Jocelyne Cesari is the Director of the Islam in the West program at the Center for Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University.
Katherine Lanpher (KL): Let’s start with the basics. If the major divide in Islam is between Sunni and Shi’a where exactly do the Alawites fit?
Jocelyne Cesari (JC): They fit on the Shi’a branch of subgroups. It’s true that Sunni and Shi’a have major differences in terms of theology and practice, but within the Shi’a world you have lots of other subgroups and divisions. You have the Twelvers, which is the group in Iran and Iraq, and you have other such groups. We are here in a very complex, diverse religious world and the Alawi are a tiny group within this Shi’a world. They have borrowed some parts of their theology and rituals from Christianity. They are also very secretive. They’re not a very proselytizing group. You cannot become an Alawi. You’re born Alawi.
KL: They incorporate tenets of other faiths such as celebrating Christmas. What else do we know about their belief structure?
JC: I think they have a lot of specificities that make them apart even from this Sunni-Shi’a dichotomy that we are talking about. Again, they are secretive. [There's no] easy way to know about them because they tend to function or operate as a secret group in terms of how they worship or how they practice.
KL: Talk for a minute about the history of oppression that they had as a minority.
JC: Under the Ottoman empire, minorities were not automatically oppressed. Actually [it was] quite the contrary despite divisions. The Ottoman Empire was a very multicultural, multi-religious political entity. There were big differences in terms of rights and privileges if you were a Muslim or not, especially if you are a Sunni Muslim and not a Shi’a Muslim. For the Alawi, because they were a specific Shi’a group, they faced indeed much more resistance or discrimination because they were also not quite legitimate for the Sunni population. But otherwise, I would not portray the whole system of religious minorities before the nation-state as a place dangerous for minorities. We tend to forget that but I want to make this also very clear.
KL: It was my understanding that there was discrimination for the Alawis before the current nation-state that we have as Syria. In fact, they weren’t even allowed to testify in court and were held in very low esteem.
JC: Yes, they were held in low esteem because they were not considered “real” Muslims. Some jobs, some kinds of work, and social status could not be accessed by them. But that was also true for other minority groups: Christians and Jewish groups.
KL: How did we end up with such a sizable Alawi population in Turkey?
JC: It’s part of the mobility of people. Don’t think of Turkey as you see it today. Think of the Ottoman Empire. There were no boundaries there. At the time, the logic of mobility and identity were religious, linguistic, or ethnic. In this sense, the groups expanded in different directions. Then the nation-state came and there were boundaries and limits put upon these groups. We had groups covering different provinces and territories according to their own cultural expansion, but it didn’t fit or meet the of boundary of the nation-state that was imposed by the colonial powers.
KL: If they are such a minority, how is it that they have such a strong hold on power?
JC: They have a strong hold on power because of the legacy of the French presence in the region. The French faced huge resistance from the Sunni. They were building alliances with other groups including the Alawi. That’s how they became so important in the military apparatus. It became solidified or established with the creation of the Syrian nation-state.
KL: How have they kept the power?
JC: They kept power in different ways. First, they were clever enough not to create a sort-of Alawi state. They consider Sunni Islam as the religion of the state and the majority. It has been central in the way that allegiances and loyalties were built on part of the administration and especially the military.