The Druze: The Middle East′s most persecuted people? | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 06.08.2018

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Middle East

The Druze: The Middle East's most persecuted people?

The Druze are one of the largest minority groups in the Middle East. Spread across several countries, they now find their very existence under threat from war in Syria and what they see as discrimination in Israel.

It is a that video depicts violent cruelty filmed somewhere in southern Syria.

"My fate is the result of the failed negotiations between the Islamic State and Druze authorities," said 19-year-old Muhannad Abu Ammar. "I hope that my kidnappers' demands will be met so that others will be spared my fate."

The Druzian teenager's plea for mercy was not granted. Presumably a short time after the video was made, militants from the Islamic State (IS) executed him. They sent the recording to Ammar's family along with another video showing his beheaded corpse.

The video, which has been circulated online, is terrible news for the relatives of the other hostages being held captive by IS.

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On July 25, IS militants raided the town Al-Shabki near the city of Sweida in southern Syria, killing around 250 people. The population of the town fought back as best they could, but were unable to stop 36 inhabitants — mainly women and children — from being taken hostage. Shortly afterward, the militants released a video showing one of the hostages, who said that IS may kill the entire group.

This latest video of Ammar points towards the fact that, in the opinion of IS, the hostage negotiations have been considered a failure. Russia, too, has recently been involved in talks with the terrorist militia.

A Druze militia watchtower near Sweida, Syria

In war-torn Syria, the Druze have formed a militia to protect their community

A minority in three countries

Syria's Druze community has attempted to stay as far away as possible from the country's ongoing civil war, but those efforts have not been entirely successful. The Druze played an active role in the Syrian military before the outbreak of the conflict, however, they always avoided aligning with a clear political position.

The Druze are a minority group in every country in which they live. As well as Syria, there are significant communities in Lebanon and Israel. In Syria, which had a prewar population of 21 million people, 700,000 inhabitants are Druzian — roughly 3.5 percent. In Lebanon they make up between 4 and 5 percent of the population; in Israel, not even 2 percent. A small number of Druze also live in Jordan.

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Their livelihoods are correspondingly precarious. In Lebanon, the Druze have the right to self-govern and their status is legally recognized, but they don't wholly fit into the societal structure. Unlike Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians, they do not have a place at the table when it comes to the country's large political and denominational groups.

"The discrepancy between their historical heritage and the political reality of the present leads to considerable disillusionment and the feeling of being suppressed," author and legal scholar Abbas Halabi wrote in his book on the history of the Druze.

In Syria, the Druze gained considerable political influence after the Baath party took power in 1963, but were then gradually sidelined. This forced the minority group to learn early that Shiite Muslims were a force to be reckoned with in the country. This position also led to their, comparatively, restrained policy during the Syrian civil war. In the course of the conflict, however, they increasingly came into contact with extremists such as the Nusra Front and IS. It is these tensions that cost the life of young Ammar.

Druze protesting in Tel Aviv

Israel's new nation-state law sparked protests from the country's Druze population

Under threat in Israel, too

The Druze regard themselves as an independent minority and their spiritual practice is influenced by various religions. They don't see themselves as Muslims, which has made their integration in Israel considerably easier. But a recently-passed law in the country risks alienating the group. Israeli Druze have voiced their concerns and displeasure at the new nation-state law, which defines the country as an exclusively Jewish state.

In July, a 23-year-old Druzian man Shady Zidan caused a sensation after publicly declaring his withdrawal from the country's military, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), citing the new legislation.

Read more: Israel's new nation-state law and the politics of superiority

"I am not a political person ... But I am a citizen, like all others, and give my all and more for the country. In the end, I am a second-class citizen?" he wrote in a post on Facebook. "So thank you, I am not prepared to be part of this, and ... I have decided to stop serving this country."

"Until today, I stood in front of the national flag with pride and I saluted it. Until today, I sang the Hatikva national anthem because I was sure that this is my country and I am equal to all others," Zidan added. "But today, today I refused for the first time in my service to salute the flag, I refused for the first time to sing the national anthem."

Zidan is just one of a number of Israeli Druze who have expressed their opposition to the new law.

'The Druze deserve more'

By vocalizing their concerns with the new exclusionary measure, the Druze have pushed the issue to the fore of the public debate in Israel. Many people have expressed sympathy for a community they view as loyal to the state. "The Druze deserve more," Amiram Levin, a former major general in the IDF, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "We all deserve more. We must no longer remain silent. We should all join the Druze struggle and repeal the nation-state law."

The IDF immediately issued a statement in response to the comment from Zidan. "The shared responsibility and the warrior’s camaraderie with our brothers the Druze, Bedouin, and other minorities serving in the IDF, will continue to guide us," said Gadi Eizenkot, chief of staff of the IDF. "Trust us, we will fight for you."

In Syria, the Druze are threatened with death and violence. In Israel, they see themselves as second-class citizens because of Israel's new law. In each case, they are being forced to redefine their communities' relationship with the states in which they live.