As Syria's war threatens to generate a regional catastrophe, governments are realizing the scale of the disaster facing minorities across the whole region.
Recently, the New York Times published a excellent and quite frightening piece by Jeffrey Gettleman on the growing danger to Turkey's "Alawites." As the story reported, this large community, some 15 to 20 million strong, shares the same religion as Syria's embattled ruling elite, and is increasingly subject to violence and persecution from the Sunni Muslims of this notionally secular republic.
Gettleman is exactly right to call attention to the imminent religious conflict, but he is just wrong in identifying the religious communities involved. The Turkish minority involved is Alevi, not Alawite, and that is not just a matter of pronunciation: the two sects are quite distinct in their theologies, their historic origins and their favored languages. He is far from rare in making such a mistake about these crucially important communities, who represent a complex religious intermingling that is astonishing for anyone who thinks of Islam as a simple or homogeneous faith.
To start, some essential background. After the death of Muhammad, the Islamic community was deeply divided over who should lead the growing empire. One sizable faction believed that power should lie in the hands of Muhammad's family, which meant the successors of his son in law, Ali. That faction went down to bloody defeat in 680, but Ali's partisans survive today as the Shia wing of Islam, perhaps a tenth of all Muslim believers. The victorious majority are the Sunni, the self-described orthodox.
Yet that division leaves out plenty of smaller groups, some of whom claim Ali's name and heritage, and who describe themselves as part of the Shia world. On closer examination, though, these sects fit oddly with anything outsiders regard as standard Islam. Rather, they resemble the older religions that would have existed in particular areas before Islam came on the scene -- Christian, Gnostic, and Zoroastrian -- suggesting that many believers who adopted Islam brought over their deeper-rooted beliefs and customs.
At least for their critics, the sects are Islamic only in name, and they have been persecuted repeatedly through their history. That tension with orthodoxy explains the geography of the sects today, as they survive chiefly in hilly or remote areas where armed resistance stood a better chance of success. Given the political environment, it is not surprising that the groups tended to be clannish and secretive. As enemies, they can be tough and resourceful. Wise governments have found it best not to cross them.
Although Syria's Alawites claim to belong squarely in to the Shia tradition, some of their beliefs are startling. They teach that the Qur'an must be read allegorically, in a spiritual, esoteric (batini) sense, so they scorn fundamentalists who take it literally. They thus belong to the group of sects that the strict orthodox dismiss nervously as batiniya, esoterics.
At least among initiated circles, Alawite thought includes concepts of incarnation, and of multiple reincarnation. They celebrate Christian holy days, including Christmas, and the ancient Zoroastrian feast of Nowruz. Shockingly for Muslims, they even use wine in their rituals -- sometimes bread and wine together. There is much debate over the name they are commonly given in older sources, which is Nusayris. Depending on which source you believe, that could refer to the name of a ninth century imam, but more likely, it means "Little Nazarenes," "Little Christians."
Politically, the Alawites were the core of the Ba'ath Party that has ruled Syria since the 1960s, and that political situation had forced the sect into uncomfortable compromises. In a failed attempt to lessen opposition, the Assad regime has tried to bring the Alawites ever closer to a respectable norm, namely Shia Islam. At least in its public face, the Alawite faith today looks more fully Islamic than ever before -- though who can tell what the group teaches in its inner circles?
The Alevis are a different matter again, and in order to understand the sect, we should recall how Islam came to Anatolia, the region we now know as Turkey. From the late Middle Ages, Muslim Turkish states steadily expanded their rule over what had for a thousand years been the solidly Christian heartland of the Byzantine Empire. When those explicitly Christian populations faded away, they were replaced by a new society that happily embraced Islam, but in a distinctly different form. The emerging communities reported their conversion by the mystic saint Haji Bektash and his successors in the Bektashi Sufi order, an open-minded tradition open to dialogue with all faiths.
Their followers organized as the Alevis, a sect that accepts virtually none of the standard practices of Islam. Alevis drink wine, their women go unveiled, and their feasts include Christmas, Nowruz and Old St George's Day. (Actually, the cult of St. George is one of the best indicators of older Christian survival, and Muslims continued to venerate his shrines across the Middle East into modern times). Assuredly, Alevis have no hesitation in defining themselves as Muslim, but is it far-fetched to see them as the lightly converted survivors of Byzantine Christian populations?
For a historian of religion, groups like the Alawites and Alevis matter so much because of what they tell us about the process of conversion, and the striking survival of older beliefs under new guises. Arguably, those sects represent the direct descendants of the most ancient churches of the apostolic world.
But both movements also have a real world significance, and in different ways, each is numerous and influential. Traditionally, they represented powerful bastions against religious extremism in the region, as they had everything to lose from any enforcement of strict Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. Both sects were powerfully invested in secularism, which in a Middle Eastern context usually meant supported ideologies of nationalism and progressive reform. This was all the more attractive in a country like Syria, where Alawites actually held power, and ruthlessly suppressed any moves to Islamist organization.
Turkey's Alevis loved that country's secularist regime. When Turks moved to Europe in their millions from the 1940s onwards, Alevis were very well represented, which explains why those migrants coexisted so happily with local socialist or Communist parties. Their women regarded the veil with about as much enthusiasm as American Christians might have done. Potentially, they were poster children for integration.
What has changed, of course, is the rise of various forms of Islamism across the Middle East, often through the encouragement of Western regimes. Through the Cold War years, Western states and intelligence agencies actively favored the growth of religious-oriented and clerical forces against the old secular and socialist parties, which seemed to be so evidently on the wrong side of the US-Soviet divide. More recently, the West has targeted Ba'athist regimes as the sponsors of terrorism.
The wisdom of those Western interventions in Iraq and elsewhere can be long debated, but the effects have been disastrous for any hopes of secularism in the region. It would be catastrophic if the Syrian crisis spilled over into Turkey and elsewhere, uprooting ancient communities who had successfully withstood the passing of so many other great empires.
They outlived the Caliphate and the Ottomans: can they survive the Americans?