In the spring of 2011, I ran into a security agent wife in Mazzeh 86, well-known for being a regime redoubt in Damascus. Assuming that I was an Alawi, she shared some fuzzy images from her mobile phone, shedding light on the kind of ideas that were circulating amongst this closed Alawi Damascene community –originally from the coastal mountains.
" Al-Khidr is here finally!!! It is he who is the light in Tahrir square in Cairo!! It is he who is holding aloft Dhul-fiqar, the sword of Imam Ali! He has arrived on his horse to rescue us from oppression and to stand by the president Bashar al-Assad against the enemies" – The video was taken in Tahrir square, the poor picture quality playfully blended the light and shadows so as to present an image of what could quite easily be interpreted as a man on a horse!!!!
Al-Khidr for the Alawis - as well as for many other religions and sects - is one of God's righteous men; capable of performing miracles. According to the Alawi creed, he never dies and lives among mankind to spread justice on earth until the end of time. He has extraordinary powers like controlling thunder and lightning. The popular portrayal of Al-Khidr as "the killer of the dragon with seven heads" finds parallels with similar characters in other faiths and creeds such as Al-Mahdi Al-Montazar (the hidden Imam) for the Shia'a in Iran and Saint George for Christians. This story is mostly derived from Mesopotamian myths of fertility and the circle of life, albeit with a dash of Islamic or Christian colouring.
I was shown the video clip at the time the popular revolutions had taken grip of Tunisia and Egypt and had blown away both Bin Ali and Mubarak. The Syrian revolution at the time was still in its infancy and completely peaceful. During that summer, a considerable number of less-well-off Alawis in Mazzeh 86 (and presumably elsewhere) were exchanging – with real passion and conviction – the stories of Al-Khidr's arrival and his expected landslide victory against the enemies of the Alawi community and al-Assad. For me, this was little more than another interesting legend from hundreds still faithfully and respectfully followed in Syria. I wasn't aware of its danger.
April 29- 2011, on the so-called Friday of Anger (Jum'at al-ghadab), an unexpectedly strong hailstorm struck the capital at noon after lunch time prayers – the unofficial hour for opposition demonstrations to start. The storm was incredibly strong – so much so that lots of people were forced to stay at home. It lasted for fifteen minutes and had been enough to leave streets flooding. Such climatic conditions are rare in Syria. Moreover, its timing, coinciding with an anti-regime demonstration, left a different impression. Rumour and hearsay spread like wildfire; the storm was interpreted by the mnhibbikjiyeh as a harbinger of Divine support for Bashar al-Assad against the nascent uprising. Again, the fertilized soil for these rumors was the isolated Alawi communities in the countryside. Something similar happened when Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern coast of the USA – with some people considering the hurricane as celestial revenge against the enemies of Syria and Iran.
It has been more than a year and a half since that incident, and it seems it was a forerunner of a striking new phenomenon. Syrian markets and pro-regime websites are overflowing with hundreds of recordings extolling and glorifying Bashar al-Assad – depicting him as the modern successor to Imam Ali -Prophet Mohammad's cousin and his son in-law to whom Shi'a sects show greatest loyalty. These songs are widely popular where regime supporters are in the majority raising al-Assad to the level of a Saint. On one occasion, I even heard them in Lebanon on a servees (public minibus).
Al-Assad's divine image has been marketed in many ways. One of the most direct has been through creating and magnifying his “heroic” exploits. Others perhaps more indirect but no less provocative has been the widespread use of his portrait – something which his father, Hafez al-Assad, also did. The ubiquitous portraits served to associate him with God. Thus we find slogans beneath portraits of Bashar al-Assad such as: 'God protects Syria'; 'We have God in the sky and Bashar on earth'; 'God to be praised and Bashar to be followed'. For many Sunni Muslims this is akin to showing a bull a red flag.
