The Alawites--The Shia Muslim Sect of Syria's Leader
By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Alawites are a Shia sect of Islam who revere the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. They live predominantly in Syria, where they make up about 12% or 2+ million of the population, but there are also minority communities in Lebanon and Turkey. Alawites are Arabs and speak Eastern Arabic. Today and for some time now, they have occupied the position of leadership of Syria. Two generations of the Assad family have ruled Syria with an iron fist. The second Assad to serve as president, Bashar, responded violently to the toppling of three Arab leaders during the Arab Spring of 2011 by securing his own dictatorship—at least so far.
In 2018, the Shia state of Iran, with the assistance of the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah and Russia, are supporting the Assad regime. Their war is against Sunni jihadists, also known as the Islamic State, and Syrian anti-Assad Sunni militias. How did the Alawites evolve, how are they different from other Shia groups, and what is their place in the Syrian conflict today?
Where do the Alawites come from?
Named after Ali, the Alawite sect was founded in present-day Syria in the 9th century. Its origins are somewhat mysterious. Alawites live mainly along the Mediterranean coast of Syria. While they accept the Prophet and the Qur’an, traditionally they do not accept sharia or Sunni law. They believe in reincarnation, allow alcohol, and women can go unveiled. Somewhat like Christianity, Alawites have their own sort of Trinity, the three parts comprising God, and those who appear periodically as humans.
The Ottomans, who ruled over the Alawites during the 18-19th centuries, tried to convert them to Sunni Islam. Under the French mandate in Syria after World War I, an exclusive area for Alawites was set aside as the Alawite State. Under that State, the French encouraged Alawites to join the military, in part to counter Sunni forces. The Alawite State was absorbed into Syria in 1936. After numerous attempted coups by different individuals in efforts to rule the new Syrian state. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad grabbed the reins of power of the Syrian state. His son, Bashar, continues the Assad regime into the present.
The Alawite Shia sect has been described as a secretive faith since its adherents do not openly reveal their sacred writings. This concealment of their faith was a result of their fear of persecution under the Sunnis, who indeed historically had suppressed the Alawites. Believing they were originally stars which were expelled from heaven, Alawites say they must be reincarnated several times before returning to heaven. They may be incarnated as Christians or as animals if they have sinned. It is purported that, like Christians, Alawite males practice a kind of mass, including the consecration of the wine.
Under Hafez al-Assad, the Alawi faith underwent a change, He wanted it to be seen as more like the majority Sunni and, thus, to legitimize his leadership of a majority Sunni nation in a mostly Sunni Arab world. Sunni-type mosques were therefore built in Alawite villages and the Alawites were asked to be more Sunni-like, as in making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Within Islam, the Alawite sect has been the object of considerable debate—is it part of Islam or not? One accusation was that this sect, with its Trinity, was too close to Christianity; its celebration of Christmas and the wine sacrament likewise linked it to practices of so-called infidels, and the deification of Ali was simply beyond the pale of Islam. These are reasons the Assads had initially pushed their fellow Alawites to publically practice a more Sunni form of Islam and to make the leaders themselves appear more Sunni-like. Besides, the Syrian constitution requires that the president of the country is a Muslim.
Alawite Rule of Modern Syria
The Assad regime has in the past gotten rid of its opposition. Example one is the Muslim Brotherhood, a staunch Sunni movement, which had been outlawed in Syria by Hafez al-Assad and hated by most of the Arab World. The Brotherhood had objected to Alawite rule of the country, calling Alawites infidels. A Brotherhood rebellion against Assad in the town of Hama in 1982 was put down by the Syrian army. Thousands of the Brotherhood were killed.
In the context of the “Arab Spring” of 2011, Syrian authorities experienced protests against their regime. Like his father, Bashar al-Assad was ruling under a state of emergency, in place since 1963. As a result, the U.S. government, under President Obama, imposed limited sanctions on Assad. Those did not have the desired effect and protesters continued to be put down. By mid-year 2012, Syria was declared by international observers to be in a state of civil war.
Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-backed government’s war against the Sunni-based, the so-called Islamic State, meant that the Syrian civil war had become, in effect, a Shia-Sunni war. He then reversed course from the earlier push towards Sunni Islam and began to use his Shia roots to attract fellow Shia from Iran and Hezbollah from Lebanon to help fight his war and secure his regime.
Even though the Alawites comprised a very small part of Syria, Bashar was able to convince these foreign powers that Syria was a Shia state serving as a bulwark against surrounding Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan. Thus, Assad adopted a pious Shia attitude in public so as to attract military and financial support from outside. He has succeeded since by now the civil war is seen as a sectarian conflict between Syrian Alawite, Iranian, and Hezbollah Shia fighters on one side and Sunni-backed Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda on the other. Of course, the Russians strongly support these Shia forces.
Sunni and Shia Differences Continue to Define Middle Eastern Conflict
Syria today is just one more example of how religious differences in the Middle East continue to be salient in defining major conflicts in that region. As the war has dragged on, the Alawites of Syria have generally stuck with Assad. If they didn’t, it seems the entire rationale of a Shia-Sunni conflict would lose its credibility. While some Alawites continue to believe they are not part of the more orthodox Shia sect, they depend on Bashar to defend them against the Sunni enemy. So, it is as if the Alawites, along with all of Syria’s citizens have become pawns in Assad’s efforts to retain his dictatorship. Thus, religion in the Middle East continues to be exploited as a pretext for conflict that really has nothing to do with theology but more to do with power.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.