Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Is the Syrian Regime turning to Religion?

A friend in Washington wrote to ask me about the recent NY Times Slackman article on the Syrian regime's flirtation with Islamists. Here is his question:

I read with interest today’s NY Times piece on Syria and was wondering what you thought of it. Was it an accurate account of what is going on, or did it exaggerate the regime’s turning to religion?
Here is my response:
It is accurate, but one shouldn't read too much into Bashar's blowing kisses at clerics. The regime has long sought to bolster and fund “soft” Islam as a counter-weight to the Muslim Brothers and Salafists. The Syrian government has sought a supine compliance from its sheikhs; it has promoted mushy interfaith dialogue married with a “can’t-we-just-get-along” brand of Islam. It has permitted the Shaykhs fairly broad latitude in cultural affairs so long as they stay out of politics.

Shaykhs have been given some access to the education ministry. The late Grand Mufti Kaftaru was able to build up a large patronage network that got people into government jobs. The government also allowed a mosque building boom to go on during the 1980s and 1990s funded by Gulf money. TV coverage of Shaykhs and Islam has been limited compared to Egypt or Arabia. There is no government funded Islamic newspaper.

The mosque building boom scared the regime, however.

The fundamental problem is that Alawites are not considered Muslims by most Sunni clerics. Having an Alawite president for Syrians is a bit as if a Mormon became president of the States. Mormons are fine so long as they are just doing their thing in Utah, but if a Mormon became president, it would not take long before the Christian right began to sing that the country had passed into the hands of Satan and antichrist. Islamic literalism is more widespread in Syria than its Christian variant in the US. More importantly, in Syria, there is no robust class of liberals that could defend the notion of equality or separation of church and state. The Islamic right chafes under the Alawite dominated regime. This was articulated during Hama. Alawites were accused by the Brotherhood of being both unbelievers and non-Arabs.

Bayanouni has tried to put this chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood behind him by calling for democracy and pluralism, but when he was recently asked if Alawites are Muslims, he was evasive and dissembled. Here is a bit of a Jamestown interview with the leader of the Muslim Brothers:
Question: Do you still regard the Alawis as a heretical sect?

Ali Bayanouni: We do not discriminate against Alawis and as they say they are Muslims, we do not contest that. The problem of Syria remains political, a minority elite has seized a state and is oppressing the majority.
Bayanouni says that he does not contest it when Alawites say that they are Muslims, nevertheless, he refuses to openly agree with them or say that they are Muslims himself. His followers and most Shaykhs would eat him alive if he did. This is the problem.

No Alawite will allow the Muslim Brothers to take power so long as they can avoid it for fear of returning to the nightmare days of discrimination, when they were second-class citizens. This fear may be exaggerated. Syria and Muslims have changed a great deal since Ottoman days, when Alawites were officially considered a "lost nation" or Millet-i dalla" and were forbidden from giving testimony in court. All the same, the extent of anti-Baathist revenge and sectarian fighting that has taken place in Iraq, can only be disquieting, and serves to diminish the Alawites’ willingness to take risks in this direction.

The Alawites are not stupid. They know that they must try to conform to the common outlines of Muslim orthodoxy to rule. It is in the constitution that the President must be a Muslim. Hafiz tried to eliminate this article in the 1973 constitution, but there were big demonstrations and violence; he relented, leaving it in. Realizing that he could not convert Syrians to liberalism, he spent considerable energy trying to convert Alawites into mainstream Muslims.

Now that Sunni ex-vice president Khaddam has joined the Muslim Brothers to form an opposition alliance, the State Department has said openly that it is willing to listen to what this new front has to say. Bashar is concerned; he should be. Washington used to reject the notion of “negotiating with Islamists” on principle.

So Bashar is toying with ideas of how to give the Syrian muftis more authority in order to buy them more firmly onto his side and keep them from preaching anything nice about Khaddam and Bayanouni.

