Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Druze constitute around 3 to 4 per cent of the population and are the third largest religious minority in Syria. They are located primarily in Jabal Druze (also known as Jabal al-Arab or Jabal Hawran) on the south-western border abutting Jordan, but with significant communities on the Golan (Jawlan), seventeen villages in Jabal al-A’la, roughly midway between Aleppo and Antioch in the north-west, and four villages just south of Damascus.
Druze are ethnically Arab and Arabic speaking. Their monotheistic religion incorporates many beliefs from Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and is also influenced by Greek philosophy and Hinduism. Druze have not proselytized since the 11th century, and the religion remains closed to outsiders.
In spite of the purges of Druze in the 1960s, like other communities, they share in government though the reins of real power remain in Alawi hands. Like the Alawis, the Druze have supported secular nationalism but remain anxious to be considered within the fold of Islam, even if some feel their beliefs barely merit it, and fear being disavowed by the Sunni majority, especially at a time of Sunni revivalism.
The first Druze settlers probably arrived in the Jabal Druze from Mount Lebanon and Aleppo at the end of the seventeenth century. Their chief concerns were to establish communities where they would not be molested by Ottoman authorities or the Sunni population, and that were defensible against Bedouin raids. Jabal Druze was ideal. As a result of the events of 1860 in Mount Lebanon, the Jabal experienced a massive influx of Druze migrants from Lebanon and the population rocketed, as the south and eastern slopes of the Jabal were colonized. Throughout the nineteenth century the Ottomans unsuccessfully attempted to subdue the Druze into submission to taxation and conscription like the rest of the province of Syria. They only succeeded in 1910.
Alongside a religious leadership based on heredity within three clans, the real leaders of the Jabal were the various clan leaders who mediated the outside world for their followers, who were composed both of kin and dependent families who settled in the clan’s villages.
The Druze responded ambivalently to the short-lived Arab kingdom of 1919-20, and welcomed the establishment of an independent Druze territory by France. But certain leaders were profoundly suspicious of French intentions and in 1925 a major revolt, in unison with Arab nationalists in Damascus, nearly ejected France from the country. After the revolt’s suppression in 1927, two trends were discernible in Druze society. The old established notable class clung to separate status, trusting France to uphold it, while the younger generation and those of lower status favoured Arab nationalism. Many of these joined the army and in due course the Ba’ath party, and helped defeat the separatists.
During the 1960s the Druze were purged from power within the army, the Ba’ath party and security services after an unsuccessful coup attempt by a Druze officer.
About 15,000 Druze have lived under Israeli military occupation on the Golan since 1967. The Druze have resisted attempts to get them to adopt Israeli citizenship. In fact, Druze in the Golan from the Israeli side can often be seen standing by the security fence and speaking to their relatives and friends on the Syrian side.
A growing influx of Jewish settlers among Druze communities in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights led to tensions in 2007. Druze complained bitterly of right-wing settlers bent on dominance of the local villages. In October, over 30 Druze and Israeli police officers were wounded in riots in the Golan Heights village of Peki’in.
Druze have generally avoided taking sides in the current conflict. While a few Druze have aligned themselves, the majority have stayed neutral and have established checkpoints and militias in their areas, especially Suwaida, southern Syria, where Druze mainly live, in order to protect their people. Most have been reluctant to enlist in Assad’s army, fearing they would be sent to fight on distant battlefronts and risk creating tensions with their Sunni neighbours.
Some Druze have been involved in fighting against armed militant groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (now called Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham). There were kidnappings and an attack on a Druze village in early 2013. In August 2014, Druze fighters clashed with Bedouin Arabs backed by Jabhat Al-Nusra, leading to at least a dozen deaths, including three spiritual leaders. On 10 June 2015, Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters killed 30 Druze in the village of Qalba Loza, Idlib governorate. Inhabitants of the village had previously faced pressures by the armed group to renounce their faith. Militants also destroyed shrines and dug up Druze graves.
The Druze community’s relationship with the government has grown tense at times due to disagreement over issues of conscription and self-protection. In April and May 2016 respectively, two protest movements erupted in Sweida stemming from discontent over issues such as corruption and the rising cost of living caused by the conflict. Some of the protests took on explicitly anti-government overtones.
Updated March 2018
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