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The Druze Challenge of Survival

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On the best day in the Middle East, being a minority is a real challenge. Most face social, political and economic hurdles, but their religion provides them with a buffer to survive social pressures, discrimination, and limited opportunities.

The majority of the Druze lack this comfort. Their holy book, known as the Book of Wisdom, is not easily accessible nor is it comprehensible to the lay person.

I would have to give up every aspect of my life to become a "sheikha" and be covered up from head to toe in dark clothes with a long white veil before any "sheikh" would read and explain the Book of Wisdom to me. This is not an option for me or for any Druze woman today.

As a result, I turned to human rights as a religion. And here is the loss: When the educated Druze woman and future mother cannot find solace in her religion, religious leaders need to assess priorities and introduce options in line with modern times.

"If you have a precious diamond, do you leave it in the public hands?" the Druze sheikh would always ask.

As religious leaders continue to hide the diamond, the secularization of the Druze community puts at risk the loss of a religious identity that embraces all religions, emphasizes the premise of reason and rationality enshrined in Greek mythology, and represents a progressive sect in the Middle East.

The Druze religion has roots in Shiite Islam. In the past, the Druze feared extermination for breaking away from Islam. Unfortunately, religious leaders have maintained this psychology of fear to silence the youth who are perplexed by all this secrecy at the outbreak of the 21st century.

Most of the young Druze generation today suffers from an identity dilemma. Unlike Islam and Christianity where you can go to religious schools or institutions to be taught the Koran or the Bible, Druze religious authorities have forbidden the circulation of the Book of Wisdom, and only a pious Druze (known as a sheikh) has the privilege of reading the holy book alongside sheikhs who understand it. This has led to widespread acceptance of the ignorance of the faith.

With such a void in our religious education, it is difficult to imagine what connects a Druze in Lebanon to a Druze in Israel, Syria or Palestine--even though the Druze were originally found in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel/Palestine.

At the same time, the Druze religion represents a progressive break from Islam in all countries since the Druze man is forbidden to marry more than one woman, and the institution of marriage is based on equality between men and women.

Despite all challenges, there is a deep sense of pride in being a Druze. Given that the Druze faith is based on different religions, including Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, it is a real loss to allow this unique religious identity to wither.

It is estimated that there are approx 1.5 million Druze worldwide, but there are no reliable updated statistics or population trend analysis studies that can educate us about the future survival of the Druze as a community.

The survival of the Druze community and faith compels further research. The establishment of a Druze library is a critical starting point. Preserving relics such as books, articles, manuscripts and photos will ensure the protection of Druze religion, history, culture, and heritage. At Harvard, we need to think about developing a minorities program to conduct research, organize events, and collect minorities' heritage in our libraries.

The international community can help preserve the identity of minorities by learning more about them, and funding important initiatives. There is a need to fund projects that connect the Druze with their ancestral brethren in Syria and Israel/Palestine. It is also unclear whether the Druze have historical or spiritual roots in China and India.

Ultimately, the survival of the Druze will largely depend on the young Druze educated professional class, and their ability to establish an international committee to reform the tenets of the Druze faith that are in conflict with modern times.

Even the most precious diamond needs to be polished now and then, or we risk losing it forever.

This post originally appeared in the Harvard Crimson.

Rima Merhi is G. Tueni Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University