A year ago, Ali was enjoying university in Damascus, looking forward to a career in dentistry and paying little heed to politics in a country controlled by a single family for over 40 years. That all changed, not so much when other Syrians took to the streets to demand President Bashar al-Assad step down, but when a mysterious message popped up on his Facebook page; it told him to get out of town, or die – because he was the wrong religion.
“You Alawite,” read a text on the social networking site, widely hailed by pro-democracy activists for enabling the Arab Spring uprisings. “We don’t want to see your face in Barzeh.”
Now, long dormant religious bigotries have thrust politics on Ali, who was born into the minority Alawite sect and still lives in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh, where most of his neighbours are Sunni Muslims. The 25-year-old student is now a firm supporter of Assad, not from any admiration for the wealthy elite that has run the country with an iron – and often bloody – fist for four decades, but because they too are Alawites.
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