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Syria through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy

Syria through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy

by Nibras Kazimi


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With field notes accumulated in a Syrian environment not generally hospitable to research and inquiry, Nibras Kazimi provides a unique view of the Syrian regime and its base at home, filling a void in our understanding of the intelligence barons and soldiers who run that country. He offers a look at the tactical, propagandists and strategic ingredients required, in jihadist eyes, for a successful jihad—and whether those ingredients are available in Syria.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817910754
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Series: Hoover Institution Press Publication Series , #583
Edition description: 1
Pages: 124
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Nibras Kazimi is a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He also contributed regular columns to the New York Sun and Prospect Magazine (UK).

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Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy

By Nibras Kazimi

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1076-1



"Nusayri" is perceived to be a derogatory name for Nusayri-'Alawites. However, it is the name by which they have been known for most of their existence. At certain times in their history, they have adopted it, and the members of their community in southern Turkey still call themselves by it. "Alawite" is an early twentieth-century formulation, meant to put some distance between the sect and its despised status in the past. However, most jihadist tracts refer to them only as "Nusayri" and it has become an academic standard to combine the two terms. "Bilad al-sham," a geographic term historically used to describe the region around Damascus but which has come to be used for the area that Western sources describe as "the Levant," shall be translated as "Greater Syria."



Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), by far the most important source of inspiration for today's jihadists, lived in very difficult times for orthodox Islam. A scion of a family displaced from northern Syria to Damascus by the Mongol hordes, he observed that Islam as he understood it and believed in it had been under attack and undermined for several centuries. By the time he picked up a pen the external threat had been checked and it was imperative upon a resurgent orthodoxy to confront the internal heresies that had sprung up during the past chaos. Chief among his heretical targets were the Nusayri-'Alawites. He believed they represented a threat, one dangerous enough to put an end to Sunnism, and one which must be stamped out. It is no accident that Sunni revivalists in the twentieth century turned to his words for succor and guidance when confronted by circumstances similar to those witnessed by Ibn Taymiyya. Similarly in modern times, when Nusayri-'Alawites were recast as a threat to Sunnism, Ibn Taymiyya was trotted out to cast the sectarians as outside the faith, and to make the point that drastic actions, amounting to annihilation, were warranted. No other Muslim thinker commands the amount of reverence that modern jihadists hold for Ibn Taymiyya. The fact that Ibn Taymiyya armed the jihadists with a blueprint as to how to handle a Nusayri-'Alawite threat releases them from the task of coming up with a doctrinally sound argument for why drastic measures are now warranted. His word is akin to scripture, and he has shown them the way forward.

Three fatwas are attributed to Ibn Taymiyya regarding the Nusayri-'Alawites. In each, he sought to establish a relevant Islamic precedent. No chronological order can be discerned, but it is likely that the first fatwa dealt with such questions as the sect's deification of the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Taleb, whether Muslims can intermarry with members of the sect or allow them to be buried in Muslim cemeteries, and whether they could be trusted with the protection of Islamic lands against non-Muslims. The questioner also asks whether their blood and wealth are sanctioned for the taking and whether a Nusayri-'Alawite fighting against the enemy, in that case the Crusaders, is considered a murabit, or holy warrior holding territory at the edges of the land of Islam. It is likely that this fatwa was commissioned in order to mobilize support for the Mameluke raids into Kisrawan, in Lebanon, and in the Dhinniyah mountains east of Tripoli, areas that were seemingly settled by heterodox sects, chief among them the Nusayri-'Alawites, in 1305 AD.

