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

[Courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Image from Wikipedia.] [Courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Image from Wikipedia.]


In one of his recent papers, Steven Heydemann writes that the attempts of 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. 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-identifications 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 been forcefully asserted 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—that is, driven by Islamic political forces that aim to capture the state (some democratically and others not) and to achieve an Islamic way of life from above (some democratically and others not). The Assad regime also claims that the movement 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 since the 1970s. Though these warnings faded in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s due to a manufactured détente with acquiescent 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 in 2005 both prompted the Syrian Command to claim that the United States 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.

It is clear that Syria has witnessed an Islamic revival in the last twenty-five years or so, largely the result of a state-Islamist relationship concocted by the regime to ensure its resilience and considerable control over Syria’s Islamist groups. Ironically, this has also created conditions within which Islamic movements have been able to increasingly mobilize and recruit new members. As a result, Syria is witnessing an increase in overt public religiosity though not necessarily in religiosity more generally. It is also clear that Islamic radicalization took place in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. But to allege that it is radical militant 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, recent events, such as the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian elections in which Islamist political parties won some forty to sixty percent of parliamentary seats, have only added to their concerns.

These popular fears have prompted 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 have implicitly characterized Islamic groups as a monolithic group of “Islamists”, 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 (or at least that have not yet publically expressed an anti-regime stance), 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. Is the driving force behind the popular protests an Islamic one? What is the likelihood of Islamists rising to power if the regime is ousted? Which Islamists might do so? Who are Syria’s Islamists, meaning those Islamic groups working towards Islamist-driven political action (or the aspiration to make the move towards such action)? Finally, are Islamists leading change in Syria, as the Syrian regime and its supporters allege?

Who Are Syria’s “Islamists”?

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

We can divide Syria’s Islamic groups into three main categories based on their reaction to latest events in the country: (1) acquiescent neo-fundamentalists who continue to prioritize ethics over political activism, continue to support the regime, and defend the regime publically; (2) anti-regime Islamic groups who, in turn, can be subdivided into two groups: one of which expresses a desire for gradual political liberalization and democratization within the confines of the current power structure and which categorically rejects the use of violence, and another subgroup consisting of anti-regime Islamists who believe that only the collapse of the Assad regime can bring about change and thus support a revolution from above; (3) Islamic groups who remain politically quiet, choosing to focus on individual ethicality rather than politics.

Acquiescent Groups

Acquiescent Islamic groups are pro-regime and neo-fundamentalists. Neo-fundamentalists can and might develop political aims in the longer run, but are immediately concerned with the “re-Islamization” of society and the establishment of a Muslim ethos. They have for the most part achieved disproportionate strength and status during the Ba’athist 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 Syria’s  religious groups. In this case, those being appeased by the political elite were and continue to mostly be the Sunni religious class, although the appeasement formula was applied to all religious denominations.

As part of their commitment to the Assad regime, co-opted ‘ulama agreed to promote an Islam that accommodated the existing authorities and that accepted their right to wield power. And as noted above, this type of Islamic movement advocates the Islamization of society from below. It thus focuses 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 greater prominence in Damascus, Aleppo, and Lattakia. They also 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 Islamic groups” thus 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 claims, 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 plot” behind anti-regime forces. He further insists that the Syrian nation will not give in 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. Despite some internal divisions, it has remained overall loyal to the incumbent regime. Represented by prominent shaykhs such as Shaykh Muhammad Wahba, Shaykh Rajab Deeb Shaykh [], Salah Kuftaro, and Dr. Muhammad Habash, this Islamist movement initially supported and justified the regime’s overall vision and actions. Yet it is increasingly avoiding making any public statements concerning unfolding events.

Significantly, Shaykh Habash has recently criticized some aspects of the regime’s dealings 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 protestor 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 and even more staunchly 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 present revolt, these acquiescent shaykhs support 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, alongside 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 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 fatwa have legitimized the killing of thousands of Syrians at the hands of terrorists.

Anti-Regime Islamic Groups

The Gradualists

This subgroup of anti-regime Islamic groups is made up of second generation, regime co-opted and usually politically quietist neo-fundamentalists who have worked with or at least agreed to work from within the framework set in place by 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 neo-fundamentalists 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 yet another regime attempt to co-opt the religious constituency in that city. Salqini died on 6 August 2011 of a heart attack. After his death, protestors labeled him  a martyr of the uprising. This was due to Salqini’s refusal to be part of the circle of shaykhs who continued to support the regime, and as a result of his May 2011 refute 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’ or 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 significant political reform. According to dissenting ‘ulama who want the Assad 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.

The gradualist subgroup of the Islamic opposition has expressed a milder form of criticism of the regime and has refrained from publicly supporting the present uprising. Some argue that its leadership has done so out of fear that their involvement might contribute to further fomenting divisions and unrest within Syrian society, and thus hasten the possibility of 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 subgroup of anti-regime Islamists support regime change and is made up of forcibly exiled and traditional political opponents of the Ba‘ath Party, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). It also includes smaller groups who were for the most part politically quiet and da‘wa (proselytizing)-oriented, at least until the outbreak of the current uprising. The majority of these smaller subgroups tend to be relatively peripheral, with members from a poorer and often rural background or from the smaller cities. Moreover their members’ piety is an extension of their sense of religious commitment rather than a specific commitment to the Islamist movement. In other words, a majority of the members do not have a particular political reading of Islam and are not militant themselves despite supporting these Islamist groups.

