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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