"Islamism in Syria" by Ibrahim Hamidi
Ibrahim Hamidi has the best articles on the spread of Islamism in Syria. See these articles from the January 4 issue of al-Hayat
4/01/2006 London-based paper argues Syria moving towards "Islamism"
Syrian society is moving increasingly towards Islamism, Ibrahim Hamidi has argued in an article published by London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat. He said that there had been doubts about reported operations against militant cells by Syrian forces, noting that the timing often coincided with international pressure on Syria. But he went on to argue that these incidents and others point to a developing trend in which Syria is departing from a secular socialist past and witnessing increasing signs of an Islamist future. The following is the text of part one of a two-part report headlined: "Islamist streams on the march in Syria. The authorities launch 'pre-emptive strikes' against takfiri dens", published by London-based newspaper Al-Hayat website on 4 January; subheadings inserted editorially unless otherwise indicated:
The Syrian government's announcement that it recently uncovered and broke up several "takfiri cells" [Muslim trend that considers other Muslims as apostates] raises numerous questions. The first question pertains to the level of the Islamist threat to this country, whose "secular" political system has relied on a pan-Arab socialist-leftist ideology for many years. The ultimate question is how successfully the Syrian authorities can keep the Islamist genie in the bottle.
For the first time since the end of the violent clashes between the authorities and the Islamists in the mid-1980s the government announced at the end of April 2004 that it had foiled a "saboteur group's" attempt to attack a building formerly used as a UN office in Al-Mazzah neighbourhood in south Damascus. A few days later Syrian state television broadcast interviews with two of the culprits, during which they said that their motive was to "lift the injustice imposed on the Muslims". Official sources declared that three of the group's four members had gone to Iraq to fight after Saddam Husayn's regime collapsed in the spring of 2003. Among the group members was a man called Ayman Shlash who had run as a ruling Ba'th party candidate in the parliamentary elections in the spring of 2003.
The Al-Mazzah incident was a warning bell about the potential danger of the "Iraqi Arabs" like the "Afghan Arabs" before them, who had returned to their various Arab countries after their "jihad" experiment against the Soviets.
Several Western governments and some diplomats in Damascus cast doubt on the possibility that Syria was really in danger of "an Islamist terrorist threat". One US spokesman said that the operation had been "locally manufactured" to enable the Syrian government to claim that, rather than being a sponsor of terrorism as according to US terminology, it stood in the same trench as the rest of the world in combating terrorism.
These questions continued to occupy journalists and diplomats whenever an armed clash occurred between extremist groups and the Syrian "anti-terrorist squads" in the second half of 2005. There were reasons for these questions, namely, that all of the terrorist attacks were forestalled and foiled by the security forces and because the names of the "terrorists" who were captured or killed were generally the names of obscure individuals. Political timing was another factor for doubting the official Syrian accounts, for the announcements about these terrorist operations frequently coincided with mounting foreign political pressure on the country.
The first operation, which was attributed to the "Jund al-Sham Organization for Unity and Jihad" occurred in mid-2005 when the security forces besieged a "terrorist cell" in Damascus' Daff al-Shawk neighbourhood. It was the first time that this group's name appeared in the official Syrian media.
In mid-June 2005 the state-owned newspaper Al-Thawrah and Syrian state television transmitted confessions by persons who were said to be members of the "cell". What was striking, however, was that the television station for the first time showed "Jund al-Sham" pamphlets that indicated that the organization embraces an ideological, political and military "project" against Greater Syria's political regimes and man-made laws. They also said that the group advocated violent means to establish an "Islamic emirate" or "caliphate" in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Land of the Two Rivers [Iraq], currently under "Crusader" occupation. This was the substance of the pamphlets that Syrian government sources spoke of.
Ever since then Syrian official media has begun to make periodic announcements about "storming operations" to "break up" takfiri cells in Damascus, then Hamah, then Aleppo, and finally in Idlib at the beginning of December 2005. These were the cities that were the scenes of the most violent clashes between government forces and the Muslim Brotherhood organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The common denominator among all these operations is that the authorities have confined themselves to a terse official announcement broadcast by the Syrian News Agency, SANA, while television showed a few pictures of stores containing weapons, ammunition and explosive belts. Because it was difficult or impossible to "verify" these reports and exactly when each operation occurred, other media had to rely on the accounts given by official sources especially as eyewitnesses hesitated to tell their stories.
A striking point is that the official announcements altered their description of the extremist groups from "saboteur groups" to "terrorist cells" belonging to "Jund al-Sham". After the most recent incidents, official reports started calling them "takfiri cells" that had been planning to carry out "terrorist operations". The background behind this official change of terminology from "sabotage" to "takfiri" and "terrorism" remained obscure.
Arab experts who specialize in studying extremist Islamist groups believe that the "Jund al-Sham" organization was founded by Syrian, Palestinian and Jordanian individuals in Afghanistan in the 1990s and that it is linked to Abu-Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's "Al-Qa'idah of Jihad Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers".