Irrespective of the errors that Ibn Taymiyya made in identifying the tenets of Nusayri-'Alawism, or in confusing them with other sects, his fatwa cast the Nusayri-'Alawites among the sects whose danger to Islam is greater than that of the Mongols or the Crusaders. He characterized them as seeking to identify themselves as mainstream Shi'as, whereas in reality "they do not believe in Allah, or [Muhammad], or the [Koran]" and disregard all the obligations of being a Muslim with the excuse that esoteric knowledge exempts them from praying, fasting, or making the pilgrimage to Mecca. As such, precedent places them among the kuffar (unbelievers) and the heretics, and those who reject Islam, which they take to extents "further than that of the Jews and Christians and the Brahmins of India who worship deities." Ibn Taymiyya adds a political dimension by stating that groups such as the Nusayri-'Alawites always ally themselves with the enemies of the Muslims, and that they enabled the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem. "Their religion externally is [Shi'ism] but internally it is pure unbelief," and Muslim precedent has ruled that they are not to be coupled with or married, and the meat they slaughter is not halal. They may not be buried in Muslim cemeteries, and they may not be employed to defend Muslim lands, for that would be "like entrusting the wolf to shepherd the lambs." Their blood and wealth are sanctioned for the taking, and even if they show repentance and follow Islam, their progeny should not be allowed to inherit their wealth, which should revert to the Islamic treasury. Furthermore, their repentance could be a deception, and to make sure that orthodoxy takes hold among them they should be dispersed and monitored, and never employed in the warrior class; furthermore, religious scholars should live among them to teach them Islam.

The second fatwa concerned both the Druze and the Nusayri-'Alawites, and Ibn Taymiyya found precedent in calling them apostates from Islam, non-Muslim, and neither Jewish nor Christian. It is shorter and more concise, culminating in him saying that "the unbelief of [the Nusayri-'Alawites and the Druze] is not questioned by the Muslims, in fact whoever questions their unbelief is himself an unbeliever, for they are not in the category of [Christians and Jews] or polytheists, but rather deceptive unbelievers, it is forbidden to eat their food, their women are to be [taken into concubinage], their money seized, they are heretic apostates whose repentance is not accepted, and they must be killed wherever found, and to be cursed as described ... their scholars and [notables] must be killed so that they would not lead others astray ... it is forbidden to sleep with them in their houses, or to walk with them and accompany them, and to attend their funerals if announced, and it is forbidden for rulers to [neglect] what Allah ordered as punishments for them [for the sake of expediency]."

The third and final fatwa seemed to have been a response to a messianic insurrection among Nusayri-'Alawites in 1317. It is no less radical than its predecessors, and even addressed whether young children of the Nusayri-'Alawites were to be taken as slaves or freed. Ibn Taymiyya asserts that the Nusayri-'Alawites should be fought even without the prompting or excuse of a false messiah appearing among them or of them being in a state of revolt.

Beyond Ibn Taymiyya, the Ottomans, self-styled defenders of Sunni internationalism, commissioned fatwas relating to their struggle against the Shi'a Safavids (rulers of Persia from 1502–1722) that were applicable against the Nusayri-'Alawites, with whom they began to come into contact as they expanded into Greater Syria in the sixteenth century. But it wasn't until the nineteenth century that another influential fatwa was rendered against the Nusayri-'Alawites by Sunni sufi scholar Muhammad al-Maghribi (1764–1826), based in the Syrian city of Latakia.

A contemporary fatwa cited on a jihadist Web site was made by Saudi cleric Hmoud bin 'Aqla' al-Shu'eibi in 2000 in response to general questions on the Nusayri-'Alawites and specifically on whether it was permitted to attend their weddings and funerals, and to pray for their dead. Al-Shu'eibi concludes that past scholars had deemed them to be "outside of the [Islamic] faith" and then quotes Ibn Taymiyya, especially in giving a political context for the historical alliance of the Nusayri-'Alawites with the enemies of Islam. He concluded that it is forbidden to attend their ceremonies or pray for their dead.

