Through some sort of maze of websites that I can’t recall right now, I recently arrived at a NY Review of Books article about modern Syria, the Alawites (faith to which the Assads belong) which represent only 13% of that country’s population and the recent turmoil and brutal murders by the regime of Bashar Assad. Bashar, of course, is the son of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron hand for decades before handing off the reigns to his son.

Apparently, there was a point at which the French, which had divided control of the Middle East with the British in the early part of the 20th Century, and who ended up with Syria on their part of the map, considered creating an Alawi state.

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.

It appears that the Alawis favored this outcome and sought to encourage it as time went on and France was intent on providing independence to Syria. To that end, a number of their luminaries, including Sulayman al-Assad, the father and grandfather of Hafez and Bashar, respectively, wrote a letter to Leon Blum in 1936. Blum, a Jewish Prime Minister of France, was the best address to influence French decision-making. The six authors of the Alawi letter provided information about why it would be prudent to keep the Alawis separated from the majority Sunnis in Syria. As one of their key points, they sought to show what happens when a minority, even one that contributes to a society, is faced with a hostile opposing majority. Here is what they wrote about the Jews of Mandatory Palestine (bold italics mine).

We can sense today how the Muslim citizens of Damascus force the Jews who live among them to sign a document pledging that they will not send provisions to their ill-fated brethren in Palestine. The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis-à-vis those who do not belong to Islam. These good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children, despite the presence of England in Palestine and France in Syria. Therefore a dark fate awaits the Jews and other minorities in case the Mandate is abolished and Muslim Syria is united with Muslim Palestine…the ultimate goal of the Muslim Arabs.

My, my, how times have changed…

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  • Alawites I know (in Germany) are among the most peaceful and progressive people you can imagine. This should also show the most two-dimensional mind that it’s not right to make assumptions about people based on what adherents to the same religion do. Oversimplification is the tool of demagoguery.

    • Well, they may be lovely people but Israel has had to fight them a number of times, both before they took Syria over and since. It’s not as if they’ve been friendly to Israel since taking power. Up until their internal turmoil recently, for example, you could say they were a critical center of assistance for Iran and its designs against Israel, including serving as a base for Hizbullah, Hamas and other groups that wish Israel ill.

      • According to the World Factbook, they make up 16% of the Syrian population as opposed to 74% Sunni Muslims.
        They predominantly live in the Syrian northwest (border region w/ Turkey).
        Alawites reject Sunna and Sharia and consider the premise of their philosophy based on science. They favour secular states and women’s rights.
        I’d say that’s not a bad ground to start from.
        Assad’s position on Israel can be explained through his biography rather than anything else.

          • I’ve read a lot about Alawites, partly because of my studies, partly because I’ve had Alawite students.
            The article you linked to misses a lot of key facts and presents banalities in the context of the area (“endogamous marriage”) as a reason for what seems to be a pre-set notion and generously assumes parallel historical contexts in Arab-influenced northern Africa and Turk-influenced nowaday-northern Syria / southern-Turkey. (That’s like comparing Roman Catholics from Boston with those of the Caribbean.) I’m not sure what the author’s point is in conflating one of the influences on Alawite Islam with contemporary Alawite Islam, but there is no clear link whatsoever between Alawite theology and Assad’s actions. [I’ve looked up the author’s bio, and I can only assume that he’s representing in his review what the author of the book is saying in her book. From a lecturer on Islam, I should have expected more critical commentary.] Just because a religion draws on different sources doesn’t make its adherents shady people. (Among those more than 1,400 religions known on earth, there is no pure religion other than possibly those of the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands.)
            As I said before, the reasons why Assad has acted the way he’s acted is more likely to be found in his biography than in his official religious adherence.

            To deduce contents of a theology of a religion from the behaviour of an alleged adherent to that religion is questionable. Jews have been on the receiving end of such a line of thought often enough, don’t you think?

          • I deduce nothing from nothing. This is a book review and I’m not equipped to judge it. I know that it reaffirms my general knowledge that the Alawites are a significant minority in Syria, that the Assad family’s control is probably one of the key factors in their quality of life being superior to that of other minorities in Arab countries and that should they lose control of Syria, the fallout will be much wider than merely the leadership.

            To me the critical part of the review and the book was the direct quote from Assad granpere.

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