With all the focus on Sunnis and Shi’ites, and now even the Allawites in Syria, it’s easy to forget about that other big Islamic sect – the Druze.
The Druze are associated with the Ismaili side of Islam, which is itself just one aspect of the Shi’ite branch. The exact beliefs of the Druze are sometimes hard to pin down because they tend to stick to Fight Club rules. Even within their own society, it is only a small group of respected initiates who have full access to all the holy literature.
Adherents are found mainly in Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and while small in number, the Druze definitely punch above their weight when it comes to politics in the Levant. Firstly because they don’t mind a stoush. Their reputation in the Lebanese Civil War was fearsome. When you wanted someone to spray bullets in the air for the cameras, you sent the PLO. When you wanted people killed, you sent the Druze.
Secondly, the Druze are a significant enough minority that having them on your side can tip the scales. That’s the case in war and politics, where Druze support can be the last card you need for that royal flush.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the generally confusing mechanisms of Lebanese politics. For a country of only a bit over 4 million people, Lebanon seems to have about 6 million political factions. Besides sometimes being based on actual political ideologies, the voting can also be dictated by religious confession, ethnicity and clan.
This is reflected in the country’s consocational electoral system, where the different religions are allocated a certain slice of the seats. For example, the Maronite Christians get 24 seats, the Sunnis get 27 and so on down to the Protestants and Armenians who get one each. Moreover, the constitution says that the President will always be a Maronite, the Speaker a Shi’a and the PM a Sunni.
With a guaranteed eight seats, the Druze (usually via their Progressive Socialist party) can be the making or breaking of a coalition. And to get that Druze support in Lebanon, you need to be on-side with Walid Jumblatt.
The son of the most prominent anti-government leader of the civil war, Walid Jumblatt is the political face of the Lebanese Druze. He is an implacable opponent of the Syrians and often at odds with Hezbollah as well. Having both of these foes is not a recipe for longevity in Lebanon, but somehow Jumblatt keeps going and whether he’s for or against something is always a discussion point in the country. Recently though he was bluffed out of a threat to resign from parliament over plans to move to a more proportionately representative system of elections. Such a system would lessen the Druze ability to influence the direction of Lebanon.
Jumblatt supports the Syrian uprising and has made frequent calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down and encouraged Syrian Druze to join in the revolt. But this being the Levant, not all Druze agree with him. The many Druze who live under Israeli rule in the Golan Heights are actually big fans of Assad. They think that a strong Syria is the only way they will ever be free of Israel. But of course some of these Druze serve in the Israeli armed forces too, a career avenue where they have traditionally prospered.
Whichever way the dice fall in Syria, the Druze will have an impact. And while they may not talk much, their voice is still important to listen to.