(Reuters) - WHO ARE THE ALAWITES?
— The roots of Alawism go back to the 9th and 10th centuries in the teachings of Mohammad ibn Nusayr and his follower Hussein ibn Hamdan al-Khasabi.
— Throughout their history, the Alawites have been the victims of persecution. They were gradually conquered by waves of Crusaders, Mamluks, and Ottomans, in addition to fighting a number of internecine wars.
— Well established in Syria since the 12th century, living in the Nusayri mountains in the north-west, they were also known as Nusayris after their founder.
— The Alawite sect became politically dominant in Syria, from 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, took power. Alawites remained dominant in Syria when Hafez’s son, Bashar, took power after his father’s death in 2000, although they only make up only about 12 per cent of the population.
— Alawite means “follower of Ali,” the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. Syria’s three-quarters majority Sunni population consider the Alawites, who are also Arabic speakers, to be heretical in their deviation from the traditional approach to Islam.
— Alawites consider Ali to be divine. They interpret the Pillars of Islam (the five duties required of every Muslim) as symbols rather than duties. They celebrate an eclectic group of holidays, some Islamic, some Christian, and many Alawite practices are secret. They consider themselves to be mainline Shi’ites like those in nearby Iran.
— Allying with a Sunni merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the Alawite ruling elite expanded its influence on the key levers of state, the economy, the military and the security apparatus so that it now has almost total control and has been able to launch a bloody crackdown on a popular protest movement demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.
— The United Nations has said that more than 5,000 people have been killed since pro-democracy protests started in March. Sectarian killings have recently 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.
— Not all Alawites support the Assad dynasty and only a few have profited from Assad’s rule, with many still in poverty, living off the land in mountains near the coast.
— The sect, in Syria, is predominant in the coastal town of Latakia. It also extends north into Turkey, where some Arabic-speaking Alawites live. The Turkish-speaking Alevi sect in Turkey is also an esoteric offshoot of Shi’ism with a similar name, but different roots and traditions.
Sources: Reuters/Jamestown Foundation/Dictionary of Beiliefs and Religions/www.minorityrights.org/www.britannica.com/www.religiou freedom.com/www.muslimhope.com/www.state.gov (Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; Editing by Oliver Holmes)