Political Islam and the Revolution in Syria
Writer: Abdulrahman Alhaj
In light of a growing conviction that Islamists will come to power in Syria as they have in other Arab countries experiencing popular protests, where the results of the ballot boxes confirmed their victory following the success of the revolutions, the prospect of a similar destiny for the new Syria raises many questions. The possibility of Islamists reaching power has rapidly created alliances of a new nature, which although not solid yet, have brought together secularists and Islamists in a manner that is reminiscent of the Tunisian experience.
Anticipating the future of political Islam in Syria and predicting its role during the transition period should not be a mere exercise in mathematical comparison based on the results that the Arab protests have produced in other countries. Rather, the forecast should take into account a number of factors that are hardly dissociable, such as: the structure of politico-religious movements in Syrian society and the nature of their political activity prior to the revolution, the results of the governmental policies that preceded the revolution, and the impact of the revolution both on the structure of Islamist movements and their political aspirations, and even on their intellectual vision.
Assad Father and Islamist Movements: The Extirpation
Hafez al-Assad had put an end to the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the spinoff organization (“Fighter Vanguard”) which began its activity following the murder in jail of its founding leader, Marwan Hadeed, in 1976. Prior to that, the Muslim Brotherhood had grouped all the small Islamist political movements created during the French colonial period after the end of the Ottoman Empire. Hence, in 1943, the Muslim Brotherhood was a large organization that constituted the pillar of political Islam in Syria at the outset of the period of independence. Although the influence of the Muslim Brothers on political life was minor in comparison to their numbers, what did characterize them during that democratic period was their level of commitment. The Liberation Party of the 1950s called for the establishment of the Caliphate but remained an exclusive party due to its ideological opposition to political participation.
There also existed a reformist Salafist movement, unique at the time especially in comparison with the classical Salafist current, which deemed there were contradictions between the concept of state and religion. The leaders of that reformist movement, all of whom were members of the Islamic Civilization Society that was headed by Mazhar al-Azama, promoted the Salafism of Jamal al-Din al-Qasimy and Rasheed Rida, which was also known as “reformist Shami Salafism”. It ascribed to traditional Salafi doctrine, but was democratic on the political level and had no reservations in that regard.
The loud noise of politics in the 1950s led to a feeling of spiritual emptiness that would develop with the penetration of modern products into public and private life. This in turn would drive the ulama to become involved in political matters and sectarian struggles. Thus there occurred a religious awakening in the mid-1950s that overtook social life and resulted in the creation of religious groups: al-Qubaisiyyat, founded by Munira al-Qubaisy, a disciple of Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaru (Mufti of the Syrian Republic for 40 years and whose name is associated with the Baath Party); the Zayd Movement, founded by Sheikh Abdel Kareem al-Rifa’y, focused on education and making the mosque the starting point of civilizational awakening; al-Ketlawiyyah Group, founded by Sheikh Muhammad al-Nabhan and dominated by Sufism; as well as other groups. Most of these groups maintained a political distance within their almost exclusively religious framework, except for Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaru’s movement which was allied to the regime from its very inception.
At the end of 1999, the Syrian authorities used the Air Force Intelligence apparatus to arrest all the members of the Liberation Party – a party that had continued to function secretly and had managed to avoid the crisis of the 1980s due to its enmity with the Muslim Brotherhood. This showed to what extent the regime had managed to infiltrate the party, for it possessed the names of all of its members and of those who had contacts with them. The operation put an end to the last Islamist political organization in Syria, thus ensuring that Hafez al-Assad, whose end was near, would hand over to his son a regime free of threats from any Islamist movement.
Assad the Son: Playing the Religion Card
The Syrian Government’s policies toward Islamists during Bashar al-Assad’s mandate bear no resemblance to any previous model. Indeed, the past ten years have been characterized by radical changes that sprung from the regime’s need to survive in the midst of a troubled international order and stormy political events that almost overthrew it, ranging from the September 11 attacks in 2001 to the 2003 Iraqi invasion to Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in 2005.
Assad father had made sure he maintained a strict balance in his relations with religious and confessional groups, especially after his experience with the al-Murtada Group. In 1983, Rifaat al-Assad was sidelined by Hafez and this group was founded by Jameel al-Assad to integrate the Alawites into Syrian society by expanding their religious sphere. Assad’s policies were aimed at weakening the religious aspirations of any religious or nationalist group. He ensured that members of the Sunni majority as well as of the religious and ethnic minorities were named to governmental positions. Of course, those positions were strictly nominal, and those who held them did not contribute to decision-making but merely to their execution. This was however the case for everyone.
