Media coverage of the Alawites is common these days, especially with the escalation of events related to the Syrian uprising. Opinions in this regard have split in two main directions.
The first is a defensive approach, which takes a defensive position against the idea that Alawites are against the uprising without necessarily succeeding in defining the sect and its position within the national and historical map of the country. The second is the offensive approach, which imposes a single, coherent, negative stereotypical image about the Alawites, denying their affiliation to Syria, and using exclusionary and invective vocabulary.
In fact, the problem of understanding or defining the Alawites as a sect is one of the problems of Syrian society at large. It is a society torn apart by Baathist rule, and whose cultural components were prevented from reaching the stage of opening up to one another, especially the minorities. This is also one of the problems of Syrian intellectuals, especially Alawite intellectuals, whose political and cultural activities stemmed from general national considerations.
Alawite intellectuals have always refused to identify or present themselves as intellectuals of a certain sect. What can be said to help define the Alawites nationally and historically can also be said about their religiosity. There is widespread ignorance in some Sunni popular circles in Syria — not only toward the Alawites, but toward other Muslim minorities, such as the Ismailis and the Druze.
In addition, a number of segments of Syrian society question the Islamic affiliation of these minorities, and tend to consider them infidels. Such a perspective coalesced with the interests of the regime, which subjected minorities to moral pressure and made them believe that it alone was able to protect them from the Sunni giant which objects to their existence.
Unfortunately, it is necessary today to define the Alawites and other minority groups in Syrian terms. Despite the accounts of Alawite persecution promoted by the current regime — raising fear among the community of a dark and bloody fate if the regime falls — and the folklore stories about attempts throughout history to exterminate them, the Alawites were actually subjected to exceptional injustice during Ottoman rule — far greater than the injustice inflicted against the rest of the Syrian population.
Although historically the Alawites have not received any foreign protection, unlike other minorities, the injustice and marginalization their community has been exposed to has made the goal of integration into modern Syria their common historical project.
This is especially the case because the French Mandate was unable to foment a sense of independence among the Alawite community, although it imposed on them a kind of autonomy, represented by the government of Latakia (the state of the Alawite Territory), which it directly supervised. The Alawite community later witnessed heated competition between an independence movement backed by France and a unionist movement backed by the bourgeoisie of Damascus. The unionists eventually won, thanks to the support of the national faction in Damascus, which possessed a national project featuring a mature vision of modern Syria. The French, by contrast, did not present a convincing and acceptable project.
The swift integration of the Alawites into the newly-independent Syria was sometimes targeted by the anti-minority sentiments of some politicians in the autonomous government. This helped the Alawites form an early inclination toward military institutions, which, after autonomy, developed a tendency to resist the control of traditional politicians. They began to move toward the leftist parties, such Akram al-Hourani, the Baath Party, the Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. These movements attracted the broadest spectra of diverse minority groups.
However, in the Baath regime, which ruled the country after the 1963 coup, and then the 1970 coup — and enjoyed stability under iron authoritarian rule — the key positions were mainly dominated by Alawites, who saw in their community the manpower that could be relied upon to reinforce and protect their authority. The absence of professional traditions and specialization in the Alawite community made them lean toward obtaining government jobs and university education. This explains the regime’s insistence on maintaining a state of marginalization in Alawite areas, so as to limit their choices and increase their dependence on the employment policy of state institutions, including the army and various security agencies.
However, limiting the Alawites to state jobs was offset by advances on their part in cultural and scientific arenas. This distinguished the Alawite community and produced elite cultural figures, who played pioneering roles in the national culture of Syria, as is explained by the large number of Alawite intellectuals who were held in the regime’s prisons after opposing, criticizing and questioning its legitimacy and policies. This is what we see today in the Syrian uprising: a multitude of cultural figures that oppose the regime and engage in the uprising. This proves the national affiliation of the Alawites, and their rejection of a regime that betrayed their real affiliations and used their community purely for its own gain and survival.