Druze in Syria
The Druze people are an ethnoreligious minority group found in the Middle East. As such, the Druze are an ethnic minority in all the countries where they are found. The larger percentage of the group resides in Syria. Despite their comparatively small size, the Druze have made monumental contributions in Syria. They have been at the forefront of fighting for Syria’s independence and instrumental in the founding of the Syrian nation. However, just like other ethnic minorities in Syria, the Druze have been subjected to discrimination and persecution by the ethnic majority. This has led the Druze to harbor aspirations of territorial autonomy, religious autonomy, and cultural self-determination. Due to their diversity, it is challenging to assert the extent, to which these aims have been met in the recent past. Analysis indicates that the group has essentially been unsuccessful so far in their quest to achieve their objectives. The increased secularization and Syrianization of the Druze and other ethnic minorities in Syria and the ongoing Syrian civil war have conspired to deny the Druze the political, social, and cultural identities they desire. However, the Druze have attained religious freedom as they are recognized as a separate religious group with distinct religious court systems.
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Introduction and Context
The Druze people are the adherents of the Druze faith, an ethnoreligious group found in the Middle East region. The Druze originated from the Near East, uniquely considering themselves as Unitarians, believing in one God. As of 2014, it was estimated that there were about 2 million people of the Druze heritage living in the Middle East (Kastrinou, 2016). It was estimated that 500,000 more were scattered all over the globe, including Arab Africa, Europe, and Australia (Kastrinou, 2016). Nearly 40% or approximately 700,000 members of the Druze ethnoreligious group live in Syria (Khowry, 2014). It is by far the largest congregation of the Druze people in any country. Thus, nearly 20% to 30% of the Druze are found in Lebanon, 7% in Israel, 2% in Jordan, and the rest are scattered in other countries of the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (Khowry, 2014). Therefore, there is no single country where the Druze people constitute the ethnic majority; they are among the minority in all countries where they are found. The Druze in Syria, as an ethnic and religious minority, constitute about 3% of the total Syrian population, and they mostly reside in the Druze villages located in the northern Idlib Province (Phillips, 2015). Just like other minorities in Syria, the Druze have faced many challenges, including Syrianization and persecution among others that have hindered their ambitions and aspirations as Syrian people. This paper attempts to discover the identity politics of the Druze in Syria. It details their historical, social, and political identity, delineating the aims of the group, their aspirations, the means they use to achieve their objectives, and the extent, to which they have been successful in meeting them. The analysis indicates that the Druze in Syria have been unsuccessful, as the increased secularization of the Druze and other minorities has effectively oppressed them politically, socially, and culturally.
Historical, Social, and Political Identity
The Druze people profess the Druze faith, a monotheistic Abrahamic religion that draws its principles from a variety of religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. They have lived in Syria since the 11th century. For most of their existence in Syria and beyond, the Druze have followed a lifestyle of isolation. Socially, they identify themselves as a unique people who have a unique religion that differs from the dominant religions in the Arabic region (Schaebler, 2013). Thus, the Druze in Syria live in tightly-knit social communities and rarely interact with the rest of the world. However, at times, they integrate and assimilate in the communities they live in to protect their religious faith and their safety. Therefore, sometimes, the Druze are perceived as cowards by some people. Since they do not always participate in sectarian conflicts, they are also sometimes considered by some, especially those on the government’s side, as unpatriotic.
Despite their comparatively small population, the Druze have made a significant political contribution in Syria. Most notably, they were a very inspirational force in Syria’s fight for independence and the formation of a series of governments, including the current one (Khowry, 2014). The Druze played a critical role in the formation of the state of Syria, actively participating in Syrian nationalism and the struggle for independence. In fact, they are the only people credited with defeating the French colonial forces without the help of the Britons (Kastrinou, 2016). All other parts of Syria were liberated, following a joint effort between the British and the Syrian forces. Led by Amir Hassan Al-Atrash, the leader of Jebel al-Druze, the Druze military units successfully revolted against the French forces in 1925 in a battle near Sweida (Khowry, 2014). They also partook in the successful Independence Intifada and the institution of the Ba’ath regime with its leader Hafez al-Assad, whose son Bashar succeeded him, becoming the current Syrian President.
