BY ROBIN YASSIN-KASSAB | SEPTEMBER 29, 2011
From the start of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime’s media have portrayed the overwhelmingly peaceful grassroots protest movement as a foreign-backed military assault. Its preferred catchall term to describe the tens of thousands of patriots it has kidnapped and tortured, as well as the thousands it has murdered, is “armed gangs.” Despite a series of televised “confessions,” the regime has not provided any serious proof of the supposed American-French-Qaeda-Israeli-Saudi-Qatari plot against the homeland. Nor has it explained the evident contradictions between its narrative and the thousands of YouTube videos and eyewitness accounts of security forces shooting rifles and artillery straight into unarmed crowds.
Of course it hasn’t. Yet its propaganda is taken seriously by Russian and Chinese state media, certain infantile leftists, and a vaguely prominent American academic.
Those Sunni Syrians who are (understandably) enraged by the minorities’ siding with the dictatorship should remember first that many Alawis and Christians, as well as many more Druze and Ismailis, have joined the revolution and that many have paid the price. Second, Sunnis should remember that Alawis and Christians have good reason to fear change, if not to believe the propaganda.
Alawis have a complex, esoteric religion that throughout history has been savagely denounced, and its adherents savagely oppressed. Ultimately it’s a matter of political interpretation whether or not Alawis are to be considered Muslims. The Ottoman Empire didn’t even consider them “People of the Book,” which meant that unlike Christians, Jews, and mainstream Shiites, Alawis didn’t enjoy any legal rights. The ravings of the influential medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (who thought Alawis were “greater disbelievers than the Jews, Christians, and Indian idol-worshipping Brahmans”) contributed to their oppression and justified the theft of their lands around Aleppo and their forced retreat into the mountains. Until the 1920s, the Alawis were stuck in those mountains. Antakya (Antioch) was the only city where Alawis lived with Sunnis, and Antakya was gifted by France to Turkey before the independence of the modern Syrian state.
Most Alawis today are not particularly religious. Far from pushing Alawi tenets on the general populace, the Assads discouraged the study of the faith and repressed the traditional Alawi clerics. As a result, if individual Alawis do turn to religion, most tend to practice Sunni or mainstream Shiite rituals.
Of course, as far as the business of state is concerned, it should be entirely irrelevant whether or not Alawis are Muslims or even People of the Book. As Syrian citizens they should be guaranteed the same rights and the same access to political office as anyone else. It would help a great deal if revolutionary leaders and Sunni clerics were to state this as clearly and as often as possible. The blatant anti-Alawi sectarianism of Sheikh Adnan al-Arour (given prominence by Saudi Arabia) and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (given prominence by Al Jazeera), both supposed friends of the revolution, does not help at all. Speaking to “those [Alawis] who stood against us,” Arour recently promised, “I swear by God we will mince them in grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.”
The one thing the regime has done intelligently in the last six months is to play on minorities’ fears. I know that prominent Alawis have been receiving threatening phone calls from unknown numbers, ostensibly from “Sunnis” but almost certainly from the mukhabarat. (How would street-level Sunnis get hold of the phone numbers, and why would they want to make such threats when the committees coordinating the protests are stressing the importance of avoiding sectarianism?)