Throughout the Syrian uprising of the last two months, the dominant media narrative has followed the now-familiar arc of a freedom-seeking populace mustering the courage to finally confront an autocratic, anti-democratic regime responsible for decades of repression. Little mentioned is another element of the unrest, one readily apparent to most veteran Syria watchers: faith.

President Bashar Assad is an Alawite, a minority sect often described, in the convenient shorthand on which journalists rely, as an “offshoot of Shi’a Islam.” The Alawites’ creed, however, is so far removed from any mainstream Islamic orthodoxy that most Muslims worldwide – Sunni and Shi’ite alike – are apt to describe them either as heretics or as wholly outside the Islamic faith community, or ummah.

The term Alawite derives from Ali, the martyred son-in-law of Muhammad venerated by Shi’ite Muslims as the first Imam, or successor to the prophet. In much of the Islamic world, however, Alawites are known pejoratively as Nusairis, after Muhammad ibn Nusair, the ninth-century religious renegade who seems to have been their spiritual forebear.

For 1,000 years, the Alawites were the most despised and suppressed of Syria’s faith communities – an isolated, rural people practicing a secret, syncretic religion rumored to incorporate Christian, Shi’a and pre-Islamic rites. In 1963 Syria’s Alawite-led Ba’ath Party seized power, an event so religiously and politically implausible that half a century later, mainstream Arabs and Muslims still struggle to comprehend it.

“An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia,” the historian Daniel Pipes wrote in his book Greater Syria, “an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.”

LIKE THE Druse, another heterodox sect with distant Islamic roots, the Alawites adhere to an esoteric creed known only to a small group of shaykhs, or religious authorities.

In the late 19th century, however, an Alawite convert to Christianity published a book revealing a deeply syncretic creed that in every era adopted elements of the region’s dominant faith – Byzantine Eastern Orthodoxy, Sunni and later Shi’a Islam, Crusader Catholicism – while maintaining its own suspicious insularity.

Ali is no doubt central to the community’s dogma, so much so that mainstream Shi’ites deride Alawites as ghulat – “those who exceed” all bounds in their deification of the imam. But the Alawites’ resemblance to the Shi’ites constitutes the least of their heresies to Syria’s majority Sunnis.

Far worse is their doctrinal affinity with Christianity, and with pre-Islamic pagan rites like the Persian New Year, Nowruz.

Alawites “believe in reincarnation, regard the Pillars of Islam as purely symbolic, do not fast during Ramadan or make pilgrimage to Mecca, have no mosques or indeed any public worship, celebrate Christmas, Easter and Epiphany, and traditionally wear crosses like Christians,” according to University of Haifa linguist John Myhill.

The idea of God’s reincarnation in human form is central to Alawite belief, Myhill said, explaining that Alawites believe in “seven cycles,” or reincarnations of God in both revealed and hidden forms.

For example, Adam (God’s revealed form) returned to Earth in the hidden guise of Abel, Moses returned as Joshua Ben-Nun, Jesus as Peter and Muhammad as Ali. Like Christians, Alawites also worship a “holy trinity” – in their case, Ali, Muhammad and Salman the Persian, a companion of Muhammad who helped lay siege to Medina during the Islamic Conquest.

IN THE Ottoman era, Alawites were persecuted as infidels, forced to pay heavy taxes and mostly worked as indentured servants or tenant farmers for Sunni landowners.

The advent of French rule after World War I ushered in a golden age for the oncedowntrodden sect, which was granted short-lived autonomy as the “Alawite State” on Syria’s coast in the 1920s and ’30s. Colonial authorities hoping to stem Sunni nationalism propped up the Alawites and other Syrian minorities, giving them preferential treatment in the army and laying the groundwork for today’s Alawite-dominated military.

