June 20, 2013


The Price of Loyalty in Syria (ROBERT F. WORTH, 6/19/13, NY Times Magazine)

Syria's Sunnis and Alawites were at odds for hundreds of years, and the current war has revived the worst of that history. Radical jihadis among the rebels now openly call for the extermination or exile of Syria's religious minorities. Most outsiders agree that Assad cynically manipulated the fears of his kinsmen for political survival, but few have asked -- or had the opportunity to ask -- how the Alawites themselves feel about Assad, and what kind of future they imagine now that the Sunni Arab world has effectively declared war on them.

"What is horrible is that everyone is now protecting his existence," Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, a prominent cleric in Damascus, told me. "For all of the minorities, it is as if we have entered a long corridor with no light." [...]

Aliaa's younger brother Abdulhameed described for me his own sectarian shock. He is a 23-year-old amateur boxer who was studying in Egypt last November, living with five Syrian friends in a house in Alexandria. One night a young man with an Iraqi accent knocked on their door and asked if he was Syrian. Abdulhameed said yes, and the Iraqi walked off. Late that night, a group of men tried to break down the door, while shouting sectarian abuse. Abdulhameed and his friends fought the attackers off and drove them away. "But the worst part came after," he said. "A few days later there was a posting on Facebook, with our exact address, saying, 'These guys are Syrians, funded by Iran and Hezbollah to spread Shiism in Egypt, and you must kill them.' " Three of the Syrians gave up their studies and went home.

Aliaa and her friends did not even pretend to be impartial witnesses to the uprising. They shut their eyes to most of what happened in their country after the demonstrations began: the mass arrests and jailings, the torture, the unprovoked killings of hundreds and then thousands of peaceful protesters. In their talks with me, they scoffed at the word shabiha, saying it was a myth, and they seemed unwilling to believe the regime was responsible for the sectarian rumors that accompanied the first protests. Still, there was an emotional truth at the core of their case. They had sensed a pent-up anger directed at them as Alawites, and the unleashing of that anger felt like a revelation, a sign that they had been living a lie.

Aliaa's own best friend -- or the girl who used to be her best friend -- was a Sunni named Noura. They lived just a block apart and went to school together and helped raise each other's younger siblings. The difference of sect meant nothing, Aliaa said; most of her friends are Sunni. "Noura once told me she would name her first daughter Aliaa, and that she'd bring jasmine to my house after she was born." In a photograph she showed me, Noura has a plump, babyish face and wears a loose head scarf; Aliaa is standing next to her with an arm wrapped around her shoulder. In 2010, Noura was engaged to a very religious man who told her she must stop going to movies and wearing short dresses, and said he would not tolerate her having any non-Sunni friends, Aliaa told me. Noura went straight to Aliaa's house to tell her, and the two of them lay on Aliaa's bed talking about what she could do. She soon broke off the engagement. "She told me: 'I can't live with a man who thinks Alawites are forbidden,' " Aliaa said.

Soon after the first protests broke out, Aliaa told Noura about some of the sectarian protest chants she had heard. Noura refused to believe it. The next month, when the army cracked down in Jableh, Noura was desperate, saying innocent protesters had been killed. Aliaa told Noura it was "not logical" for a government to kill its own people. Noura backed down. "Maybe we just heard different stories," she said. As she and her family moved deeper into the opposition camp, however, the friendship began to fray. Once, after they had gone for a drive along the seafront, Noura suddenly said: "If Sunnis ever attacked you, I'd protect you. And vice versa." Both of them laughed. "At the time, it seemed like a joke," Aliaa told me. "We couldn't really imagine that happening." Aliaa traveled to England at the end of the summer, and shortly after, when Noura's mother was arrested, the two friends stopped speaking. In October, Aliaa told me, she was half-asleep one night when she heard a buzzing on her laptop: Noura was calling to video chat. It was 4 a.m., but they spent an hour talking and laughing as if nothing had changed. "When we hung up, I burst into tears," Aliaa told me. "I felt so happy that we were still friends, that none of the differences mattered."

Soon afterward, Noura and her family fled to Turkey. In December, Noura unfriended Aliaa on Facebook, but Aliaa continued to check Noura's Facebook page every day. The postings were passionately anti-Assad, and included sectarian slurs against Alawites. Noura married a Sunni man from Jableh, whose Facebook photo showed the black banner used by Al Qaeda. In mid-May, Noura posted a long passage praising Saddam Hussein, followed by this sentence: "How many 'likes' for the conqueror of the Shia and other heathens?" Aliaa showed me the Facebook page of Noura's teenage brother Kamal, with an image of him clutching a Kalashnikov. "I used to carry him on my shoulders and feed him crackers," she said.

