seems, will face further carnage, may be partitioned along communitarian lines, or, at best, may face a debilitatingly fractured social and political life. Neither outcome presages well for the populations of Syria and the region — with their highly inter-mingled and integrated communitarian fabric. In all three cases, the disruptions would not merely be social, political, and economic, but would also constitute a severe setback to the notion of the state as a national commonwealth that transcends factional identities. If the demise of the ruling dynasty in Syria were to translate into a calamity affecting the Alawi community, the prospects of a progressive Syria eventually creating a democratic order would be severely curtailed.
While phrasing its stand in cynically utilitarian and reductionist terms, the regime strikes a chord in many constituencies when it portrays itself as a defender of a “secular” version of Syria.
Political discourse in much of the Arab world suffers from “diglossia.” This linguistic term — usually describing the co-existence of two forms of the spoken language, a “high” version reserved for formal public settings (media, literature, official pronouncements), and a “low” version used at home and in casual public settings, with the two versions diverging considerably — aptly describes the parallel maintenance of two versions of political discourse in many Arab societies. The first is public and shared at the national level, while the second, often in competing variants, is restricted to individual communities. The “high” political discourse in Syria may portray the country as a fortress of Arab nationalism and as an untamable force in the Middle East; the “low” political discourse of the different communities is far less grandiose in its scope and concerns, and is often consumed with inter-communal relations.
Within the Alawi community, two competing narratives attempt to explain and contextualize the community’s rise to prominence. The first, distinctly adversarial in its view of the Sunnis as a community, retrieves historical episodes of oppression by successive (Sunni) rulers to recast the Assad era as a triumph of Alawis against Sunnis. Accordingly, the current Syrian uprising is not the result of grievances, but is a renewed attempt by the oppressors of yesteryear to reimpose their yoke over embattled Alawis. The second narrative distinguishes between the Sunnis, as a community, and Sunni hegemonism, as a mode of thought and behavior — which it considers to be nonetheless still entrenched in the Sunni population. Proponents of this view, shared by many intellectuals within the Alawi and other non-Sunni-Arab minorities, accept Arab nationalism (or other nationalistic propositions that transcend communitarian identities) as a means to mitigate Sunni hegemonism. For some with non-factional inclinations, condoning the autocratic and mostly sectarian regime of Assad is justified as the lesser of two evils, while the foundations of Sunni hegemonism are being addressed. The fallacy of this line of thought is that the Assad regime, far from engaging in deconstructing factionalism, has in fact exacerbated it, often willingly, sometimes inadvertently. Still, most Alawi intellectuals fear that the Syrian uprising is displaying increasing signs of return to Sunni hegemonism, and are therefore not inclined to support it, leaving the revolution without a meaningful advocate within the Alawi community, and further contributing to spiraling sectarianism.
Supporters of the Assad regime have often portrayed it as a bastion of secularism fighting, an assault instigated by reactionary Sunni forces funded by Saudi Arabia, the cradle of modern Islamic radicalism. Even if the underlying narrative of a historic “Sunni hegemonism” is accepted, opposing it for factional purposes does not equate to secularism. After four decades in autocratic rule, the Assad regime is in fact incapable of demonstrating any tangible progress towards secular reforms.
The unfortunate fact is that there might indeed have been an historic missed opportunity. In a region that was witnessing a socially and culturally induced rise in pietism, upon which political ideology had striven to capitalize and translate into mass support for Islamism, the Alawi community benefitted from unique circumstances that could indeed have transformed it into a primary source for a Syrian national secular society.
