Druze in Syria and Beyond

Nov 10, 2014 by

[The re-publication of this post, originally written in October 2013, was prompted by the film Arabani about the Druze community in northern Israel, which I’ve recently seen at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. The film is a story of Yoseph, a Druze who returns to his native village after being estranged from it because of his marriage to a Jewish Israeli woman. To be a real Druze, both parents must be Druze. Still, Yoseph’s mother accepts his two teenage children as part of the family. But the conservative community ostracizes, shuns, and ultimately threatens violence on Yoseph’s family. The story ends with Yoseph and his children leaving the village. The film initially appears about as exciting as watching paint dry, lacking in action, speed, and noise we are accustomed to in Western, particularly American, films. Yet gradually, one realizes that this is exactly how life transpires in a Druze village: silently, peacefully, uneventfully—at least on the surface. Yet beneath the quiet facade, emotions simmer—and now and again, they flare into open hostility. Through its slow and soft story-telling style, the film very effectively lets the viewers immerse into this closed, conservative society. Powerful, thumbs up!]

Levant_Ethnicity_lgAlthough the continued bloodshed in Syria has received much attention in the world media, one important ethno-religious group remains under the radar in the major press—the Druze. The number of Druze worldwide is estimated at about 1 million, with about 40-50 percent residing in Syria, 30-40 percent in Lebanon, and smaller communities in Israel and Jordan. Syria’s half-million strong Druze community may constitute only two and a half percent of the country’s population, but “the Druze always played a far more important role in Syrian politics than its comparatively small population would suggest”, as the Wikipedia puts it. As we shall see below, the Druze have long formed a politically capable and militarily potent Syria-Religion-Mapcongregation and play an important role in the current conflict in Syria.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Linguistically, the Druze blend with their Arab neighbors, as they speak the North Levantine (Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian) variety of Arabic (shown in light green on the map on the left). What makes them distinctive is their religion. The Druze faith is monotheistic, like most other creeds that originated in the region: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. In fact, the Druze call themselves Ahl al-Tawhid “the People of Monotheism” or al-Muwahhidūn “the Unitarians”. Some sources call the Druze faith an offshoot of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam; others do not take it to be a Muslim sect at all, as the Druze religious beliefs differ from mainstream Islam on a number of fundamental points. For example, the Druze generally regard Jethro (the father-in-law of Moses) rather than Mohammed as their main prophet. Druze dogma also incorporates elements from other Abrahamic religions as well as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, and other belief systems. To further complicate matters, the Druze follow the custom of Taqiyya—concealing or disguising their beliefs when necessary—that they adopted from Shia Islam, keeping many of their teachings secretive, even from the bulk of their own population.

The Syrian Druze live mostly in the Jebel al-Druze, a rugged and mountainous region in the southwest of the country, which is more than 90 percent Druze inhabited; over 100 villages in the area are exclusively Druze. The largest Druze settlement is city of as-Suwayda, the capital of Muhafazat as-Suwayda, one of Syria’s fourteen governorates. Although mostly Druze-inhabited, As‑Suwayda is also home to a prominent Greek Orthodox minority. By all accounts, the relationship between the two religious communities are peaceful.

The ethno-religious complexity of Syria has challenged the country’s government since before Syria gained independence. In particular, the Druze, under the military leadership of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, played a leading role in the country’s struggle against the French. With the coming of independence in 1946, the Druze expected to be rewarded for their sacrifices on the battlefield by keeping their autonomous administration and many of the political privileges accorded them by the French; they also sought generous economic assistance from the newly independent government. The aspirations of the Druze were supported by their military power: prior to the 1948 War, Syrian government believed that the Druze could “take Damascus and capture the present leaders in a breeze” (Landis 1998). The hopes of the Druze were dashed, however, especially after military strongman Adib Shishakli, who styed himself an “Arab Caesar”, came to power in December 1949. Throughout the early 1950s, Shishakli’s regime carried out “Syrianization” campaigns seeking to aggressively meld the population into a single ethnicity/nationality. Among his many opponents in Syria, Shishakli believed that the Druze were the most dangerous minority, and he was determined to crush them. He frequently proclaimed: “My enemies are like a serpent: the head is the Jebel al-Druze, the stomach Homs, and the tail Aleppo. If I crush the head the serpent will die.” Shishakli dispatched 10,000 regular troops to occupy the Jebel al-Druze. Several towns were bombarded with heavy artillery, killing scores of civilians and destroying many houses. The brutal military campaign was buttressed by political attacks, as Shishakli accused the entire Druze community of treason. A cache of Israeli weapons allegedly discovered in the Jabal was presented as evidence that the Druze were fighting for Israel against the Arabs and the Syrian regime.