It is hard to know whether there is any connection between "Jund al-Sham" and other organizations that carry similar names. A group carrying the name "Jund al-Sham" claimed responsibility for a suicide operation in a British school in Doha in March 2005.
In 2004 a statement was released in Ayn al-Hulwah camp in Lebanon by a group carrying the name "Jund al-Sham". In April 2005 a group calling itself the "Group of Succour and Jihad in Greater Syria" claimed responsibility for Prime Minister Al-Hariri's assassination. It was not taken seriously by Lebanese, Arab and international circles.
A "takfiri" farm and the philosopher of doubt [subheading as published]
According to official sources, a recent operation occurred on a farm in Al-Hamidiyah village, close to the city of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, hometown of the famous Arab sceptic philosopher Abu-al-Ala al-Ma'arri in Idlib Governorate. It was very violent because it involved a "major headquarters of the fundamentalist groups". Eight died, three of whom blew themselves up with explosive belts in the same way used by Iraqi terrorists and the terrorists who carried out the simultaneous bombings in three Jordanian hotels in November 2005.
Informed sources said that the Syrian security forces arrived at dawn at the farm located on the side of the Damascus-Aleppo highway. The forces surrounded the place and asked all those who were inside the location to surrender. They refused. The security forces requested reinforcements and a helicopter arrived to show the fundamentalists that the government forces were serious. They were asked a second time to surrender but again they refused and indeed began to loudly denounce the security forces and call them infidels.
"Positive message" on Iraq
It is widely believed that the storming of this hideout came in the context of the official Syrian efforts to "combat the jihadists" who wish to go and fight the Americans in Iraq. Damascus, it is said, wished to send a positive message to the Americans and the British that it was "breaking up" networks that wished to back the insurgency in Iraq. This happened at a time when it was coming under international pressure regarding the investigation into Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination.
A Western diplomat said that he believes that "this hideout was used to smuggle weapons to Iraq". Official sources, however, said that the discovery of this hideout, "which belonged to an Arab fundamentalist organization," came as a result of confessions made by two persons who sustained serious wounds during a security raid that occurred in Aleppo's Al-Naqqarin neighbourhood two days before this operation. That raid, the official sources said, led to the discovery of an explosives factory in that region, which links northern Syria to central Iraq. SANA declared that the Aleppo group had been planning attacks on Syrian officials and government offices.
In addition to these announced operations, it is believed that other operations occurred about which no announcements were made for security reasons. These operations undoubtedly indicate that Islamist communities in secular-pan-Arab Syria have started to breed certain fanatical groups. One should note at this point that in June 2005 an enlightened cleric, Shaykh Ma'shuq al-Khaznawi, was assassinated two weeks after he was abducted from a Damascus street.
Islamist parliament member Muhammad Habash attributed Al-Khaznawi's assassination to the wish of Salafi Muslims and extremists to dictate their own agenda both to their narrow conservative Islamist circles and also to the wider non-conservative Muslim community. Habash added that he received a death threat on his cellular telephone a few days prior to Al-Khaznawi's kidnapping because of the "enlightened and anti-fanatical ideas" that he embraces and advocates in his writings, the pamphlets published by the Islamic Studies Centres that he directs, and the Friday sermons that he delivers at Al-Zahra Mosque in Al-Mazzah neighbourhood.
Habash said that the uncovering of the "Jund al-Sham" organization and Al-Khaznawi's assassination come under the same heading of "religious fanaticism".
Meanwhile in June 2005 some Western newspapers including the Christian Science Monitor accused certain security circles in Syria of kidnapping and assassinating Al-Khaznawi because he held a meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood's leader in Brussels in February 2005. The brotherhood is a banned group in Syria in accordance with Law 49 of 1980.
Western diplomatic sources have explained the killing of Al-Khaznawi as the "meeting point" of three factors: the growing Islamism in the country, a political "opposition" that lacks broad popularity, and the Syrian Kurds who are organized in around 13 unlicensed political parties, which now enjoy regional status as a result of their political gains in Iraq and the international popular support they get in Europe. The Syrian government has denied this and asserted that Al-Khaznawi's kidnapping from Damascus followed by his torture and murder was merely a criminal action according to the confessions made by the abductors even before his body was found buried in a grave in Dayr al-Zur in northeastern Syria.
Parliamentary deputy Habash, who founded the Islamic Studies Centre, is one of the people who are following the movement of Syrian society towards Islamism in a country that has long been regarded as secular and that has long struggled to maintain a pan-Arab, progressive, and secularist character.
Habash formerly told Al-Hayat that he believes that around 80 per cent of the Syrian people are conservative and 20 per cent are reformist and that only one per cent of them are fanatical. He warned, however, that the "80 per cent have no political project and whenever they think of politics, they search for a leader or a cleric who might either be a reformist or a hardliner."
One official expert said: "Not all the conservatives are searching for a leader or a shaykh because the stream that is demanding pluralism and democracy is widespread among conservatives and reformists alike."
Others believe that the Syrians are conservative by nature and that pan-Arab ideology arose in the country at the end of the 19th century when "the sick man of Europe, that is, Ottoman Turkey" grew feeble and the Ottoman Empire, which Islamist ideologues now regard as a 400-year extension of the Islamic Caliphate, began to collapse.
