In a deeply unusual move, leaders of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect in Syria have released a document, obtained by the BBC, that distances themselves from his regime and outlines what kind of future they wish for the country after five years of civil war.
The community and religious leaders say they hope to “shine a light” on the Alawites after a long period of secrecy, at what they call “an important moment” in their history.
In the eight-page document, termed a “declaration of identity reform”, the Alawites say they represent a third model “of and within Islam”.
Those behind the text say Alawites are not members of a branch of Shia Islam – as they have been described in the past by Shia clerics – and that they are committed to “the fight against sectarian strife”.
They also make clear that they adhere to “the values of equality, liberty and citizenship”, and call for secularism to be the future of Syria, and a system of governance in which Islam, Christianity and all other religions are equal.
And despite Alawites having dominated Syria’s government and security services under Mr Assad and his late father Hafez for more than four decades, they stress that the legitimacy of his regime “can only be considered according to the criteria of democracy and fundamental rights”.
The Alawites emerged in the 10th Century in neighbouring Iraq.
Little has been confirmed about their beliefs and practices since then because, according to the leaders, they had to be hidden to avoid persecution.
However, most sources say the name “Alawite” refers to their veneration of the first Shia imam, Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.
Alawites are said to share the belief of members of the main branches of Shia Islam, of which Ithna Asharis or Twelvers are the largest group, that Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community following his death in 632.
The Alawites purportedly differ from Twelvers in holding that Ali was a manifestation of God – a notion that some members of Syria’s Sunni majority consider heretical.
In the document published on Sunday, the Alawite leaders insist that their faith is “solely based on the idea of worshipping God”. They add that “the Koran alone is our holy book and a clear reference to our Muslim quality”.
While acknowledging that they share some formal religious sources, the leaders stress that Alawism is distinct from Shia Islam, and decline previous legal rulings, or fatwas, by leading Shia clerics that seek to “appropriate the Alawites and consider Alawism an integral part of Shiism or a branch of the latter”.
The leaders also acknowledge that Alawites have incorporated elements of other monotheistic religions into their traditions, most notably Judaism and Christianity, but say they should “not be seen as marks of deviation from Islam but as elements that bear witness to our riches and universality”.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, two of the leading Syrian Alawites behind the document told the BBC that they were keen to make this statement of identity as many Alawites were being killed because of their faith.
They wanted to make clear, they said, that members of all Islamic sects in Syria were “brothers and sisters” – and that the Alawites “should not be associated with the crimes the regime has committed”.
The Alawite leaders added that the future of Syria now lay in the hands of the international community.
Those behind the document said that they hoped it would “liberate” the Alawite community, who made up around 12% of Syria’s pre-war population of 24 million, and that their declaration of identity would cut the link or “umbilical cord” between the Alawites and the Assad regime.
The Alawites, they pointed out, existed before the Assad regime, “and will exist after it”.
According to Michael Kerr, professor of conflict studies and director of the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London, sectarian identity became a primary driver in the civil war in Syria, even though it was not the case at the beginning of the uprising there in 2011.
In the recent book he edited, The Alawis Of Syria, Prof Kerr wrote that Bashar al-Assad “took the strategic decision to facilitate sectarian narratives and counter-narratives and… perhaps intentionally, exposed his community to the reductionist logic of the most extreme Islamist forces”.
Prof Kerr concludes that the future of Syria’s Alawites “remains inimically linked to the Assad regime; it is hostage to Bashar’s realpolitik approach to a zero-sum conflict that transcends Syria’s borders, the outcome of which will have great significance for the future power balance in the region”.
Of the document itself, he says: “It is very significant that Alawi community leaders have stressed that they are not a branch of Shia Islam but a separate Muslim religious community that is of and within Islam.
“This development marks an important shift from the regime’s previous attempts to steer the community closer to Twelver Shia Islam, under Hafez al-Assad after the Cold War, and Bashar’s attempts at ‘Sunnification’ after he inherited the presidency in 2000.
“They seem to be saying that they are an Abrahamic faith, that they want to be treated as such rather than as a minority Shia Islamic sect, and that they want this identity to be accepted and respected in a new secular Syria comprised of other Peoples of the Book.”
‘Assertion of belonging’
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Western diplomat who has seen the declaration of identity believes it is significant, and that it matters.
“It’s homegrown by the Alawite community inside Syria, and we have seen nothing authentically Alawite of this kind since 1949 and 1971. The language implies a dissociation from Iran and the regime there, but also something that seeks to disconnect the Alawite community from the Assad family,” he says.
“If this had come out during darker times, it would have been seen as a plea for mercy, but this is a time of strength for the regime, supported by the Russians, so this is a statement by Alawite leaders that says ‘we are who we are’.
“It’s an assertion of belonging to Syria, and an assertion of having an equal right to rights and duties within Syria independent of the regime system.”