In addition to the Brotherhood, anti-regime Islamists include Syrian Salafis who number a few thousand and are represented by Lu’ay al-Zu‘bi and the al-Mu’minun Yusharikun movement (Believers Join In). They also include a few prominent Sufi groups who recently met in Istanbul and are led by the prominent shaykh of Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque, Shaykh Muhammad Ya´qubi, as well as a group of prominent ‘ulama, led by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Bakkar, who also met in Istanbul in July 2011 to discuss the Syrian uprising and the role that they could play in supporting it. Anti-regime Islamist further include the Islamic Kurdish opposition in Syria led by Shaykh Husseyn ‘Abd al-Hadi, as well as Rabitat al-‘Ulama al-Suriyeen, which is a faction within al-Itihad al-‘Alami li-‘Ulama’ al-Muslimin (the International Union of Islamic Scholars founded by Yusuf al-Qadawi six years ago) led by the Aleppine shaykh Dr. Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni and the Hourani shaykh Dr. Ibrahim al-Hariri. 

These various Islamist opposition groups all met in Istanbul in mid-October 2011, as part of an attempt to unite the Syrian Islamic opposition, to organize efforts in support of the Syrian revolt and SNC, and to begin planning for a post-Asad Syria. They have, in general, advanced a political discourse that is pluralistic, civil, and democratically-oriented (or post-Islamist). They claim to chart a middle path on the political spectrum and insist on the need for a modern and “civic” state. Although the different shaykhs have diverging opinions on whether they should become militant or not, most assert that Islamic groups should continue focusing on da‘wa and civil activism. Most have publically side-stepped the question of whether the state should be Islamic or not. Importantly, while these anti-regime groups appear to be quite numerous because of their relatively high visibility, Islamic websites and Islamic leaders assert that they represent a relatively small percentage of Syria’s total ‘ulama (some say less than twenty percent).

Still another set of anti-regime groups—though one that is even more radical—consists of Islamists who were recruited in Syria and sent over to Iraq following the most recent American intervention in the latter country. The set includes groups such as Ghuraba’ al-Sham, as well as Syrian and non-Syrian dormant Salafi jihadists inspired by or affiliated with al-Qaeda (for instance, Jund al-Sham and al-Tala’i´a al-Islamiyya al-Muqatila). While these various subgroups are most certainly radically anti-regime— indeed, they see the Syrian command as heretical and so would not hesitate to intervene if given a chance—their political discourse prioritizes dealing with the “foreign enemy” first and foremost over dealing with the “domestic front”. It is important to underline that these militant Islamists remain a miniscule minority in Syria, and their impact can be considered minimal, at best.

The Political Quietists

While a small number of Syria’s ‘ulama and Muslim Brothers have supported the call for political change in Syria, the country’s Islamic leaders (and one might argue a majority of their followers) have, in general, not initiated or contributed to the present uprising. They have also refrained from expressing any opinion on the latest political events and have 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 quiet, continuing to tread the same path that they first started upon in order to survive under the country’s authoritarian political establishment. More particularly, these quietist shaykhswho include the vast majority of shaykhs and Islamic groups in Syria’s  largest cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia—continue to pursue their apolitical brand of Islamic conversion, which focuses on spiritual regeneration and individual ethicality rather than the explicitly political.

Some of the politically quietist groups 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 practicing Muslims, since the regime has ensured that other (read: secular) competing ideological alternatives cannot flourish. And still others have remained silent out of fear of the regime’s retribution, a fear that is certainly informed by Hafez al-Assad’s brutal repression of the Islamist uprising in the 1980s.


While a large number of Islamic groups in Syria have refrained from commenting on the uprising, some prominent shaykhs (mainly from Damascus) have continued to lend their full support to the Syrian regime and to bestow upon it a much-needed aura of legitimacy. At the same time, a small number of prominent ‘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. And still another small minority has publically and directly called for an end to the regime, and has taken an active part in the popular uprising.

Having said this, it is important to note that pious Muslims do seem to constitute a majority of the protestors. This has to do with the gradual demise of Syria’s secular heritage over the last 30 years or so, mainly due to the stifling authoritarian context within which secular intellectuals have had to operate alongside a simultaneously powerful, well-organized religious revival. Yet, Syria’s opposition protestors are not in the main “Islamists”, and so are not necessarily interested in imposing an Islamic way of life from above. Just as important, protests have not been initiated, organized or supported by the country’s mosques, shar‘ia schools, or pious institutions. Indeed, as we have seen, shaykhs and ‘ulama have largely remained on the sidelines until very recently when a number of shaykhs have become more active, publically joining protestors. And while this latter point does not obviate the possibility that an Islamic group or coalition could take over in Syria once the regime is eventually ousted, it does help us to dispel myths about the leadership role played by the Islamists in the uprising.

A possible additional question arising from the previous paragraph concerns why  would protestors often gather in and around mosques if Syria’s Islamists are not behind the uprising? This question can be answered by reference to the emergency law banning the right to assembly, which was in effect until very recently. Because of the ban, mosques were and are the only legal spaces for assembling and organizing. Moreover, in a political context where society is both pulling and being pulled apart, mosques can be places for bringing society back together again, and thus for helping to cope with wrenching divisions. And because large numbers of people frequent mosques, protestors can be assured of greater anonymity and a larger presence, thereby minimizing 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 Islamic sector, particularly in terms of their beliefs, goals, and actions within the present context of the country’s unique uprising. Such a nuanced account allows for a more thorough understanding of present and possible future roles for Islamists in Syria. Such an account is necessary to overcome the tendency to homogenize Islamic groups and to take recourse in vague, frequently misleading generalizations based upon propaganda, fears, and a simple lack of knowledge.



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