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But Is It Good for the Druze?

George Clooney and his future in-laws.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By LEE SMITH
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George Clooney’s reps have yet to make the official announcement, but all the tabloids and gossip sheets are reporting that the Hollywood heartthrob recently popped the question to his girlfriend of less than a year, Amal Alamuddin. The 36-year-old Beirut-born and London-based human rights lawyer (who speaks French, English, and Arabic) is said to be a good match for the screen star who celebrated his 53rd birthday last week, but that’s a given—Clooney’s past paramours have included cocktail waitresses, models, and a professional wrestler. The more interesting question is whether Clooney is good for the Druze, the small confessional sect of which his fiancée is a member.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

The Druze are a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam that dates back to the 11th century. Most of the world’s less than a million-and-a-half Druze live in the Levant. There are roughly 20,000 Druze in Jordan, 125,000 in Israel, 700,000 in Syria, and a quarter of a million in Lebanon, home to what is perhaps the most influential Druze community, led by Walid Jumblatt. An opponent of the Syrian regime and onetime pillar of Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement who now sees his sect caught in the middle of a Shiite-Sunni regional war, Jumblatt welcomes the Clooney-Alamuddin announcement as rare good news. He is eager, he wrote me in an email, to throw a party for the actor at his ancestral home in the Chouf Mountains. “Tell me when George Clooney will be coming to Lebanon so I can greet him in Moukhtara. I will bring a delegation of Druze sheikhs,” Jumblatt gushed. “As for Amal Alamuddin, well, she is lucky.”

“Sure it’s good for us,” says Makram Rabah, a doctoral candidate in history at Georgetown whose research is on the role of his own Druze community in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). “Any media support on his end making Druze look good is welcome,” says Rabah. “Instead of being on the front page of the news section when we’re killing and dying, we’re now featured in entertainment magazines.”

And it’s good for the future groom, too, says Rabah. “My advice to Clooney is to take advantage of his association with the Druze. Her village, Baakline, is a nice place to spend a vacation. And since he’s done advocacy on Sudan issues, he should know he is much safer going to Lebanon than Darfur.” Also, says Rabah, he should embrace the sect’s customs. “The essence of Druze tradition is tribal,” he explains. “So visiting with the Druze at weddings and funerals are duties. And then he should also drink arak,” the anise-flavored liqueur that is Lebanon’s national drink, and which the Druze, in spite of their Muslim identity, drink in abundance. “It would be good,” adds Rabah, “if Clooney learned how to dance the dabke.”

“Clooney better acquire a taste for yerba maté,” says Rola Abdul-Latif, a Lebanese-born Druze who lives in Washington, D.C. Maté is the tea-like beverage that Druze immigrants to Latin America brought back home with them. “But the really big thing is food,” says Abdul-Latif. “Being passionate about food is a way to get close to the hearts of the Druze.”

Abdul-Latif’s husband, the non-Druze journalist Hussain Abdul-Hussain, also has some advice for Clooney. “The upside” of marrying a Druze, jokes Abdul-Hussain, “is that if he is worried about having to learn a new religion, he won’t. Most of the Druze themselves know nothing about their faith, so he doesn’t have to fear awkward moments at holiday celebrations like Passover or Christmas, because there aren’t any holidays.”

The downside, says Abdul-Hussain, is that some Druze don’t like non-Druze men marrying Druze women. “He has to be careful which Druze he tells that he’s married to a Druze. He might run into people who won’t like it, even though he’s George Clooney.” That would seem to include members of the bride-to-be’s family. Interviewed by the local Lebanese press, Alamuddin’s grandmother Safa asked if Clooney was Druze. Told he wasn’t, she replied, “So what happened? There are no more young Druze men left?”

The Druze have been known to take their tribal solidarity to violent extremes. In an incident widely reported in the Lebanese press last July, a gang of Druze men beat and mutilated a Sunni man who’d eloped with a family member. Afterwards, Jumblatt excoriated his people. “It would be useful after the occurrence of the barbaric act,” he wrote, “for the Druze community to hold an internal dialogue over the future of the sect. .  .  . Where will the culture of rejecting the other that breeds intolerance and hate lead? Does that not create a threat to the future?”

Perhaps because of the Syrian war now engulfing the region, Jumblatt is often thinking about the future and where the Druze will find a place in it. He inherited his role after Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez killed his father Kemal in 1977, and he’s preparing his own son Taymur to replace him. Given Jumblatt’s open contempt for the Syrian president, who regards him similarly, his end may come sooner rather than later. Jumblatts, as he likes to remark, don’t die in bed—like his father, his grandfather was assassinated. Even when joking, Jumblatt seems to see dark clouds ahead for himself and the Druze. “You can tell Clooney to do a movie about the Druze, and he could say that they are the last of the Mohicans,” Jumblatt wrote me. “I could be Geronimo.”

For such a tiny sect, the Druze have been an object of fascination for centuries. After Napoleon’s 1798 conquest of Egypt, Europe was mad for all things Oriental and the Druze’s esoteric wisdom—seemingly bred from a mixture of Ismailism, a heterodox branch of Shiism, as well as Sufism and Gnosticism—was appealingly exotic. Researchers and travelers visited the Druze heartland in the Lebanese mountains to uncover the sect’s mysteries. They came away with only wisps of smoke, albeit very colorful ones. In his travel book Journey to the Orient, the 19th-century French poet Gérard de Nerval relates a likely fictional interview with a Druze sheikh who, rather than answer Nerval’s questions about the Druze faith directly, spins out a long tale of impossible and forbidden love. 

