The ʿAlawis are adherents of an Islamic sect, the origin of which can be traced back to 9th-century Iraq. They are an offshoot of early Shiah Islam with ancient Iranian, Christian, and Gnostic influences. Outsiders often call them “Nusayri,” after the sect’s founder Ibn Nusayr. Practically all ʿAlawis are Arabs. Their total number is about four million, among which some 2.5 million reside in Syria, where they constitute roughly 12 percent of the population. Many ʿAlawi beliefs and rites are still kept secret by the community, being revealed only to initiate male members. One key element in their faith is the belief in a divine triad that has manifested itself to the ʿAlawi community in seven cycles. Other characteristics are an extraordinary veneration for Muhammad’s son-in-law ʿAli, the belief in the transmigration of the soul, and a very large number of holy shrines, which are frequent in all regions settled by ʿAlawis. Because of the esoteric nature of the ʿAlawi religion and the scarcity of authentic written sources, many details of their creed are subjects of vigorous public and scholarly discussion. For many centuries, the ʿAlawis were an economically weak, socially marginalized, and persecuted group whose heartland was western Syria. The public rise of the community began with the establishment of the French mandate over Syria after World War I and reached its zenith when the ʿAlawi Hafiz al-Assad became president of Syria in 1971. Since then, the disproportionate political and economic influence of the ʿAlawis in Syria has fueled confessional conflicts with the Sunni majority, which culminated in the civil war that began in 2011.
One of the world’s most endangered religious minorities, the Yazidis are a predominantly Kurdish-speaking group numbering some 500,000 souls, who once inhabited a wide area stretching across eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran. Of these territories, only the community in Iraq still numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Most come from two areas: Sheikhan, a collection of villages and towns to the northeast of Mosul, and Sinjar, a mountain to the northwest close to the border with Syria. Until recently these areas seemed stable; however, in August 2014, the so-called Islamic State (Da‘esh) attacked the ancient community of Yazidis of Mount Sinjar, massacring hundreds of men, enslaving thousands of women and children, and driving the population of some 350,000 Yazidis into camps for internally displaced persons in the Kurdistan region. They are targeted because of their non-Abrahamic religion; for many years they have been erroneously known as “devil-worshippers.” In fact, their belief system incorporates visible elements from the three “religions of the Book” (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and traces of lesser-known religions, upon a substratum that may derive from Iranian religions (Zoroastrianism or similar). It is not a proselytizing faith, and religious relationships within the community are determined by birth. Marrying out is traditionally forbidden. Yazidis are relative newcomers to urban life and are often socially, economically, and educationally disadvantaged. Internal pressures, especially from the youth, to “modernize” the religion have existed at least since the 1990s. However, the main drive toward change comes now from the Yazidis’ loss of confidence in their safety in Iraq and their consequent migration toward Europe and the stresses of diaspora life. At the same time, an increasingly activist younger generation is demanding justice. The future of Yazidism is unclear, but it will certainly never be the same again.