Islamism in Syria
Islamism in Syria has been the topic of three excellent articles recently. Scott Wilson of the Washington Post writes about the tug of war taking place within the Baath Party over how much the regime should harness Islam to the state. I met with Scott while he was in Damascus and he has used the outline of my story, published two months ago, "Bashar's Alawi Dilemma," (Click here to read.) in which I laid out the struggle between V.P Khaddam, who represents the pro-Islamists within the regime and the new Minister of Information Dakhlallah, who is a pro-secularist. Wilson adds a number of new elements. At least for the time being, it looks like the secularists are in the driver's seat here. Khaddam has been spending much time out of the country and is keeping a low profile for the moment; however, he has not retired despite several announcements that he would. His contacts to Iran must be too important to let him go. Also, he was the authority in Lebanon until Bashar took over from him in the nineties. Possibly his experience and contacts are still valuable in this time of Lebanese upheaval. No doubt he has many backers in the regime.
Nicholas Blanford's article on Mohammed Habash describes how an important alternative to conservative Islam has been emerging in Syria. Ever since the Wahhabism began to wash up from the shores of the Arabian dessert, the Syrian Islamic establishment has sought to defend the more liberal strains of Islamic thought that have traditionally flurished here. So the Habash movement is not a new phenomenon or unique here.
Finally, Ibrahim al-Hamidi writing in the Daily Star, gives the grand sweep of the religious revival going on in Syria. An important piece that will be valuable for researchers trying to understand how religious institutions are changing the social landscape here, and quite possibly the political landscape in the future. He bolsters the argument that the alternative the present regime would be something much more religious and fundamentalist. Nevertheless, we can conclude from his article that the old days of Muslim Brother strength and unity among the fundamentalists is gone. Today the religious currents are diverse, although building strong institutional foundations that did not exist in the 1980s. Bashar's more liberal policies have aided religious minded civil society as much if not more than secular NGOs.
Religious Surge Alarms Secular Syrians
Islam's Clout Among Frustrated Youth Challenging Governments Across Mideast
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A21
NASIRIYAH, Syria -- A religious revival is sweeping Syria, challenging the secular, ruling Baath Party to allow more Muslim influence in government and frightening many Syrians schooled for decades to fear political Islam.
Growing religious feeling can be seen across the landscape, from the proliferation of head scarves worn by young women in Damascus to an enormous privately funded mosque nearing completion in downtown Aleppo, Syria's second city. Muslim clerics, meanwhile, are growing increasingly bold in asking for democratic political reforms that could give them a larger role in government.
Alarmed by the trend, some within Syria's secular intelligentsia and middle class have begun writing and organizing against it. From his airy home in Nasiriyah, a town 35 miles northeast of Damascus, Nabil Fayyad, a secular writer, accused the government in print last September of softening its stand against the increasingly popular Islamic movement, its chief rival for power, amid pressure from the United States to reform.
"It's a temporary cooperation," said Fayyad, 49, a thin, excitable Sunni Muslim who was arrested by government agents and held for a month soon after his columns appeared in a Kuwaiti newspaper to which he frequently contributes. "Nowadays, they have the same enemy: the United States. But once the U.S. soldiers leave Iraq, what happens to us?"
Islam's growing political clout is challenging governments across the Middle East, even those built on Islamic principles, as religious sentiment intensifies among young, frustrated populations. Syria's ruling Baath Party, an Arab nationalist movement, has been at odds with Islamists for more than 35 years.
A military coup in 1970 brought to power a clique of officers, led by Hafez Assad, who were members of the Alawite sect, a secretive branch of Shiite Islam that comprises about 10 percent of Syria's 18 million people. Many Sunni Muslims, who account for more than 70 percent of the population, do not consider Alawites true Muslims, and Assad's legitimacy was always suspect among Syria's Islamists. In the late 1970s and early '80s, Assad's government staged a crackdown on a militant Islamic movement that killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Now, however, some senior government officials have suggested that the Baath Party endorse Islam to shore up its own declining popularity among the country's youth. Those proposals have exposed schisms inside the 4 1/2-year-old administration of Assad's son and successor, President Bashar Assad, who is trying to limit the party's decisive role in shaping political and economic policy.