Meanwhile, the strength of the security apparatus and the level of its involvement in the very details of public life only grew. The ultimate goal of Assad was to guarantee stability by means of a policy based on ensuring balance and maintaining an iron grip via the security apparatus, as well as blocking any movement that might destabilize the regime. He had thus put an end to the presence of all Islamist political formations inside Syria, except for the Liberation Party. This party, which was in direct competition with the Muslim Brotherhood, would continue to function secretly until it was dealt a death blow in 2000, after having been intensely watched, and when Assad’s end was near.
During the first decade of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, and in the midst of extremely complex and sensitive international circumstances, that balance underwent a qualitative transformation in which some religious groups and confessions were granted certain political and social privileges, in most cases disproportional to their size (the new Shiites of the Syrian Shiite confession), while other confessions were deprived of those privileges. The consequences of this imbalance were often handled by the security apparatus in an excessive manner (such as the arresting of a number of youths who, under the influence of Amr Khaled – a renowned Egyptian television preacher – had named themselves the “Creators of Life Group”). This and other harsher trials led to an acute feeling of injustice among most Sunni Muslim groups, which was expressed by a number of religious leaders and symbols that had long been considered to back the regime.
The regime also benefited from an analogous change in international policies toward Islamist groups and movements, which involved reinforced security measures that did not differentiate between the moderate and radical, national and international, exclusive and general, and which spread “Islamophobia” in the United States and Europe. Despite the changes made by Obama’s Administration, the consequences of the previous period are still unfolding. This can be seen in the mounting debate in the U.S. regarding the construction of a mosque at “ground zero” in New York City close to where the 9/11 attacks took place, or in the fervent debate that was taking place in Europe around the niqab and mosques on the eve of the Arab protests at the end of 2010.
However, the most important and dangerous change that took place regarding Syrian policy toward the religious factor and matters related to religious groups, was the shift from “internal policy” to “foreign policy”, which implied dealing with them in accordance with external demands. This major change in the nature of Syrian policy explains the multiple rapid changes that government policies underwent in a few years.
For instance, when decision-makers in Syria felt that their contribution to the “War on Terror” would help integrate them in the international community, they did not hesitate in shifting from a policy of “extending its hand” to Syrian religious groups to a strict security policy against them. However, when those decision-makers felt that the regime was in danger following the invasion of Iraq, they resorted to reinforcing their influence by supporting Salafi jihadists and pushing them to volunteer and fight in Iraq. Then again, when they felt that the entire regime was under direct threat by the United States and the international community, religious manifestations were allowed to surface and were even encouraged as a means of instilling fear of “extremism”, were the regime to fall. Finally, when they needed to hold on to Iran to survive, following the occupation of Iraq and Hariri’s assassination, they once again tightened their security grip on religious groups while reinforcing the privileges of the Shiite minority (both Syrian and refugee).
An important new political practice consists in confounding “religious manifestations” with “extremism”. This practice may not have always been resorted to intentionally by the international community in its global “War on Terror”, but in Syria it has always been propagandistic and selective. Indeed, when the officials felt the regime was threatened they alluded to the radical Islamist alternative. The allusion involved establishing indirect parallels between a “sudden increase” in religious demonstrations and extremism while announcing an operation by armed groups here and there at the same time. This occurred when the threat to the regime reached its peak (2004-2006). At the same time however the growing religious demonstrations in al-Sayyida Zaynab, which involved more shrines and Shiite visitors, was a matter that was not spoken of, and there were attempts at preventing them from becoming public.
Political Islam: The Period of Aspirations
The combination of both international and domestic policy during Bashar al-Assad’s reign has led to an increase in the political expectations and orientations of religious groups. It even resulted in the emergence of Islamist political groups following their disappearance during at least two decades (such as the Kurdish Islamists, the Islamist Democratic Current, Jihadist Salafism, and Non-violent Islamists). What is interesting about those groups is that they expressed themselves either by making civil and democratic demands – the aim behind their democratic identity being to acquire political legitimacy – or by allying themselves and becoming structurally integrated into the regime and its institutions.
The result of this was a sort of social immigration of those religious groups (including the Islamist ones) toward politics, either by means of an alliance and organic linkages to the regime, or by opposition to its policies. This occurred in reaction to government policies and coincided with regional events, especially those taking place in Iraq and Lebanon. Those groups could be classified as follows:
Socio-religious groups that opposed governmental policies (the Zayd Group and other religious leaderships)
Politico-religious groups that wanted regime change, either on a religious or on a national-religious basis (Non-violent Islamists, Jihadist Salafism, Kurdish Islamists), but that, for various reasons, did not consider the idea of taking up arms to fight the regime inside Syria, the most important of those reasons perhaps being their conviction that Syrian society would reject it.