All the same, Bashar will never give religion too much latitude. The rise of Islamism threatens him and the regime too much. He will get support on this from most of Syria’s religious minority communities and from moderate Sunnis. His flirtation with Islam is tactical. All the same, the only thing he has on his side in opposing US policy is populism. He must play to his street, which he has done fairly skillfully so far. He has used nationalism and anti-Americanism to divide the Jihadists, who, so far, have decided they hate America and the invasion of Iraq more than they do Alawites in power. The old nationalist slogans only go so far, however. He must bring religion into the mix. This is a real problem for him. He has made alliances with Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, and most other like-minded Islamists in order to bolster his foreign policy and use the anti-American forces available to him to shore up his position in the region. But these alliances are all with Islamists groups outside of Syria. Inside, he hasn’t given away the store; he is just doing some rope-a-dope with the muftis to play for time and keep moderate Muslims from joining the opposition.

Whether Bashar can survive the rising force of Islamism in the long run will be the true test of his presidency. The West is now giving tacit support to the Muslim Brothers to see what they have and if they can really put pressure on Bashar. All the same, President Bush has never said about Syria what he said about Iraq: that the country should be ruled by the majority. The furthest Bush has pressed the democracy issue in Syria is to say that Bashar should "begin importing democracy," and to allocate $5 million to support democracy activities in Syria.

Washington was willing to throw its cards in with Iraq’s Shiite clerics because it hated Saddam with such passion. It was the only way to bring him down. Of course in Iraq the majority was Shiite, in Syria it is Sunni. Bashar has to fear that the West will eventually give Bayanouni and the Islamists their head in trying to take power in Syria. Washington seems to be weighing this option and holding it up in front of Bashar to scare him. Should Washington go down that road, the real war is on in Syria. Bashar is counting on the fact that Washington is bluffing. He believes that it is now so horrified by the clerical Frankenstein it has created in Iraq that it will swerve first in the game of chicken that has been established. Bashar is counting on the fact that Washington will eventually decide that acquiescing to rule by authoritarian Bashar, no matter how distasteful, is wiser than going for some form of Islamist rule in Syria.

Perhaps the Jewish funded think tanks in Washington are the best bellwether for this policy. So far, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to take one example, has expounded the view that Syria must be isolated and punished, but that the US must never, on any condition, compromise or carry on a serious dialogue with Islamists, even those like Bayanouni who claim to be moderate and pluralistic. WINEP takes the stand that there is no such thing as a moderate Islamist. So long as this is the case, Bashar is probably safe and Washington’s professed flirtation with the Syrian opposition will remain just blown kisses and not a full embrace. So long as Bashar can retain Israel’s reluctant support and the Iraqi example heads south, he can continue his present foreign policy and merely bat his eye lashes at moderate Muslims within Syria. He does not have to do more. He will refuse to do more.

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25 Comments:

At 4/05/2006 07:57:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Dr. Landis,

Congratulations on a very well written posting.

 
At 4/05/2006 08:20:00 PM, Blogger Amr T said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 4/05/2006 09:02:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

Josh, i think Hafez Asad stood against making Islam the religion of the state and to make that axceptable he allowed having the president being Muslem without clear rejection from the christian who have no interest in politecal power allthough they like not being excluded.

 
At 4/05/2006 09:11:00 PM, Blogger Atassi said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 4/05/2006 09:14:00 PM, Blogger Atassi said...

Dr. Joshua,
Thank you for posting an interesting and articulated posting.
Please keep in mind, your theory and assumptions were built on the notions of a naive Islamic leaders in in Syria, Islamic leaders don't read or understand the political forces around them.
very hungry for any material gains, and the possibility of taking a free cookies or form the regime with the understanding that they must pay for it later on with ...!!!
You are assuming, Dr Basher has a master plan to control them, his regime will stay strong enough to stop them in the event they cross the red line. or start reaching the for the glass ceiling !!! set by him. I do have a big doubts, based on Dr. Bashar history in the presidency, I should have a big doubts, and very worried too..

 
At 4/05/2006 10:31:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

alawit live in area in Syria it is best known as nasirieh mountains,they are closer to christians than islam, and some consider them ofshoot of she-ah, the iranians,some of them,consider Hafez Assad a prophet .Alawit ,in the past fought with Druze,so it does not surprise me that Jumblat is against Bashar,also, Adib Shishakly persicuted the Alawits.
Zyad Al Ayoubi the awqaf minister was behind changing the recent law prohibiting the mosques to open between prayers,he is political, supported by rich syrians who practically own damascus, they live in Malki area, and they attend Anas ibn Malik mosque,which is really is their private mosque,and that is where he speaks weekly,and always he attack the US. an all his masses,
the syrian opposition , declined american help, so america declined to help them.

