Sunday, September 18, 2016

Stefan Winter's "A History of the ‘Alawis"

Stefan Winter is professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic, and reported the following:
Page 99 of the History of the 'Alawis provides some very pinpoint commentary on approximately 18 pages' worth of tables regarding all the 'Alawi-inhabited villages I found in the Ottoman tax registers of the 16th century, which my publishers at Princeton to their eternal credit agreed to leave in the text rather than consigning them to some appendix. They form the heart of my chapter 3 on the integration of the 'Alawi religious minority, which people usually assume was treated as heretical and therefore persecuted, into the Ottoman provincial administration. In the analysis I try to show how a number of 'Alawi tribes and villages, many of them so obscure that even most Syrians have never heard of them, in fact had their taxes forgiven or were given to 'Alawi notables to govern.

So this isn't the most exciting bedside reading ever--but that is in fact kind of the point of the entire book. Almost any media discussion of the 'Alawis today (sadly topical on account of the civil war in Syria, and the fact that Asad and many of his ilk are of that minority) will tell you about their secretive religious origins, their supposedly obscure sect, their condemnation by religious bigots such as the 14th-century fundamentalist Ibn Taymiyya, and hence their supposed 24/7 persecution at the hands of the Sunni majority or the Ottoman state. The historical reports of marginality and discrimination are not wrong but they are hopelessly one-sided: there is simply an incredible wealth of mundane, day-to-day Ottoman administrative documents, which show that the 'Alawis were taxed, conscripted and shoved into state schools, all while their own elites got rich as tax collectors and state intermediaries, just as much as any other rural population in the Ottoman Empire--irrespective of religion. That's not as much fun as repeatedly intimating how ooh, ahh, they've always been different, sectarian, and oppressed by the Sunni/ Muslim/ Syrian/ Arab/ or whatever majority, but it may yet be an important lesson, particularly in the current political context.

So when you do rush out to buy the book, give the village names on p. 99 a pass but not their upshot: we know considerably more about the supposedly obscure 'Alawis than we think, and it's their societal development, more than their theology, that is interesting and important. I think my own favourite single page in the book, thanks very much for asking, is p. 140, where I blend some really neat Ottoman Turkish documents from Istanbul and Tripoli on the rise of tobacco cultivation in the highlands of Latakia, some local (published) accounts of a near-anthropological quality on commercial crop farming and some excellent new academic literature regarding the universal problem of marginal land exploitation, usury and peasant indebtedness in the 18th century, to suggest that socio-economics, and not religion, are the real key to the History of the 'Alawis.
Learn more about A History of the ‘Alawis at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue