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Tuesday 21 February 2012

Syria's Islamic Movement and the Current Uprising: Political Acquiescence, Quietism, and Dissent


Syria's Islamic Movement and the Current Uprising: Political Acquiescence, Quietism, and Dissent
Feb 21 2012 by Line Khatib

In one of his recent papers, Steven Heydemann writes that the attempts of the forces behind the Syrian uprising and the Syrian National Council (SNC) to define themselves as the pre-eminent nationalist force in the country risk backfiring. [1] This is because they face a regime that has successfully justified its rule by constantly emphasizing its own pan-Arab and nationalist credentials. Effectively therefore, these self-definitions stir up precisely the old political sympathies and fears that have propped up the Syrian regime for decades. This jousting over who will be the champion of the Syrian nation is taking place within a context where identity politics have forcefully emerged in the country. Their emergence has in turn prompted fears of civil war between the different factions and concerns that Islamist extremists will treat the uprising as an opportunity to grab the reins of power. The Syrian regime is stoking these fears through the official media. The regime claims that a large part of the dissenting movement is Islamist-driven and has exclusively pro-Sunni aspirations, that many of the demonstrators are affiliated with dormant Salafi radicals and Islamist terrorist groups, and that a number of attacks and attempts to smuggle weapons have already been thwarted.

These claims by the regime are not new. Indeed, Syrians have been hearing about the threat of Islamists, portrayed as dominated by a single paradigm, since the 1970s. Though these warnings faded in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s due to a manufactured détente with prominent Syrian shaykhs, they have tended to re-emerge at every critical juncture faced by the regime. For instance, tensions with the United States in the aftermath of the latter's 2003 intervention in Iraq and following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri both prompted the Syrian Command to claim that the US was plotting to destabilize Syria by arming a number of what were then newly-emerging radical Islamists such as Jund al-sham and Ghuraba' al-Sham. And as recently as 9 November 2011, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem stated in a letter sent to the United Nations and the Arab League that the United States is funding and enabling Islamist terrorists within Syria.

Syria has witnessed an Islamic revival in the last twenty-five years or so, and Islamic radicalization certainly did occur in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. But to allege that it is radical Islamists funded by foreign powers who are driving today's protests is a stretch of the imagination. Yet for many Syrians who have been subject to state propaganda about the Islamist threat for years, the line between fantasy and reality is often not so clear. Moreover such events as the recent Tunisian and Egyptian elections in which the Islamic parties won some forty percent of the seats in parliament have only added to their concerns.

These popular fears caused the SNC to directly address the issue of the possible rise of an Islamist group to power, by asserting its principled commitment to secularism and pluralism. Noteworthy here is the striking similarity between the statements of the SNC and those of the regime regarding the "Islamist threat." Both implicitly characterize Islamists as a monolithic group, with similar origins, aspirations, tactics, beliefs, and reactions to the rebellion that is taking place. In fact however, the country's Islamic tapestry is complex. It includes numerous factions with different interests and allegiances, including some that are not necessarily anti-regime, and others that are loyal regime partners.

In light of this current context, as well as the fears, misconceptions, and mischaracterizations that prevail within it, it is important to examine Syria's Islamic sector more closely. What is the likelihood of Islamists rising to power if the regime is ousted? Which Islamists might do so? Who are Syria's Islamists? Is the driving force behind the popular protests an Islamic one? Finally, is it the Islamists who are leading change in Syria, as the Syrian regime and its supporters allege?

Who Are Syria's Islamists?

The Syrian Islamic movement is both dynamic and diverse. It includes numerous actors that do not see eye to eye on many issues. More particularly, Islamists in Syria do not share a unified agenda or set of goals, and have differing relationships to the state. Ultimately then, they are as divided and as diverse as their secular counterparts. Islamist reaction to the regime's violent repression of the recent rebellion underlines this diversity. Some Islamists have remained staunchly pro-regime, some have clearly expressed their opposition to the regime's actions, and others have yet to take a formal position.

We can divide Syria's Islamists into three main groupings based on their reaction to the latest events in the country. First are the acquiescent Islamists, who have and continue to support the regime and defend it publically. Second are the anti-regime Islamists, who can in turn be subdivided into two groups. One group expresses a desire for gradual political liberalization and democratization within the confines of the current power structure. They also categorically reject the use of violence. A second group of anti-regime Islamists believe that only the collapse of the Asad regime can bring about change. The third main grouping consists of those Islamists who remain politically quietist, choosing to focus on individual ethicality rather than politics.

Acquiescent Islamists

Acquiescent Islamists are pro-regime neo-fundamentalists that for the most part have achieved disproportionate strength and status during the Ba'thist era due to the close client-patron relationships that their shaykhs have forged with the authoritarian regime. These relationships have benefitted both the co-opted shaykhs as well as a political elite looking to appease the religious class in Syria. In this case, those being appeased by the political elite were the Sunni religious class, although the appeasement formula was applied to all religious denominations. As part of their commitment to the regime, the co-opted `ulama agreed to promote an Islam that accommodated the existing authorities and their right to wield power. This brand of Islamism advocated the Islamization of society from below. It focused on the ethical transformation of individuals rather than the broader politico-economic implications of Islamic teachings that had traditionally been emphasized by Syria's Islamic shaykhs. This led the regime to relax its controls over these groups, which in turn allowed them to achieve prominence in Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia. The groups became increasingly institutionalized and attracted a large membership, mainly urban middle class constituents who tend to be more at ease with the large size and the anonymity of these groups than their rural counterparts.

The category of "acquiescent Islamists" includes the majority of Syria's "official" `ulama, such as Mustafa Kamel, the Mufti of Idleb, Shaykh Muhammad ´Abd al-Satar al-Sayed (Minister of al-Awqaf), as well as Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun. The latter's son, Sariya Hassoun, was shot dead by unknown assailants on 3 October 2011. Hassoun has confirmed the regime's account about the "looming Islamist threat" by blaming the death of his son on radical Islamists whose religious pronouncements have, he says, justified the killing of innocent civilians. He also used the occasion of his son's funeral to express his utter rejection of what he calls the foreign plotting that is behind the anti-regime forces. He further insisted that the Syrian nation will not succumb to this international pressure and that Syrians will maintain their nationalist support for the regime rather than succumbing to cowardice.

Another pro-regime acquiescent group is the Naqshbandi Kuftariya movement. It is probably Syria's largest and most powerful Islamic group, and it has remained loyal to the Asad regime. Represented by prominent shaykhs such as Shaykh Muhammad Wahba and Dr. Muhammad Habash, the movement has supported and justified the regime's overall vision and actions. Yet significantly, Shaykh Habash has recently criticized some aspects of the regime's dealing with the uprising. For instance, he has accused the Syrian media of acting as a tool of the state by presenting only half-truths and neglecting the protestors' perspectives. Due to his liberal Islamic pronouncements and interpretations, as well as his history of justifying the regime, many still see Habash as a spokesperson for the regime. However, he has attempted to position himself as a neutral witness able to see both sides' legitimate views. This is made plain by his "mubadarat al-tareeq al-thaleth li-inqaz Suriya" [the third path initiative to save Syria], which asserts and promotes the regime's legitimacy by suggesting that the "traditional opposition" and the regime should work together to solve the impasse.

Another prominent pro-regime Islamic group is the Middle Path movement led by Shaykh Sa´id Ramadan al-Buti. Al-Buti has acted as the regime's Islamic spokesperson par excellence since the 1970s. From the very beginning of the present uprising, he has cautioned Syrians against following ahl al-jahala (the people of ignorance, which is an Islamic term that refers to those who ignore the truth of Islam), warning them that doing so could lead to factionalism and civil war since violence can be the only result of defying the country's political rulers.

In regards to the revolt, these shaykhs advance the regime claim of a foreign plot against Syria [fitna min al-kharej tuhak did Suriya] that aims to incite violence and terrorize the Syrian nation. They argue that foreign as well as ill-advised domestic forces are justifying the killing of the innocent and targeting the Syrian people's unity and proud political culture of resistance. In so doing, these forces are allegedly undermining the national resistance to outside interference, weakening Syria's strong support for the Palestinian cause, and enabling US and Zionist plots against Arabs. These shaykhs have also expressed their dismay at a number of anti-regime Islamists, claiming that their fatawa have legitimized the killing of thousands of Syrians at the hands of terrorists.

Anti-Regime Islamists:

The Gradualists

This sub-group of anti-regime Islamists is made up of the second generation of regime co-opted and usually politically quietist neo-fundamentalists who have worked with and under the authoritarian regime. They have in the last few years developed effective outreach methods and capacities that allow them to circumvent the state's mechanisms of control, though they have not so far demonstrated the will to use them. These Islamists have recently shed their apolitical stance and have expressed their opposition to the political command's repressive actions against the protestors.

This group includes such mildly oppositional Aleppine shaykhs as Nur al-Din ´Itr and the Mufti of Aleppo Mahmud ´Akkam, as well as the more aggressively oppositional Shaykh Ibrahim al-Salqini. Ibrahim al-Salqini, who was appointed in 2005 as the Grand Mufti of Aleppo in another regime attempt to co-opt the religious constituency in that city, died on 6 August 2011 of a heart attack. After his death, the protestors labeled Salqini a martyr of the uprising. This was due to his refusal to be part of the circle of shaykhs who continued to support the regime, and as a result of his May 2011 refutation of the official claim that Aleppo's apparent calm reflected support for the regime.

Other dissenting shaykhs within this sub-group include Damascenes such as Mu`az al-Khatib (who was briefly arrested in May 2011, allegedly for criticizing the regime), Muhammad Krayyim Rajeh (shaykh al-Qura', the shaykh of Quran reciters,, the al-Rifa`i brothers (Sariya and Usama), and the pacifist and incorruptible Shaykh Jawdat Sa´id. These shaykhs have expressed their concerns regarding the latest events, and have signed a number of petitions in which they insist on the cessation of all violence and on the need for the regime to undertake political reform. According to dissenting `ulama who want the Asad regime to fall, such as Shaykh ´Abd al-Karim Bakkar, some of these shaykhs are naïve to think that the Syrian people can achieve their demands without incurring human and material losses.

This sub-group of the Islamist opposition has expressed a milder form of criticism of the regime and has refrained from directly supporting the present uprising. Some argue that it has done so out of fear that its involvement might contribute to further fomenting divisions and unrest within Syrian society and thus hasten the possible move toward civil war. Nonetheless, it seems certain that its members would play a role within the Syrian political arena if and when the regime is finally ousted.

The Anti-Regime Islamists

This sub-group of anti-regime Islamists who support regime change is made up of the forcibly exiled and traditional political opponents of the Ba`th, such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. It also includes smaller groups who were for the most part, and until the recent uprising, politically quietist and da`wa (proselytizing)-oriented. The majority of the latter tend to be smaller peripheral groups whose members are from a poorer and often rural background or from the smaller cities. Their piety is an extension of their sense of religious commitment rather than a particularized commitment to the Islamist movement.

These anti-regime Islamists include: the Muslim Brothers led by the Brotherhood's Secretary General, Shaykh Riyad al-Shaqfa; the Syrian Salafis, who number a few thousand and who are represented by Lu'ay al-Zu`bi and the al-Mu'minun Yusharikun movement (Believers Join In). The anti-regime Islamists also include a few prominent Sufi groups who recently met in Istanbul and are led by the prominent shaykh of the Umayyad mosque, Shaykh Muhammad Ya´qubi; a group of prominent `ulama who had met in Istanbul in July 2011 to discuss the Syrian uprising and the role that they could play in supporting it, led by Shaykh `Abd al-Karim Bakkar; the Islamic Kurdish opposition in Syria, led by Shaykh Husseyn `Abd al-Hadi; and Rabitat al-`Ulama al-Suriyeen, which is a faction within al-Itihad al-`Alami li-`Ulama' al-Muslimin [2], which is led by the Aleppine shaykh Dr. Muhammad `Ali al-Sabuni and the Hourani shaykh Dr. Ibrahim al-Hariri.

These various Islamist groups, most of whom – except for the Muslim Brothers -- have become politicized in the last few months as a result of the uprising, all met in Istanbul in mid-October 2011. This meeting was an attempt to unite the Syrian Islamic opposition, organize and guide efforts to support the Syrian revolt and the Syrian National Council, and begin planning for a post-Asad Syria. These dissenting groups have advanced a discourse that is pluralistic, civil, and democratically-oriented (or post-Islamist). In general, they claim to chart a middle path on the political spectrum. Although the different shaykhs have diverging opinions on whether they should become politically active or not, most assert that Islamic groups should for now focus on da`wa and civil activism, and most have sidestepped the question of whether the state should be Islamic or not. Importantly, while anti-regime groups appear to be quite numerous because of their relatively high visibility, Islamic websites and Islamic leaders assert that they represent a very small percentage of Syria's total `ulama (some say less than twenty percent).

Politically Quietist Islamists

While a small number of Syria's `ulama and the Muslim Brothers have supported the call for political change in Syria, in general the country's Islamic leaders and their followers have not initiated nor contributed to the present uprising. They have also refrained from expressing any opinion on the latest political events and remained silent on the regime's actions. According to dissenting shaykh `Abd al-Karim Bakkar, at least eighty percent of Syria's `ulama, and arguably their followers, are part of this quietist group. Thus the greater part of Syria's Islamic groups have remained politically quietist, continuing to tread the path that they have long-taken in order to survive under the country's authoritarian political establishment. These Islamists, who include the vast majority of shaykhs and groups in the largest cities (Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia), continue to pursue their apolitical brand of Islamic conversion that focuses on spiritual regeneration and individual ethicality rather than the explicitly political.

Some of the politically quietist Islamists have remained silent because they accept the regime's arguments that the uprising is part of a foreign-directed scheme to divide and rule Syria, or that civil war might break out if the regime collapses. Some see working within the current authoritarian context as a blessing in disguise for Islamists, since the regime has ensured that other (read: secular) competing ideological alternatives cannot flourish. Others have remained silent out of fear of the regime's retribution, a position that is certainly informed by Hafez al-Asad's brutal repression of the Islamist uprising in the 1980s.


While many Islamists in Syria have refrained from commenting on the uprising, a number of prominent shaykhs (mainly from Damascus) have continued to lend their full support to the Syrian regime and to bestow on it a much-needed aura of legitimacy. At the same time, a smaller number of `ulama have timidly expressed the need to use peaceful and pacifist methods to bring about change. They believe that gradual reform is better than shock therapy. A still smaller minority has gone as far as calling for an end to the regime, and has taken an active part in the uprising.

Protestors might belong to piety groups and might attend mosque themselves. However, it is crucial to note that the mosque or pious institutions in general, such as the shar`ia schools, have not initiated, organized, or supported these protests. As we have seen, shaykhs and `ulama have largely remained on the sidelines. They have played a marginal role until very recently, when we first began seeing a number of shaykhs becoming more active and joining the protestors.

Given that Syria's Islamists have not initiated the uprising, we might wonder why the protestors have often gathered in and around mosques. The answer to this puzzle is the emergency law banning the right to assemble, which was in effect until very recently. Thus mosques were the only legal spaces for assembling and organizing. Moreover, in a context where the community is pulling and being pulled apart, mosques can serve as a place for bringing the community back together again, even for those who do not usually attend mosque. And because large numbers of people frequent mosques, the protestors can be assured of greater anonymity and thus minimize their chances of persecution by the regime's forces. Finally, because of their central place in the community, mosques help to infuse individuals with a sense of belonging to a powerful and united community that can resist the regime.

This brief overview has underlined the variety of actors within Syria's Islamist sector, particularly in terms of their beliefs, goals and actions (or more accurately, lack of actions) within the present context of uprising. Such a nuanced account allows for a more thorough understanding of the present and possible future role of Islamists in Syria. Such an account is necessary in overcoming the tendency to homogenize the Islamist sector and to take recourse in vague and frequently misleading generalizations based upon propaganda, fears, and a simple lack of knowledge.


[1] Syrian opposition coalition created during the 2011 Syrian uprising to represent the demands of Syrians.

[2] Al-Itihad al-´Alami li-Ulama' al-Muslimin, the International Union of Islamic Scholars, was created by Yusuf al-Qardawi some six years ago in an attempt to bring together Islamic actors worldwide. It is emerging as the uniting and driving force behind some of Syria's opposition Islamic groups. Though, at present, the groups listed above remain ideologically and organizationally independent.

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