"The basic attitude of the Baath Party is totally secular and against religious interference," said Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah, a party member who has been an outspoken proponent of reducing its size and clout to allow deeper reforms. "There may be some Baath members who have made such alliances. But that is not the prevailing idea among the Baath or among Syrian government officials."
Since Syria's Baath Party was established in 1963, domestic Islamic movements have shifted between militancy and moderation. After years of quiet, a small group of Islamic militants, some of them refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, shot up an empty U.N. building in a wealthy Damascus neighborhood last April. The bizarre attack, which Dakhlallah described as a "byproduct of fundamentalism," killed two people. Two of the men arrested have been sentenced to death.
Salah Kuftaro, a Sunni cleric and son of the late grand mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kaftaro, preaches to 10,000 people who gather each Friday at the Son of Light Mosque in Damascus. Kuftaro runs the country's largest Islamic education and charitable foundation, and in the past three years, enrollment has jumped from 5,000 to 7,000 students.
"The revival we are witnessing has nothing to do with September 11, but the total failure of secular Arab governments," said Kuftaro, 47, a large, good-natured man who in daily life favors a suit and tie to religious robes. "This has forced our young people to look for alternatives."
Only a few years ago, Kuftaro acknowledged, such talk would likely have brought Syrian police to his spacious office in the foundation's gleaming marble headquarters. But in recent months, he has become more public in his calls for an "Islamic democracy" in Syria, modeled on the system in neighboring Turkey.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the group behind the 1982 uprising in the city of Hama that was brutally put down by government troops, appealed last year for its imprisoned members to be granted amnesty. The government declined the request but agreed to review individual cases. Hundreds of prisoners were released, almost all of them jailed for their alleged connection to Islamic movements, Western diplomats said. In addition, Kuftaro and others say that clerics have more leeway to discuss politics in the mosques, although the unwritten rule is that criticism must be restricted to the United States and Israel.
Sadiq Azm, a leading Syrian writer who has criticized Arab nationalism and political Islam for decades, said religion will inevitably exert more influence here as pressure builds for the government to reform a largely stagnant economy and closed political institutions. But Syria's Islamic community is fractured, he said, with opinions ranging from militant to "good-for-business Islam" that takes into account the rights of religious minorities.
"This is an evolution that Syria will go through," Azm said. "The question is, what role will it play? And will it be the moderate middle-class version?"
The profusion of head scarves in even the most upscale neighborhoods of Damascus is a sign of both piety and silent protest against the Alawites in power, those who wear them say. Shops along the Old City's alleys now display mannequin heads wrapped in scarves next to revealing lingerie.
"When I see all of these symbols, I see the people have left behind education, learning and progress," said Ghada Dassouky, 53, who along with a friend hosts weekly women-only meetings that offer eclectic interpretations of Islam. "I feel terror, really, because we are worrying about whether or not a woman can show her toes and the Americans are researching deep space. How far away are we?"
Rabab Kuzbari, 60, who has an economics degree from Damascus University, said she has worn a head scarf for two decades. On a recent day, a scarf with cheerful red and gray swirls tightly covered her head, not the conservative black one she favored years ago and that is most common on the streets today.
"It's only a symbol, not the center of my religious conviction," she said. "When I see all these head scarves today, it raises a big question mark for me about what is happening."
Here in Nasiriyah, a town of 7,000 people on a high plain rimmed by barren hills, winding, narrow lanes are lined with low houses of mud and cement. The twilight call of the muezzin floats into the chilly home of Fayyad, the writer who was detained last year.
Fayyad has degrees in pharmacology and theology and has published books ranging from a study of the American poet Ezra Pound to German religious scholars. But he made a name for himself a decade ago by challenging a conservative Sunni cleric, Sheik Mohammad Sayid Bouti , who has his own weekly television show in Syria. Fayyad's work has been banned for more than a decade in Syria.
In his columns last September, Fayyad criticized Abdul Halim Khaddam, the first vice president, for suggesting that Arab nationalist parties "harness Islamic beliefs" to improve their political standing. Fayyad followed up with a broadside against Ahmad Hassan, the longtime Syrian ambassador to Iran who was then information minister, calling him "a fundamentalist."
