Thursday, January 30, 2014

Aaron Y. Zelin and Phillip Smyth take a closer look at "The Vocabulary of Sectarianism" in the Middle East Channel of Foreign Policy - definately a must read.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Christians in the Bekaa increasingly threatened by Islamists 

In Al-Monitor a report appeared from the mainly Greek Catholic towns of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa on the Lebanese-Syrian border. In the Bekaa valley, where tensions between Hizballah and Syrian Islamist rebels are running high, Christians towns feel increasingly threatened by Sunni Islamists from Syria as well:

“Civilians are forming patrols to protect the borders in places like al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek,” said a source in the Defense Ministry that chose to remain anonymous, as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “What they are doing is in coordination with the local municipality and the governor of the Bekaa, so it’s half-legal, let’s say.”
Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa are two of Lebanon’s largest Christian villages, inhabited predominately by Greek Catholics and located on the northeast border with Syria. To date, locals say Ras Baalbek has yet to experience any incidents involving armed groups. The Lebanese army is stationed at the village entrance and has conducted searches of the homes of Syrians who have recently taken up residence there. Despite the relative security, locals are still concerned with developments just across the border.

This week, the head of al-Qaa municipality, Miled Rizk, claimed he received a death threat in a text message from a man purporting to be an Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emir named Abou Hasan al-Mhaje. The emir said that rockets would rain down on al-Qaa if anyone from the village stood against his men.Locals also say that some armed militants use the nightly fog to try to slip through the village. At the moment, residents say the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra is operating a kilometer away in the mountain range bordering al-Qaa.
"Christian villages on Lebanon-Syria border beef up security" by Justin Salihi

Monday, January 13, 2014

The "Syria in Crisis" Blog (which is generally great btw) on the Site of the Carnegie Endowment featured an interesting piece on the Alawites of Lebanon which provides some usefull background information about this community and an analysis of it's current leadership dynamics.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Al Jazeera English (of which myself is not a great fan overall) published an informative article on their website about Druze refuseniks in Israel containing some useful links.


Israel's Druze conscientious objectors by Dany Ballout/Al Jazeera
The Syriac Military Council (SMC) in Syria's north eastern Hasakah province has officially joined the YPG, the main Kurdish militia. Not to be confused with the other Syriac militia Sutoro (which is reportedly lately leaning more towards the regime site) the SMC was established a year ago and has recently proven to be an active fighting group. As Christians they add a cross-secterian flavor to the already secular image of the YPG.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The alleged conversion of the Druze in Idlib province

by Rami Abou Diab and Tobias Lang

Islamist pressure on Druze villages in Idlib

Three weeks ago a previous posting on this Blog about the situation of the Druze in northern Syria (Jabal al-A‘la or Jabal as-Summaq) stated, that "If it is true, that Kaftin or other Druze villages are under the control of ISIS, the inhabitants are faceing extremely hard times". While end of October an attack by al-Qaida affiliated ISIS on the village of Kaftin had been prevented by villagers of surrounding Sunni settlements and/or FSA elements, around December 22 the Islamist pressure on the 18 Druze villages in the area intensified (for a detailed map see here). Reports started to circulate, according to which the inhabitants of the Druze villages had declared their conversion to Islam.  A four page long declaration by sheikhs of the villages was posted on social media by activists connected to ISIS and Jabhat an-Nusra, which may indicate it was done on their request. In this handwritten statement some parts of the Druze religious doctrine are explicitly abandoned like the belief in reincarnation but overall the declaration seems more to be an affirmation of their conversion than the redemption of the Druze faith itself.

The first major media to jump on the story was the Lebanese pro-Asad daily al-Akhbar, from which many other media (e.g. here and here) borrowed. According to the al-Akhbar report by Firas Choufi, himself a Druze from Hasbayya:
“The Free Syrian Army (FSA) didn’t enter these villages and didn’t threaten its people because they knew that their relatives were living decently there. They avoided clashes because they wanted to preserve a safe haven for their families.”
All that changed when ISIS took the lead, leaving a few villages under the control of FSA remnants, while the ISIS Sharia committee managed villagers’ daily lives. 
According to sources, at the beginning, ISIS emirs treated Druze villagers well, knowing that they didn’t side with the regime. The situation recently changed, and the Sharia committee demanded the Druze to “announce their Islam.” 

Reliability of reports

Al-Akhbar fails to state that the Druze of Idlib province were mostly seen from early as sympathizing with the revolution and not as neutral. It was this reputation, which most likely helped to prevent the attack on Kaftin in October. Apart from that, it is plausible that a form of Islamist control over the Druze villages has been existing now for over a month, because it corresponds with older reports about ISIS's growing influence in the wider area. In another regard al-Akhbar simply spread once more cheap propaganda. In the Arabic print edition a picture appeared, which allegedly showed Druze women during Qur‘an indoctrination. However, it was quickly revealed that the same picture was posted by an Islamic charity organization in Afghanistan in May 2013 and has nothing to do with the Druze in Idlib (link).

