Druze minority shielded by integration

Friday 04/09/2015
Druze community never sought to create its own sectarian and independent entity

BEIRUT - With other minorities, including Chris­tians and Yazidis, facing death and persecution at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), the Druze community, whose faith draws its roots from Islam but is influenced by ancient Greek and Indian philosophy, might also fear for its future.

Present in small communities in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan, the Druze have survived waves of persecution throughout history. Will they be put to the “test of sur­vival” once again with the rise of radical Islamist groups across the region?

Druze cleric Sheikh Sami Abil­mona played down fears of per­secution, stressing that the group has never felt it was a minority in the Middle East, although Druze constitute 5% of Lebanon’s popu­lation of 4.3 million, 3% of Syria’s population of 22.5 million. Another 130,600 live in Israel and 32,000 are in Jordan.

“Our fundamental belonging and allegiance is to the Arab and Muslim world. The Druze have al­ways identified with their Arab and Muslim environment at large. That is why we did not really have the same fears like other minorities,” Abilmona said.

Nonetheless, the Druze have ex­perienced difficult times in the past and had to defend themselves and their identity against aggressors. “But that was because of foreign powers’ interferences and attempts to play on sectarian sensitivities with the aim of dividing the region as happened in the 19th century,” the sheikh said, referring to con­flicts that had pitted the British-backed Druze against Christians, allied to France, in Ottoman-ruled Mount Lebanon.

Abilmona underlined that, throughout history, the Druze com­munity never tolerated segregation and radicalism or sought to create its own sectarian and independent entity, although it had feudal pow­ers and ruled Mount Lebanon for centuries.

“Isolation would have been sui­cidal. Our presence in this part of the world has been and will be safeguarded through our integra­tion and complementary role in our (Arab and Muslim) society,” he said.

The phenomenon of Islamic ex­tremism sweeping the region has led to the mass persecution and uprooting of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. A small cluster of Druze villages in Idlib in north-west Syria came under ISIS attack earlier in 2015, causing outrage and concern among Druze across Leba­non, Syria and Israel.

“Of course we have fears from radicalism implanted in the minds of certain groups,” acknowledged Abilmona, “but not from Islam.

“I don’t believe at all that Islamic fanaticism constitutes a threat to the Druze as such. The danger is on all, especially if there are schemes to redraw the map of the region and partition it on a sectarian and ethnic basis… That should be a source of fear for all of us.”

In Syria, the Druze are mainly concentrated in the southern prov­ince of Sweida. Like other minority groups, they see the regime of Syr­ian President Bashar Assad as a bul­wark against extremists. Nonethe­less, they have struggled to remain neutral in the conflict, which has claimed more than 240,000 lives in four-and-a-half years.

“While the Syrian people are di­vided between supporters and op­ponents to the regime, Syria’s Dru­ze have taken the decision to place the nation’s interest above any oth­er considerations. It is a fateful and crucial stance,” said Syrian Druze Sheikh Akel Hammoud Hinnawi.

“Religion is for God and the na­tion is for all. This is our policy which is based on mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance of the other, although our community faced fateful challenges from armed opposition groups, prompt­ing us to defend ourselves,” added Hinnawi, the highest Druze reli­gious authority, in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

He said the community has paid a high price in the war, with some 1,000 dead, mostly soldiers. This has triggered a race to buy weapons for self-defence.

“Security challenges are many and extremely dangerous but the biggest one is the threat of rampant terrorism,” Hinnawi said, in refer­ence to attacks by ISIS and al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, to dislodge the Syrian Army from Sweida, notably from the military airfield of al-Thula.

Although they have not joined the rebellion against Assad’s re­gime, Syrian Druze have aired grievances against authorities, which they accused of turning their backs and abandoning them to re­pel the jihadists alone.

Syrian Druze writer Wassef Ab­del Hadi found positive signs amid the gloom engulfing Sweida, where many displaced Syrians fleeing devastated villages in neighbour­ing Sunni Deraa sought shelter.

“Sweida has become a small sam­ple of a Syrian safe haven. It is an example of a tolerant Syria where short cuts are established between the different religions, sects and factions,” Abdel Hadi said.

The Druze are well-known for their solidarity in times of adver­sity.

“When we feel that our brethren in Syria are in real danger we will definitely help them,” Abilmona said. “However, our strong inter­nal bonds are not directed against others. If we are united for our own sake, we are also united for the sake of our nation as a whole.”

He advised Syria’s Druze to maintain their neutrality and not be used as “a spearhead against any other group or sect or religion.

“If such a neutrality holds in Sweida, it would be an example for the salvation of all of Syria,” he said.