There is a magnificent expression Lawrence Durrell uses in his classic autobiographical work Bitter Lemons, to refer to the troubled times in the early 1950s when Cyprus lost its innocence and began unraveling in the early days of a brutal civil war. Durrell called it the “feast of unreason” in which “embedded so deeply in the medieval compost of religious hatreds, the villagers floundered in the muddy waters of undifferentiated hate like drowning men.”
The beginning of the civil war is the same everywhere. I first felt the beast slouching in Sri Lanka one languid Sunday afternoon while driving down to Colombo after a splendid weekend with a tea planter in the “upcountry” near Kandy. Half way down to Colombo as the steep descent was about to end and the plains came into view, there used to be a cluster of tea shops where one stretched the limbs, smoked a cigarette, sipped a glass of tea.
On that day, however, seeing the diplomatic number plate of the Indian High Commission car and sensing our ethnicity, the tea vendor became unfriendly. We were puzzled but didn’t probe and only after reaching home, came to know that in an ambush earlier in the day in Thirunelveli in Jaffna, the Tigers had killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers and the Black July ethnic pogrom had begun in Colombo.
That was on 23 July 1983. The civil war which continued through the next two decades arrived surreptitiously on the idyllic island. We had been living there for over an year already, but from that day onward, till we left for West Germany two years later, we saw an entirely different country as the civil war relentlessly intensified. Durrell described in his work how abruptly sectarian incitement could tear apart communities that had been living together for generations.
The same is happening in Syria, although one seldom sees its impact on ordinary lives. We only read about the politics — and the geopolitics — of it. The narrative is that the Alawites are the ruling class and the Sunnis are seeking empowerment. But it is a far more complex story. Most Alawites are poor people living in rural communities and have a hard time keeping their body and soul together. They have not exactly been persecuting the Sunnis, either. They don’t look the “ruling class” anyway.
In fact, for much of their history, the Alawites were a persecuted lot, especially during the Ottoman rule, on account of their relaxed secularist approach to religion. Things eased a little following the French mandate in 1920.
The sectarian virus of Salafism that is being injected into Syria by the Saudis and Turks is a deliberate act of political interpolation — like in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The point is, few Alawites are familiar with even the tenets of their religion, as they are known by initiates only. In their belief in the reincarnation of the soul, they have no commonality with mainstream Islam — Sunni or Shi’ite alike. For them, religion is more of a cultural expression than a matter of faith.
That is why the Syrian Sunni Kurds, Christians, the Druze, non-Alawite Shi’ites and Ismailis, rally around the regime of Bashar al-Assad and bond with the Alawites whose minority complex and atavistic fear of Sunni domination they share. The collective memory of oppression brings them together.
Why do Alawites have a collective memory about Turks? This is what Palestinian historian Hanna Batatu wrote: ”The lot of the Alawis was never enviable. Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasion, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale.”
Nonetheless, Alawite villages lived side by side with their Sunni neighborhood. But today the buses carrying the Alawites take detours to avoid passing through those Sunni villages; the communities don’t mix; they harbor dark fears about each other’s intentions and accuse each other of horrific crimes. All this in a matter of months.
Of course, Syria is not Sri Lanka. The Sunnis cannot say they came under Alawite persecution, but it is just that they happen to be the majority community and are demanding their prerogatives. Whereas, the Alawite and other minorities accounting for anywhere upto 40 percent of the population fear bloodbath and persecution if there is Sunni ascendency.
The Syrian state has become the bulwark of Alawite identity even as they graduated from a marginalized community to become the proteges of the state during the past 4 decades. The LRB has a great first-hand account on the raging storms in the Alawite psyche, as he ponders over the dire consequences of regime change in his country. Read it here