Socio-religious groups that supported the regime and expressed their will of allying themselves with it in return for becoming members of its institutions or participating in decision-making (al-Kuftariyya, and some religious leaderships). Except for the Qubaisiyyat that remained neutral, all of the socio-religious groups expressed political aspirations and revealed very different orientations. For example, the fact that Qubaisiyyat was an exclusively female group controlled by the image of women in Syrian society, it maintained a distance from the political sphere.
In short, religious leaderships shifted toward politics either by allying themselves with the regime or by expressing their disapproval of it or even by openly opposing it, while the proportion of independents dealing exclusively with religious matters became less. This led to an increased political role for religion beyond its spiritual and social role. Even the non-implication of the other groups in politics most probably did not imply disinterest on their behalf; rather, it expressed a kind of despair with the regime and a preoccupation with guaranteeing their safety, or silent opposition. Those groups that allied themselves with the regime (Kuftaru Group) would eventually break, for their strong ties with the regime would make them suffer from its political swings, and they also suffered from ideological contradictions.
The Turban and the Revolution: New History
The Arab protests have brought about new and profound changes that reflect the results of government policies. In Syria, religious groups and their symbols have played a significant role in the revolution, both negative (Aleppo and Damascus) and positive (Deraa, Hama, Homs, al-Sahel and Dayr al-Zour). In most cases, the revolution led regime allies to become closer and to defend it more, whereas it led those groups that had expressed disapproval toward its policies in the past to take a step further and openly oppose it (the Zayd Movement and its supporters), and it led the religious leaders of the revolution to become directly involved in political activities. This was to be expected given the history of those religious leaders, and the impact of government policies on their political expectations. However, the novelty lies in the large role that religious leaderships and socio-religious groups have played in the revolution. Meanwhile, Islamist political groups adopted an observer’s stance, and were busy looking for a foothold, especially the biggest and most influential group among them, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The increased involvement in political action and the intensified interest of the Islamists regarding political and civic activity are explained in part by the provocative and extreme government policies taken prior to the revolution as well; in part too, by the fact that mosques were the starting point of the demonstrations that sparked the revolution. Although the regime blocked all meeting spaces that were not under its observation, mosques remained outside of its reach, and the young demonstrators found in them an adequate place to meet, which placed religious leaders, perhaps against their will, at the heart of the matter. The methods adopted by the regime also help explain the religious involvement. According to a document drafted by a security committee and leaked on February 23, 2012, such methods included organized violence and have targeted religion throughout the official repression operations.
Jihadist Salafism: the Regime’s Scarecrow
The Syrian regime’s strategy of attacking peaceful demonstrations and attempting to repress them with the excuse of the existence of “Salafi armed groups” or “Salafi terrorist groups” has failed. Indeed, there are no bases for jihadist Salafis and their extremist organizations (al-Qaeda or others) in Syria, despite the extreme violence that has been utilized against peaceful demonstrators and the killing of thousands of innocent people including hundreds of women and children. Only a portion of that hideous violence would have sufficed to lead the jihadist Salafi genie out of his bottle – had he existed. The continued insistence on the peaceful nature of the revolution and the refusal to resort to violence despite the monstrous repression that the regime resorted to was not compatible with jihadist Salafi ideology. Several studies, including those carried out by humanitarian organizations, have indicated that jihadist Salafi ideology has extremely limited circulation in Syria, and takes on the form of very small groups of different sizes that are influenced by the ideas of extremist or “terrorist” international organizations, but that in most cases have no organizational ties with them. Indeed, such groups as “Jund al-Sham for Mission and Jihad Organization”, “Al-Takfir wal-Hujra”, or even “Al-Qaeda”, which are often mentioned by the media, receive a premeditated list of accusations on the basis of non reliable indicators.
However, those studies do indicate that Salafi ideas are spreading increasingly, and that several Salafi youths have shifted from religious Salafism to jihadist Salafism under the pressure of their prison experience, especially since most of those arrested did not belong to Salafi groups. Only in a few cases do such individuals have jihadist ideas; in most cases they have none. Even in prisons there are no groups that believe in jihadist activity inside Syria, which only proves that the strict security policy that has been used against the extremists do not meet minimum justice standards. The regime has only contributed to spreading Salafi ideology. Nonetheless, the peaceful nature of the Syrian opposition has been spreading. The lessons from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions contributed to the rejection of violence, and perhaps even, to the transformation of the Salafi political method.