Symbolic signs [subheading as published]
An observation of the apparent changes in the country and its population makes it seem probable that the secular-pan-Arab Syria is becoming increasingly Islamist. This can be seen through symbolic signs like wearing the veil and the proliferation in bookshops of Islamic books instead of communist writings and "Soviet novels". Indeed the large bookshop that lies opposite the Russian Cultural Centre in Damascus's 29 May Street has become one of the largest distributors of religious books and an advanced centre of disseminating religious culture. Formerly the bookshops on this street were full of Marxist books and were frequented by customers who had freed themselves of many local social restrictions.
Coinciding with the increasingly familiar scene of bearded young Syrian men wearing short jallabah as a sign of "Islamic Salafism" most of the restaurants on the Barada River and the Ayn al-Khadra and Al-Fayja neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus have stopped offering alcoholic beverages on their menus and have set aside separate sections for families in compliance with conservative social traditions. Indeed these restaurants are now vying with each other to hang the portraits of famous clerics on the walls.
During this year's month of Ramadan Damascus inhabitants in rich neighbourhood started to hang pictures with Islamic themes from their balconies. During last year's Ramadan one citizen in the township of Jurmana, which has a Christian community, was jailed because he "behaved in a way contrary to public morality" by smoking in public while others were fasting.
These Islamist signs become increasingly clear the further we get away from Damascus and into rural Syria. It is precisely such rural areas that were in the past scenes of violent clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and the authorities.
Al-Hayat previously noted that the red colours of the slogan "We will crush the Muslim Brotherhood gang, the puppet of imperialism and Zionism," which had been daubed on a wall, had started to fade. New slogans written in bright green are starting to appear on the highway between the capital and Ma'arrat al-Nu'man. They state: "Do not forget to mention God," and "Pray for the prophet." These slogans have replaced earlier mottos that spoke of secularism, communism and Arab nationalism, for example "No life in this country except for progressiveness and socialism."
In addition to these new slogans green domes are increasing in number in several Syrian villages and towns, with the best specimens rising alongside the highways.
Furthermore, Akram al-Jundi, an inhabitant of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man and the first Syrian citizen to obtain a licence to operate a private television station, which he did in the early 1960s, insists on broadcasting religious programmes on his channel, which has a capital of 12m dollars which he gathered during his work in the Gulf.
When you visit villages and rural neighbourhood, you can hear stories that explain what is happening. In the village of Urum al-Jawz, located in rough mountainous terrain that had once been a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold and a scene of armed clashes, the young man Muhammad al-Nuri could in the past declare openly that he was a communist, for example, or defy local social traditions in the way he dressed and behaved. Fasting was not compulsory in those days and young women rarely wore the Islamic veil. Today, however, the rebellious young man has become a shaykh or at least a conservative man who clings to social traditions. He believes that "Islam is the alternative solution" to communist ideology, which he learnt in a Soviet university and from paperbacks that were given as gifts to Syrian young men.
Story of a generation
The story of Muhammad, who is now in his fifties, tells the story of an entire Syrian generation. Muhammad studied in Moscow in the 1980s and returned as a learned and rebellious man to educate the villagers in "secularism". Two decades later he had surrendered to the power of society and traditions. Indeed Muhammad is now more religiously committed than Ahmad Yusuf, who calls himself the young men's friend, who returned to the village after 10 years in Saudi Arabia, bringing with him conservative Islamist slogans mixed with some Salafi ideas and many Gulf customs in dress and daily behaviour.
In the past the competition between the two "rebellious" young men focused on digging away at the foundations of the strong wall of traditions and social customs because their enthusiasm was strong and their dreams of change were bigger than the village's few scattered houses. Today the competition is focused in reverse and tends to bolster the wall of traditions and attain a greater level of stringent religious commitment. To the local society today, a "virtuous" young man is someone who spends a greater part of his time at the large mosque that was built a few years ago next to the highway so that travellers between Aleppo and the coastal city of Latakia could see it. It replaced the old mosque that was located in a remote corner of the village. In this way the mosque would tell the millions passing along the road in their cars: Look and see how committed we are to our religion.
Hajj Ahmad, as he came to be called after returning from his expatriate years in the Gulf, was at the forefront of the effort to collect donations to build the "Al-Iman" [faith] Mosque on a hill in Urum al-Jawz. Shaykh Muhammad now sends his four children to this mosque to study religion. Formerly he dreamed of building a cultural centre or a large clinic on one of the village hills. His two boys fast in Ramadan and the two girls started wearing the veil before reaching the age of 10. Just as a reminder, this "shaykh" planned in his youth to marry a Soviet woman and have unveiled liberal daughters, just as several thousand other Syrians who studied in the Eastern Bloc used to dream.
Simply put, the experiences of these two men in the past two decades are a specimen of the transformation in the ranks of a generation whose government made ardent efforts to turn society into a modern civil society. The efforts failed and brought about contrary results.
Source: Al-Hayat website, London, in Arabic 4 Jan 06