Druze in Syria

The Druze are an ethnoreligious group concentrated in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel with around one million adherents worldwide. The Druze follow a millenarian offshoot of Isma’ili Shi'ism. Followers emphasize Abrahamic monotheism but consider the religion as separate from Islam.

The Druze are named for Muhammad al-Darazi, an Isma’ili missionary from Persia who lived in Fatimid Cairo, and was propagated by Hamza ibn Ali. The Druze believe in the imamate of al-Hakim ibn Amr Allah (d. 1021), the sixth caliph of Egypt's Isma’ili Fatimid Dynasty. Though the Fatimids (909-1171) were Isma’ili Shi'a, al-Hakim established a new faith in which he was the incarnation of God. Druze believe that al-Hakim, who disappeared in 1021, will reappear to establish justice and global peace. They believe in five divine messengers, in Abrahamic prophets including Jesus and Muhammad, and minor prophets including Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Plato, and Socrates. In addition to belief in core principles such as rejection of other religions and maintenance of Druze secrets, the Druze believe in reincarnation. The community has historically been closed to outsiders—including converts—for both social and political reasons and which has resulted in strong community solidarity. 

In the 12th century a Druze principality took form in Lebanon, though the Druze did not become politically influential until they allied with the Ottoman Turks against the Egyptian Mamluks in the 16th century. The Druze expansion that followed led to conflict with the Ottomans and the Druze fled to smaller areas within the Levant, including to Syria's Hawran region, known as the Jabal al-Duruz or Druze Mountain. While the Druze of Lebanon and Syria maintained communal and transregional ties, each developed a distinct character with Syria's Druze more isolated than their Lebanese coreligionists.

Political manipulations by European and Ottoman powers led to sometimes violent tensions between the Druze and their Christian neighbors, including the 1860 war between Druze and Christians during which dispossessed Druze farmers rose against their French-supported Maronite landlords. This led to the deaths of an estimated 12,000 Christians and to French intervention under Napoleon III, a presence that would continue through to Syrian independence. The Ottomans, and later the Ba'ath Party, viewed the Druze as a potential separatist minority, a factor that was used to the advantage of the French, British, and later Israeli powers.

The Druze were not active participants in Arab nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nor did they support French rule in the Levant on account of French alliances with the Maronites. Overall, they preferred an alliance with the British. Druze uprisings against the French in the 1920's were widely successful and received the support and admiration of regional Arab nationalists.

Following independence, the Druze were wary of participation in what was ultimately a Sunni Muslim government. Likewise, the government was wary of the Druze due to the perception that they supported Israel during the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian war. Israeli Druze have been strong supporters of the state and many have served in the Israeli Defense Force. Syrian Druze officers were active in the military coup leading to the ascendancy of the Ba'ath Party in the 1960s and the Druze subsequently enjoyed economic development in their region in the years following.

Druze families have been prominent in Lebanese politics in the 20th century. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Junblat, son of prominent Druze political activist Kamal Junblat, has been a key figure in the Lebanese anti-Syria movement, accusing the Syrian government of assassinating his father in 1977. Walid Junblat has allied himself with Syrian opposition figures and has called for a United States occupation of Syria.

In the current Syrian conflict the Druze have largely remained neutral. Fears of persecution from Islamist Sunni rebels (who view the Druze as heretical) and from a potential Sunni-dominated opposition government have discouraged widespread participation in the opposition movement. However, Druze have participated on both sides of the struggle, including armed combat alongside rebels against the Syrian government.

Sources

Babak Dehghanpisheh, "Syria's Druze minority is shifting its support to the opposition," The Washington Post, February 8, 2013, accessed June 6, 2013,

Edmund Ghareeb, "Druze," The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2007), pp. 252-254.

"Druze," The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, ed. John Esposito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 70.

See also: Syria, Islam