Books hostile to Nusayri-'Alawites fall into two broad categories. The first stems from an Arab Nationalist line that stresses the non-Arab, specifically Persian, elements of their faith or the alleged Persian ancestry of the founders. The second is inspired by Wahhabi hostility to heterodoxy in general. The Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, then in conflict with the Asad regime, hosted academic conferences in the 1980s and commissioned books to propagate the ethnic "otherness" of the Nusayri-'Alawites. An example of a Wahhabi book, Al-Nusayriyya, that is readily available on several jihadist Web sites was authored by Saudi cleric 'Alawi bin Abdel-Qadir al-Saqqaf as part of a series attacking heterodox groups.

Al-Saqqaf begins his tract by alleging that Nusayri-'Alawites believe they can accrue blessings by hurting Muslims. He also stresses the Persian origins of the sect and says that their hatred of some of the early companions of Muhammad is due to the latter's destruction of the Persian (Sassanid) Empire in 651 AD — an accusation hurled at Shi'as in general. The book is a compilation of the origins, beliefs, and practices of the sect as understood from a fundamentalist Sunni perspective. It ends with a summary of all the attempts to rectify the "wickedness" of the Nusayri-'Alawites, all to no avail.



To understand why textual incitement was important in the fourteenth century, and was rediscovered in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a brief overview of the circumstances of the Nusayri-'Alawites in antiquity up to modern times is necessary. Memories run deep in the Middle East and the historical narrative, real or imagined, informs the thinking and actions of Nusayri-'Alawites and their enemies alike.

The Nusayri-'Alawite creed was not borne out of resistance to orthodoxy but rather was a schism within schismatic heterodox groups. The death of the eleventh Shi'a Imam in 874 AD sent his followers into confusion over the validity of competing claims to the leadership of the sect. This centered on the inherited right of leadership of his infant son, who was later deemed to be the Mahdi in occultation, versus the claims to leadership by a brother of the deceased imam. The matter was complicated by the possibility that no infant was ever born, as the brother claimed. Then competing claims arose among the first faction, which later dominated, over who had access to the child in hiding, who had disappeared early into a cellar according to his loyalists, to emerge once again at the "end of times." What began as factionalism set in the alleyways of Baghdad and in the date plantations of southern Iraq soon migrated to northern Syria and the Levantine coast in the tenth century, where a succession of Shi'a-friendly principalities allowed heterodox proselytizing, and the ideas consequently flourished and found mass appeal. This was also a time when Sunni orthodoxy was eclipsed; an Isma'ili Shi'a dynasty ruled in Cairo, and in Baghdad the Sunni caliph of the 'Abbasid dynasty owed his position to Shi'a generals. Sunnism was irrelevant, and the mantle of the leadership of the Shi'ite cause was up for grabs.

This period of heterodox consolidation in Greater Syria also witnessed Crusader incursions and the subsequent Sunni revival that quashed Shi'ism, checked Mongol attacks, and systematically drove out the Crusaders from their bastions. The Mameluke campaigns in Greater Syria, which shattered the Crusader Kingdom, and Ibn Taymiyya's fatwas were aimed at stamping out various heresies and solidifying the base of loyal support for orthodoxy and the central state. Every wave of Sunni attack — the last one being the Ottoman conquest in 1516 AD — seems to have pushed Nusayri-'Alawite families and communities from urban centers in Iraq and Syria into the relative sanctuary of the coastal mountains. This time around, it was Shi'a heterodoxy that was in eclipse.

