Review– The Islamic Revival in Syria (September-October 2006)

Vol. 1   No. 3

September-October 2006

The Islamic Revival in Syria
by Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed is a Damascus-based Syrian political analyst. He is the author of Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 (Cune Press 2005).

Islamic fundamentalism in Syria has spread rapidly in recent years, and not just among the urban poor. The spectacle of veiled women driving brand new Mercedes through the bustling streets of Damascus illustrates that religious revivalism has penetrated high society. In posh residential neighborhoods of the capital, most restaurants have stopped serving alcohol and there are traffic jams every Friday outside local mosques.

As in other Arab states, the Islamist resurgence in Syria has been fueled by the resounding failures of secular political parties in the region, the contrasting successes of militant Islamist groups, and widespread feelings of powerlessness in the face of perceived Israel and American encroachments in the region. It has also been facilitated by the government. As external pressure on his regime has mounted, Syrian President Bashar Assad has incrementally abandoned the ruling Baath Party’s longstanding secularizing mission and encouraged the growth of .a moderate “Islamist civil society” loyal to the state.

However, Syria faces a catch-22. There are indications that a militant Islamist underground is growing in strength – most recently on September 12, when armed gunmen attacked the American embassy in Damascus. Although its direct threat to the regime is minimal, sporadic outbreaks of violence have led Baathist hardliners to press for a halt to the Islamification campaign. Others in the regime insist that the process must be followed to its natural conclusion – the legalization of religious-based political parties – to defuse the radical Islamist threat.

Background

Political Islam has been a headache for every government of Syria since the early 1940s, when a conservative Islamic movement called Jam’iyyat al-Gharra organized demonstrations calling for the closure of cabarets and nightclubs serving alcohol and the establishment of a morality police squad (similar to the one in Saudi Arabia). Although conservative Islamic leaders (who re-grouped under the banner of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1940s) were uncompromising in their rejection of Western civic culture, they joined the political system and largely confined themselves to peaceful expressions of dissent. State repression of the Brotherhood was relatively light, even during interludes of military rule.

This changed in 1963 when the secular nationalist Baath Party seized power and the brotherhood openly denounced the new administration as an “apostate regime.” The Brotherhood launched an armed revolt in the conservative city of Hama the following year, but it was quickly stamped out. Commanding little support outside of urban areas and recognizing that the Baath Party’s social programs appealed to the masses, the Brotherhood abandoned armed struggle for the next decade and waited for circumstances to change.

They regrouped after the defeat of 1964 and emerged in the 1970s as a strong political force intent on toppling the Baathist regime. Islamist propaganda became explicitly takfiri (denouncing other Muslims as infidels). This, along with covert support by Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence, enabled the brotherhood to develop an underground network of highly trained assassins willing to murder prominent supporters of the Baathist regime (both in an out of government), including pro-establishment clerics. Although the assassins carried out this task with brutal efficiency, the brotherhood’s failure to attract support outside the urban interior proved fatal. In February 1982, after Islamist fighters foolishly ambushed a Syrian military patrol in Hama, the authorities methodically stormed brotherhood strongholds in the city in a bloody confrontation that largely ended the rebellion.

In the aftermath of Hama, expressions of Islamist opposition to the regime virtually disappeared. Many men even stopped growing beards for fear of inviting suspicions of the intelligence services. Thousands of Islamist radicals fled overseas. The brotherhood’s exiled leadership adapted to a life of communiques and coffee shops, while those who still felt that the sword was more powerful than the fax machine went to Afghanistan and joined the global jihadist movement. The prevalence of Syrians in both the leadership and ranks of Al-Qaeda is second only to the Saudis, and the influence of their takfiri outlook is today felt in Iraq, where the entire Shiite population has been designated fair game for mass murder.

The collapse of radical Islamist opposition to the regime came at a time when radical Islamist movements elsewhere in the Arab world were beginning to emerge in strength. Recognizing that this Islamist revival would inevitably engulf Syria, the late President Hafez Assad worked to ensure that religious expression and practice was channeled through state-monitored institutions. The government constructed thousands of new mosques, established around two dozen Islamic higher education institutes, and developed a variety of other quasi-official religious institutions (e.g. the Assad Institute for Memorizing the Quran, which has branches in most cities and governorates) to replace those that had been used by the brotherhood for recruitment. Naturally, they were strictly controlled by authorities and surveyed by the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments), to prevent radical infiltrations.

By the early 1990s, there were many indications (such as ubiquitous veiling) that Islamic fundamentalism in Syria was on the upswing. In order to defuse tensions, Assad freed thousands of imprisoned brotherhood members and instructed state television to begin broadcasting religious programs hosted by loyalist clerics. Although Syria’s militant Islamist underground (most notably a group called Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami) awoke from hibernation and carried out sporadic acts of violence in the late 1990s, Assad launched a major crackdown during the last year of his life that largely eradicated the threat.

