Druze minority shielded by integration
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.