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When Mazen Takri was a teenager finishing high school in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a 150-year-old religious conflict came to haunt him in the most unexpected of places: his dating life.
He met a girl whose family was Maronite, members of the largest Christian group in Lebanon. Though his family is also Lebanese, they are Druze, adherents of a faith that broke off from Islam in 11th century Egypt and flourished in the mountains of Lebanon. In the 1860s, the Maronites and Druze fought a bloody war that left thousands dead. When the girl’s parents found out their daughter was dating Takri, they forbade her to see him. He then realized that deep-rooted conflicts of the Levant were playing out in the halls of an American high school.
“It ended up getting pretty intense,” he said. “Like Romeo and Juliet.”
It was this dramatic scenario that led Takri to finally learn about the religion he belonged to his whole life but had never taken the time to understand. He consulted a visiting Lebanese Druze religious scholar to ask how he could learn more about the faith. The scholar told him to read the Bible, the Old Testament, the Koran and Buddhist texts and advised that a general background in religion would give him a better understanding of what it means to be Druze. “He said, ‘If you go and gain a worldly knowledge, it’s the same thing,’” Takri recalled.
The scholar’s recommendation might seem at odds with how the faith is often perceived. Calling themselves Al-Muwahhidun (believers in the oneness of God), the Druze stress a strict monotheism that incorporates Greek philosophy and Vedic elements such as reincarnation. The religion is sometimes regarded as secretive because of its distance from outsiders and because of its strict adherence to endogamy, or marriage within the community.
The roots of these beliefs can be traced back to the 11th century, when Egyptian ruler Al-Hakim, a central figure in Druze cosmology, disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was succeeded by his son Ali az-Zahir, who sought to wipe out the religion. In an act of self-preservation, the Druze went underground in 1043 and haven’t accepted converts since. There are now roughly 1 million Druze around the world, the majority of whom live in Lebanon, Syria and Israel; 30,000 to 40,000 members are in the United States, with the largest American group in California.
The Druze have persisted for over a thousand years, but for American Druze, ensuring that their community will survive past the 21st century has meant facing difficult questions about striking a balance between religion and secular culture.
There are a number of challenges. For many Druze growing up in the U.S., religion isn’t part of daily life. Second- and third-generation Druze Americans are often assimilated into American youth culture, and many move further from the faith when they enter high school and college. Alcohol is forbidden in the religion — which can present a challenge — and only very few young Druze choose to become members of the uqqal, a group of spiritual leaders knowledgeable in Druze doctrine. As a result, the majority of Druze Americans are relatively uninformed about their faith, and many don’t even have Arabic language skills.
The religion has also struggled with restrictions that some consider out of step with contemporary life in the U.S. According to Michael Malek Najjar, a professor of theater arts at the University of Oregon and a second-generation Druze American, prohibitions on intermarriage and being openly gay are “driving a lot of Druze away.” He added that these issues “are frankly causing a major schism in the American Druze and Western Druze societies that are going to lead to a gradual diminishment of the faith.”
Ismail Poonawala, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at UCLA, agrees that the failure to update centuries-old mandates could be doing a disservice to everybody. “Eventually [the religious leaders] will lose the faith of the community,” he said. “They are running the danger of making the religion irrelevant.”
To bring young Druze back into the fold, Druze leaders have begun organizing spiritual retreats around the country. These take place roughly four times a year, and in February more than 100 Druze met at an idyllic camp in the Southern California town of Julian to learn more about their faith.
Among them was Laith Abuhamdan. Born in Jordan to Lebanese Druze parents, he immigrated to the U.S. last August on a student visato finish a business degree and had only spent a few weeks in Los Angeles before he met other Druze in Southern California.
His reason for attending the retreat, however, was not what Druze leaders might have hoped for. “I’m not religious, but I have to be in this community,” he said while waiting for friends to show up for a Sunday night out in Burbank, California. “This is the only community that is willing to help me, because I’m one of them.” He is not alone in feeling this way. Many young Druze want to surround themselves with people who share their cultural background, even though they’re not always interested in keeping the faith.
Abuhamdan’s friend Firas, who met him at the retreat, emphasized the importance of social bonds in the community. “See, today I went to Irvine, I picked Laith up, then he met my family, and now he’s part of the family. Because he’s from a Druze background, it’s simple, it’s easy, it’s comfortable,” he said.
The Druze American community is small and tight-knit, which exacerbates what is likely the biggest challenge to its continued existence: Since marrying outside the faith is prohibited, finding a partner who isn’t just a good match but also Druze can feel nearly impossible.
“Not only are there a limited amount of people, you have to find the people first and then the people you get along with and then the people you can be with, so it brings down your ratios to zero,” says Lema Saab, a college student and first-generation American Druze from Los Angeles.
She says it is important for her to marry someone who is Druze, but the struggle to find a partner has led many to look beyond the faith.
Eventually [the religious leaders] will lose the faith of the community. They are running the danger of making the religion irrelevant.
Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at UCLA
Last year, the issue of Druze intermarriage came to public attention thanks to Amal Alamuddin, the Druze Lebanese-British human rights lawyer who made headlines for marrying the actor George Clooney. Her grandmother was reportedly not thrilled about the match, complaining in the Lebanese press, “So what happened? There are no more young Druze left?”
In addition to the spiritual retreats, some Druze are approaching the question of community longevity from a more secular angle. One example is Teo Masri, a 45-year-old Druze who lives in Los Angeles and is known as the “Godfather” to younger Druze. He is one of the founders of the American Druze Youth Group, which began in Southern California and has spread to 20 states.
Masri’s youth group began as a faction of the American Druze Society (ADS), a cultural group that has been a pillar of the Druze community since 1908. Made up of more than 20 local chapters — in California, Texas, Florida and other states — the ADS serves as the main organization for Druze in the U.S., providing spiritual, educational and professional support for the diaspora.
While Masri is unsure about the future of the religion, he thinks that the community around it will carry on. “I think the cultural aspect has a much bigger chance of remaining than the religious aspect,’’ he says. “It’s the interaction, the level of respect, the brotherhood. There’s love.”
One of the ADS’ most important endeavors is its annual convention, in which thousands of Druze gather in an American city to learn more about their religion, attend workshops and socialize. Conventions have taken place in Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and this June one will be held in Florida. Over the course of several days, between live music and discussions with religious leaders, American Druze will meet and mingle with Druze from all over the world. The conventions aim to clarify aspects of what it means to be Al-Muwahhidun — and, religious leaders hope, bring more people into the faith. For many young Druze, however, the events serve another purpose, one that could also benefit the community: helping them find a life partner.