Syria's Alawites, a secretive and persecuted sect

Thu Feb 2, 2012 6:10am EST

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(Reuters) - The revolt against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, inspired by uprisings which toppled three Arab leaders in 2011, has taken a sectarian slant as most of the protesters trying to topple the president are Sunnis.

Assad is from Syria's minority Alawite sect and critics say

the president has filled senior political and military posts with Alawites to impose his rule through sectarian loyalty.


-- Sunnis Muslims make up 74 percent of Syria's 22 million population, Alawites 12 percent, Christians 10 percent and Druze 3 percent. Ismailis, Yezidis and a few Jews make up the rest.

-- The clannishness, secrecy and tenacity of Syria's power elite around Assad have deepened Sunni Muslim suspicions about the enigmatic Alawite faith.

-- An oppressed minority for most of their history, Alawites suddenly cemented their control in Syria in 1970 when Assad's father Hafez staged a coup that sidelined the Sunnis. He built a ferocious security apparatus based on fellow Alawite officers.

-- Allying with Sunni merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the Alawite elite expanded their influence to the economy as well as the security apparatus and the military. The core of the feared pro-Assad Shabiha militia is Alawite.

-- This year's bloody struggle between Assad forces and pro-democracy protesters splits Syria along a minority-majority gulf made deeper by the fact many Sunnis call Alawites heretics.

-- Like most Arab countries, Syria has seen conservative Islam spreading in recent decades. This has sharpened Sunni differences with the Alawites, who claim to be mainline Shi'ites and sometimes copy Sunni practices to play down differences.

-- Sectarian killings have racked the central city of Homs, and Alawites have been targeted because they were the same sect as the president. Many Alawites live around or in Homs and Hama, another restive city, and the port of Latakia.

-- Not all Alawites support the Assad dynasty and only a few have profited from Assad's rule, with many living in poverty in Syria's central mountains. The sect extends north to the Turkish city of Antakya, near the ancient city of Antioch, in Turkey where there are up to 12 million Alawites.


-- The Alawite religion is often called "an offshoot of Shi'ism," Islam's largest minority sect, but that is something like referring to Christianity as "an offshoot of Judaism."

-- Alawites broke away from Shi'ism more than 1,000 years ago and retain some links to it, including the veneration of Ali, the cousin and son-in law of the Prophet Mohammad. Alawi literally means "those who adhere to the teachings of Ali."

-- But several beliefs differ sharply from traditional Islam. Named after Ali, Alawites believe he was divine, one of many manifestations of God in a line with Adam, Jesus, Mohammad, Socrates, Plato and some pre-Islamic sages from ancient Persia.

-- To orthodox Muslims, this eclectic synthesis of Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Zoroastrian thought violates Islam's key tenet that "there is no God but God."

-- Alawites interpret the Pillars of Islam (the five duties required of every Muslim) as symbols rather than duties. They celebrate a group of holidays, some Islamic, some Christian, and many Alawite practices are secret. They consider themselves to be moderate Shi'ites.


-- Oppressed during the Ottoman period, Alawites have played down their distinctive beliefs in recent decades to argue they were mainline Shi'ites like in Iran. This is partly to satisfy the constitutional rule that the president must be a Muslim.

-- The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood called Alawites infidels for decades. Leaders of the Sunni movement no longer say this openly, but nobody knows whether the rank and file is convinced.

-- Isolated in the mountains near Syria's Mediterranean coast, Alawites taught that the Koran was to be read allegorically and preferred to pray at home rather than in mosques.

-- They were also highly secretive, initiating only a minority of believers into their core dogma, including reincarnation and a divine Trinity, and into rituals including a rite of drinking consecrated wine similar to a Christian Mass.

-- French colonial administrators tried to classify Syrian Alawism as a separate religion despite resistance from Alawi leaders who were more interested in identifying with Islam.

-- Like the nearby Druze, Alawites adopted the ancient practice of taqiyya, or hiding their beliefs to avoid persecution. "Taqiyya makes a perfect qualification for membership in the mukhabarat, the ubiquitous intelligence/security apparatus that has dominated Syria's government for more than four decades," the British Islam expert Malise Ruthven wrote recently.

Sources: Reuters/Jamestown Foundation/Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions/

(Reporting by Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor, David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; editing by Peter Millership)

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Comments (1)
Syrian-Truth wrote:
Sir/ Madam: This is the most shameful article published so far regarding the Syrian condition. Under the title Syria’s Alawaites, A secretive and persecuted sect. I do not know much about secretive, but a persecuted sect as the authors of this article suggested is not a starter carrying with it a large bag of lies and deception. The first question is! How in a country such as Syria who according to the authors of this article “persecute” sects such as the Alawaites would allow members of this “persecuted” sect to join the army and become officers in that Syrian army? Hafez Al-Assad did, you know Bashar father. As well as many of his friends such as Salah Jedid and Mohammad Omran. One of the trios who overthrew the elected and the ligitamate government of Syria on March,8-1963. The second question is! How in a country such as Syria who “persecute” the Alawaites would allow free education from grade schools to College levels producing some of the best Doctors, Surgeons, Engineers, Technologists, economists, historians and businessmen and women at all level from that sect. Just go ahead and ask Dr. Arif Dalila, an Alawaite who spent several years in jail by Assad and company for his ” economic” opinions, and a famed economist and a former ditinguished President of Damascus University that is the question? Go ahead and ask him!!! The third question is how a “bigotted” country such as Syria who “persecute” Alawaites would allow for an emergence of an “Alawi” poet such Adonis. The most famed and respected poet and intellectual of modern time in Syria and the Arab world to emerge from his “perscuted” coccon. Some kind of persecution is it not. Oh, my the Syrians are also allowing Christian army officer to become heads of the army…terrible…terrible persecution. And oh, yes these terrible Syrians, who like to persecute minority sects, allowed themseleves to be guided by a Druze Warrior, another secretive and persecuted sect, by the name of Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash in their revolt against the French Occupation of the Syrian homeland between 1925-1927.
The point I am deriving at is the authors of this shameful article, Tom Heneghan, David Cutler and Peter Millership are either ignorant of Syria, its social constitution, its fabric and its history. Either that or they are in collusion with the Organized Crime Family of Assad and his company of thugs and killers. A Process to undermine Syria’s second war of independance.
Ed Jazairi

Feb 02, 2012 8:10pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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