October 12, 2011


Assad's Alawites: The guardians of the throne (Nir Rosen, 10 Oct 2011, Al Jazeera)

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.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Syrian regime encouraged mainly Alawite peasants to migrate from the mountain regions to the plains, giving them ownership of lands that had belonged to a mainly Sunni elite.

But since the beginning of this year's uprising, some have sent their families back to rural areas for safety. Yahya al Ahmad, an Alawite doctor in Homs told me that his community were resented for migrating and finding work in the government and industry. "Sunnis say we took their jobs and should go back to the countryside," he said.

An Alawite friend told me he was outraged after seeing Sunni demonstrators in Latakia on television, chanting that they would send President Bashar "back to the farm". To him it meant that Sunnis wanted Alawites to go back to their villages.

"The lot of the 'Alawis was never enviable," wrote historian Hanna Batatu. "Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasions, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale."

The French mandate that replaced the Ottoman empire empowered minorities and weakened the older Sunni elite, while Alawites begged the French to grant them a separate state.

Posted by at October 12, 2011 8:56 PM

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