 
At 4/06/2006 08:53:00 AM, Blogger Alex said...

Dr. Joshua,

Very interesting analysis. I had 3 emails this morning from friends recommending me to read it!

This topic is at the heart of things that define "Syria" as a country. Until now, Sunni-Alawite relations have been mostly shaped through displays of, or threats of, power.

The Sunnis have still not accepted the Alawites as true Muslims. Even the Shiites in neighboring countries are often not accepted as true Muslims. So it is probably fair to assume that nothing will change. Nothing until a possible liberalization of Islamic, and other religious, moods takes place in the Middle East and else where. In the late Sixties Damascus was a much more liberal place than it is now, 30 years later. Egyptian movies were as liberal as the ones in America. Going back to that easy going era takes a serious Saudi and Iranian undoing of what they have done in the eighties. The Saudis have started slowly. But the Iranians have gone the other direction.

It is fair to say that the Americans and the Israelis are the ones who can do the most to affect the direction Islam will take:

1) By pressing the Saudis and Pakistanis and Egyptians for liberal change. This can be possible through:
2) Ending the Iraq and Palestine miseries.
3) By holding out an olive branch to Iran.
4) By channeling their money towards serious economic development of the whole region.

Doing that will remove the stress and suffering. It will also remove the perception of ongoing confrontation between Islam and the other religions.

Back to Syria: Since the above is not going to happen anytime soon, we will continue to expect the relative perceptions of power to define the degree to which the Syrian regime tolerates fundamentalist Islam, and the degree to which the Ikhwan tolerate the Alawite.

As for the ability to forget and forgive; The ikhwan website front page still shows "the atrocities in Hama" banner permanently. Alawites do notice these things.

 
At 4/06/2006 09:00:00 AM, Blogger Atassi said...

Majed,
Alawits are integral part of the Syrian society, please don't mix between a regime and minorities. The syrian regime has many corrupted Sunni and christen elements too. I can even blame the Damascus merchants for corrupting the Alawites officers for their own gain.

 
At 4/06/2006 09:10:00 AM, Blogger Atassi said...

Alex .. this maybe an answer !!
===================
US defends its record on the promotion of democracy.
Guy Dinmore in Washington
5 April 2006
Financial Times (FT.Com)
The Bush administration on Wednesday defended its efforts to promote democracy around the world in the face of growing criticism of double standards and accusations that its "freedom drive" was flagging as a result of electoral gains by Islamists opposed to the US.

A 262-page report by the State Department - Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record 2005-2006 - sets out US achievements in 95 countries with its budget of $1.4bn (?1.14bn, GBP802m).

"We stood in solidarity with the brave men and women around the world who were persecuted by repressive regimes for exercising their rights," Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, wrote, condemning persecution in Burma, Belarus, China, Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe.

While listing in detail US efforts to put pressure on autocrats to reform and the promotion of civil society, the report skates around the issues arising from the administration's stated goal of "ending tyranny" - namely the success of Islamists in elections across the Middle East, and the resistance to change by allies in the "war on terror".

The report mentions only briefly how "some governments" moved to impose draconian restrictions on civil society groups, "citing fears of instability or foreign interference".

The tabular content relating to this article is not available to view. Apologies in advance for the inconvenience caused.

"Their efforts to weaken the secular opposition often drove frustrated citizens to support the only visible alternative to corruption and inefficiency - Islamist parties with compelling anti-corruption and good governance platforms and solid social service track records," the report says. Ms Rice came under fire in Congress on Tuesday during a hearing on foreign assistance, where the US was accused of spreading a sense of chaos in the Middle East through a pursuit of elections first and institutions later, as well as following double standards.

"What concerns me," said Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, "is the way we are flagrantly violating the stated commitment to democracy in the name of expedience elsewhere in the world. I can think of no better example than Pakistan."

Administration insiders concede there is concern over direction. Some say the pro-democracy strategy laid out by President George W. Bush in his second inauguration address in 2005 is flagging. Recent FT interviews with senior State Department officials reinforced that impression.

One official drew a comparison with the human rights agenda embraced by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, which he said was only institutionalised by his successor, Ronald Reagan.

