Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Alawis’ Turn

Troubles across the world throughout my life have served to make me aware of the details of history. There was a single exception. I learned about Korea at my boarding school in Rastatt, Germany, long before the Korean War broke out. At Konvikt Sankt Bernhard we had a reading at the beginning of our midday meal, and one of the books read out loud had been about some missionary activity in Korea; the name took root.

A rather large number of these troubles had their deeper origins in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, one of the most successful and also odd empires of humanity (1299-1919). The Osmanli clan, named after its preeminent ancestor, Osman Gazi, were herders. In Arnold Toynbee’s view, this characteristic of theirs (all cattle is useful for the herder), caused them to make stringent efforts to suppress all ethnic clashes within—although they were always at war at—their borders.


When the Great War terminated this hegemonic rule, the mingled ethnicities within that realm began to cause trouble—and do so to this day. The most recent such development is the Syrian Civil War. (Why no one actually calls it that is a great puzzlement for me.) At the root of this conflict is the rule of a minority, the Alawis, originally concentrated in the West but also present in the major cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus. They are mountain people—and such tend to be independent and fractious. The An-Nusayriya mountain range runs north-south through the region shown on the inserted map (link). The Alawis representing about 12 percent of the Syrian population hold most of the power. The population of Syria is predominantly Sunni. The Alawis are a small grouping within the Twelver branch of Shi’ite Islam—but not uniformly accepted as orthodox by that, the largest, Shi’ite faith; evidently the Alawis flirt with aspects of Christianity.

Interesting, this. The Ottomans had problems with the Alawis too—not just the current Syrian majority. It strikes me as meaningful that in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the minority Sunnis in that realm (about 35% of the population) ruled a much larger Shi’ite majority. Not what you might call ideal conditions for peace—unless the ruler is an Ottoman Sultan who knows how to keep order in the highly diverse flock. Sunni and Shi’ite conflicts? No problem. To the Ottomans’ herding tradition was added a degree of religious tolerance by Mohammed himself, who taught his followers to “respect the people of the Book.”

As in ordinary life, so in religion, diversity is the rule. The Twelvers, known as the Imami, believe in twelve divinely appointed leaders (imams). The second branch of the Shia, the Ismaili, take their name from Isma’il ibn Ja’far, who was that faith’s seventh imam. They are known as the Seveners although some sects within them acknowledge a larger number. Shia simply means “follower” or “followers.”

Human nature seems unable to separate the inward striving of the soul from the outward striving for social dominance. Religious or secular ideology serves as an excellent glue for communities—which then go to war to achieve prominence. — Hey! Welcome to the valley.

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