After assuming power in 2000, Bashar Assad continued his father’s efforts to reconcile with the brotherhood, releasing over a thousand of its members from prison and permitting many to return from exile. Nevertheless, he refused to issue a blanket amnesty for jailed brotherhood members or repeal the ban on membership in the brotherhood – concessions that would have enabled its exiled leadership to reestablish their influence in the mosques.

Bayanouni and Khaddam

Consequently, Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni has revived the movement’s demand for regime change in Damascus (though it is now expressed as a call for secular democracy) and established a joint coalition earlier this year with former Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam, known as the National Salvation Front (NSF). Although Khaddam, who defected last year after decades of loyalty to the regime, is a public relations liability for the NSF (its inaugural conference at London’s posh Dorchester Hotel in June attracted strikingly little interest even among the Syrian expatriate community in Britain), his personal wealth and close ties to the Saudis and the Hariri family in Lebanon could give the brotherhood a new lease on life.

Islamification

Having ruled out a political accomodation with the brotherhood, Assad and his allies have cast themselves as patrons of moderate Islamic revivalism – true Islam, as they like to call it. The president ended one of his famous speeches, after the turmoil in Lebanon in 2005, with religious invocations. The wives of several top-ranking officials, such as Prime Minister Naji Otari and his deputy for economic affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari, have begun wearing Islamic headscarves (a fashion trend new to official circles in Baathist Syria).

Moreover, Assad has continued the process of religious liberalization begun by his father, particularly in the field of education. Assad allowed the establishment of private schools (many of which have a strongly religious orientation) and lifted the requirement that schoolchildren salute the Baath Party flag and wear military-style uniforms. He began allowing mosques to open between prayers for the first time in two decades. On April 10, Syrians were allowed to organize public festivals celebrating Muhammad’s birthday for the first time in many years. Even in the military, Assad has relaxed Baathist restrictions on religion. In 2003, he lifted a long-standing ban on prayer in military barracks. Earlier this year, the military academy invited religious authorities to lecture cadets for the first time.

Assad appointed a prominent sheik, Ziyad al-Ayubi, as minister of awqaf and offered moderate Islamists and pro-government clerics an unprecedented degree of access to the state-run broadcast media. Clerics have not only been permitted near total freedom to denounce the United States, but a number of influential figures have been allowed to make poignant (if vaguely worded) critiques of the Baathist state. Foremost among these is Salah Kuftaro, a cleric who preaches to some 10,000 people each Friday at the Abu al-Noor Mosque in Damascus and runs the largest Islamic charitable foundation in Syria. Kuftaro, whose father was grand mufti of Syria until his death last year, frequently bemoans “the total failure of secular Arab governments” and has publicly called for an “Islamic democracy” in Syria similar to that of neighboring Turkey.[1] Muhammad Habash, a distinguished Islamic scholar who was elected to parliament in 2003 with the highest number of votes for any non-Baath party candidate, has openly called for the repeal of Law 49 and the legalization of Islamic political parties.[2] Another prominent regime-friendly Islamist is the new Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun.

Moderate sheikhs have not only been allowed to organize collectively and express criticism of government policies, but they have managed to pressure the government into reversing unpopular decrees on at least two occasions. A recent decree closing down 35 Sharia schools was met with a petition by 200 leading clerics requesting its abrogation. Usama al-Khani, the director of Sharia Education in Syria, refused to accept the new law and was fired from his job. Assad eventually canceled the law.

Islamic forces have also been allowed to operate at the grassroots level. Munira al-Qubaysi, 73, has been the most prominent preacher of Islam to young women in Syria for over four decades. The “sisters” who follow Qubaysi run a network of centers called “houses” (so named because they shifted their classes into private homes in the aftermath of Hama).[3] Although apolitical, the movement’s social agenda is distinctly Islamist. Al-Hayat quoted a girl from the al-Qanawat neighborhood who recalled how a group of sisters implored her to wear the hijab. After replying that she could not withstand the summer heat if she wore a veil, the sister asked: “What about the fire of hell?”[4]

A veritable who’s who in Damascene notability have joined the sisters.[5] Funds provided by this growing well-to-do constituency have enabled the movement’s charitable branches too increase provisions of food and medical assistance to women in poor areas. More importantly, the affluence and social status of Qubaysi followers has enabled them to successfully lobby the government for licenses to teach in private schools and even give lectures in mosques.

As Syrian relations with the West have deteriorated in the past two years, the government has begun to rely increasingly on Islamists to drum up street support. In return for their loyalty, in February 2006 Islamist activists were allowed to organize protests (which quickly turned violent) against the publication of cartoons negatively depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Assad’s Islamification project has been met with criticism from influential people within the ruling elite. Some are security barons who are convinced that the removal of constraints on religious expression will spawn terrorism. Others, like Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah, are Baathist true believers.