For most of their history spanning four centuries in Greater Syria, the Ottomans dealt with the Nusayri-'Alawites as a banditry problem — a condition that could be tolerated as long as it did not drastically affect the state's ability to collect taxes. Chaos in the mountains never amounted to a coherent anti-Ottoman campaign due to the tribal and sectarian divisions among the Nusayri-'Alawites, something the Ottomans were aware of and promoted. One oral tradition has it that "the tribal divisions among us 'Alawites were invented by the mother of Sultan Selim." Laying blame on the mother of the conquering Ottoman sultan is bizarre, but Selim was dreaded by the Nusayri-'Alawites as the man responsible for summoning and murdering thousands of their "notables" in Aleppo. This decapitation of the Nusayri-'Alawite communal and religious elite may have created a power vacuum that went unfilled for generations, and resulted in plenty of internal strife. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Syrian mountains were mired in a period of great chaos that had to be addressed by the central authority since it began affecting trade routes from Mediterranean ports to the cities of the Syrian interior. The Ottomans enacted policies of population control such as settling loyal Sunni tribes along the trade routes and trying, once again, to bring Nusayri-'Alawites into the Sunni fold by rewarding the tribal leaders who yielded to its authority and punishing those who didn't. The nuisance had developed into a headache, and pre-emption was warranted to prevent Western intervention on behalf of the Nusayri-'Alawites, as other minority groups such as the Druze and Maronite Christians began to find patrons in Western powers.

One last-ditch attempt to Sunnify the Nusayri-'Alawites was embarked on by Diya' Bey, Ottoman governor of Latakia from 1885–1892, through integration and religious re-education. But that effort, too, petered out and had no lasting effects. Diya' Bey's efforts were seen as conciliatory by most Nusayri-'Alawite writers in the twentieth century, while others portrayed him as a bloodthirsty tyrant who casually puffed at his nargilah while watching impaled Nusayri-'Alawites die a slow death.

The nineteenth century began and ended without the Sunnis taking much notice of the Nusayri-'Alawites. The Syrian branch of the nascent Salafi movement at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century even began with attempts to find common ground with Shi'as — the Nusayri-'Alawites never factoring much into their discourse — in direct contrast with Iraqi Salafis, who felt threatened by Shi'a numbers and assertiveness in Baghdad. In Syria, neither the Shi'as nor the Nusayri-'Alawites mattered much, and they certainly did not loom large in Sunni consciousness as a threat.

The period spanning the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and Syrian independence after World War II, during which the occupying French oscillated between carving out an independent state for the Nusayri-'Alawites and integrating them within Syria, marked a period whereby a new narrative for Nusayri-'Alawite identity was devised and developed. It was this narrative — one of Arab ethnic cohesion and re-integration into the Shi'a mainstream — that eventually succeeded against claims of a separate Nusayri-'Alawite identity pressed by the advocates for a separate Nusayri-'Alawite state.

This process of conformity to Arabism and Islam was aided by conciliatory Syrian Sunnis, intent upon maintaining the territorial integrity — such as it remained after the amputation of Palestine, Lebanon, and Transjordan — of Greater Syria. A Nusayri-'Alawite insurgency against the French (1919–1921), one that started after the occupiers embroiled themselves in an internal sectarian war between Nusayri-'Alawites and Isma'ilis, quickly took on a nationalist tone, with limited logistical aid trickling in from Sunni nationalists in Damascus and Hama. The more the Nusayri-'Alawites rejected sectarian particularism, the more they were rewarded by gestures of acceptance by Arab nationalists, such as the fatwa recognizing them as Muslims issued by Mufti Amin al-Husayni in July 1936. Rather than issue fatwas condemning them as heretics and apostates, sympathetic Sunnis began authoring books highlighting the "true Arabness" of the Nusayri-'Alawites and the economic viability of their areas if properly developed, whereas in the past these regions wallowed in neglect and impoverishment. Sunni Arab Nationalists sought to bring the Nusayri-'Alawites into the fold of the Syrian state. To this end, a new legacy of textual inclusion was formulated, and Ibn Taymiyya's words were forgotten, or dismissed.


Excerpted from Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy by Nibras Kazimi. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Fouad Ajami,
A Note on the Terms "Nusayri-'Alawite" and "Bilad al-sham",
The Legacy of Textual Incitements to Jihad,
From Threat to Nuisance,
Back to Being a Threat,
A Global Call for Arms,
Expressions of Sectarianism,
Implications for Policy,
About the Author,
About the Hoover Institution's Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and,
the International Order,

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