Sectarian differences, threatening to ensnare Muslims outside Syria's borders, have emerged as a key aspect of the horrific bloodshed there. Since February 2011 the Syrian protestors, mainly following Sunni Islam, have mobilized against the Baathist government of Bashar Al-Assad, as a further chapter in the "Arab Spring." As of the end of July 2012, fatalities in the Syrian fighting are estimated at more than 20,000.
In Syria, Al-Assad's state, military, and irregular militias draw significantly on a small – and, to the world, mysterious – variant of Shia Islam known as Alawites. Of Syria's population of 22 million, at least two million are Alawites; it is common to see them credited with 12 percent of the country's inhabitants. They mostly reside in the Syrian province of Latakia, from the northwest border with Turkey along the Mediterranean coast, and in southern Syria. Alawites are also found in Lebanon, and among Syrians and Lebanese abroad.
In Turkey, northward beyond the uneasy Syrian-Turkish frontier, and concentrated in eastern Anatolia, another Shia sect, the Alevis, comprise, according to many estimates, a quarter of the Turkish census, or 20 million out of 80 million. They include, in addition, a million in the Turkish diaspora in Germany, and still more in the ranks of emigrants from Turkey to the Netherlands and other Western European lands.
It is easy to conflate the Alawites and Alevis. Superficially the Alawites and the Alevis may seem related closely or even identical, especially because of their corresponding names; moreover, about a half million Arab Alawites also live on the Turkish side of the border with Syria.
The similarity of their common designation – Alawite and Alevi both mean "devoted to Ali," the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad – denotes that they are Shia in origin. Shiism is defined essentially by reverence for Ali, the fourth caliph, or successor, to Muhammad as leader of the Muslims, before he was murdered in 661 CE. Mainstream Shiism recognizes 12 imams or religious guides, beginning with Imam Ali; and Alawites and Alevis are known as "Twelvers" in honoring them.
While they are "Twelvers," Alawites and Alevis hold to principles and practices that set the two communities off from the rest of the global Shia community. Alawites and Alevis view Imam Ali as embodying the divine. In this they are far from conventional Shia doctrine, according to which Imam Ali was noble, but purely human. But notwithstanding these points of resemblance between the Alawite and Alevi believers, they are, in reality, markedly unalike from one another.
First, as indicated by a Swedish academic, Marianne Aringberg-Laanatza, in a contribution to the 1998 volume, Alevi Identity, Syrian Arab Alawites, and Turkish and Kurdish Alevis, are nationalistic, and represent conflicting ethnicities.
Syrian and Turkish Alawites speak Arabic; Syria – both Alawite and Sunni – has considered Turkey, in the main, an opponent of its historic interests. Turkish Alevis, however, speak Turkish; and Kurdish Alevis speak Turkish and Kurdish. The majority of Kurds desire autonomy, if not full self-determination, free of Arab or Turkish domination. This aspect of their cultures is central to the religious life of the Alevis and distinguishes them from the Alawites as well as from established Shiism. Alawites and Alevis do not share a liturgical language, as Turkish and Kurdish adherents to conventional Sunnism and Shiism possess in Arabic.
Second, neither Alawites in their majority, nor Alevis as a whole, pray in mosques or support clerics as mainstream Shias do. Yet Alawites do not even maintain their own places for worship, except for shrines to their leaders (sheikhs), while Alevis congregate in a ceremony called the "cem" (pronounced "jem") in a meeting-house or "cemevi."
Third, Alawite religious literature is apparently limited to the Koran and the collected sermons of Imam Ali (entitled Nahjul Balagha or Peak of Eloquence). An enigmatic volume of purported Alawite scripture, the Kitab al-Majmu or Book of Collection, may not exist. Alawite teachings are transmitted incrementally through the lifetimes of selected disciples, but denied to most acolytes, and kept rigorously secret.
Alevis, on the other hand, possess an extensive and widely-read religious literature, mainly composed of spiritual songs, poems, and epic verse. The Alevi "cem" combines singing, music, and dancing. Alevis consider themselves spiritual Muslims, or Sufis. Their recitations are drawn from the outstanding and beloved Turkish poet, Yunus Emre; the Kurdish Sufi, Safi Al-Din; the Persian-Turkish Sufi, Hajji Bektash, and the Turkish poet, Pir Sultan Abdal, among others.
Fourth, the Alawites and Alevis emerged at distant times and places. The Alawite faith was founded early in Islamic history, in the ninth century, by Abu Shuayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr, a Shia adherent, and may reflect the survival of Phoenician paganism as well as pre-Islamic Persian religions.
The creed of the Alevis, however, more a movement than a sect, began among 14th century mystical dissenters in Central Asia. Parallel with the Alawite faith, Alevism preserves pre-Islamic elements of Turkish shamanism and Kurdish angel-worship. Alevism became a significant factor among Anatolian peasants supporting Shah Ismail, a Kurdish Shia Sufi, who conquered Persia in the 16th century. Shah Ismail was also a poet whose works are featured in the Alevi "cem." The appearance of Shiism in Turkish-ruled Anatolia led the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, a Sunni, to fight an unsuccessful war against Shah Ismail and Persia. In its aftermath, the Alevis would suffer under the Ottomans for assisting Shah Ismail's armies.
Fifth, Alawites consider women inferior and exclude them from sacred observances. By contrast, Turkish and Kurdish Alevis are confirmed supporters of gender equality, and women participate in leading the Alevi "cem."
But most significant is the political difference between them. Although both Alevis and Alawites are opposed to Islamist ideological governance, Alawites support a brutal dictatorship, while Turkish and Kurdish Alevis defend electoral democracy.
Although the Turkish and Kurdish Alevis may be labeled by some as "the same as" Syrian or Turkish-Arab Alawites, their history, culture, and attitudes are clearly disparate. As Prof. Aringberg-Laanatza concludes, "The Turkish Alevis... do not relate themselves in any way to the Alawites in Syria." Aringberg-Laanatza sees "to some extent... a common historical background based on elements of Christians converted to these special forms of Islam." That is, however, a slim reed on which to lean any claim of Alawite-Alevi commonality.
For Alawites and Alevis, as the axiom goes, analysts should make distinctions, not confuse them.