Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The number of Lebanese Alawites is estimated to be somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000, excluding the thousands of Syrian Alawite refugees who now reside within the country. Despite being grouped as a religious minority, Alawites in Lebanon today still suffer from discrimination that is, essentially, political in nature.
While identifying as a branch of Shi’a Islam, Alawites are a distinct ethno-religious community with a long history in the region, dating back millennia. They came under direct Ottoman rule in the nineteenth century and experienced significant discrimination during this time before briefly achieving territorial autonomy under the French mandate until 1936. Until relatively recently, they were not recognized as an official religious group in Lebanon and were excluded from much of public life, with some sources suggesting that many were forced to convert to mainstream Sunni or Twelver Shi’a branches to secure employment in the civil service.
The problems facing the Alawite community in Lebanon today cannot be disassociated from modern politics, including the community’s link to Syria’s Alawi-led Baathist regime. During Lebanon’s long war, some Lebanese Alawites provided military and political support to the Syrian forces occupying Lebanon. The perceived support of Alawites for the Assad regime has deepened the already existing tensions between them and other local communities, particularly Sunnis.
In Tripoli, home to more than half of the country’s Alawite population, these tensions have at times resulted in violent clashes between sections of the Lebanese Sunni and Alawite communities, bringing the city almost to the brink of conflict. Past years have seen Alawite shops burned, Alawite workers shot at and buses carrying Alawite residents targeted. In January 2015 nine residents were killed and 37 wounded in a double suicide attack in Jabal Mohsen, an attack claimed by the anti-Assad Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Two trends evidence a growing apprehension among the Alawite community in Lebanon. Firstly, notwithstanding their recognition as an official Lebanese sect, Alawites have historically been persecuted for their beliefs, displaced from Lebanese urban centres to its surrounding mountains. Today the majority of Lebanese Alawites appear to be consolidating in their historical urban mountain enclave of Jabal Mohsen, on the outskirts of Tripoli. This is despite the fact that the historic neighbourhood itself has become notoriously impoverished, deprived of public services and subject to sporadic bouts of violence with neighbouring Sunni militants and more recently extremist Islamic groups.
Given that the arrival of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has included members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, as well as anti-Assad Salafi networks, the Alawite community in Tripoli has not been spared from what some observers have been quick to designate as sectarian ‘spill-over’ from the war in Syria. While it is generally acknowledged that Lebanese Alawites are not active in providing resources to support the Assad regime’s war effort, the perceived association has proven deadly for Alawite civilians, both old and new, now living in Lebanon. Among various drivers of communal tensions between Lebanese and Syrians, the political situation within Lebanon and the region is increasingly significant alongside economic competition and other factors. This may be partly to gain better access to services and representation – given the inherent systemic bias toward larger faiths and sects – but also to better facilitate social integration. This could too be evidence of taqiyya, the historic practice of religious dissimulation in a climate of latent persecution. Aside from the continuous threat of violent attacks, these indicators speak to a more persistent everyday issue facing Alawites in Lebanon: that of economic and social discrimination. Alawite residents of Jabal Mohsen in particular have expressed the view that they have been abandoned by the Lebanese state as punishment for their perceived disloyalties.
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