Samar Kadi/Pious defenders of Druze land, but not extremists

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Pious defenders of Druze land, but not extremists
Samar Kadi/The Daily Star/Oct. 28, 2014

 DEIR QOUBEL, Lebanon: The militants come from different parts of Mount Lebanon, the Chouf and the region of Arqoub in southeast Lebanon, where the country’s minority Druze community has been settled for centuries. But although they are diehard fighters dedicated to protecting Druze land and honor in times of crises, the partisans of Dai Ammar group roundly reject any suggestion that they are radicals.
“We are not radicals or extremists. We just go by the original rules and principles, which are at the roots of our faith, and apply them correctly,” said a high-ranking official of the group that follows the teachings of an 11th-century preacher named Ammar.
Almost unknown prior to Hezbollah’s takeover of large swaths of west Beirut in May 2008, Dai Ammar’s followers, all Orthodox Druze, were thrust into prominence for fiercely battling party militants and preventing them from entering the Druze stronghold of Shoueifat, southeast of Beirut. Ten members, including the group’s leader Sheikh Allam Nasreddine, were killed in the fighting and Hezbollah also reportedly suffered losses.
Their fervent commitment to “defending” the Druze areas against “external dangers” gained the group appreciation and respect among others of their faith and, as a result, their number allegedly sprung from a handful to several hundred after May 2008.
Now, as fears grow about the spread of jihadist militancy in the Levant, most of Lebanon’s religious communities are feeling increasingly threatened. Not so for the militant Druze organization.
“We do not fear our enemies, and we will not disavow our religion out of fear from ISIS or any other group, because God is on our side,” the official, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Star.
According to the group, God has bestowed mercy on the Druze, referred to as “muwahiddin” or monotheists, and divine protection has preserved the small community distributed across Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Israel from being wiped out by upheavals throughout history.
Although it strongly disapproves of their interpretation and implementation of the faith, the Druze religious establishment – Machyakhat al-Akel – refuses to refer to Dai Ammar group as fanatics or fundamentalists.
“There is disagreement over the explanation of the Druze religion, but they [Dai Ammar] do not attempt to force their doctrine on others, be it within the sect or outside, so they cannot be considered fundamentalists,” explained Sheikh Hadi Aridi, the head of the Druze Religious Council.
Aridi downplayed concerns that the trend of extremism among some Sunnis and Shiites would echo in Druze circles, arguing that members of the sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have no history of initiating confrontation with other sects, but have instead always been drawn into battle.
“Militant extremism has no place in our culture, and any possible manifestation of Druze zeal in the existing environment of sectarian polarization is nothing but a temporary reaction,” Aridi said.
He argued that the conflict in Syria was having an enormous impact on Lebanon, creating tensions between sects and endangering security across the country, hence the need to moderate public speech. “The Druze political and religious authorities preach tolerance and moderation and the need to rally behind the state and the Army, but if need be, we will not hesitate to defend our villages and land,” Aridi added.
According to Dr. Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, the likelihood of seeing radical groups emerge within the Druze community was very weak because the vast majority was secular and adhered to the advice of their political leaders rather than religious authorities.
“Extremism has no room in a cohesive sect such as the Druze, mostly because the cost of extremism for the minority Druze is much higher than its cost for other sects, and because it wouldn’t work in the best interest of the community,” he said.
Extremism seeks to introduce a new political and religious order by force, he said. “I don’t think these people [Dai Ammar] are interested in creating a new order,” he added. “This is a reactive movement to threats facing the community.”
“As long as extremism is present among us in the region, the Druze will continue to prefer to walk on a tightrope,” Khashan said, noting that “the Druze [political] leadership has always been extremely keen to shore up the community in turbulent waters.”
Thanks to their tumultuous history, the Druze have developed survival mechanisms to cope with times of crisis. “They are not interested in indoctrinating other communities. The phenomenon [of Dai Ammar] may have been exacerbated by present conditions and trends [of extremism] that brought to memory the historical interactions,” Khashan added.
Referring to recent statements by Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt in which he stressed the Islamic roots of the Druze, Khashan argued, “these points were not meant for the Druze community, but for Sunnis and radical Islamists.”
In neighboring Syria, where the dangers of the raging conflict are already a reality, the main Druze priority remains to protect the community’s “land and honor.”
“The Druze want to live in peace with the others, but if anyone commits aggression on the Druze land, he will have to suffer the consequences,” Aridi said. “This is common sense, not extremism.”