Syria’s Alawites, called “offshoot of Shi’ism,” are a secretive, unorthodox sect

December 23, 2011

(Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attend a rally at al-Sabaa Bahrat square in Damascus, December 9, 2011.REUTERS/ Stringer)

The clannishness, secrecy and tenacity of Syria’s power elite around President Bashar al-Assad are hallmarks of the enigmatic Alawite faith that unites its members and arouses suspicion among the majority Sunnis. An oppressed minority for most of their history, Alawites suddenly took control in Syria in 1970 when Assad’s father Hafez staged a coup that sidelined the Sunnis. He built a ferocious security apparatus based on fellow Alawite officers.

This year’s bloody struggle between Assad’s forces and pro-democracy protesters, which has cost thousands of lives, splits the country along a minority-majority gulf made deeper by the fact many Sunnis call Alawites heretics and apostates.

“The political animosities have developed over the past 41 years that the Assads have been in power, but the religious animosities go back many centuries,” said Mohamad Bazzi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Like most other Arab countries, Syria has seen conservative Islam spreading in recent decades. This has sharpened Sunni differences with the Alawites, who claim to be mainline Shi’ites and sometimes copy Sunni practices to play down differences.

The government’s brutal crackdown on protesters this year has also widened this split, Bazzi said, prompting some leaders of the mainly Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood to row back on a more moderate approach they had taken in recent years.

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