Plainclothes police agents arrested Fayyad at his pharmacy here a week later and took him to a jail in downtown Damascus. His blood pressure fell to perilously low levels, and he spent most of his 32-day detention in a hospital on the capital's outskirts.
During his time in jail, though, his columns appeared to have had an effect. Hassan was replaced in a cabinet shuffle, and when Fayyad was released, he was invited to dinner with Dakhlallah, the new information minister. He told Fayyad to consider him "a student" of his ideas. But Fayyad has not written since.
Syrian Islamic scholar preaches moderation
Mohammed Habash offers alternative to rising Islamic conservatism
By Nicholas Blanford
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
DAMASCUS: Islamic scholar Mohammed Habash faces a daunting task preaching a moderate brand of Islam in Syria, where conservative Islamic sentiment is on the rise. But after being denied entry to the U.S. on arriving in Washington last month, he says that his message of tolerance equally applies to the U.S. government. Although Habash had a valid entry visa issued by the American Embassy in Damascus, he was informed upon arrival at Dulles International Airport on Dec. 13 that according to new regulations all Syrians have to obtain permission from the U.S. secretary of state to visit the U.S. "The Americans are not making any distinction between (Islamic) conservatives and the path of renewal (moderates) which I follow," he told The Daily Star in an interview. "Unfortunately, they treat us all the same, as if we are all followers of Osama bin Laden." Habash, 44, director of the Center of Islamic Studies in Damascus, is leading a campaign of Islamic "renewal," encouraging Muslims to recognize ideas from the West, including secular systems of government, and reject what he calls the "monopoly of salvation," the belief that Islam is the only true religion. "We have to accept other religions," he said. "Islam has to confirm what came before (Judaism and Christianity) and not cancel them out. Also it is not wrong to absorb new ideas from the West and East." Habash, a member of the Syrian Parliament, is from the conservative tradition of Islam and was educated only in religious schools. By the age of 15, he had earned an international reputation for Koranic recitation. But his interpretation of Islam is anything but conservative. Women, he says, are permitted by Islam to receive the same level of education as men and to fully participate in public life, even as religious, political and business leaders. He has introduced legislation in the Syrian Parliament to improve the standard of religious preaching to counteract extremist sermons which help fuel radicalism. He advocates peaceful resistance to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, in contrast to some firebrand clerics in Syria's Sunni heartland who have encouraged young Muslims to join the insurgency.
Even the late Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria who was a mentor to Habash, a fellow moderate and the grandfather of his wife, released a statement condemning some of his protege's ideas when Habash was campaigning in Syria's 2003 parliamentary election. Habash was subsequently elected with the highest number of votes after the ruling Baath party candidates. In recent years, the Sunni heartland of Syria has witnessed a growth in conservative Islamist values, partly in reaction against poor economic opportunities. About 20 percent of the Syrian workforce is unemployed and 20 percent of the expanding population of 17 million falls below the poverty line. Continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence and U.S. Middle East policies, particularly the invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq, has further radicalized Muslims, many of whom feel their religion is under attack from the West.
"They are protecting themselves with Islam because other slogans (ideologies) have failed," said Sheikh Wehbi Zuleimi, a conservative Islamist cleric, referring to the Arab world's adoption of nationalist and socialist ideologies in the 1950s and 1960s. "It is a reaction to the flagrant European and American policies that challenge the existence of Islam and try to rid Islam from the region." But it is not just the military danger posed by the West that spurs Muslims into action, but also the spreading influence of Western ideas, such as globalization and secularism, which threaten to marginalize Islam, said Sadeq al-Azm, a Syrian professor of philosophy. "Fundamentalists believe this is the final confrontation," he said. "If the modernization of states continues like this what is there to prevent Islam from eventually becoming like Christianity in Europe? They feel that if they don't stand up now and draw a line, that's it." The internal debate among Muslims in Syria comes amid signs the government is slowly shedding its secular nature as Islam grows more influential.
