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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

Sectarianism and the Uprising in Syria: The Case of the Druze

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A big debate is taking place among Syrian experts as to the role of sectarianism in the current uprising. There are many who stubbornly insist that this is not the root cause of the events, which erupted as a reaction of the poor masses, regardless of sect, to the economic deprivation, the rampant corruption and the harsh totalitarian conditions. Some of these experts admit that there is a sectarian dimension, but they pin the blame on the regime which, for its own reasons tries to foment sectarian hatreds where they do not exist, in order to divert attention from the justified grievances of the opposition. The latter, for its part, is also engaged in an effort to downplay the sectarian element, partly because it wants to reassure the non-Sunni elements of the population; and partly because it understands that Western public opinion, whose support the opposition tries to solicit, is averse to the role of religion and sectarianism in society.

The reality of the situation on the ground is such that both government and opposition, though for diametrically opposed reasons, are wrong. Sectarianism is there now. Not as the only driving force of the uprising, but surely as the main one. The Sunni towns and villages all over the country are the focus of the protest. The forces used by the regime to put down the protest are composed almost exclusively of members of the Alawite community and other non-Sunni elements, and the non-Sunni regions are mostly quiet. So, it is simply correct to refer to the uprising as being that of the Sunni majority against a regime based on the support, either active or passive, of non-Sunni minorities.

One of the latter are the Druze. This heterodox community numbers about 1 million (4-5%) of the population, concentrating mostly in the mountainous Jabal Druze (Mountain of the Druze) in Southern Syria, but also in Damascus and Aleppo. The community originated from today's Lebanon, and its history in Syria dates back only to the 17th century.

Yet the Syrian Druze have played a significant role in Syria's history, past and present. Under the French mandate, the Druze had an "independent" state for 4 years, but French interference in their affairs caused a rebellion, led by the ruling Atrash clan, which then spread to the rest of Syria, and became called, by Syrian nationalists, "the great Syrian revolt". Eleven years later, in 1936, the French negotiated granting independence to Syria, and then the Atrash clan and most of the Druze in the Jabal demanded self-rule, as they were concerned about the future Sunni government in Damascus.

By the way, the greatest contribution of the Atrash clan to Arab nationalism and culture was the famous singer, Farid Al-Atrash, one of the venerated icons of Arab music. Back to politics though, both in 1925 and in 1936, the Druze acted in order to promote and defend their communal interest. In the newly-independent Syria after 1945, Druze politicians and the community at large continued to play a meaningful role until the mid-1960's, when a revolt led by a Druze officer, Colonel Salim Hatum was crushed by the neo-Ba'ath government in Damascus. The outcome was not a repressive regime in the Druze mountains, but rather a concerted Ba'athi-Alawite effort to incorporate the Druze in the regime that has become a coalition of non-Sunni minorities (including also many Christians and the Sh'iite - Ismaili minority).

To this very day, the Druze Jabal is quiet, and so are the other Druze enclaves in Syria. Druze who live in the Golan Heights, now part of Israel, and whose families are split between Israel and Syria, show their support to Syria by demonstrations in their villages and also display their animosity to the Israeli control over them.

Clearly, the Druze leadership on the Syrian side of the border makes sure that the "Israeli Druze", know what direction the wind still blows in Jabal Druze. But there may be a change in the direction of the winds... In Lebanon, the famous Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father Kamal Jumblatt was murdered by the Hafiz Assad regime on March 16, 1977, openly displays his opposition to the Assad regime. In order to maintain his Arab nationalist credentials, Jumblatt compares the current regime in Damascus to Israel... surely, there cannot be a bigger sin than that!

However, the Jumblatt position is not the universal or necessarily the dominant Druze voice in Lebanon regarding the Syrian situation. As reported in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar (the report never denied), a delegation of religious Lebanese Druze leaders visited recently their counterparts in Syria, praising their hosts for their "wise stance", i.e. their refusal to join the uprising and their call for a national dialogue in Syria. One of the Lebanese clergy specifically castigated Jumblatt for his position which is opposed to the interests of the community in Syria. Judging by the behavior of the Druze in Syria, this is indeed their position; the interest of the community in the first place. This is what sectarianism is all about.