Posts tagged ‘syria’

April 19, 2012

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

There’s been attention on the Alawite sect of late. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the sect, and the sectarian implications of the violence in Syria is huge. I recently posted about members of the religion who live in the Turkish-Syrian border area and how their emotions could complicate Turkish intervention in Syria.

Another group weighs even more heavily on Turkish politics: the Alevis. Their name has a similar origin to the Alawis’, but there are few similarities after that, religiously. Both groups are outgrowths of mainstream Shi’a Islam. Politically, the two groups have been traditionally marginalized and faced discrimination for their unorthodox beliefs. But the ambiguity of both groups’ religious beliefs has caused a lot of confusion. Religion and Middle East scholars often mix the two groups up unintentionally, making studying the two minorities unnecessarily difficult. That confusion even runs through the groups themselves. Since Alawites kept many particulars to their dogmas under wraps to a degree and Alevis are both secularized and don’t emphasize religious practice, the two groups have members who think the two religions have a lot more in common than they actually do.

Their beliefs are much more esoteric than mainstream Islamic sects. There are ideas similar to the Catholic trinity, heavy borrowings from Sufi ideas & a heightened appreciation of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

Alevis might make up as much as 20% of Turkey’s population, though that rarely factors into political analysis. The party of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is religious in nature, Sunni to be specific. Its popularity and indicator of resurgent religiosity in Turkey overshadow the diversity that actually does exist in Turkey. Alevis’ religion also has origins in the various Sufi sects that once had much more influence in Turkey during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It made telling the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in general, a difficult task. The groups has been influenced by Sufi spirituality, making their religious culture much richer in arts, dances and meditation. Because of the former influence of Sufis, Sunni Turks also felt their impact. That translates today in political terms.

Alevis have a tremendous but nuanced influence on the country. Because they are such a large group, their votes can make a difference. The fact the head of the Turkish opposition is an Alevi could spell future electoral trouble for Turkey’s leaders. Alevis also appreciate the secular traditions of modern Turkey much more than the current ruling party. Disenfranchised secular voters, combined with agitated minorities, could swing an election. In fact, it’s their religious beliefs that are actually a political issue in Turkey. Much of the ambiguity scholars reflect about Alevi and Turkish Sunni commonalities is because the Turkish government has maintained a policy that doesn’t recognize the minority as a separate religion. Recognition is important for many reasons, of late to avoid the mandatory Sunni-oriented Islamic classes in public schools. Because of that, the sect’s only institutions and places of worship don’t get the sort of government support that Sunni places do. Though the assumption they are Sunnis should enable money to flow to their centers, unofficial discrimination still exists.

On Syria, the confusion about Alevis’ connection to the Alawites isn’t the only thing that matters. Alevis might feel that an aggressive government policy toward Syria would actually be a Sunni push against a minority-ruled regime. If that were to happen, it could initiate the political backlash mentioned above.

April 11, 2012

Syria’s Alawites: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

If you are trying to follow what’s happening in Syria, you’ve inevitably heard of the Alawites / the Alawis.  Bashar al-Assad is one of them, as is the rest of his family.  They are a religious group virtually unique to Syria, isolated to a few tribes along the Syrian coastline, living in the mountains.  They might number 2 million, but that’s only a fragment of Syria’s 22 million people.  It’s not quite the equivalent of a Jew becoming President of the United States in terms of numbers, but the chances of that happening you’d might have thought would have been a thousand times better after you hear their background.

There’s a lot of baggage that comes from their experience under the Ottoman Empire, but as of the 1920s they were living under French occupation.  They’d always had a tense time with their Muslim neighbors, but that didn’t make them automatic allies with the French.  They might have been the most anti-French of all the groups in the country, and the reasons are sort of complicated.  But as as the 20s and 30s rolled on, the community’s experience became interwoven with the rise of Arab nationalism.  The ideology promised equality among Arabs no matter their religious and no matter their tribe.  It had a massive appeal to Alawites, Druze and Shiite Muslims in Syria and Iraq, drawing a lot of minorities toward politics.

Politics

In Syria, the ideology was vibrant, and helped military recruitment.  Throughout the 40s and 50s, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis all disproportionately represented their groups in the army.  By the 1960s, these minorities were disproportionately powerful in the officers’ corps.  This was important politically, because Syria was going through a stream of military takeovers.  As governments fell, newer and newer leaders took control.  By 1970, Air Force Colonel Hafez al-Assad had enough support to make the effort himself.  He succeeded and named himself president of the country, eliminating rivals (even among his own Alawi kin) very quickly.  Until 2000, he ruled the country with an iron fist, leaving the country to his son Bashar when he died.  Things had been much less ruthless up until 2011, but that’s merely in body count.  Syrian human rights violations have been extremely prevalent.  Politically, he has also eliminated competition and allocated money and resources to Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Army

Today, the Syrian military is overepresented by the Alawite minority, but also has other minorities heavily involved.  Some estimates dare to guess as much as 70% of the military is Alawite, remarkable in a country where they are 12% of the population.  Their being the military elite is tremendously significant.

The ethnic tension between Alawites and Sunni Muslims (the majority), is absurdly high.  Most of the defections from the military have not been Alawite, but Sunni and maybe a few Shiites.  The opposition, specifically the “Free Syrian Army,” claims there are Alawite defections, but the evidence has been little and the speculation more prevalent.

The Minorities

Protesters, fugitives and the organized rebels have been fighting a PR war with the government in Damascus.  While Assad has made an effort to keep the wedge between his community and Sunnis alive, others have been trying to minimize it.  In the words of one protester, “It is a Syrian uprising against a dictator’s regime, and for that reason there are protesters from Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other sects.”  So far, minority groups have not invested highly in the rebellion, so the most powerful men of Syria are still all in with the government.  As general a statement as that is, it is a fair intro or summary of the situation.

Just how many Alawites – or other minority Syrians for that matter – are defecting from the Syrian army?  There are ways of analyzing it, but for now I’ll leave you with that.

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