"God protects Syria"
But why has the regime helped to propagate the image of Bashar al-Assad as divine among the Alawis? Here, I suggest a number of reasons why this has come to be:
1- Hafez al-Assad re-established pride and a sense of belonging for Alawis: Alawis had long been the victims of ignorance and repression throughout history. Meanwhile, repression had been the official policy against all Shi'a sects (seen as a fifth column of the Safavids) until the end of Ottoman occupation.
1970 was a turning point in Alawi history. Hafez al-Assad seized control in Syria and this paved the way for many Alawis to become security officials and generals. The capture of the military by an elite group of Alawis was the first step to governing the country. For Alawis as a community, this wasn't a materially tangible victory – many Alawi villages have been overlooked in the state's development plans, but rather having Alawis lead the country was a source of great pride and a sense of belonging to the nation. Much like the pride football fans exhibit after seeing their team win the league.
2- Marginalization of the Alawi religious leaders and replacing them with a security authority: unlike other sects in Syria, Alawi religious leaders have a limited role in Alawi society and rarely make public appearances. They were marginalized and were made directly answerable to security officials who had never hesitated to execute any of them when showing signs of rebelling against the order of Hafez al-Assad.
3- The co-option of criminal elements of the Alawi community into the security apparatus: poorly educated Alawis in positions of authority over other agents and even over higher ranked army soldiers.
4- Grounding sectarianism: Some Alawis particularly those inhabiting isolated villages in the mountains tell frightening stories about Sunnis passed down over the generations. These stories tell about blood-thirsty Sunnis and their will to kill and rape Alawi girls considered as disbelievers. A part of this fear goes back to several horrifying massacres by the Ottomans which targeted them. This fear is continuously being revived and re-produced by some modern Sunni clerics who never miss a single chance to show that Alawis – as a whole sect not as individuals – are responsible for the daily killing and oppression being carried out against Sunnis in Syria.
From the perspective of an Alawi who has what he considers an existential fear: who feels targeted from the Syrian majority; who is subject to hostile, confrontational international media; who is isolated from other Syrian communities and who hasn't opened his eyes to reality in Syria, then we can understand – but not justify – his yearning for a messianic saviour.
Let us not forget that a fundamental tenet of belief in the Alawi creed is the eternal presence of saviours sent by God (Al-khidr in the sea and Ilyas on the land). This particular belief enhances dependency on an external saviour rather than self-salvation through work and consciousness. Thus, we can argue it was a likely outcome – for religiously naïve and isolated people - to make the connection between the mundane al-Assad and the sacred Al-Khidr.
Religions have always played a role in this part of the world. Some people have long tried to achieve authoritarian goals through gaining positions of respect within their faith community. For some, respect and power seemed boundless - claiming prophecy or even divinity. I remember a story from my childhood about a woman in her thirties in the city of Misyaf who claimed to have been the recipient of divine revelation. Some people believed and followed her but many others fought her.
One of the most clear-cut instances of al-Assad's claims to divinity by his supporters appears in detainees' accounts of torture. Often detainees recount how they are forced to pray on his picture and made to declare 'there is no God but Bashar'. This doesn't only show their contempt for other doctrines, but also shows their desire to demonstrate superiority.
Syria after al-Assad will face many challenges; of the most dangerous are the social cleavages which may prompt sectarian clashes in geographically isolated communities like the Alawi villages in the mountains, for whom the collapse of the regime will be more than a political defeat. It may signal the end of a religious community. This is one of reasons for the high rates of recruitment for shabiha from among mountain villages in comparison to Alawi from cities where different religious communities live side by side.
A priority of any revolution is to overthrow all threadbare and retroactive beliefs. Before fighting Alawis who deify al-Assad and kill in his name, we should work to stop the systematic corruption of the Alawi faith, which has far more to offer than making deities out of killers and criminals. This is a burden to be carried by Alawi religious leaders and opposition activists who must play a greater role in raising awareness among their communities.
Thousand thanks for Tahir Zaman for editing this article