Archive for ‘Ismailis & Ismaili Shi’ite Islam’

June 3, 2012

Syria’s Alawites (and other Minorities) beyond Wikipedia and the News

by Gedalyah Reback

Wikipedia is a great website. Ignore it at your own peril. Teachers and professors talk it to hell, but not using it is to ignore a tremendous tool that Google considers the automatic top result on virtually any academic topic. Most professors don’t understand that the reason you shouldn’t cite it as a source isn’t due to its lack of reliability. It’s because the information of its articles are constantly changing. You should be checking the footnotes and hitting the links listed at the bottom of the page. New information makes the date you accessed it originally constantly irrelevant, but letting it point you in the right direction is assuredly a good strategy for writing a paper or thinking of a research topic.

So when it comes to Middle East topics, it’s not so much the subjectivity I worry about – even on articles covering things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the outdated information. In terms of minorities, Wikipedia seems much more like an aggregate for recycled, archaic information than it does a reliable source of the modern state of different religious or ethnic groups.

The particular page of concern for me is this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Syria. What the page has to say about Alawites is peculiar: “Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.”

The information is correct. But it was a better summary about 100 years ago. Alawites, Ismailis and Druze have not been left out of the age of the internet, digital music, cars or the urban explosion. Every group has moved away from rural lifestyles into Latakia, Hama, Homs and Damascus. But most importantly of all, the community’s conservative roots have been decimated by the modern age. A combination of Arab nationalism, feigning devotion to religion and the marathon of Western cultural influences into the year 2012 have made religion a weak link among Alawites. In the spirit of the age, the experience is defined by a raw, dark, realpolitik approach to life. Alawites’ main concern right now is living under the thumb of political Islam defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. More relevant than referring to the group’s religious history is its political history. The Ottoman Empire made great efforts toward the end of its existence to push Syria’s Alawites to embrace the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in custom, law and sect. By the time the empire fell, the community’s leadership was either running to Shi’ite Islam for legal inspiration or enthusiastically defining the community’s independence.

After 90 years of secular Arab nationalism and a Western culture not at all defined by religious tradition, secularism is perhaps the more dominant trend in Alawite and other minorities’ religious identities in 2012 Syria. bear this in mind for your next term paper. But also bear in mind “secular” doesn’t imply atheist, agnostic or apathetic regarding religion. It can merely imply someone doesn’t live his or her life in accord with it, or doesn’t want religious affairs mixed up in government or politics. But in terms of tribal authority, or the authority of religious figures, it’s virtually non-existent. The effective leadership of the Alawite community is Bashar al-Assad and the disproportionately Alawite Syrian armed forces.

This doesn’t mean religion is finished for the Alawites. It would be just as naïve to say the same for the American Northeast and West Coast. Religion is hardly on its way out. How Alawites deal with religion in the future will likely change, but contemporary Western trends will hardly be the end of the story or the ushering in of a sudden wave of secular or atheist Humanism. Alawites have had the opportunity for years to eliminate other elements of religion in Syria’s political life and have balked at the opportunity. A number of minorities are converting to Twelver Shi’ite Islam.

So when you look at a map on the news describing where the Alawites are, or what percentage of people actually believe in a certain religious idea, take the statistics and the graphics with a grain of salt. A lot of the research is out of date and the conclusions conveniently organized. Surveys have never been rich enough to absolutely define the beliefs of many Middle Eastern minorities, much less nail down an arbitrarily line on the map defining where they live. The information is helpful, but trends like urbanization and the ability to commute long distances make looking at these sources as infallible or perfectly accurate extremely precarious.

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