"The government is on its way to abandoning secularism," Zubeidi said. "They raised this slogan (in the past) just to establish national unity ... but secularism was not accepted by the Syrians because we are very religious." The violent approach favored by the Islamists two decades ago during the confrontation between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood has been replaced by a more subtle "Gramshian" strategy, Al-Azm said, referring to the Italian communist Antonio Gramshi who advocated toppling capitalism through infiltrating institutions rather than a direct attack. Some analysts say the Islamist penetration of the machinery of the state is well under way. They point to the arrest of Nabil Fayyad, an intellectual who has written of the growing power of Islamists in Syria. They said his arrest by the intelligence services and month-long detention came at the urging of Islamist elements in the government. "Islamists are spreading like wildfire," said a Syrian human rights activist who asked not to be named. "People are rejecting the ideology of the Baath party but they are not rejecting Islam." Some Syrians fear that the intense pressure applied by the U.S. could lead to regime change in Damascus, paving the way for Islamist rule and the imposition of Islamic Sharia law. For Sheikh Zuleimi and other conservative Islamists, that outcome would be welcome. "We would like to live under Sharia law 100 percent. It's part of our ideology ... We want the application of Sharia in all Arab countries," he said. Habash says it is American policies that help fuel the growth of the Islamic militancy that U.S. troops are forced to confront in Iraq. "If I am watching television and see the U.S. agenda in Iraq ... how can I put people in prison for speaking out against it?" he said. Which makes his task of persuading Muslims to open up to the West all that much harder. "Believe me we are suffering a lot here for being friends of the West," he said.
Can Syria keep its Islamist genie in the bottle?
By Ibrahim Hamidi
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Islamism is growing in Syria, whether at the grassroots level of Damascene society or in the provinces of northern Syria. The ink has faded on the slogan: "We will annihilate the Muslim Brotherhood, lackeys of imperialism and Zionism," scribbled on a wall in the town of Murat al-Naaman, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold during the group's confrontation with the Syrian authorities in the early 1980's. New slogans now bear Islamist messages, and the number of mosques on both sides of highways crisscrossing Syrian cities and villages are not only increasing in number, but also in size and splendor.
If we venture into the depths of villages, individual stories show what has happened. In Orm al-Jawz, a village in an area that was also once a Muslim Brotherhood redoubt, Mohammed used to boast about being a communist, even an atheist. He defied local tradition, not unlike other rebellious youths in Syria who were searching for new tenets and values on which to build a future. He was not alone in this in his village, but was part of a group of young people who liked to provoke their elders. During Ramadan they would openly demonstrate they were not fasting by smoking cigarettes in broad daylight. However, today, 20 years on, Mohammed is a conservative who believes in upholding traditional values and who says: "Islam is the alternative." Where there was once a desire to chip away at the wall of traditional beliefs, there is now a return to religious fervor. The onetime rebel has recently taken to spending almost all his time in a newly built mosque that divides Orm al-Jawz into two. Mohammed's four grandchildren hardly ever leave the mosque and fast during Ramadan, in spite of their young age; two of the granddaughters, who are not yet 10, wear the hijab. Mohammed's transformation illustrates well what lies behind Syria's move away from a secular state and society.
How did this happen, and why? Several domestic and external factors coincided to push Syria in this direction. After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian government sought to encourage a moderate form of Islam, against the extremists. It encouraged the building of some 80,000 new mosques. It also established the Assad Institute for Memorizing the Koran in various cities and governorates, and over 22 higher-education institutions for teaching Islam. These are attended not only by Syrian university students but also by students from 60 other Arab and foreign countries. The government also encouraged the setting up of regional Sharia schools. In the governorate of Al-Jazeera, in Syria's northeast, it founded the Al-Khaznawi school; in Aleppo the Sheikh Ahmed Hassan and Sheikh Abu al-Qaaqaa schools; in Damascus the Abu al-Nour complex and the Sheikh Mohammed Said Ramadan Hassoun and Sheikh Mohammed Habash study circles. Also in Damascus, the government created the Sheika Munira al-Qaisi complex, named after a famous Damascene lady, in which about 25,000 girls are enrolled.