However, despite the significant political influence, they wielded and the contributions they have made, the Druze in Syria has fundamentally been subdued politically mainly because of the underlying autonomy sentiments that the group is associated with. The narrative started after Syria gaining its independence when a section of the Druze implored the government in Damascus to reward their sacrifices during the fight for independence with senior government positions or autonomy to govern themselves (Kastrinou, 2016). The ensuing controversy led to the new government maligning the Druze and actively suppressing their quest for an autonomous administration. In 1945, for instance, the then-president Shukri al-Kuwaiti labeled the Druze a dangerous minority and refused to retract the accusation (Khowry, 2014). The implication was that they were considered as insurgents, and this the narrative hardly changed until after the 1980s. In fact, in 1952, the then President Adib Shishakli plotted a heavy attack by the Syrian government forces against the Druze to crush their perceived resistance. Around 10,000 troops were directed to fight the defenseless Druze population and occupy the Jebel al-Druze area (Schaebler, 2013). It should be noted that the President would later be assassinated by a Druze individual while touring Brazil years later. Even as the skirmish between the Druze and the government subsidies, the Druze are still considered unpatriotic and treasonous.
Aims of the Group
The Druze are a dynamic community scattered all over the Arab peninsula. Thus, it is quite challenging to determine their exact aims and objectives as a people. However, given the affliction that they have experienced particularly in Syria, it is evident that certain themes unite the people of Druze descent.
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The primary aim of the Druze as an ethnic group has been to enjoy political self-determination. As explained earlier, right after Syria gaining independence, they demanded political autonomy since they wanted to govern themselves in their region. However, the quest has been met with resistance from the central government that increasingly considers such sentiments as misplaced and tantamount to treason (Zisser, 2013). Having been subdued politically, the Druze opted for non-alignment. Today, they are principally apathetic and passive at the national political stage; thus, they rarely take sides in a conflict. However, just like other ethnic minorities in Syria, they are occasionally forced by the circumstances to take sides. For instance, since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Druze have not supported either side of the conflict. Thus, they neither support the government or the opposition side led by various rebel groups. However, as the economic condition continually deteriorated, there have been growing anti-government sentiments among the members of the group (Phillips, 2015). Additionally, they have been forced to join the opposition to fight against ISIS, Al-Nusrah Front, and other extremist groups that had taken advantage of the crisis in Syria to advance their influence in Syria.
Another goal of the Druze as an ethnic group has been to enjoy religious self-determination. Their attempts have been largely fruitful. Nearly in all countries where they live, including Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, they are recognized as a separate religious community that differs from the various sects of Islam and Christianity. In fact, in countries such as Syria and Lebanon, the Druze have been allowed to have their distinct religious court systems similar to the ones used by the ethnic majority (Kastrinou, 2016). However, while they enjoy this freedom, they are progressively targeted by ISIS and the Al-Nusrah Front groups that promote peculiar religious ideologies. Both these groups regard the Druze as heretics and actively wage war against them (Abdel-Samad, 2016). For instance, in June 2015, the members of Al-Nusrah Front massacred 23 Druze villagers in the Idlib Province, purporting that it had been prompted by a property dispute (Abdel-Samad, 2016). Hence, despite the Druze enjoying their religious self-determination, many other forces overtly and covertly curtail their religious freedom. The last major goal of these people is to preserve their rich cultural identity, which is one of the reasons that has compelled the Druze to live in isolation. Nevertheless, the ongoing Syrian conflict has subjected them to the outside world. Forces, such as ISIS, have actively destroyed the historical sites and other monuments that the Druze value greatly (Abdel-Samad, 2016). With little to no protection from the central government, the prevailing conflict may destroy the unique culture the Druze pride themselves in.
Why the Druze Hold the Aspirations
The Druze hold the aforementioned aspirations mainly because they are a minority group that has been subjected to discrimination and persecution by the ethnic majority for a long time. Various regime oppressed this minority. However, only the current Assad regime has had a favorable relationship with the Druze; yet, even the existent relationship is, at best, frosty (Terrill, 2015). At times, the government would misuse its ability to offer military assistance to coerce the Druze to support its efforts in the Syrian conflict. Sometimes, when they consider that the relationship with the government is not mutually beneficial, they refuse to be conscripted into the Syrian army or join the many militia groups affiliated or otherwise supporting the government forces. At some point in 2015, the relationship had deteriorated to a point where the government turned away a Druze delegation to Damascus that had gone to request for military aid to fight ISIS (Abdel-Samad, 2016). The inconsistency of government support and the unpredictability of the relationship are the compelling reasons why the Druze want to bear arms to protect themselves and become territorially autonomous to some extent.