The sheikh’s story, which Nerval called “The Tale of the Caliph Hakim,” purports to chronicle the events leading to the mysterious disappearance, or death, of one of the Druze founding figures, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (985-1021 a.d.), the sixth caliph of the Fatimid dynasty, an Ismaili empire encompassing much of North Africa and the Levant with its capital in Cairo. Al-Hakim, often disparagingly referred to as the “Mad Caliph,” may have believed he was God incarnate. One of the faith’s earliest adherents certainly did—Muhammad bin Ismail Nashtakin al-Darazi, a renegade Ismaili preacher from whom it seems the Druze derive their name and whom other early adherents, including the Druze imam, Hamza ibn Ali, quickly came to consider a heretic.

Al-Hakim and Hamza ibn Ali dispatched letters to various communities in regions where the Druze are now concentrated encouraging them to accept the key Druze doctrine, tawhid, the knowledge of the oneness of God. The first letter is from 1017, when Al-Hakim announced the opening of the da’wa, or invitation to convert. In total there are 106 letters, dealing mainly with spiritual matters, which form the Druze’s sacred text, The Epistles of Wisdom. Perhaps because of political persecution, the da’wa was closed in 1043, at which point the Druze would theoretically accept no more converts—in practice it appears that there were many subsequent conversions. In any case, timelines are somewhat beside the point when it comes to the Druze. They believe that their souls never die but are reincarnated in the body of another Druze, a conviction that, according to one scholar, gives rise to the Druze saying, “We are born in each other’s houses.”

The apparently ethereal nature of Druze spirituality—which, again, the vast majority of Druze know little or nothing about—is in sharp contrast to their worldly reputation. The Druze are stout, hard-minded mountain men, farmers, and laborers, best known for their fighting skills and political agility—both of which talents are evidenced by the fact that this tiny group has survived the violent furies of the Middle East for nearly a millennium.

The Druze fought the Crusaders for nearly 200 years and then resisted the Ottomans. In the mid-19th century, the Druze were in conflict with their mountain neighbors, the Maronites, which in 1860 culminated in one of the region’s bloodiest episodes of sectarian warfare. The Druze and the Maronites were again on opposing sides when the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975. Kemal Jumblatt, an Arab nationalist, leftist, and avowed Buddhist who saw similarities between Buddhism and Druze belief, cast his lot with the Palestinians, as did Walid when his father was murdered in 1977. It wasn’t until after the war that Jumblatt made his peace with the Maronites. He and Samir Geagea, head of the Christian militia that Jumblatt’s Druze fought in the mountains in a bitter reprise of the 1860 war, became two of the cornerstones of Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 movement.

For many observers, Jumblatt’s turnaround—from Syrian ally to opposition leader, from a Soviet client in the 1980s to a friend of the Bush White House a decade ago—was evidence of an almost deranged opportunism. To the Druze it all made perfect sense. They are by necessity opportunistic—a small minority that must bend with the wind or be broken by it. Israel’s Druze community, for instance, discerned very early during the 1948 war for independence that the Zionists were going to defeat the Arabs and cast their fate with the former. They are among the Jewish state’s proudest citizens, fiercest warriors, and most active politicians. Syria’s Druze community has also subscribed to the power of the state—taking Assad’s side in the three-year-long civil war.

The Druze of Lebanon are different insofar as they stand on the sidelines of a political system designed to balance the country’s three largest communities: Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites. This affords Jumblatt what is effectively a permanent swing vote, and thus more room to maneuver and win concessions for himself and the Druze. Jumblatt is often called a “weather vane” as he is acutely sensitive to the region’s political winds. When he saw the United States unleash its military might in Iraq, he seized the chance and turned against his former Syrian overlords and jumped on the freedom agenda bandwagon. However, even after it was clear that neither the White House nor the international community was going to protect him, his Druze, or his country from Assad’s depredations, he continued to call out Assad and Iran and, closer to home, Hezbollah, which laid siege to the Chouf mountain fastness of the Druze in May 2008.

Thus, at a critical moment for the Druze, Jumblatt let fall the mask of the opportunist. He stuck his neck out in the knowledge that his enemies, Assad among others, have long memories and longer knives.

The leaders of minority communities throughout the Middle East, including Christian clerics, like some Western officials and analysts, say they prefer Assad to the Sunni-majority opposition because he protects minorities. Not Jumblatt. Two years ago he urged Syria’s Druze soldiers to stay at home and “refrain from participating” in the war to prop up Assad. “We must avoid being part of an axis against [Syria’s Sunni] majority in order to avoid future political repercussions,” he said, adding, “popular memory has no mercy.” His warnings were ignored.

It seems that no one is listening to Jumblatt these days—not about the dangers facing his Druze, especially in the midst of the Syrian conflict. I emailed him that Clooney’s engagement seems a golden opportunity. Here’s a man who advocates on behalf of Darfur and other foreign policy issues, and plays basketball with the American president, a close personal friend, Clooney claims. With Clooney marrying a Druze, maybe he could advocate on behalf of the Druze. Maybe after more than 150,000 dead in Syria, he could finally get through to Obama. Maybe Clooney could convince Obama to bring down Assad once and for all. “Please let me be far from the empathy of Obama,” Jumblatt wrote back, “and the butcher Bashar.”

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of The Consequences of Syria (Hoover Institution Press).

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