The Alawite factor within the Shiite turn in Syria

Amjad Salem

Oct 7, 2013
The Shiite Turn in Syria is in-depth study by the researcher Khalid Sindawi, Zaman Alwasl republishes this important paper which appeared before in Volume 8 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, published by Hudson Institute, according to the mounting role of political Shia in Syria we publish the second part about The Alawite Factor in Syria where the first part was overwhelming introduction to the Shiism hidden world in Syria.

What explains the relatively favorable treatment of Shiites in Syria? Their positive status existed even before the advent of the Bashar al-Asad government, which has taken a more openly favorable stance towards Iran and Shiism. Since 1963, Syria has been ruled by a regime that belongs to the Alawite sect, which has affinities with Shiism. The ruling Baath Party has always realized its precarious position, and its predominant Alawite membership tries to maintain a balance between having their claim of belonging to Twelver Shiism recognized, while not losing their ethnic and cultural identity as well as their secret religious doctrines.The party has therefore pursued policies aimed at legitimizing the Alawite creed, which has played a significant role in formulating Syrian policy toward Shiites.

One outcome of Alawite political dominance has been the importance that Syria attaches to its relations with the Shiites of Lebanon and Iran. These relations have from time to time been strengthened thanks to close personal ties with Lebanon’s Shiite leaders. This was especially true of Musa al-Sadr at the beginning of the 1970s. Syria also gave special concessions to leaders of the Iranian opposition.

Under Syria’s one-party political system, the law forbids the establishment of political parties whose ideology is at variance with that of the ruling party. Syria’s autocratic regime has insisted on keeping religion out of politics as the Muslim Brotherhood found out to its great consternation on February 2, 1982, when they rebelled against the Syrian government. The Syrian government arrested 20,000 political prisoners among the Muslim Brotherhood and killed 10,000 people; 600,000 were blacklisted.This helps to explain why the Shiites have not developed any political organizations of their own, but have kept their distance from politics and restricted themselves to religious matters.Shiite religious rights are maintained, and despite the regime’s secular ideology, it takes care to ensure the loyalty of the country’s various religious establishments, perhaps to compensate for its general lack of popular support.

Survey Results

A pioneering study funded by the European Union and conducted by field workers in the first six months of 2006 provides useful data on the Syrian religious landscape.It indicates that the provinces with an Alawi majority had a higher percentage of converts to Shiism than other provinces. According to this study, the numerical distribution of conversions to Shiism among Alawites in the various provinces is as follows: Tartus 44%, Latakiya 26%, Hims 14%, Hama and Damascus 16%. Among Sunnis the percentages are as follows: Aleppo 46%, Damascus 23%, Hims 22%, Hama 5% and Idlib 4%. The number of converts in the provinces of Deir al-Zor, al-Raqqa and al-Qunaytara is too small to be significant. Among Ismailis the percentages of conversions in the various provinces are as follows: Hama 51%, Tartus 43%, Aleppo 3%, Damascus 2%, Idlib 1%.

The rate of conversion of Sunnis to Shiism is very low, 2% overall. Perhaps not surprisingly, some 7% of the Sunni Muslims who converted in the Damascus area belong to families that had originally been Shiite but became Sunnis in the course of time, such as the al-Attar, Qassab, Hasan, al-Lahham, Bikhtiyar and Ikhtiyar families. In Aleppo, 88% of converts to Shiism are said to come from such originally Shiite families.

According to the EU study, the known cases of Sunni conversion to Shiism cannot be ascribed to standard social or economic causes in any of the denominations. In Damascus, for instance, 64.4% of converts to Shiism belong to families of middle- to high-income merchants and professionals. The great majority (69%) have at least a high school education. In Aleppo, too, it was found that 61% of the converts came from the middle or upper classes. Among the poor, 39% of the converts belong to former Shiite families (they thus “renewed” their Shiite affiliation); their conversion thus probably had religious grounds. Among Sunnis the proportion of converts for financial reasons (in all the provinces included in the study) was a mere 3%.