Hafez Assad – a former air force pilot and the father and predecessor of the current president – came to power in 1971, eight years after the coup by his own Ba’ath Party. The movement was putatively socialist and Arab nationalist, but dominated by young Alawites eager to end Syria’s centuries-long domination by an urban, Sunni elite. One of Assad’s first acts was to replace the constitutional requirement that Syria’s president be Muslim, with a law stipulating that the president’s religion is Islam – essentially certifying his own Muslim faith.

In the four decades since, the new Alawite elite have considerably weakened the Sunnis’ once-inviolable commercial dominance, and turned Syria’s military and intelligence services into its own private domain. The one significant challenge to Assad the father’s rule – a 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in the central city of Hama – was brutally quashed, with security forces killing an estimated 20,000-30,000 people.

THE FACILE description of the Alawite faith as a branch of Shi’a Islam is encouraged by the Assad regime’s close ties with the Shi’a theocracy in Iran, and with Tehran’s Shi’ite proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

In Shi’ism, Resistance and Revolution, Middle East scholar Martin Kramer wrote that the Syria-Iran partnership is purely a marriage of convenience.

“Common hatreds and ambitions inspired this expedient alliance between two incongruous political orders. The Iraqi regime was hateful to both Iran and Syria.

In Lebanon, Iran realized that it could not extend support to its clients there without Syrian cooperation,” Kramer wrote. “A sense of shared fate, not shared faith, bound these two regimes together.”

Indeed, the Islamic Republic has never recognized the Alawites as Muslims, much less of the Shi’ite variety. Instead, it was Musa al-Sadr, a Lebanese Shi’ite leader eager to expand his circle of influence, who in 1994 issued a fatwa certifying the Alawites as a branch of “Twelver” Shi’ism, the dominant Shi’ite branch and the one widely practiced in Iran. (“Twelver” refers to the 12th, or “hidden” imam, who disappeared 1,100 years ago and whose return is believed to augur the messianic age.) “When these Twelver clerics – [ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s closest students and disciples – visited Damascus, they spoke only the language of politics,” Kramer wrote. “They did not utter any opinion on the beliefs, doctrines, or rituals of the Alawis, about which they knew no more than any other outsider. Instead, they spoke of political solidarity, appealing to all Muslims to set aside their religious differences, to unite to meet the threats of imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism.”

ACCORDING TO Myhill, Syrian officials’ decades-long anti-Israel rhetoric is mere bluster to compensate for their perceived heretical creed: “In order to legitimize their rule among the Sunni majority, they must publicly project an image of championing Arabism by unrelentingly rejecting Israel and flirting with Israel’s avowed enemies.”

In practice, he noted, the Assads have little interest in a renewed confrontation with Israel. Other than the 1973 Yom Kippur War (a bid, he said to “keep up appearances” among Arab neighbors) and this week’s breach of the Golan border fence (an apparent attempt to distract the world’s attention from the bloody Syrian uprising), the Assads have generally kept their side of the border quiet.

“The Alawites’ religious beliefs suggest that they are pro-Jewish and anti-Sunni,” Myhill wrote this month for the Begin- Sadat Center. “From Israel’s perspective, it is far better for the Alawites to maintain power in Syria than for a Sunni regime to take control there... If a Sunni regime were to rule Syria, any wide-scale Israeli-Palestinian clash, such as Operation Cast Lead, would likely trigger an emotional response, pulling Syria into an international war with Israel, regardless of the consequences.”

Myhill wrote that Syria would not accept an official peace treaty with Israel under any circumstances, because such an agreement would spell the end of the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of its own Sunnis, and those of the Arab and Islamic worlds.

“While an open alliance between Israel and the Alawite regime is impossible, it is possible for the leaders of the two countries to develop tacit understandings, whereby they would essentially coordinate actions to support their countries’ common goal of combating Sunni hegemony and radicalism,” he wrote.

If Myhill is right – and should Assad survive the current unrest – then Syria, long a byword for anti-Israel bluster, could become one of the Jewish state’s most reliable partners, and all because of its leaders’ esoteric, eccentric and insular creed.

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