Veteran journalist and writer Eyad Abu Shakra delivered a lesson in history at an Al Arabiya roundtable session recently. The London-based thinker’s geo-political analysis of the Druze community gave us a glimpse of the past and the present of this rather miniscule minority, which has been an integral part of the Middle East for ages.
This Arabic-speaking esoteric ethno-religious group – estimated to be around 1.2 million all over the world – has faced numerous existential challenges. It has been at the forefront of old tribal and clan factionalism of the Levant, evolving for centuries. If the community wasn’t divided by loyalties it would be torn apart by conflicts, as is happening in Syria today.
The community’s size in northern Syria, for instance, has dwindled from 20,000 just before 2011 to 5,000 now. Half of the 4 percent population in Lebanon does not reside in the country any more. Yet, despite all the challenges, the Druze community has managed to survive in this very turbulent region for 1,000 years.
In the lecture, Eyad described the Druze as a “Muslim heterodox minority”, which has lacked the strategic depth needed to exercise political space. To tide over its shortcomings, it banked on its survival instinct during testing times. According to Eyad, apart from a strong sense of communal identity, the Druze also mastered the art of “dissimulation” when faced with overwhelming force.
As enterprising members of the Druze community migrate to different parts of the world they continue to be distinguished by their roots in the villages of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Turkey.Ehtesham Shahid
In other words, the community did not keep all the eggs in the same basket but rather “subdivided” itself while awaiting the outcome of struggles between competing regional powers. In the words of Eyad: “when a victor emerged, its Druze allies would still co-opt their brethren who were allied with the vanquished”. Call it clever or conniving, the community has figured out a way to survive, which is what matters at the end.
The mountain dwellers
Eyad’s one passing reference during the lecture was indeed telling – the Druze were predominantly (around 90 percent) rural and mountain dwelling communities. The community took the advantage of living in naturally defended mountainous regions. However, like most other minority groups in the region – Christian Maronites and Alawis (Nussairis) etc. – urbanization played its part in luring these people away from their roots.
With economic transformation, social and political changes becoming the order of the day, cities grew at the expense of the countryside. Prior to this, land always meant livelihood for the community as there were no marketplaces or industries to earn them a living.
This began to change in the mid-20th century when the community’s reliance on agriculture and husbandry started declining. To offset this detachment, the community reinforced its sense of identity, communal solidarity and esprit de corps. However, the movement away from roots had become an irreversible process as has been the case around the world.
Now, when the community is compelled to ponder over its future, it can barely take solace from the embattled Middle East, which has been their land for centuries. As enterprising members of the Druze community migrate to different parts of the world they continue to be distinguished by their roots in the villages of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
It will be an absolute tragedy if a deeply-rooted community such as the Druze gets obliterated in today’s orgy of violence. In an ideal world, they should all return to their roots and live side-by-side the various original inhabitants of this land. But, as they say, it is easier said than done.
A wistful Eyad cites a recent example that gives him hope. “Five members of a family belonging to Shouf district of Mt Lebanon traveled all the way from the US to their village solely to vote in the municipal elections”. They voted with their feet indeed. More such families need to demonstrate courage for nothing more is expected of warmongers.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.