Due to the civil war in Syria, we are currently hearing a lot about Alawites because Bashir Assad, the current dictator of Syria, is one. Alawites, we are told, are an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam and they support the current regime. That’s about all we get from most media reporting. It’s sad to say, but this simplistic reporting is contributing to a skewed impression of the politics driving the Syrian civil war and permitting warmongers to misrepresent the situation. Before we plunge yet again into another quagmire, it is worth knowing who these potential enemies are.
A few years ago, my wife and I were on a vacation in Turkey. Among the things we did was cruise from Antalya up the Turkish coast on a Gulet. One of the crew members befriended us and after several days confided that he was an Alawi. We didn’t know what that was and asked him to explain. He was very circumspect and his voice dropped to a whisper. “Promise me you won’t tell any of the other crew,” he said. He made it sound like he was a member of a persecuted sect, and after I returned home, I found out that he was.
Alawites sometimes and in some places are called Alawi, Alouite or Bektashi. There are as many as fifteen million of them in Turkey but no one knows for certain because, like the crew member, many try to keep their identities secret and they tend to blend with the majority population both in appearance and language. There are also significant populations of Alawis in Iraq, Iran and, of course, Syria.
This group has traditionally been the object of hate-crimes. For example, in 1978, over a hundred Alawites were massacred in Turkey during a seven-day rampage that included bombings and rapes committed by a mob of Sunni extremists. In the 1990s, an Alawi conference was torched and a tea house frequented by Alawis was machine-gunned.
According to John Shindeldecker, author of Turkish Alevis Today, (1996) “there are a wide variety of beliefs and practices held by those those who call themselves Alevis.” An expert on this group, Shindeldecker finds it difficult to easily pigeonhole them. What seems to be true though is they tend to be secular and progressive in their thinking and practices. They appear to be very nonsectarian when it comes to their view of God. Most, apparently don’t believe in a jealous or vengeful God who consigns people to hell for not believing in strict religious dogma. It would be very unlikely to find an Alawi who believed that martyrdom would bring the martyr to a paradise with seventy-two virgins. Thus they are not likely candidates for religion-based terrorism.
Culturally, Alawi men and women worship together. Alevis believe in monogamy. Women are not required to veil themselves. They can dress in western clothes, can obtain the education they want and are not restricted from any occupation.
It is easy to see why the Alawite population of Syria is terrified by the possibility that the Majority Sunni rebels will set up an Islamic state. Their beliefs and practices are offensive to the current crop of jihadi zealots and they stand to become the victims of severe repression if not a holocaust. So we ought to be clear, especially those beating the drums to arm the rebels. If America does enable the rebels and contribute to an Islamist victory we will have to take responsibility for something akin to a massive pogrom against people with whom we have a lot in common.