Michael Totten

Who Are the Alawites?

Few people know that Syria’s government is dominated by the Alawite religious minority, and since Alawism is a secretive religion, even fewer know much about them. Theo Padnos wrote a long and fascinating piece about them for The New Republic that everyone interested in the Middle East ought to read, especially those who think Alawites are Muslims. They most emphatically aren’t.

ANYONE HOPING TO UNCOVER the dark strain within Alawism by exploring the doctrines themselves will be disappointed. Maybe a better way to say this is, if you’re looking for a pleasant religion that harmonizes with the natural elements, this is the faith for you.

Alawis believe all humans were once stars, that by a seven-step process of metempsychosis, a pious soul can regain his place in the Milky Way and that impious souls come back as animals. Alawis celebrate the Zoroastrian holiday Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring, and sometimes celebrate Christmas. It’s not very Islamic to drink wine. It’s very un-Islamic to read esoteric meanings into the Koran. Alawis use wine in their rituals and believe that the manifest meaning of the Koran (and the Sharia) is a veil that covers truer, deeper meanings. Traditionally, Alawis have not built mosques but have rather prayed in the family home, or out of doors. They are said to worship the sun and the moon because these are aspects of the divine; the air, because god has dispersed himself into the ether; the stars, because one’s ancestors abide there; and the fourth Caliph, Ali, because he is the patron of their sect.

The religion emerged in the tenth century in a pocket of coastal mountains in northeastern Syria. These hills remain their homeland. When I first arrived in Syria, I was under the impression that if you walked up the right dirt roads in this alpine corner of the country, you would eventually come across villages in which the old faith flourished. I was under the impression that if you came on weekends you would spot the luxury sedans of regime apparatchiks who had driven up from Damascus. They would have come home to be among their own, to walk through the orchards for which the region is famous, and to renew their acquaintance with the stars. Whatever darkness there is within Alawism, I assumed, would make itself known to whoever studied Alawism here, among the cherry trees and the apparatchiks.

YOU CANNOT DO THIS, it turns out. In the first place, Alawism is essentially a secret. It doesn’t proselytize as Sunni Islam does but rather selects its initiates from the male children of Alawite families, and only from those deemed worthy of instruction. In the second place, Alawism doesn’t exist anymore.

Perhaps some ethnologist will yet discover traces of it in a valley somewhere, but, these days, Alawis in Syria describe their beliefs in the same terms Sunni Muslims use. They believe in a single god, that one should pray to Mecca (never to the sun), and that Christmas is for Christians. One’s ancestors, for their part, are in their graves, awaiting the day of judgment, which is where Sunni Islam believes them to be. It’s true that you hear rumors of still-extant Alawi rites now and then, but it’s hard to find anyone who takes these ceremonies seriously. “The ‘initiation ritual’ of male Alawis into the religion consists of kissing a few hands and memorizing a seriously ridiculous script in a small memo book,” wrote a blogger calling himself “Khudr” recently on the website Syria Comment:

Frequently, one is given the script without his “teacher” or initiator ever bothering to see afterwards whether you memorized it or not. Most of the time your “initiator” knows that your opinion of the whole process and the script is as high as your opinion of “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.

It might seem unfair to accuse the most famous Alawi of them all, Hafez Al Assad, of killing Alawism but he is almost certainly the guilty party. More than any other bit of evidence, his motive damns him. When he assumed control of the country in 1971, he came with visions of a Baathist utopia shining in his eyes. He needed three and a half million ultra-loyal, ultra-motivated helpers to persuade the Sunnis (74 percent) and the Christians (10 percent) to love the Baathists. The variety of ultra-loyalism Hafez Al Assad valued precluded loyalty to a religious sect. The solution: Cancel Alawism. If the Alawis wanted a religious identity, Hafez Al Assad declared, they could very well be Sunnis.

In 2005, a Syrian dissident, “Karfan,” at the website Syria Exposed, described Assad’s program of “Sunnifaction.” “The extreme policy,” he wrote, “took the shape of so many aspects that everybody here [in Syria] knows very well”:

Introducing only pure Sunni Islam education to all schools; Banning any public manifestation or even mentioning of any Alawie religious activities; Banning and oppressing any Alawie religious organizations or any formation of a unified religious council or a higher religious authority; … Building Sunni-style mosques in every little Alawite village and encouraging people to perform the pilgrimage.

WHEN I’M IN SYRIA, I often wonder if it’s possible to cancel a religion. In the day time, when police officers might be watching, I ask polite questions of strangers, and I suppose that it must be. At night, I ask other questions—or sometimes I just sit in a dark cafe and listen to rumors—and then I know no one has cancelled Alawism, nor is the idea plausible. The faith lives on. It has mutated under the Assads, and isn’t seen in the open—but then it has always been a secret religion.

Last summer, I had a conversation with a neighbor in Damascus who told me the following story: In 1994, Basil Al Assad, Hafez’s eldest son, was an internationally renowned horseman, a natural leader among his fellows in the army, and the favored child (among five) in the Assad family. No one doubted he would someday rule the country. When he drove his Mercedes into a bridge abutment in January of that year, the Alawis of Syria were shocked into a kind of delirium. For three days the country stopped working, and only recordings of the Koran played on state TV. Schools and hospitals lost their old names and became Basil the Martyr Primary School, Basil the Martyr Eye and Ear Clinic, and so forth. Not long after Basil’s death, a group of young Alawis invaded a cemetery on Baghdad Street, near my neighbor’s house in Damascus. They made for the section reserved for the pilots and soldiers who’d been killed in the wars with Israel—the martyrs plot—and proceeded to smash up the headstones. They destroyed the grave markers of the Sunni and Alawi martyrs alike. My neighbor explained: The Alawi faithful couldn’t abide the thought that Basil would have to share the level of heaven on which martyrs dwell with other, lesser beings.

Recently, reports of incidents similarly tinged with religious feeling have been filtering into Damascus—for instance: Sunni detainees, shot by the Shabeeha, pro-Bashar vigilantes, for refusing to render the Islamic testament of faith as, “there is no god but Bashar,” or for refusing to prostrate themselves over portraits of the president. In Homs, according to some reports, the Alawis have erected a death zone around a minor statue of Hafez Al Assad, and have been shooting those they suspect of approaching this totem with ill intentions.

This is exceptional behavior, of course. In normal times, the Assad worshipers have simply built up their cult in silence, without making a show of their activities. As “Khudr” also observed in his Syria Comment piece, this was important spiritual work for them. Hafez Al Assad’s urging them to behave like Sunnis had the effect of setting them adrift in Syria. Now this obscure sect, formerly confined to the mountains near Latakia, was in need of a home. It turned out that employment in a totalitarian regime accommodated them nicely.

Be sure to read the whole thing.