With three years still left in office, a second official spoke in terms of the president's "historic legacy", saying he had embedded democracy promotion in foreign policy and that his successor - Republican or Democrat - would be under pressure to respond to this vision.

 
At 4/06/2006 09:40:00 AM, Blogger abu youssef said...

Just a thought...

When an Alawi like myself sees comments such as those of majedkhaldoon's above, we feel an under-current of ignorance pulling in the wrong direction. It puts us in a difficult position where we want to support change in Syria for the good of all, but simply cannot align ourselves with those who show, time and again, their lacking depth of knowledge in even the simplest factors at play.

 
At 4/06/2006 12:05:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

"but if a Mormon became president, it would not take long before the Christian right began to sing that the country had passed into the hands of Satan and antichrist."

Pathetic statement.

 
At 4/06/2006 01:00:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

Alawites are part of the syrian societies,and I said it before they are arab and syrian,I hate ethnic divisions,we all are equal,some Alawites disagree with the current regime,I respect them,what I mentioned are words of Hafez Assad father,and his grand father,also I mentioned facts,those who consider it ignorance they are defensive.
ATASSI;
There are corrupted merchants from Homs and Halab and other cities,please correct your word saying Damascus Merchants, these are divisive words.
Also Atassi please shorten your comments.

 
At 4/06/2006 01:25:00 PM, Blogger Atassi said...

Majed,
Thank you for correcting me,
Certainly there are corrupted merchants form HOMS and Aleppo (I know of a corrupted relatives doing Biz with a corrupted regime officials in both Dmascuse and homs). Please take the meaning and the content of my statement.
I do try to shorten my comments', sometime; it's not useful to publish an html link to an article, since link\site could be blocked by the government.

 
At 4/06/2006 01:26:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

"I hate ethnic divisions,we all are equal,"

= no minorities => no ethnical division. You're more intelligent than I thought my friend.

It reminds of that line from a famous French comic "I hate the racists and the blacks".

 
At 4/06/2006 01:27:00 PM, Blogger abu youssef said...

Anybody can make up a "fact" that is based on what they believe to be true. The point is, believing it to be true does not make it so.

It's not a matter being defensive. Rather, it's a matter of dellusion. This tangent feels a lot like defending Palestinian rights in the face of Zionist rhetoric - just an example, not an accusation.

 
At 4/06/2006 03:38:00 PM, Blogger quest trust said...

Josh, it is a good article,
But, what is confusing is that we the people have stuck between very hard choices. Although, it is natural to everyone and every sects to look for choices to best serve thier interest, it is not in the country’s interest to continue the way been govern this country for half a century. It is not working. Josh, what you are saying that Alawite cannot leave power because it is very dangerous. Of course for those who say that current government happed to be from alawite descend I say this the problem that they cannot leave and cannot share and they cannot let anyone not Alawite take power. The story so is clear. So for the sake not to jeopardize the stability of the country, we cannot reject the current regime neither now nor in the future. Now for a guy like me who is not Bathist or MB just a citizen wants the best change for his beloved homeland, what should I do?. This message means, people do not take risk and do what they plan for you they are the best this country can make.
But I see things in different way, I think the current regime is an able to prevent the wave of Islamist expansion and everyday they actually bold the other side stand. At the same time they cannot recognize that the opposition and the liberal voices in it are their best chance to get out their dilemma.

 
At 4/06/2006 04:59:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 4/06/2006 05:02:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

“Bashar is counting that Washington is bluffing”

This is the key phrase from this fine posting. Bashar is fully aware that other than Washington, no one has a realistic chance of unseating him from power. The changing landscape in the region has made it easier for Bashar to reiterate to America that:

Middle East Democracy = Islamists reaching power.

Given the experience of Hamas, is this a risk that Washington is willing to take with a country that has a direct border with Israel?

Thanks But No Thanks is what Bashar thinks the answer is.


If he is right, and one has to admit that his odds are high, then we Syrians have to get used to the idea that Bashar will be our President for many years to come. His father lasted for 30 years. If he were to repeat that record, we ought to be looking at the year 2030 as a first target. But with a younger, and presumably healthier, young man, Hafez Junior may have to wait a bit longer before his father Bashar can pass on the torch to him.

 
At 4/06/2006 06:38:00 PM, Blogger t_desco said...