These religious institutions, which total 584 in number, used to provide health care and food assistance to the public, and 280 of them offered comprehensive daily services to about a million people - and to about two million during the holy month of Ramadan. They also offered public religious instruction, either through daily lessons or through Friday prayer sermons. In order to bolster its Muslim credentials, the regime also made life difficult for secular leftist groups, in order to uphold the Baath Party as the only organization worthy of that description in Syria. There are only two pulpits in the cities and the countryside: the mosque and government-run cultural centers and media. The public, therefore, was offered a simple choice: Islam or the official ideology. Youths began turning en masse to religious schools and mosques, both as a reaction against official policies and as a means of coming to grips with the economic and social problems besetting them. The annual population growth rate in Syria has dropped from around 3.4 percent a decade ago to around 2.4 percent today. However, those born during the population boom of two decades ago are the youths of today. Some 220,000 individuals are entering the labor market every year, and the government is incapable of providing work for them. According to official statistics, there are a million unemployed in Syria, about 500,000 of whom are registered at the government's employment bureaus. The danger, however, lies in the fact that 80 percent of these are between the ages of 15 and 24. What are these young people to do when their political horizons are limited to a single political doctrine? They will turn to religion, which, at least, offers an afterlife that all are waiting to enter. External regional and international factors, however, also contributed to bringing about the growth of Islamism in Syria, since during each of the past three decades major events helped further entrench Islamic dogma. The fight against the Muslim Brotherhood coincided with the onset of the Islamic revolution in Iran at the end of the 1970's, and, subsequently, the Syrian government allied itself with Tehran against an Iraqi regime with which, in theory, it shared the same secular nationalist Baathist doctrine. Later on, at the end of the 1980's, the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc, which supported the Syrian regime, collapsed. This not only weakened Syria's strategic alliances, but also helped undermine the credibility of socialism and its achievements. The end of communism, the failure of socialist regimes to offer solutions to the economic and social ills of their own societies, and the failure of powerful ruling parties to accomplish much externally or internally, coincided with the mounting successes of Islamic parties. The Syrian public, in particular youths, watched closely the achievements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the two Palestinian intifadas. This not only helped bolster Islam in Syrian society but also acceptance of suicide bombings as a legitimate means of jihad. The role played by Hizbullah in ousting Israel from Southern Lebanon also helped entrench a belief that "Islam is the solution."
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were terrorism in every sense of the word, but is this the opinion of ordinary Syrian citizens? That seems doubtful, since many youths, again, saw the attacks as proof that a small organization with limited means could face up to a superpower thanks to Islam. In stark contrast, to their minds Arab regimes that devote large portions of their budgets to defense have failed to achieve any victories against the U.S. or Israel. Events in Iraq have only reinforced such attitudes. Many can see that Saddam Hussein, before he was ousted, adopted Islam as an alternative slogan. More recently, former Baathists have allied themselves with extreme Islamist groups to fight the Americans. What was most astonishing, perhaps, was how widespread Islamism proved to be in Iraq, though the former Baath regime thought it had managed to impose a largely secular order on the country. The genie of Islamic extremism was released from its bottle. The question now is: Will the Syrian regime manage to keep its own Islamist genie in the bottle forever?
Ibrahim Hamidi is a journalist living in Damascus and an expert on Syrian affairs. He wrote this article for THE DAILY STAR
"Iraqs alleged WMD were not taken to Syria," reports Al-Jazira today.
An intelligence report on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction is to be released next month. The theory that the weapons may have been transported to other countries is also addressed in the final report.
American intelligence personnel and U.S. congressional officials have admitted that no hard evidence has been found to support the U.S.'s claims of there being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, hence invalidating the justification of invading Iraq.
Furthermore, the American administration's public declarations that the weapons may have been smuggled to Jordan, Syria or any other country have not been supported by any proof of evidence.
Intelligence and the Congress officials said they have not seen any information which indicated that WMD's or significant amounts of components and equipment were transferred out of Iraq.
President Bush and top-ranking officials within his administration have used the existence of WMD in Iraq as the main justification for going to war. They then raised the theory that the weapons had been transferred to another country.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated time and again, "It's possible that WMD's did exist, but were transferred, in whole or in part, to one or more other countries. We see that theory put forward," a theory backed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
However the Iraq Survey Group's chief, Charles Duelfer told a Senate panel last October that it remained unclear whether banned weapons could have been moved from Iraq.
"What I can tell you is that I believe we know a lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria. There was certainly a lot of traffic across the border points," he said. "But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say."
An official with the Congress backed Duelfer's statement saying suggestions that weapons or components were sent from Iraq were simply based on speculation stemming from uncorroborated information.