In Syria these days, we are resorting to our racist little maps. The Alawite mountains and the town of Qardaha, home of the Assad family – colour it dark red. Will this be the last redoubt of the 12 per cent Alawite minority, to which the President belongs, when the rebels “liberate” Damascus? We always like these divisive charts in the Middle East. Remember how Iraq was always Shias at the bottom, Sunnis in the middle, Kurds at the top? We used to do this with Lebanon: Shias at the bottom (as usual), Shias in the east, Sunnis in Sidon and Tripoli, Christians east and north of Beirut. Never once has a Western newspaper shown a map of Bradford with Muslim and non-Muslim areas marked off, or a map of Washington divided into black and white people. No, that would suggest that our Western civilisation could be divvied up between tribes or races. Only the Arab world merits our ethnic distinctions.
The problem, of course, is that Syria – as secular and assimilated as any Arab nation before its current tragedy – doesn’t lend itself to this neat distribution of religious minorities. Aleppo was always a home to Christians, Sunnis and Alawites. The Alawites were “citified” many years ago – hence their presence in Damascus – and many of them came not from the mountains but from Alexandretta, which is now in the Turkish province of Hatay. Yet even if we know where they live, there has been precious little research into this community – save, perhaps, in France.
For now Sabrina Mervin, the French author and researcher, has put together a remarkable document in which she traces the history of a people who used to call themselves “Nusayris” – after the founder of their faith, Muhammad Ibn Nusayr – and whose religion was founded “in the bosom of Shiism” in the 9th and 10th centuries. Mervin’s work, published now in that splendid French institution Le Monde Diplomatique, should be essential reading for every Syria “ expert”, for it suggests that the Alawites are victims of a long history of religious dissidents, persecution and repression.
As long ago as 1903, the Belgian-born Jesuit and Orientalist, Henri Lammens, was identifying the Alawites as former Christians – until he met a Sheikh who insisted he belonged to Shia Islam. Lammens, a typical imperialist, suggested that the Alawites – who appeared to believe in the transmigration of souls and a trinity (the Prophet Muhammad, his cousin and son-in-law Ali, and Salman, a companion) – might become Christians “which would allow France to interfere in your favour”. Indeed, France did indeed show favour to the Alawites in later years.