I remember the first time my father took me to Eid prayers. We went with my uncle and my cousin on the first day of Eid al Fitr, a three-day feasting celebration marking the end of Ramadan. While our fathers were in the prayer room, my cousin and I played with the other kids, all of us eagerly anticipating the moment the adults would gift us toys and sweets, a long-standing tradition.
At only eight years old, the religious substance was lost on me, but the celebratory air and sense of belonging were ripe. That morning in Thornbury, in Melbourne, the Alawi Islamic Association centre was filled with people who shared a common story.
This memory seems small, but its significance is great. That group of people from one of the most persecuted sects in the Arab world could confidently gather in a public space without fear or threat, is incredible in itself. This centre became our safe space.
The Alawites are a small Islamic sect, originating in Syria’s north-west. Currently making up roughly 13 per cent of Syria’s population, approximately 43,000 can be found in Australia, living mostly in Sydney and Melbourne.
Their differences with Sunni (mainstream) Islam means that Alawites have been historically derided as heretics and marked for extermination, leading to the secretive nature of their religious practice. Such differences include the following of the Twelve Imams, much like the Shia tradition, and syncretism – the Alawites incorporate some elements of Judaism and Christianity in their traditions.
We rely on the lessons taught by our Sheikhs in our own homes.
Recently, Alawites have gained a lot of media attention because Syria’s President, Bashar al Assad, is himself Alawi. Significant Alawite involvement in Syria’s government and security services has given the world a distorted view of Alawites as inherently privileged under Assad’s rule.
My Syrian-Lebanese parents fled the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and found a new home in Melbourne. Tripoli, in Lebanon’s north, has been riddled with sectarian conflict for decades, its violence making it unlivable for many minorities during the war. Like so many others, my family were searching for that better life away from the trauma and destruction that had dominated their existence so far.
Growing up in Australia, I’ve practised my faith mostly through the guidance of my Sheikh father. Our niche and misunderstood practice means that Alawites don't attend Sunni mosques, nor have we the funding to build our own, and so we rely on the lessons taught by our Sheikhs in our own homes. My father’s esteemed position in the community puts him at the forefront of many religious events and ceremonies held by our community. He has officiated marriages, helped found an Alawi Arabic Saturday school, and taught the sacred foundations of Alawi Islam to the younger generation. Most importantly, he has lent himself as a mentor to every young person who’s entered our home in need of guidance.
My father has always endorsed camaraderie in our community here in Melbourne, as well as pride for our religious and ethnic roots. Likewise, my parents have steadfastly maintained support for the families and friends we left behind. Every few months, my parents donate a collection of my family’s earnings to widowed mothers and families facing hardship in their home villages. They remind us of how lucky we are to live in Australia, away from the everyday realities of war.
Although Alawi religious practice itself is sacred and private, I can, at least, document the cultural elements of our faith and our community to ensure people like my father aren’t entirely forgotten.
Like most Muslim-Australians, I’ve found it difficult to balance the dual nature of my identity. I want to honour my father’s influence, and pass down the traditions of the Alawi people to my future children. However, with the rise of Islamophobia, I feel stifling pressure to conform to Western norms. In a time where the Alawi sect, and Islamic faith in general, is increasingly politicised, our sense of community is under threat.
Despite the oceans of distance, since 2012, the sectarian violence in Syria and Lebanon has spilled over into Australia. Our community centre in Somerton has been torched, our homes and shopfronts vandalised, our businesses boycotted by Islamic fundamentalists.
The tensions my parents left behind in the 70s now haunt them in their adopted homeland, rekindling that culture of fear that forces minorities to retreat. The belonging and celebration I felt when I was eight is overshadowed by a heaviness we can’t seem to shake, as we pray for our sisters and brothers caught in a conflict that threatens the future of our people.
The rise of Islamic State (IS) and other Islamist groups is a disaster for Syria’s religious minorities. IS hopes to eradicate Alawites entirely, viewing them as a threat to their ideology, while many rebel groups have used the Alawite community and its coastal heartland as literal pawns in their battle against Assad, forcing some Alawites to convert to Sunni Islam or flee Syria just to survive.
We have been unapologetically liberal from the beginning, and this has always bothered those who tried to define us.
I still have hope, though. Although Alawi religious practice itself is sacred and private, I can, at least, document the cultural elements of our faith and our community to ensure people like my father aren’t entirely forgotten; we have been left out of the history books, the little that has been written about us often getting us so wrong, so all I really have to offer are these anecdotes.
Despite everything, my father’s pride has not extinguished. Whenever I find myself retreating, he reminds me how strong I am as an Alawite, and as a Syrian. He believes that to be Alawite is to be of open-heart and open-mind.
“We have been unapologetically liberal from the beginning, and this has always bothered those who tried to define us,” he told me recently. “No expression of faith should force you to hide part of your identity for approval. Accept that above all we are human, and sometimes we make mistakes, but we will never apologise for our differences.”
Our people have lost so much over the years. Many of us who left our villages in hope of one day returning no longer have anything to return to, our houses either destroyed or inaccessible because of ongoing conflict. In my family’s village in Tripoli, relatives continue to lose their homes, their sons, and their freedom of religious practice because of sectarian violence. But our spirit, much like my father’s pride, remains resilient and so we Alawites rebuild – every single time.
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).
Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.