Backgrounder:

The Hidden Allegiance of the Druze

The renewal of Israeli-Syrian talks over the future of the Golan Heights has refocused attention on the insular world of the 17,000-strong Druze community living in four villages at the foot of Mt. Hermon. The Druze in general have cultivated a reputation for loyalty to the prevailing local power over the centuries, whoever that may be. Today, there are three centers of Druze populations: In the mountains of Lebanon, the Carmel range in Israel, and the Hermon communities straddling both sides of the current Israel-Syria armistice line. The 60,000 Druze in the Galilee and Carmel range are Israeli citizens and have served bravely since 1956 in the IDF. During the Lebanon war, they fought even against their own Druze brethren from Lebanon.

Most Golan Druze quietly accepted living under Israeli rule when the IDF captured the plateau in 1967. But after Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1979, many realized they probably would find themselves back in Syria someday. So by the time the Knesset extended Israeli law to the Golan in 1981, many Druze rejected the offer of Israeli citizenship, calling themselves "Syrian Arabs." While the vast majority are economically integrated into Israel, the some 250 of the community who accepted Israeli identity cards have been treated by many as social and religious outcasts. Yet no one knows for sure how many really want a return to Syrian rule now, as their true allegiances are rarely uttered. Rumors abound that 2000 want to resettle in the Galilee if the Golan is ceded to Damascus, while a recent poll in a Druze high school revealed 75% of the youth want to stay as part of Israel. Here is a glance at this mysterious sect, their beliefs and the ideological basis for their drifting loyalties.

THE BELIEFS of the Druze sect, an offspring of Shi’ite Islam, are mystical and closely-guarded. The system is not only kept secret from the outside world, but even within their own community. Only an elite few, known as uqqal ("knowers"), participate fully in religious services and have access to the secret teachings of the hikmah, Druze religious doctrine. The Druze prohibit conversion, either away from or to their faith, as well as intermarriage. During the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980’s, some Druze traditions apparently were exposed when Maronite and Druze forces fought one another. Lebanese Christian militia reportedly discovered Druze holy books, revealing many of their secrets.

The Druze sect was founded in 1017 in Cairo by a band of Islamic fanatics headed by Hamzah ibn Ali, the religious spokesman of Al Hakim Bi Amer Allah ("Ruler by the command of Allah"), the sixth Caliph of the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt. Their name is derived from Hamzah’s subordinate, Muhammed al Darazi. Their teachings are comprised of an amalgam of Persian Zoroastrian myths, Gnosticism, Messianism and even Hindu beliefs about Reincarnation. Druze doctrine is based on the mystical belief in one God who cannot be grasped by the human mind, but who has revealed himself several times in human form. The first time was through Adam, however the most perfect revelation was in the person of Al Hakim Bi Amer Allah. During his lifetime, Al Hakim was acclaimed not only an iman - of which only twelve are believed to exist in Islam - but also the embodiment of the God-head. Al Hakim had the by-name "the mad caliph" and was noted for his eccentricities and cruelty, especially for his persecution of Christians and Jews. He mysteriously vanished on the night of February 13, 1021. Some believe he was assassinated because of his claim to divinity, but his body was never found. Druze tradition holds that he will return after 1000 years and will inaugurate the "Golden Age."

After Al Hakim disappeared, his religious ideas sparked an intense missionary movement lead by his spokesman, Hamzah. Persecuted for their beliefs, the early followers of Al Hakim and Hamzah fled Egypt and settled on the slopes of Mount Hermon. From there, they missionized into Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel, where still today the main Druze communities can be found, comprising half a million believers. However, religious proselytizing continued only until 1050, when they turned into a closed community.

Like other Muslim sects, they practice the art of deception known as the taqiyah. This peculiar license to outwardly renounce their convictions, and even their faith if the situation commands it, was a key to survival for many past centuries. The practice of taqiyah is expressly commanded in Druze writings: "...for our Lord Hakim bi Amir Allah has said: should a nation overcome you, follow it, but keep me in your hearts. What does this mean? Outwards not inwards." Combined with their belief in reincarnation, the taqiyah allowed them to adapt to almost any society, and might explain the deep loyalty of the Carmel Druze to the Government of Israel. However it will be never a loyalty by heart. "Reincarnation means that I can be an IDF soldier in this life, but I can be reborn tomorrow as a Syrian soldier," explained one young Druze serving in the Israeli army. When Druze doctrine mandates one to "keep Al Hakim in the heart," it should be recalled that Al Hakim persecuted Jews and Christians. As a Caliph, he destroyed many Christians sites in Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, helping to trigger the First Crusades.

Druze are known throughout history as courageous fighters. When the French mandate in Syria tried to uproot the traditions and tribal hierarchy of the Druze, it sparked the bloody "Druze Revolt" of 1925 which defeated the French at Jabal ad Durus. Other tales of heroic deeds in combat abound, as Druze belief in further lifetimes likely accounts for the shortage of fear in battle.

Even though there seems to be a significant difference in attitude between the Carmel Druze and the Golan Druze, the disparity could well be only one of outward impression. One community proverb explains precisely the Druze philosophy of taqiyah - "A man’s shirt," they say, "does not change the color of his skin." Also not to be overlooked is the simple yet compelling desire of the Golan Druze to be reunited with their relatives just across the fence in Syria.


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