The activities of Said Sad al-Ghamidi

However evidence regarding an alleged "conversion" appeared on social media connected to a Wahhabi preacher from Saudi Arabia by the name of Said Sad al-Ghamidi, who seems to be in charge of "guiding" the Idlib Druze to Islam.

Distributing goods from the Islamic Relief charity organization


al-Ghamidi with a Druze local in a Khalwa (prayer house-note the Druze flag and star)

al-Ghamidi in the Khalwa lecturing

Praying with al-Ghamidi as Imam according to Muslim tradition

In one video (note the covered Druze star on the wall) posted on al-Ghamidi's now delated Facebook-account, he is discussing the early Druze leader ad-Darazi with some Druze sheikhs and one sheikh states that ad-Darazi is considered as a heretic. The term "Druze" was in fact developed from "Muhammad ad-Darazi" and imposed by others. This video illustrates that Al-Ghamidi has absolutely no knowledge about the Druze and their faith because he was obviously surprised by this "revelation".


al-Ghamidi preaching in a mosque about the Druze


The usage of taqiyya

The Druze of Idlib province are by far the most valuable and weakest Druze community, situated in a predominately Sunni environment. They faced major waves of religious persecution during the 11th century (called mihna in the Druze vocabulary) and were later exposed to persecution by local governors. To avoid persecution taqiyya (dissimulation)  has been used extensively by this community for centuries. In the present case it means  foremost demonstrating closeness to Sunni Islam. This is why the villages also contain mosques besides of the khalwas, the Druze houses of prayer.

While the present situation of the Druze under Islamist control can undoubtedly only be described as critical, it remains unclear whether the declaration of the sheikhs was forced by the Islamists or done by the Druze themselves to preempt any further harm. The latter possibility is supported by the fact that there is no evidence for the usage of force against the Druze. In all lately published videos and pictures of al-Ghamidi's activities no armed Islamists can be seen. Of course it is well possible that they find an armed presence unnecessary since they Druze villagers are not in the position for any kind of resistance. Since the villagers seem so far to be cooperative converts to Islam, the Islamist commanders in charge may see simply no need in antagonizing them.

Druze reactions 

The reaction of the Druze in Syria and Lebanon can be described as modest and denying any form of "conversion". Even sources located on the ground in Idlib rejected a "conversion" had taken place and revealed instead incidents of discussions with Islamists about aspects of the Druze doctrine (like the one about ad-Darazi discussed above). Pro-opposition Druze from the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council even denied that the villages are under Islamist control, which is obviously the case. The vast majority of the Druze in Syria (apart from Idlib) is now more leaning to the regime site (see e.g. here and here), but on the numerous pro-Asad Druze sites on social media reaction was very modest and limited. Most likely they feel that their vocal support would only put their brothers in Idlib into deeper trouble. The reaction in Lebanon is similar, with Walid Junblat being surprisingly quiet and only Talal Arslan affirming the believing of the Druze in the message of the Prophet Muhammad. There is of course a reason for Junblat's pleaded quietness. Sources on the ground reveal, that behind the scenes his PSP works for a good while now as a mediating channel between the Druze of Idlib province, FSA remains and the Islamists of ISIS. While Junblat's influence on the Druze community of southern Syria or Damascus is very limited, it really seems that his channel to Idlib's community is functional.

Unsurprisingly the most harsh reactions on social media came from inside the Druze community in Israel , which in vast majority strongly rejects the idea of belonging to Islam. While former Knesset member Akram Hassun appeared on the Israeli i24 News Arabic expressing mainly his concern, more radical opinions were voiced in Facebook groups, going as far as suggesting military activity by Israeli Druze. Such interventions are of course very unrealistic. It is true that Israeli Druze intervened in favour of their Lebanese co-religionists during the Lebanese Civil War. While most of the support back then was on a policy-level, a few Israeli Druze deserted from the Israeli Army to fight along the Lebanese Druze. But in contrast to the war of the mountains 1982/83, there is no Israeli presence in Syria and no direct access to Idlib for Druze from Israel. Therefore any substantial Israeli-Druze action to help the Druze in Idlib is unlikely.

Conclusion

There is no evidence that the Druze of Idlib province were explicitly forced to convert to Islam. More likely they just had met such demands by ISIS following the principle of taqiyya, maybe even in advance. However, it is clear that the community is in a very precarious position. The Druze of Idlib province are standing on their own in a hostile environment, despite some behind the scenes mediation of Walid Junblat or statements of Israeli Druze. Reports about the treatment of non-Muslims by ISIS in other parts of Syria indicate, that most likely the co-operative attitude of the Druze villagers has so far prevented persecution, which would threaten the existence of this valuable community.

Rami Abou Diab is a student at Sorbonne University, Paris. He operates the Blog Qorqmaz and tweets under @AbouDiable.

Tobias Lang is a political scientist located in Vienna, Austria and author of the book "The Druze in Lebanon and Israel" (in German). He operates the Blog MENA Minorities and tweets under @tob_la.