Sunday, December 10, 2006

Minority Experience in Syria

As noted in my last entry, most Syrians, when asked about the state of sectarianism in their country, will respond with hopeful, possibly idealized thoughts. “We don’t have sectarianism here. We don’t think about religious differences.”

Since I had come to expect this token response, you can imagine my surprise when I met a man whose reaction, when I described to him my project on religious pluralism and the relations between the different religions here, was “There are no relations betweens the sects. They all hate each other.”

This man’s evaluation of the situation stems from his own personal experience as a member of one of Syria’s religious minorities, the Druze, and also from his persecution as a political activist (he is a Communist and a student organizer).

The Druze community is estimated at around 3-4% of the Syrian population, which today accounts for more than half a million individuals. The Druze are concentrated in Suwayda, one of the major southern Syrian cities, as well as in the Jabal Druze, the mountain range located in the south, and in the Golan Heights. There is also a suburb on the outskirts of Damascus called Jaramana that is dominated by the Druze community and, according to this man’s estimate, may be home to some 200,000 Druze.

The Druze consider themselves a reformist, Unitarian religion, that branched off from Islam and incorporates philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as well as Christianity into their religious understanding of wisdom in the world. Although they share an Islamic heritage, they are not considered Muslim since they do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam. Unlike the Alawi, who have made some attempts to conform to Islamic Orthodoxy since Hafiz al-Asad had his minority religion declared a legitimate branch of Shi’i Islam by Imam Musa Sadr of Lebanon in 1974, the Druze do not have this luxury of protection. But like the Alawi, they have been brutally persecuted throughout their history, and thus found a place for themselves in the mountains of southern Syria and the Golan.

“People here will lie to you about how they really feel about the different sects. Of course they will tell you that they have no problems and that they love each other and they get along well. But behind the scenes they say other things when they don’t think people are watching.

“For example, one time I was in Dayr az-Zur [a town in eastern Syria] sitting with a group of Sunni men. They didn’t know I was Druze. They started talking about how the Druze are kuffar (unbelievers) and how they hate them and they should go and kill them all.

“I often feel like I have to protect my identity somehow. Like when people walk into the room and say ‘As-salaamu ‘alaykom’ I feel obligated to say ‘Wa ‘alaykom as-salaam’ even though I don’t believe in what I am saying. I’m a communist. I don’t even believe in my own religion, but I have to act this way to protect myself.

“I knew a Professor at the University who tried to start a student group for interfaith dialogue once, but they closed it down almost immediately. This topic is taboo here. I try to talk about these issues too in my work as an activist, because I think we have to talk about sectarianism now when there aren’t any major problems, because if we don’t talk about it now, then when there are problems between us it can turn into violence. But people avoid the issue.

“One time we put on a demonstration at the University against the American occupation of Iraq. I was sitting under the statue of Hafiz al-Asad and a man came up to me with a thick beard and started talking to me. He liked my ideas and he said he wanted to work with me. But the next thing I know, he is offering to blow himself up wherever he is needed. I was just like ‘Why are you telling me this!? Go away!’

“I do have Muslim friends, and we don’t have any problems between each other because of religion. They care about me and they wouldn’t hurt me. But Ahmad and Muhammad and Hassan are not their father, or their brother, or their uncle. And if their relatives came after me to fight, then my friends wouldn’t side with me, they would side with the others, because that is their family. They would have to.

“A couple weeks ago the President visited Suwayda. He gave a very nice speech, promising all sorts of things to the people down there, to bring jobs and industry, to have a special program for Suwayda and a close relationship with them. But he really said all this because he is afraid that the Druze in Suwayda will ally with the Druze in Lebanon against them [the Druze leader in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, is anti-Syrian and has stepped up his anti-Syrian rhetoric after the Hariri and Gemayel assassinations]. That’s the only reason he cares about us. The minute we do something wrong, he’ll be down there with the army forces and he’ll take any excuse to kill us and get rid of us.

“I want political change. I want democracy. I want freedom of speech. I’ve been to prison twice for long periods [about a month], and probably hundreds of times for short stints, like a day or two. They have done terrible things to me, like use electricity, and things that I am ashamed to tell you in sensitive areas, but I’m sure you can imagine. I want political change, but at the same time I want this regime to stay. You know why? Because I’m afraid that if the regime changed it would become an Islamic regime and then my situation would be even worse for me as a Druze.”

Based on my conversations with other Syrians, Sunnis and minorities, it is difficult to gauge the likelihood of an Islamic regime taking control of the country in the event of a political turnover. Many Sunnis seem to think that the fears of the religious minorities are unfounded, that the minorities are just overprotective and insular and merely exaggerate the dangers that they face. Perhaps minorities simply translate their experiences of prejudice and discrimination into what they consider their political nightmare – an Islamic regime. Nevertheless, the fears that minority groups such as Christians and Druze experience are real, and they certainly affect the way they interact with and perceive their Muslim neighbors.