Islamification has also alarmed many secular dissidents. In 2004, prominent writer Nabil Fayyad published an article in a Kuwaiti newspaper denouncing those in the regime who were pushing for Islamification, calling then-Information Minister Ahmad Hassan “a fundamentalist.”[6]

Prior to the Baath Party’s June 2005 conference, there was considerable speculation that the regime was preparing to lift the ban on Islamic political parties, but the matter was not even discussed at the conference. It apparently was not even on the table, but all talk about abolishing article 49 was initially triggered by the regime friendly Islamic deputy Mohammad Habash. On the contrary, the conference stated that political parties will be allowed, but only those that do not have an Islamic agenda, in clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. When a political party draft was released in early 2006, it was also clear that “all parties that operated prior to 1963” (again in clear reference to the Brotherhood) will not be allowed to operate.

The Islamist Underworld

The Syrian regime’s ill-fated decision to allow radical Islamists to infiltrate Iraq through Syria in 2003 may have been driven more by political than strategic considerations. The vast majority of Syrians were outraged by the US-led invasion, especially those who share tribal ties to their brethren in Iraq. Exiled brotherhood leaders nodded their approval one week after the fall of Baghdad, proclaiming on Al-Jazeera that there would be no Ahmad Chalabi in Syria and calling for dialogue with the government. It was only after Syria began taking steps to shut down infiltration routes in 2004 that the brotherhood began openly calling for regime change.

As the regime took steps to obstruct jihadist infiltration into Iraq, Syria began to witness sporadic incidents of terrorist violence by militants returning from the war. The first was an attack on an abandoned UN building in April 2004, leading to a shootout with Syrian security forces in the residential Mezzeh neighborhood where one bystander and one police officer were killed. After a number of smaller scale incidents, a July 2005 shootout between police and armed militants on Mount Qassioun overlooking the Syrian capital left a security officer dead and four others wounded.

Syrian officials referred to perpetrators of these and other clashes simply as takfiris, but in some cases specifically linked them to a mysterious group known as Jund al-Sham [Soldiers of Syria]. Jund al-Sham is believed to have been linked to Abu Musab al-Suri (a.k.a. Mustafa Setmariam Nasar) and other leading Syrian figures in al-Qaeda.

After the clash on Mount Qassioun Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya satellite television, wrote an op-ed proclaiming that al-Qaeda has “started its war against Syria.”[7] Although his prediction was premature, prominent Syrians in al-Qaeda have reportedly been lobbying for attacks in their home country for some time (Abu Ghadia, a top lieutenant of the late Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, is often mentioned in this regard).[8] It is certainly plausible that they have taken it upon themselves to operate against the Syrian regime since the secular Baath has always been a target for radical political Islam.

Since all of the terrorist plots were successfully foiled by the authorities with relatively little innocent loss of life, many outside observers have expressed suspicion that they were fabricated or staged by the mukhabarat, pointing out that the government has an interest in exaggerating the radical Islamist threat within Syria’s borders and casting itself as a bulwark against terrorism. However, orchestrating terrorist disturbances in its own capital would be a very risky gamble for the Syrian regime, as it could ward off investors, hurt tourism, and shatter the country’s reputation for stability.

Abu al-Qaqa

Abu al-Qaqa

On June 2, 2006, residents of the Syrian capital awoke to the cacophonous sound of gunfire as security forces clashed with a 10-man cell of masked gunmen ostensibly preparing to stage an attack on Umayyad Square in downtown Damascus. Two Syrian security personnel and four militants were killed in the battle, while the remaining militants were captured. Until the time of writing in late July 2006, none of their confessions have been made public by Syrian authorities.

Although little information on the altercation is available, Syrian officials revealed that the terrorists were in possession of CDs containing sermons of Mahmoud Aghasi, better known as Abu al-Qaqa.[9] Until a few years ago, Abu al-Qaqa was a well-known preacher at al-Sahrour mosque in Aleppo who distinguished himself as a loud anti-American cleric. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, members of his entourage began wearing military fatigues and his followers began distributing videotapes showing them engaged in paramilitary training exercises.[10] After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu al-Qaqa helped organize the infiltration of militant jihadists from Syria into Iraq. He publicly boasted about his role, which has been confirmed by jihadists captured in Iraq, including Muayed al-Nasseri, former commander of “the Army of Muhammad.”[11] Abu al-Qaqa’s high public profile led many observers to assume that he was operating under the protection of the authorities. In an October 2003 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, he flatly declared, “I would like to see an Islamic state in Syria,”[12] a statement that would normally be unthinkable in Syria.