Partly as a result of such assaults, the Druze—as well as other non-Sunni Arabic-speaking groups—gravitated towards the Baath Party, whose brand of Arab Nationalism encompassed most minority groups, with the notable exception of the non-Arab Kurds and Kurdish-speaking Yezidis. In return for their loyalty, the Baathist regime, dominated by members of the Alawite minority, has generally treated the Druze well. The Sunni majority, in contrast, has been the main victim of the regime’s harsh repressions, which the Assads have claimed to be necessary to maintain peaceful co-existence. In a March 30, 2011 speech, Syrian President Bashar al‑Assad blamed outside agitators, particularly Israelis, for the current unrest, insinuating that the fall of his government would unleash a sectarian bloodbath, much like the violence in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

In the current conflict, the Druze community in Syria have largely taken the side of President al‑Assad, whom they view as the protector of minority rights. As a result, the al-Qaida-associated Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s most prominent jihadist organization, has not been able to establish much of a foothold in the Druze region of as-Suwayda in southern Syria. For similar reasons, Al-Nusra and rebel groups have little influence on the Mediterranean coast, where the majority of the Alawites reside. Many Druze also regard President al-Assad as their economic lifeline, especially those of the Golan Heights. After Israel formally annexed this territory in 1981, it gave local residence permanent residency status and an option of applying for Israeli citizenship. The Druze in the Golan Heights get social welfare benefits from Israel and can sell their agricultural produce throughout the country. Their ties with the Druze communities elsewhere in Israel are strong. Yet most Golan Heights Druze say their hearts remain tied to Syria and they hope that the territory will one day be restored to Syrian sovereignty. Despite the raging civil war and mounting tensions along the Syria-Israel border, the al-Assad government still managed to import 18,000 tons of surplus apples from the Druze orchards in the Golan Heights in the spring of 2013. The trade, coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, benefits both parties, with the farmers receiving a new market for their apples and President al-Assad maintaining the loyalty of a community that sits on an important geopolitical fault line.

While the al-Assad regime has successfully positioned itself as the friend of the Druze in Syria, in neighboring Lebanon most Druze are aligned with the Sunnis and some Christian factions in an anti-Assad coalition, while the Shia parties Hezbollah and Amal, and other Christian factions, support al-Assad. Some Lebanese Druze leaders have emerged as some of the harshest critics of the Syrian government. Most vocal among them is Walid Jumblatt, the current head of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party and the most prominent leader of Lebanon’s Druze community. In a recent speech, Jumblatt said that “Syria’s heritage along with its economy and social fabric have been destroyed”, laying blame with al-Assad, who “had turned Syria from a state that had strong regional and international weight to a battlefield where regional and foreign powers vie for influence”. He further claimed that “the Syrian people today [are] falling between the hammer of the regime and the anvil of the terrorist groups that came from all corners of the world, a result of conspiracy and betrayal by some Arab countries and the international community”.

Sectarian tensions play out not only on the national and international stages but in individual lives as well, particularly those of interfaith couples. Since marriage in Syria is in the hands of religious courts, various legal limitations are placed on such couples; estrangement, banishment, and even the possibility of murder must be faced as well. Depending on which religious group the bride and the groom belong to, conversion may be required prior to the wedding; in other cases, a woman may retain her religious affiliation but be denied all inheritance rights. The Druze have their own religious courts, which require both the bride and groom to be Druze, as one cannot convert to the Druze faith. The only way for such an interfaith couple to marry is for the Druze partner to relinquish his or her faith. While some activists call for removing legal obstacles to a civil marriage law in Syria, the possibility remains remote. Several awareness campaigns have been launched to promote civil marriage on Facebook, with such emerging groups as “Stop saying ‘society’, sign on to civil marriage” and “Civil marriage in Syria” having thousands of members. On the legal level, however, the situation is complicated as civil marriage would implicitly require the adoption of a secular legal framework, which currently does not exist in Syria despite the ruling party’s claim to the contrary. The current Syrian law has only the outer shell of secularism, but in reality gives preferential treatment to Islam. For example, it requires Christian men to relinquish their faith and embrace Islam if they want to marry a Muslim woman; according to Article 48 of the personal status code, the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man is void.

 

Sources:

Landis, Joshua (1998) “Shishakli and the Druzes: Integration and intransigence”. In: T. Philipp and B. Schäbler (eds.) The Syrian Land: Processes of Integration and Fragmentation. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag. Pp. 369–96.

 


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