Classical Salafi organizations have begun to emerge for the first time as political organizations (the “Believers are Participating Movement”, which is led by Luay al-Zuhby, a veteran member of the “Fighter Vanguard”; the Nation in Bilad al-Sham Current, which is led by Nader Asaad Bayoud al-Tamimi – a Palestinian). The emergence of armed Salafism has been very limited, whereas political Salafism is beginning to share the stage – that is, the modernized old Shami version. It is a modernized version because whereas Shami Salafism was based on what is presently referred to as “scientific Salafism”, the basis for democratic Salafism today is “jihadist Salafism”, which implies the possibility of it resorting to violence in the near future, as well as the possibility of becoming a bridge for extremist organizations, in case the violence escalates and the international community does not intervene militarily and refuses to arm and train the Free Syrian Army. Indeed, the need of weapons and experience in armed resistance will become without a doubt a channel for the entry of extremist organizations.
The Return of the Brothers: Rebuilding Bridges
The issue of the Muslim Brotherhood deserves special attention, for its influence on Syrian political life had ended with the Hama massacre in 1982. With the end of the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of Islamist armed opposition, Hafez al-Assad’s regime succeeded in eradicating internal armed activity against his regime, as well as the Muslim Brothers by means of detentions and executions, and through the psychological effects of Law 49, which sentenced members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death. The Muslim Brotherhood thus lost all presence on Syrian territory, and the regime made sure it pursued them beyond its borders until the end of the 1990s.
After becoming unified in the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood split and became divided abroad, and lost all presence inside, except for the bitter memories it evoked. As a result of the intense propaganda campaign that the regime undertook, combined with the disillusion of Syrians following the killings, imprisonment and repression, it became common inside Syria to blame the Brothers for what had happened and many Syrians found no one else to blame for the situation they were in.
The atrocities had affected hundreds of thousands of families in different parts of Syria. Every since and leading up to the Syrian revolts, the regime made sure it reminded the people of those events. As for the sons of those imprisoned, missing and exiled, as well as their relatives, they were deprived of most of their civil rights, the properties of many were seized, and many ended up in the hands of senior colonels. As for the surviving members of the “Fighter Vanguard”, they were forced like the rest of the members of the Brotherhood to leave Syria while they exchanged accusations over the reasons of their failure, and settled in several places including the Gulf, Jordan, Iraq and Europe.
When the Syrian protests first broke out, the Muslim Brothers hesitated in supporting them, but when it began to look like the protests were turning into a real revolution, they began extending their influence to Syria through aid (they created a special association that immediately began functioning), and through regional social relations (especially in Hama and Aleppo). Thus new threads of political loyalty to the Brotherhood began to re-emerge inside Syria.
The evolution of events in other Arab countries also influenced them. The victories of the Islamists in the elections of those countries led to a rise in the expectations of the Muslim Brotherhood to reach power following the revolution. They began acting in accordance with a general strategy based on a loose alliance with leftist and liberal figures, in a manner similar to the Tunisian experience, which the Brothers sought to replicate in a country whose society is replete with different political orientations. They sought to recover their internal influence by providing aid for the victims of the revolution, as well as logistical support to the rebels, especially in Idlib and Hama, where they have more influence.
The regional division between Aleppo and Hama became evident in the Brotherhood’s leadership: the proportion of aid and logistical support granted to Aleppo and the eastern regions was lower than that granted to Hama and Idlib. As the revolution evolved, this regional division led to the emergence of a new organization that relies mainly on the Aleppo element (the second generation of the eighties Brothers), and the support of the spiritual leaders (Ali al-Bayanouni and Zouhair Salem). The organization is called the “Group of National Work” (led by Ahmad Ramadan), and the name, which avoids any term that would indicate the Islamic nature of the organization, reflects a will of emphasizing its civil dimension. However, the internal influence of this organization is still very low, and its activity remains restricted to the Syrian Diaspora in Jordan and the Gulf. On the contrary, Isam al-Aattar, the charismatic Shami leader has reappeared, and his group (the Islamic Forerunners) has resumed its activism inside Syria. However, its capacities are limited, and its margin to act inside Damascus remains low, and is absolutely no match to the role played by the mother organization: the Muslim Brotherhood.
