Planet Earth

The Alawite analogy

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSep 5, 2012 3:59 AM

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Analogies exist to convey information. But too often all they do is add rhetorical flourish. For an analogy to have power there needs to be a genuine mapping of the structure of the source and target. And perhaps more crucially your target audience needs to understand the structure of the source well enough to map it onto the target. You can't get insight from a foundation of nothing. A story in The New York Times suggested to me one avenue by which to communicate the particular nature of the relations in Syria between ethno-linguistic groups. Syrian Children Offer Glimpse of a Future of Reprisals:

The roots of the animosity toward the Alawites from members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who make up about 75 percent of the population, run deep into history. During the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, the two groups lived in separate communities, and the Sunni majority so thoroughly marginalized Alawites that they were not even allowed to testify in court until after World War I.

As has been noted elsewhere the Alawite identity as Shia Muslims is to some extent an artifact of modern circumstances (i.e., the alliance with Iran which dates back to the 1970s). But, it does shield them against the most extreme accusations of heresy and infidelity to Islam. The fact that Alawites had no legal standing in customary Syrian society indicates how much the Other they once were. And, it goes to the root of the fact that the brutal behavior of the Alawites is not simply a function of the pernicious influence of the Assad family, but due to genuine fear of a resurgent Sunni ascendancy. How to communicate the depth of the chasm, and the high stakes? It may shock Americans because of our perception of who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are, but I think one might conceptualize the Syrian rebels as the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan. The Alawite ascendancy is viewed through tradition, as well as democratic legitimacy, an as aberration to many Syrians. Not only that, but unlike the Christians or Syrian Jews, Alawites were not a "middle-man minority" with an exceptional record of professional or business success. Rather, they were marginal Mediterranean peasants, who delegated the running of the economy to the Sunni merchant princes. By offering up the analogy to the American Reconstruction I indicate that here you have a group which was not given the due rights of full humans (i.e., Muslims) during the Ottoman era, which now finds itself in a position of supremacy. This is not a stable position because of the force of numbers on the side of the Sunnis. But, the example of Reconstruction should indicate to us that democracy is not a means of government which always engenders maximum liberty and coexistence.

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