Why do pro-Assad Alawite soldiers insult Islam as they torture Sunni detainees in Syria?
Recently a video emerged in which pro-Assad militiamen can be seen beating and shooting a prisoner to death. What might seem remarkable is that the militiamen are insulting Islam in the process, mocking the takbir — that is, the cry of “Allahu akbar” — the Islamic conception of paradise for martyrs. In the first half of the video, one of the executioners — disparaging Muhammad — shouts, “F—k you and your prophet.” Later, another of them yells, “Damn your God.”
It may come across as odd that pro-Assad militiamen would disparage the Islamic religion in such a crude manner, but it should be noted that there are many videos like this in which the anti-Islamic sentiment takes a more subtle form.
Thus throughout in the course of the civil war there have been some videos of regime loyalists beating detainees and insisting that they proclaim that “there is no god except Bashar,” which reflects not so much cult-worship of Assad as a mockery of the Shahadah (Muslim declaration of faith, of which the first part goes “There is no deity but God”).
A particularly striking observation is that these videos invariably show pro-Assad militiamen whose accents illustrate that they are Alawites. It may seem odd that Alawites — most frequently described in media reports as either an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam or simply a sect of Shi’ism — would disparage Islam, but an examination of the history of Alawite identity in Syria will demonstrate that such an attitude towards Islam among pro-Assad Alawite militiamen and soldiers comes as no surprise at all.
Until around the 1920s, Alawites were known to outsiders by the term “Nusayris” — named after Muhammad ibn Nusayr, the reputed founder of the sect in 9th-century Iraq — and they identified themselves by this name, content with a separate ethnic and religious identity that was essentially a “neither Shi’ite or Sunni” position, stemming from the highly syncretic nature of the traditional faith.
Beginning with the establishment of the French Mandate in Syria and increasing contact with the outside world beyond the traditional rural homelands in the northwest mountains, several writers from the community began to emphasize that they were not “Nusayris” (a term they rejected as an invention of the sect’s enemies), but Alawites, emphasizing a supposed connection with mainstream Islam and Shi’ism in particular.
Yet when it came to the question of whether the “Alawite State” would be united with the rest of the Mandate to form Syria, five Alawite community leaders — including Bashar’s grandfather — went to great lengths in a memorandum to the French Prime Minister in 1936 to emphasize distinctness from Islam, even as they consistently employed the term “Alawite” to describe themselves. Thus they affirmed that Alawites are considered “infidels” under Islam, and that a spirit of “fanaticism” is nurtured in Islam against non-Muslims.
Despite some attempts by Shi’ite clergy in Najaf in the middle of the 20th century to reach out to Alawites and bring them closer to the fold of mainstream Twelver Shi’ite Islam, the fact is that since the end of the French Mandate in 1946, Alawism in Syria has come to be less associated with identification with an actual religion and more with a simple bloodline identity, just as many Jews might practice no religion at all but nonetheless identify as ethnically Jewish.
This transition was the result of two factors. First, there was the rise of pan-Arab Ba’athist ideology, which according to Ba’ath party founder Michel Aflaq (a Greek Orthodox Christian) stipulated that Islam and Arabism should be inherently bound, but in practice translated to separation from a religious identity and served as an alternative for many Alawites seeking to advance themselves in the Syrian state.
Hence, even before the advent of the Assad dynasty, an Alawite officer named Ibrahim Khalas could write an article in 1967 disparaging religion and God as concepts to be confined to the dustbin of history, and trigger outrage from Sunni Muslim and Christian religious leaders, but not arouse a similar reaction in the Alawite community.
Further, the ascent of the Assad dynasty with Bashar’s father Hafez being made president in 1970 led to a two-fold policy of (i) declaring that Alawites were nothing more than Twelver Shi’ites and (ii) implementing a process described by Joshua Landis as “Sunnification.” The latter meant trying to demonstrate that in religious practice Alawites were no different from orthodox Sunnis, with a number of mosques built in predominantly Sunni towns.
State propaganda has been keen to portray the Assads as pious Muslims, with outlets like Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) always hailing the occasion on which the president prays in a prominent mosque to mark a Muslim festival. In fact, contemporary images of Bashar even emphasize how he prays in the Sunni manner, with his lower arms folded in prayer rather than by his sides as happens in the Shi’ite manner of prayer.
This policy was successful in convincing many Iraqi Shi’ites who worked in Syria that Alawites were simply fellow Shi’ites, even though Alawites have often been deemed by orthodox Twelvers in Iraq as “ghulat” — Arabic for “extremist” — on account of what is seen as veneration of Ali as a deity in the traditional Alawite faith. Conversely, many Sunnis in Syria came to see Bashar as a fellow Sunni — a perception strengthened by the fact that his wife Asma is Sunni.
Even so, the “Sunnification” was no more than cosmetic in terms of the Alawites’ actual religious beliefs, and if anything only succeeded in distancing more of them from religion in general. The result is that there are many Alawites in Syria in particular who simply deem religion in general to be ridiculous, and are thus atheists, even if the issue of bloodline may seem important to them.
Thus it should not be so shocking or incredible to see videos of pro-Assad Alawite militiamen and soldiers ridiculing Islam as they torture Sunni detainees. Indeed, with the constant emphasis by the Assad regime on a narrative of a jihadist opposition from the beginning of the unrest in Syria, hostility to Islam in line with the attitudes expressed by Bashar’s grandfather is not to be unexpected.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?