At the same time, a more compelling reason for the Druze aspirations is the increased stigmatization of the ethnic and religious minorities in the Arab peninsula. The majority of the Arabic population believes in the chauvinistic notions of Arab nationalism (Kastrinou, 2016). In Syria, the Druze and other ethnic minorities have been forcibly integrated into the Syrian social structure. This forced Syrianization inspires ethnic minorities, including the Druze, to hold aspirations that promote independence and self-determination (Phillips, 2015). However, sometimes, these ambitions are confounded by the paradox of neutrality. Most ethnic minorities, including the Druze, intend not to be involved in the prevailing complicated conflict. However, the government tries to prompt the Druze to support its actions or otherwise conform by means of ingenious dealings such as kidnapping the Druze religious leaders and even assassinating them (Terrill, 2015). Consequently, inside the Druze group, aspirations are diverse since some of them are neutral, and some support the government, while others help the opposition.
Strategies to Achieve the Objectives
There are several strategies that the Druze appropriate to achieve their objectives. For instance, to promote the attainment of political and territorial autonomy, they use their militias to counter the government’s influence in the region. The militia personnel is also critical in protecting the Druze community against ISIS, Al-Nusrah, and other extremist groups, operating in Syria (Abdel-Samad, 2016). In 2013, for instance, a section of the Druze community joined and supported the opposition assaults in the Sweida Province (Schaebler, 2013). Their religious leaders overtly called upon the members of the Druze community to desert the government and its military; instead, they blessed the course of killing the ‘murderers’ in the government (Schaebler, 2013). The Syrian government’s influence has waned in the regions occupied by the Druze, which is one of the reasons why the government has seemingly neglected this minority group in the face of the ever-intensifying Syrian civil war.
Apart from forming and joining resistance groups, the Druze also seek to achieve their objectives through youth movements and protests that increasingly become common in the Sweida Province. Thus, their “You Suffocated Us” movement, which was launched in 2015, primarily calls for the protests against bad governance, the poor administration of resources, corruption, and deteriorating economic conditions in the region. In the spring of 2016, another youth movement known as “You Destroyed Us” was formed. This one has demands that transcend the economic matters to include conscription issues and other civic-related issues, affecting the Druze residing in Sweida (Kastrinou, 2016). Wherever there is an escalation, this movement would demand the resignation of President Assad or even overthrow of the government.
Additionally, the Druze occasionally collaborate with the Syrian government and other governments, thus seeking empowerment and enhancing their military capabilities. The Druze group is seen as strategically by both the Syrian government and the international powers involved in the conflict (Terrill, 2015). Thus, they have taken advantage of this situation to benefit from both sides of the conflict. They solicit protection from the government. The Druze living in the Golan Heights have the support of the Israeli government. Sometimes, the Israeli fire shells to repel the forces attacking the Druze and even treat the injured representatives of this minority group in the nearby Israeli hospitals. However, it is unlikely that Israel would be involved in the Syrian conflict any time soon even if the Druze in Syria are afflicted.
Extent of Success
The Druze have largely been unsuccessful in Syria, barely attaining any of their common objectives as an ethnic minority. The Druze are still oppressed by the reigning regime and forced to integrate into the national Syrian social structure (Kastrinou, 2016). Despite their efforts, the Druze in Syria are still subjected to stigmatization. Furthermore, they are yet to achieve the territorial autonomy that they have sought since independence. They are still ruled by Damascus. Additionally, their culture is progressively diluted by other cultures due to the increased interactions and cooperation that have been prompted by the war. However, while they clearly have been unsuccessful in the political and social front, they have made substantial progress in the religious aspect (Phillips, 2015). Thus, they are recognized as a significant ethnoreligious group in Syria and beyond. In fact, in some countries, the group is allowed to have distinct religious court systems.
From the research conducted, it is evident that the Druze are a noteworthy minority ethnoreligious group in the Middle East, with a larger percentage of the group living in Syria. Despite the comparatively smaller size, this group has made remarkable contributions in Syrian history. The Druze single-handedly repelled the French colonial forces in their region. They also participated in instituting the government after independence. However, since then, they have had adverse relations with the central government. Due to their perceived quest for territorial autonomy, the Druze are largely seen as heretic and unpatriotic by the ethnic majority. Their periodic shifts in allegiance have barely helped their reputation, occasionally putting them at the center of the conflict between the government forces and the opposition. While the Druze have not achieved their political and social objectives, they have succeeded in the religious realm. They are considered and recognized as a separate religious group with a distinct court system. The ongoing Syrian civil war has had negative implications for the Druze, and as the war is set to continue into the unforeseeable future, the very existence of these people in Syria is threatened.