After the Syrian government began to crack down on terrorist infiltration into Iraq, Abu al-Qaqa’s role became murkier. At least two jihadists interviewed by Western and Arab media voiced suspicions that he was helping the Syrian authorities hunt infiltrators.[13] In January 2004, an al-Qaeda-linked bulletin board called Abu al-Qaqa a “spy.”[14] Around this time, Abu al-Qaqa disappeared from public life and it was rumored that he had traveled to Chechnya. He reappeared in Syria shortly after the Umayyad Square attack and gave a press interview denying all links to the terrorist attack, showering the government with praise, and calling for the Muslim street to work hand-in-hand with the Syrian government against US and Israeli interests in the Middle East.[15]

All of this makes it very difficult to determine who Abu al-Qaqa is. Some argue that he is a regime creation, whose supporters strayed from his loyalty to become terrorists working against the Syrian regime and against Abu al-Qaqa himself. Others suggest the attack might have been executed by his opponents, who purposely planted his CDs, to place him in bad standing with the government, or that he might be a double-agent, working for both the Syrians and al-Qaeda, wanting to play both sides against each other.

Conclusion

While the Islamic revival in Syria is fueled by societal conditions and perceptions, it has been championed by Assad as a means of defusing radical Islamist opposition to the state and bolstering popular support for his regime in the face of mounting Western hostility and defiance by secular opposition groups. In view of the secular opposition’s limited influence outside of the intelligentsia, promoting moderate Islamism may prove to be a highly effective method of outflanking the opposition. “Before, religion for the regime was like a ball of fire. Now they deal with it like it could be a ball of light,” as one Syrian Islamic scholar told the New York Times.[16]

So long as Islamists are prohibited from establishing legal political parties, however, Syria’s liberalization of religious institutions is incomplete and may not yield the desired payoff. Allowing an Islamist civil society to develop, but without allowing it a means of expressing itself politically, is unlikely to stem the growth of militant Islamist opposition to the state.

Notes

  [1] “Islam’s Clout Among Frustrated Youth Challenging Governments Across Mideast,” The Washington Post, 23 January 2005.
  [2] “Syrian Islamic scholar preaches moderation; Mohammed Habash offers alternative to rising Islamic conservatism,” The Daily Star (Beirut), 18 January 2005.
  [3] Among the most prominent today in Damascus is the Farah House, run by Muna Quwaydir in al-Muhajirin neighborhood, and the Omar Ibn al-Khattab school in Mezzeh and the popular Dawhet al-Majd School in Malki. They also have strong influence in the al-Basha’ir School in Mezzeh. They distribute their own books through the al-Salam Bookshop in Baramkeh.
  [4] Al-Hayat (London), 3 May 2006.
  [5] Notable members include Muna Quwaydir, Dalal al-Shishakli (who died a short while ago), Nahida Tarakji, Fayzeh al-Tabba, Raja Tasabihji, and Samira al-Zayid. Another famous women instructor of Islam is Nabila al-Kuzbari, who is related to the pre-Baath speaker of parliament, Dr. Mamoun al-Kuzbari.
  [6] See “Religious Surge Alarms Secular Syrians,” The Washington Post, 23 January 2005.
  [7] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 4 July 2005.
  [8] Jordanian intelligence sources, cited by Al-Hayat (London), 10 July 2005.
  [9] In the recorded speech delivered before masses of young Islamists in an unidentified location, Abu Qaqa is heard screaming: “We will teach our enemies a lesson they will never forget. Are you ready?” They respond affirmatively with thundering voices and he calls on them to “speak louder, so George Bush can hear you!” He then adds, “We will wash away our sins with our blood.”
  [10] “Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight; A Smuggler of Insurgents Reveals Syria’s Influential, Changing Role,” The Washington Post, 8 June 2005. “Syria, Long Ruthlessly Secular, Sees Fervent Islamic Resurgence,” The New York Times, 24 October 2003.
  [11] Excerpts from the televised confession of Muayed Al-Nasseri, Al-Fayhaa TV (Iraq/UAE), 14 January 2005. Translation by MEMRI.
  [12] “In secular Syria, an Islamic revival,” Christian Science Monitor, 3 October 2003.
  [13]“Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight; A Smuggler of Insurgents Reveals Syria’s Influential, Changing Role,” The Washington Post, 8 June 2005.
  [14] Rita Katz & Josh Devon, “Al Qaeda’s Fitna,” National Review Online, 6 February 2004.
  [15] Al-Muharrir al-Arabi (London), 16 June 2006.
  [16] Abdul Qader al-Kittani, a professor of Islamic studies at Fattah Islamic University. See “Syria’s ruling party solidifies its power,” The New York Times, 6 April 2006.

© 2006 Mideast Monitor. All rights reserved.

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