'Kenaan used ransom to buy apartment'

BEIRUT: French daily Le Figaro reported on Wednesday that a ransom paid to free German hostages from captivity in Lebanon was used to buy an apartment in Paris for former Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan. In an article titled "From Intelligence to Private Businesses," the French newspaper quoted unsourced intelligence dealings in the Middle East.
The Daily Star

Le Figaro: Ransom Paid to Free German Hostages Earned Kanaan a Paris Flat
Naharnet

At that time, Gerhard Lehmann, who later became the chief investigator of the Mehlis commission, was operating a spy network in Lebanon (according to his semi-official biography, "Gefährliche Mission" by Oliver Schröm, Frankfurt 2005, p.16). On behalf of German Federal Police (BKA) and Intelligence (BND), he cultivated a network of informants inside groups like Hizbullah and Amal, so he was probably aware of Kanaan's little "deal".

It's a small world!

And it is definitely not true that "Mehlis and his team knew nothing about the Arab world", as a "German source" told As'ad AbuKhalil some days ago.
The Mehlis Team...Scandal

 
At 4/06/2006 06:51:00 PM, Blogger Alex said...

The Syrian opposition should realize that the Syrian regime is not going to collapse tomorrow. Instead of confrontations and threats, they are better off pushing for "reasonable" goals at this time; things like the more liberal press laws, free multi-party municipal elections, and fighting corruption. No one in Syria can disagree on the usefulness of these popular goals. If they want the best for Syria, today that best is to work with the regime to reach these smaller reform goals.

Now, if only "the regime" can deliver.

 
At 4/06/2006 09:52:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

Coruption is not limmited to one ethnic or religous group in Syria ,It comes from having one party system without even democracy inside the Baath party,therfore Syria needs politecal parties with clear platforms and plans for Syria on spesific problems of the economy security healthcare education and as long as the opposition plan is trust we know better because we are sunni MB or from this family or that Syrians will not take a chance to chang what they know in Bashar Asad with (TRUST US WE CAN DO BETTER)as they ask if you know better ,why don,t you tell us and help showing us the way.

 
At 4/06/2006 10:57:00 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Norman I agree with you, but on the other hand, the regime should let them compete freely for municipal elections in 2007. If another party can run Aleppo cleanly, then good for them. If they run into the same corruption, then Syrians would know that it is really not that simple.

 
At 4/06/2006 11:41:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

John Kerry said if Iraq do not form goverment by may 15,US must pull their troops immidiately,
I do not think they are closer to form a goverment than they were in january,2006.,Bremer made it the PM must have 66% of the vote.
Farooq Al Shara said Syria will send an ambassador to Iraq after they form a goverment, eesh ya gdeesh ta yunbot al Hasheesh.
Bush who can not find a solution in Iraq,said:it is up to the next president.no one like Iraq to divide, nor they like a civil war, the best choice is to stay as they are,till Bush leaves the office.

 
At 4/07/2006 02:00:00 PM, Blogger Kicky Sack said...

Vox Populi:

said the following: (first you quoted landis)

"but if a Mormon became president, it would not take long before the Christian right began to sing that the country had passed into the hands of Satan and antichrist."

and then said:

"Pathetic statement."

Come on . . . please have some form of rebutal other than 'pathetic'. you fling personal attacks like a small child in a sandbox - (notice the following, i take a side on the arugment and then put forth evidence to support my views. I think this comparsion is fair. When JFK was elected president, the not-yet-politically active (as compared to now) christian-right was afraid and vocal that the Pope would be making US policy. The mormons are more disliked by the christian right than the catholics and now they (the christian right) has much more power than ever. If a mormon was elected president in the states, the christian right would go (to use technical terms) 'bat-shit insane' .

so explain, how was this statement by landis 'pathetic' . . . . .

 
At 4/21/2006 05:59:00 PM, Blogger callieischatty said...

It would be an understatement to say that I was shocked to read this blog.

I note in a previous post you refer to 'Jewish funded Washington Think Tanks" as being part of the problem for Syria.

Let me assure you, Jews do not control Washington or its policy makers and to suggest some sort of vast Jewish conspiracy makes you sound like David Duke or the National Alliance.

Its very surprising someone with this sort of agenda would be a college professor and a Princeton Grad.

This is a very disturbing realization for me, that such blatent stereotypeing is considered acceptable to you.

 

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