Noura now lives in Turkey. I reached her by phone at the Syrian school that her aunt runs near the border. She acknowledged her friendship with Aliaa, but her religious zeal soon became apparent. She said her husband did not permit her to talk by phone to foreign journalists. I then spoke to her aunt Maha, the director of the school, who confirmed the outlines of Aliaa's account of the friendship and the uprising in Jableh. Her voice rose almost to a shout as she told me only the regime was sectarian. "Before the uprising, we lived together with no problems," she said. "They felt reassured about us, because ever since the events of Hama, they felt we would not rise up against them. But as soon as we chose the path of revolution, they felt it was directed against them, not against Assad. We told them: We only want freedom. But they shut the door in our faces; they would not talk to us." Maha struck me as a reasonable woman who regretted the rupture, much as Aliaa did.

But when I asked her about the Alawite religion, I was startled by her response. "Aliaa is a nice girl," she said. "But the Alawites don't have a religion. They are a traitor sect. They collaborated with the crusaders; during the French occupation they sided with the French."

For the Alawites, these familiar accusations have the sting of a racist epithet. The Alawite faith, developed a millennium ago, is a strange, mystic blend of Neoplatonism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. It included a belief in reincarnation and a deification of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. These unorthodox tenets may have led the crusaders and other outsiders to favor them, seeing them as potential allies against Muslims. The theologian Ibn Taymiyya -- the ancestor of today's hard-line Islamists -- proclaimed in the early 1300s that the Alawites were "more infidel than Jews and Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists," and urged good Muslims to slaughter and rob them. The Alawites sought shelter in the mountains, and rarely dared to come even to Latakia. Many of them were slaughtered by Ottoman armies, and parts of the community stood close to extinction at some points in their history. According to the historian Joshua Landis, as late as the 1870s, supposed Alawite bandits were impaled on spikes and left on crossroads as a warning. They lived in desperate poverty on the margins of Syria's feudal economy, often sending their daughters into indentured servitude as maids to wealthy Sunni families.

In 1936, when the French were poised to merge the newly formed Alawite coastal state into a larger Syrian republic, six Alawite notables sent a petition begging them to reconsider. "The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion," they wrote. "There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief." One of the petition's signers was Sulayman al-Assad, the grandfather of Syria's current president. Later, after the French abandoned them, the Alawites rushed to embrace the cause of Syrian nationalism, and went to great lengths to make the rest of the country forget their separatist ambitions. [...]

If the opposition has lost its meaning, so has the regime. The Assad clan has always defined its Syria as the "beating heart of Arabism," the bulwark of the Palestinian cause. The Baath Party was meant to embody this spirit, and Syria's minorities were eager to prove their loyalty as Arabs in a Muslim-majority society. This was the glue that would hold together the country's fractious communities. But now Syria has been formally excommunicated by the Arab League, the reigning pan-Arab institution, and the old unifying ideologies -- paid lip service until the crisis began -- are openly mocked.

On a quiet side street in one of Damascus's richest neighborhoods, a prominent lawyer invited me to join him and his friends in an opulent, booklined study. There were soft leather couches and European chocolates on the coffee table. A 16-frame video screen showed every approach to the house. One of the guests was the Rev. Gabriel Daoud, a Syriac Orthodox priest who sprawled on an armchair in his black robe. The subject of Syria's minorities came up, and Father Daoud's face registered his irritation. "Minorities -- it's a false name," he said. "It should be the quality of the people, not the quantity. It gives you the idea that minorities are small and weak. But we are the original people of this country." As for the protesters and their demands for freedom, Father Daoud smirked: "They don't want hurriya, they want houriaat." Hurriya is the Arabic word for "freedom," and houriaat is the plural of houri, the dark-eyed virgins that suicide bombers are promised in the afterlife.

Daoud spoke bitterly about the kidnapping of two Christian bishops, whose fate was unknown. "They may have Syrian nationality, but not the mentality," Daoud said of the rebels. "We are proud of our secularism. We cannot live with these barbarians." When I raised the subject of Arab nationalism, one of the guests in the room winced. "We are Mesopotamian, not Arabic," he said. "We don't want to be Arabic."

I heard this kind of talk everywhere in Syria. In Latakia, a young Alawite woman who had spent time in the United States spoke about the uprising in blatantly racist terms. "The protests started well, but after a while, the people participating were not educated," she said. "It's like your riots in Detroit in 1967. They are like losers -- not good people. Like blacks in the U.S.A." The "barbarians" these people were talking about -- the rural poor, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and the backbone of the opposition -- probably constitute half of Syria's population. 

Posted by at June 20, 2013 5:37 AM

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