Over the past centuries, the often maligned Alawis — then known by the traditional designation applied to them, Nusayris — lived in rugged mountains as disparate tribal confederations adhering to syncretistic and heterogeneous religious beliefs and practices with an overlay of nominal Twelver Shi‘ism. While 20th century economic changes and infrastructural expansion ended their relative physical isolation, education, political populism, national integration, the changing rural-urban balance of power, nepotism and cronyism were contributing factors to their disproportionate role in state positions since the mid-1960s. The most crucial development in the dramatic evolution of this community may have been the byproduct of a feat of “religious engineering” perpetrated in 1973 by the then-president Hafiz al-Assad, in conjunction with the Iranian-Lebanese charismatic Shia cleric Musa al-Sadr. Through the efforts of Sadr, the community was supposed to abandon its traditional beliefs and practices, now relabeled as superstitions and myths, and to join (presumably “return” to) Twelver Shia orthodoxy. In fact, the attachment of many educated Alawis to the archaic tenets of their community was waning. The successive ages of liberalism and nationalism, which prevailed over the Arab East in the first half of the previous century, had allowed many in the diverse communities to further question their respective religious praxis and tradition, while largely remaining within the confines of the core belief system shared by adherents to the various religions of the region. A de facto mode of local secularism — accepting of modernity, almost dismissive of clerical authority, while maintaining a theistic world view — cut across many currents of political thought in the region, affecting communities variably, as a function of both objective socio-economic conditions and historical circumstances.
Due to the dramatic socio-economic and socio-cultural transformation of their community in the 20th century, many Alawis may have considered the Assad-Sadr religious engineering effort as a pro forma action to normalize the community’s history and faith in a regional environment that seemed to move away from conventional religious orders. Surely, many Alawis were unwilling to trade one set of questioned beliefs and practices for a pre-packaged and considerably different one. The result of this religious reorientation diktat was the further disempowering of the traditional clerical lineages and the introduction of an initially weak religious normalization effort, led by members of the Assad family, aiming at injecting orthodox Shi‘ism into the Alawis. Further complicating the effort was the need of Hafiz al-Assad to officially promote an undifferentiated non-denominational “moderate” Islam — one that overlaps as much as possible with the common inter-religious core belief system — as a public narrative, to placate the Sunni majority and counter the influence of Sunni hegemonism.
Close to four decades have passed since the beginning of the conversion effort, the results are still meager. Alawis may have retreated from much of their traditional practices, but the footprint of standard Shi‘ism in their midst remains small. In fact, with the diminishing of the traditional clergy, and the failure of an alternative religious leadership to emerge, the Alawis of Syria were in the unique position of facing little inhibition to internal secularization. This manifested itself in less constraints on the participation of women in public roles, less constraints on critical thinking on matters of tradition and religion, and a more open embrace of universal values. The blatant paradox is that while the Alawi community constituted the backbone of an oppressive authoritarian regime, the Alawis may have been the most secularized of Syrian communities.
The vector for this secularizing trend was indeed Syrian Alawi intellectuals who sought to transcend factional communitarianism, but who were unable to translate their desire into a significant national movement. It is their fate, and the fate of their idea of a post-communitarian society, however ill-articulated, that is also at stake. Whether the outcome of an unchecked descent into further sectarianism in Syria is a further installment in the series of massacres that this nation is living through or a partition that would resurrect the short-lived Alawi quasi-state of the early years of the French mandate in the 1920s, the Alawi community can be expected to undergo a severe cultural shake-up that would eliminate the optimistic variant of its internal political discourse, and heralds its retreat into a defensive communitarian narrative, with more incentives for an alignment with the Shia protagonists in the presumed Sunni-Shia divide. An increasingly “Shia” Alawi community would insure a more radically “Sunni” rest of Syria.
Cynical views in some circles may characterize opposing radicalisms in the Middle East as mutually canceling threats against the West. The historical fact is that such a divide has served as a momentum-generating crucible for unpredictable anti-Western action. Universal values dictate that the world community engages current and future interlocutors in Syria to insure that no collective victimization of the Alawi community is committed. Beyond values, such an accomplishment will demonstrate that these interlocutors have the moral and operational credibility for continuing engagement. It will also avoid what seems an inexorable descent of the region, and beyond, into the abyss.
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.