With Islamic Militancy Rising, Syria’s Baath Regime Finds Religion

By Marc Perelman

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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Damascus - While Israel and America rank high on the list of Syria’s enemies, it is the rising tide of militant Islam within the country that ultimately might pose the greatest challenge to the staunchly secular, Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

For decades, the Assad family and other members of the Alawite minority — a distant offshoot of Shiite Islam — have ruled over the 80% Sunni majority, often by enforcing a rigid secularism. But in response to a religious revival and tensions over the growing role of Islam in Syrian society, the Baath party has begun to embrace religious discourse and to encourage religious practice, a strategy adopted in Iraq by fellow Baathist Saddam Hussein during his final years in power.

While Syria continues to ban religious political parties and to crack down on anti-government Islamist terrorist networks, the authorities have also over the past decade built mosques, brought in conservative imams and introduced religion into public discourse. Now the regime is trying to steer this religious revival toward a relatively moderate version of Islam.

To Syrian secularists, this approach carries the risk of opening a Pandora’s Box that could destabilize the regime by reopening old sectarian wounds.

“There is a strong Islamic current in Syria,” said Bassil Dahdouh, an independent lawmaker. “It is not organized but it is certainly popular, and I am among those who worry about this trend.”

Assad himself has begun lacing his speeches with religious references in recent years. For instance, he finished a November 2005 speech with the words “God Protect Syria,” and the slogan has since become part of speeches and government propaganda. Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus bureau chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat, points to April 2006 as another turning point when, for the first time, the celebrations marking “Prophet Muhammad Day” were grander than the ones organized for the “Baath Party Day.”

Further fueling the increased standing of Islam in Syria are the country’s ties to such Islamist forces as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, all of whose credibility has risen sharply in recent years because of their frontal opposition to America and Israel.

The trend, however, started in the waning years of the regime of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president. He ruthlessly cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the early 1980s, most infamously by nearly leveling the town of Hama, resulting in thousands of victims. In addition to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of Hamas in Gaza and of Hezbollah in Lebanon bolstered the image of Islamist parties in the late 1980s at a time when Syria was encountering major economic problems. As a result, Assad authorized the construction of thousands of mosques. The disappearance of the Soviet Union also had some longer-term repercussions: Instead of sending students to Soviet bloc countries, Syria began dispatching them to the Persian Gulf region, where they became influenced by more conservative strands of Islam, including the Wahhabism prevalent in Saudi Arabia.

Riad Seif, a leading Syrian opposition figure, argued that the regime is supporting conservative Islam to avoid a democratic opening. “Today, the Islamists are able to put their message out but the opposition can’t say anything,” he said.

Seif is among several observers, including some close to the regime who declined to be identified, who point out that Alawite insiders, especially senior military officers, were concerned that the loosening of the secular nature of the regime could lead to its demise.

“Many Alawites in the military and the intelligence circles are very anxious that the Islamization will one day grow in such a way that it would get out of control,” said Seif, a secularist whose youngest brother was executed in 1987 for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. “And they blame Bashar for being too tolerant.”

Ismail Yasin, a lecturer at Damascus University, believes that the government in Damascus is in fact pursuing a clever strategy of balancing religious and ethnic groups in order to ensure stability.

While the regime still bans Islamist political parties, and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood remains a capital offense, the government has tapped some religious scholars to promote a moderate version of Islam. In addition to the grand mufti, one of the key advocates of this approach is Mohammed Habash, an Islamic scholar who became an independent member of parliament in 2003. Habash told the Forward that the Syrian regime needs to unify nationalism and Islam. When asked about the prohibition of Islamist political parties, he said that such vehicles were not needed to spread Islamic values, which are already gaining ground as a result of the lack of attraction of secularism and a regionwide rejection of Western culture. He blasted the Wahhabi current as “very fundamentalist” with a very small following in Syria. “It is our common enemy,” he said. “I don’t believe Syria will become an Islamic state.”

In order to prevent such an outcome, Damascus has also cracked down on jihadist cells that have allegedly perpetrated a series of violent incidents in the country in recent years, including attacks against the historic Umayyad mosque and American embassy in the Syrian capital last year. Some observers voiced suspicion that the attacks were staged in order to exaggerate the radical Islamist threat, cast the regime as a bulwark against terrorism and convey the message that an alternative to Assad could be much worse.

But a Western diplomat countered that Syria had a “real jihadist problem” — fueled by the re-Islamization of the country over the past 20 years, and “a growing resentment toward the Alawites and the presence of Wahhabi imams.”

Another Western diplomat said that a new crackdown had begun six months ago, much of it outside of the public view, with deadly clashes between Syrian security forces and Islamist militants taking place in the northern towns of Aleppo, Homs and Hama. While Syrian media have reported some of those violent incidents, several sources mentioned that others were not publicized. One is a reported clash in the city of Homs late last year, when militants allegedly bombed a giant Christmas tree and churches, and then clashed with security forces.

“The situation is dangerous, especially because of the lure of radical Islam on our youths,” said Haim Numer, a Communist Party legislator allied with the Baath party.

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