Alawites in Syria and Alevis in Turkey: Crucial Differences
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. (...)