According to the study, conversions rarely took place for mercenary reasons, apart from a few Sunni converts, especially university students, said they were not religious at all, but decided to convert “in order to obtain enough money to finish their studies or to marry, despite the fact that neither the Sunni nor the Shiite creed meant anything to them.” Another finding among Sunni converts, especially those who converted after the war in Lebanon in 2006, was that they claimed to have done so “out of love for Hezbollah and Hasan Nasrallah.”

As for Alawite converts in all the Syrian provinces, the study found that,unlike Sunni converts, the great majority (about 76%) were students or unemployed. Some military people have converted as well; this information came from an Alawite cleric in Tartus, since official information about military personnel is not easy to come by. Ismaili converts, like Sunni converts, overwhelmingly (84%) come from middle- to upper-class families.

The European Union’s study arrived at the following conclusions concerning conversion to Shiism in Syria, the last of which in particular might be worrisome news for the Alawite-dominated regime:

1. Most cases of conversion, in the past as well as in the present, occur among families that have traditional Shiite leanings (Ismailis, Alawites), not among the Sunni population.

2. The low rate of conversion among Sunnis suggests that in fact no missionary activity has been taking place among them, especially in light of the fact that some Sunni converts belong to formerly Shiite families that had adopted the Sunni creed at one time or another.

3. The percentage of conversion for economic or financial gain is so low that “conversion for mercenary reasons” can be ruled out as a trend. (Apparently the result of this study does not reflect all those who converted to Shiism. Other studies indicate that a large percentage of the new Shiites in Syria converted for reasons of financial gain.)

4. If the current rate of conversions among Ismailis and Alawites continues unabated, the former sect will die out within ten years and the latter within a quarter of a century.

As we shall see, substantial anecdotal evidence from various provinces of Syria calls into question the second and third conclusions above, regarding the lack of missionary activity and mercenary conversions.

Syria has never had a large Shiite population, but in recent years there has been an increase in conversions to Shiism within Syria’s Sunni, Ismaili, and Alawite populations. The geographical proximity of Iran to Syria has always led to a certain degree of Iranian influence there, which increased with Bashar al-Asad’s succession to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafiz. The Syrian government’s encouragement of Iranian missionary activity may be the chief cause of the increase in conversions, but it is not the only one. The existence of an indigenous Shiite population and of historic Shiite shrines in various parts of Syria, the nature of Shiite worship, the media’s power, the perceived victory of Hizbullah in the Lebanon war of 2006, the strategic wooing of influential Syrians, economic and educational inducements to the less affluent, and the dominance of the Alawite sect in politics are other factors that must be considered.

Accurate statistics about the various religious groups in Syria are not easy to come by because of the Alawite regime’s sensitivity in matters of this kind. TheInternational Religious Freedom Report for 2006, published by the U.S. State Department, notes that Alawites, Ismailis, and other Shiites constitute thirteen percent of Syria’s population, or about 2.2 million people out of a total population of 18 million.

Another report, Religious Communities, Creeds and Ethnic Groups, published in 2005 by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies in Cairo, states that Shiites constitute one percent of Syria’s population, while the percentage of Alawites is between eight and nine. Shiite internet websites claim that Syria’s Shiites comprise two percent of that country’s population.

In general there is no social discrimination against Shiites in Syria. They are socially integrated and intermarry with other Muslim groups. The small number of Shiites in Syria may explain in part why they have not developed the kind of sectarian particularism seen in other countries in the region. Shiites live in most of Syria’s provinces, although the highest proportion lives in Tartus, a province that accounts for 44 percent of the country’s Shiite population. Some Shiites have attained high positions in Syria, among them Mahdi Dakhl Allah, a former Minister of Information, and Saib Nahhas, a prominent businessman. The best-known Shiite families in the country include the Nizam, Murtada, Baydun and al-Rumani families.

Source: Hudson Institute via Zaman AlWsl Website
had some trouble following that. any chance you could provide a summary?
I understand it's a complicated issue to understand, but mainly, you can understand politics in the middle east if you know about religion and sects, mainly there's a conflict between Sunni and Shiite, for example Hezbollah is Shiite, and Nusra-front or ISIS are Salfi-Sunni ... both are extremists.