Showing all posts tagged: nusayrism
Few watching the news about Syria understand the back story, which isn’t about some nationalist strongman refusing to accept the will of democratically minded citizens. Bashar al-Assad is more than the dictator of Syria: he is the leader of the minority Alawis, a people distinct from other peoples in the region, with very different history and culture. Until quite recently, the Alawis were considered by most to not be Moslems, followers of Nusayrism:
Malise Ruthven, Storm Over Syria
Before the twentieth century they were usually referred to as Nusayris, after their eponymous founder Ibn Nusayr, who lived in Iraq during the ninth century. Taking refuge in the mountains above the port of Latakia, on the coastal strip between modern Lebanon and Turkey, they evolved a highly secretive syncretistic theology containing an amalgam of Neoplatonic, Gnostic, Christian, Muslim, and Zoroastrian elements. Their leading theologian, Abdullah al-Khasibi, who died in 957, proclaimed the divinity of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, whom other Shiites revere but do not worship. Like many Shiites influenced by ancient Gnostic teachings that predate Islam, they believe that the way to salvation and knowledge lies through a succession of divine emanations. Acknowledging a line of prophets or avatars beginning with Adam and culminating in Christ and Muhammad, they include several figures from classical antiquity in their list, such as Socrates, Plato, Galen, and some of the pre-Islamic Persian masters.
Nusayrism could be described as a folk religion that absorbed many of the spiritual and intellectual currents of late antiquity and early Islam, packaged into a body of teachings that placed its followers beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy. Mainstream Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, regarded them as ghulta, “exaggerators.” Like other sectarian groups they protected their tradition by a strategy known as taqiyya — the right to hide one’s true beliefs from outsiders in order to avoid persecution.
As Ruthven points out, taqiyya is a great blind for the secret police that has controlled Syria for the past four decades: the Mukhabarat.
And, of course, the great division of Islam is that between those that believe in the divinity of Ali, like Shiites, and those that don’t, like Sunnis. So even if Alawis were considered Moslems, they would be Shiites in a majority Sunni country.
The Alawis subverted the Baathist movement in the ’60s, and have controlled the state ever since, but not motivated by any ideological goal other than the survival of Alawis in an otherwise Sunni majority country.
But it might have been different. The French — who administered the region after WWI, could have carved out an Alawi State, independent of the rest of Syria. In fact, they did, but not for long.
Here’s the full back story:
Malise Ruthven, Storm Over Syria
The rise and possible fall of the Assad dynasty would provide a perfect illustration of the Khaldunian paradigm [the inevitable decline of a dynasty after a period of turbulence] under recent postcolonial conditions. Under Ottoman rule the Nusayris were impoverished outsiders struggling on the social margins. In addition to feuding among themselves, they were fierce rivals of the Ismailis, whom they expelled from their highland refuges and castles, forcing them to settle in the more arid lands east of Homs. The Ottoman governors regarded them as nonbelievers and tools of the Shiite Persians: they were not even accorded the dignity of a millet, or recognized religious community.
When the French took over Greater Syria after World War I (including modern Lebanon and parts of modern Turkey), they flirted briefly with the idea of creating a highland Alawi state of 300,000 people separate from the cities of the plains—Homs, Hama, Damascus, and Aleppo—with their dominant Sunni majorities. The French rightly believed that the Sunni majority would be most resistant to their rule. Like other minorities the Alawis, as they preferred to be called, saw the French as protectors.
The ‘asabiyya [social solidarity based on kinship ties, more or less synonymous with tribalism] of the Alawis was carefully exploited by the French, who polished the Khaldunian model by giving them military training as members of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant. In the turbulent years that followed full independence in 1946, their military know-how proved valuable. Bright members of the sect such as Hafez al-Assad, whose families could not afford to send them to university, joined the armed forces and were drawn to secular parties, such as the Baath (renaissance) party jointly founded by two intellectuals, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar, with an agenda explicitly aimed at overcoming sectarian divisions.
It would be wrong to suppose that the Alawis deliberately sought to subvert or take over the Baath or the armed forces. Their primary impulse was their own security. After independence the Syrian parliament abolished the separate representation for minorities instituted by the French, along with certain judicial rights. Nusayri sheikhs and notables encouraged young men to join the Baath because they believed its secular outlook would protect them from Sunni hegemony and persecution. Other minorities, including Christians, Druzes, and Ismailis, tended to join the Baath (or in some cases the Communist Party and Syrian Socialist National Party) for similar reasons. The eventual dominance achieved by the Alawis may be attributed to their highland military background and the default logic by which ‘asabiyya tends to assert itself in the absence of other, more durable structures.
And, here we are today, in what is clearly a civil war. The ruling minority, the Alawis, have deep mistrust of outsiders, and feel that anything is justified in retaining control of their own destiny, which has now become affiliated with their notion of Alawi-dominated Syria.
This is unsupportable to the international community, but rather than accepting widespread ethnic cleansing — on either side — outsiders may have to negotiate the creation of an Alawite State, and the return of the remaining area to a Sunni-dominated Lesser Syria. This may wind up like Serbian and Kosovo, but one from a parallel dimension, where the Kosovars had been ruling over a Greater Serbia before the civil war broke out. Nonetheless, we should step in to stop a civil war heading toward genocide.