Los Angeles, USA - If you've been reading about the uprising in Syria, you may have heard that Syrian President Bashar Assad is an Alawite. What does that mean -- and why does it matter in Syrian politics?
What do the Alawites believe?
The major divide in Islam is between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, who initially split over who was supposed to succeed the prophet Muhammad. Alawites identify as Shiite Muslims, but the sect carried over older beliefs that predate Islam. For instance, Alawites celebrate some Christian and Zoroastrian holidays.
There are a few other things that distinguish Alawites. Although most Muslims have five pillars of faith, the Alawites have seven. They believe in the divinity of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad; other Shiites revere Ali but do not believe he was divine.
Middle East scholar Malise Ruthven writes that Alawites include Socrates and Plato in their line of prophets, and they also believe in “transmigration,” in which the souls of the wicked pass into dogs and pigs but righteous souls go on to more perfect human bodies. Many of their beliefs are not known to the outside world. Alawites tend to be secretive about their faith because they have been oppressed.
Like Jews, Alawites also are seen sometimes as more of a cultural group than a strictly religious one. "Many Alawites nowadays consider themselves outright atheists but are still within the cultural sphere of Alawis and are accepted into the sect and treated like any other (myself, included)," wrote Yazan Badran, a Syrian blogger in Japan who comes from an Alawite family.
Muslims have sometimes questioned whether Alawites can really be considered Muslims. A fatwa in 1973 declared that they were Shiite Muslims, but orthodox Muslims still call them heretics sometimes.
How do the Alawites fit into Syria?
In Syria, most of the population is Sunni. Alawites are a minority, believed to make up 12% to 15% of the population. The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for more than 40 years, is Alawite. The religious group also dominates the Syrian security forces.
If the Alawites are such a small sect, how did they come to dominate the Syrian military?
It might seem logical that the Assads put them there, but it was actually the other way around. After World War I, French colonial officials tried to make Syria more inclusive by encouraging minorities to fill government positions. The Alawites ended up finding their place in the military.
“The only meeting ground or assembly point for Alawis, where we didn’t have to pretend that we were something we weren’t, was deep in the inner sanctums of the security state,” an Alawite using the pseudonym Khudr wrote on the blog Syria Comment.
As Alawites were recruited to the military, wealthier Sunni urbanites often shunned the military as a career path for their children. "Nobody else would go," said Camille Otrakji, a Syrian analyst now living in Canada. "The rich in Damascus weren't interested."
That led to the military becoming heavily Alawite. Ultimately, the Syrian military was the springboard from which Alawite air force officer Hafez Assad staged his 1970 coup, beginning the Assad regime.
Why does it matter that the Assads are Alawites?
Alawites have been persecuted throughout their history, perhaps because their religious identity is confusing to the authorities. The Assad regime has played on Alawite fears to help it stay in power.
When Syrians began to protest against Assad, Alawites were fearful that “the fall of the regime would bring disaster for their community,” wrote Leon Goldsmith, a Middle East researcher in New Zealand. Some Alawites fear that other Syrians might want to take revenge against them for the 1982 massacre in Hama, where human rights activists say thousands of Sunnis were slain -- and a big statue of Hafez Assad was erected as an unsubtle message.
"The recurrent suggestion [from the Assad regime] is that the choice is between this regime or chaos and civil war; something which to an Alawi only means a violent Sunni revenge for the past 40 years of (perceived) Alawi control of the state," Badran said in an email.
But Assad is not guaranteed Alawite support. Some do not see Assad as truly Alawite, considering he married a Sunni woman and grew up in Damascus, not the rural areas other Alawites come from. The Assad family has also repressed dissent from Alawites just as it has other Syrians.