Political Islam: Diverse Voices
The Muslim Brothers have generally always based their ambitions on the assumption –promoted both by the regime and themselves – that they represent Sunni Islam, and are its only possible carriers, in the absence of a competing Islamist political organization in political life. This, however, has changed, for with the revolution, both new Islamist political organizations have emerged and old ones have remerged (the National Current, the Islamist Kurds, the Turkoman-Syrian National Bloc). Likewise, some moderate Islamist organizations that appeared in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century have begun disintegrating without having had any effect on the revolution (Justice and Construction Movement, National Work Unit for Syria’s Kurds).
What is surprising is the appearance of divisions within the female Islamist movement (al-Qubaisiyyat) under the pressure and influence of the revolution. The movement has worked very clearly on distancing itself from any political position in support of the revolution or the regime. However, the events on the ground made it impossible to contain all the elements of the organization, for it was inevitable that some of them would take a clear stance regarding the revolution. A new female organization known as “the free al-Qubaisiyyat” was formed at the end of November 2011 and works on supporting the revolution, but its cohesiveness and influence remain unclear.
Political Islam in Syria: Where to?
The revolution has clearly separated those who are “with” or “against” the regime. This has led independent religious leaders and social Islamist movements, that had always expressed their disapproval of government policies, to adopt a clearer position in their opposition to the regime, which arose relatively early (Sheikh Kurayyem Rajeh, and the two sheikhs Sariya and Ousama al-Rifahy from the Zayd Movement, as well as Sheikh Ibrahim Salkiny and Sheikh Ahmad al-Sayasna), especially in Damascus, Aleppo, and Deraa. It is important to note that the Kuftaru Group, that dispersed following the death of its founder and that suffered from regime intervention in its administrative and organizational decisions, has had a number of its followers declare their support for the revolution – some of which have become leaders in certain cities.
Over a year of peaceful revolts was a source of inspiration for the non-violent group that represents the ideas of the renowned Islamist thinker Jawdat Said. However, after a year of systematic killings and an intense escalation of violence against demonstrators, as well as the bombing of cities using tanks, rockets, military helicopters and mortars, and anti-aircraft to destroy residential housing, as well as methodical sectarian killing operations, the Syrians are obliged to defend themselves, given the slowness and ineffectiveness of the international community to guarantee their protection. The non-violent tactics adopted by Islamist movements has led to the creation of civil organizations with a political character for the support of the revolution, such as the “Syrian Peaceful Movement” – a civil organization that aims to deepen the civil and democratic dimension of the revolutionary movement following the end of the revolts and has played a special role in improving peaceful demonstrations.
As regime repression increases, firmer guidelines are needed for resistance, which may lead to the emergence of an extreme discourse, while providing military leaders with a bigger opportunity to control the transitional period. Likewise, it is only natural that if the violence continues, the Salafi discourse will acquire more presence, if international intervention and the organized armed opposition under a national umbrella continue to be delayed. However, this discourse has no widespread social support or past organizations, and is not compatible with the general mood leaning toward a sort of conservative liberalism. Therefore, its increasing military role may not correspond with a major political role. Those who will play an important role during the transition period are the Muslim Brothers, as well as new moderate Islamist organizations, though to a lesser extent. Notwithstanding, the role played by the Brothers will not be as important as that played in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt, given the participation of leftist and nationalist organizations in the Syrian revolution.
The new twist of introducing massive car bombings raises many doubts about the culprits. The opposition has accused the Syrian regime on the ground that it is the main benefactor of those attacks, and that the opposition would not attack itself after all the killings it has suffered. The regime has accused al-Qaeda to convince the international community that things have grown out of control and that it is in its interest to maintain the regime, because the alternative is rampant violence – capitalizing on the United States’ recent experience in Iraq. After having examined the claims of both sides, it does seem likely that some of the explosions were perpetrated by a party belonging to al-Qaeda, but most certainly infiltrated by the regime, for it is known that the regime released al-Qaeda elements that were detained, especially foreigners, and recently freed Abu Musib al-Soury (Mustafa Sit Maryam Mzayyek), one of al-Qaeda’s advocates (he remains under house arrest) in a clear message to the international community that Damascus is ready to unleash violent forces across the country and drag the entire region into more rounds of war. This may turn out to be the case if the international community does not intervene to get rid of the regime before it succeeds in drowning the region in violence, unless of course the international community sees an interest in exploiting the results of further wars and sectarian divisions across the Arab world or unless the United States believes that the Free Syria Army will actually succeed alone in defeating the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Dr. Abdulrahman Alhaj is an academic professor in Malaysia and researcher of Islamist movements in Syria. This original Arabic version of this article was first published in al-Jazeera on May 21, 2012. Translated by Revolve.