SYRIA: Secular Syria allows Islam to flourish

DAMASCUS/ALEPPO, 1 June 2006 (IRIN) - The three Muhammads were all sure of one thing. “I want to be the imam of a mosque,” says ten-year old Muhammad, on his way home from a lesson in Aleppo’s Islamic school. “I want to be a preacher too,” chimes his friend, also named after the Prophet of Islam, dressed in his finest black gelab.

“We like to study the Qu’ran,” explains the third Muhammad, also a resident of Syria’s second city, “because it’s our religion.”

Internationally isolated and facing continuing domestic opposition, Syria is witnessing a revival of Islam in public and private life two decades after the secular government fought a bloody campaign to suppress an armed uprising against the state by Islamic extremists.

“The relationship between the government and the direction of Islam is now suitable,” said Muhammad Habbash, the country’s leading Islamist MP and head of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus. “We can now speak about what role Islam can play in people’s lives.”

Habbash’s recent invitation to lecture army cadets on religious morals – the first time the Syrian military has officially cooperated with Islamist figures since the ruling Ba’ath party came to power in 1963 – is just one of a series of recent moves to allow Islam into public life by a state that once stopped at nothing to suppress it.

In 1982, following a three-year terrorist campaign against the state by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, security officers ordered the shelling of the central city of Hama, which the Brotherhood had declared an Islamic emirate. The offensive resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20,000 people.

Hamed Haji, the 73-year-old muezzin whose call to prayer draws students – like the three young Muhammads – to Aleppo’s Islamic school, remembers the violence. “In the 1980s, bullets hit the minaret,” he recalls, pointing up to the pock-marked circles of stone. “And beards were not allowed; but we have more freedoms now.”

Indeed, the past few months have seen a number of moves aimed at institutionalising Islam into Syria’s old secular state. Mosques have been re-opened between prayer times, the president has begun ending public speeches with invocations to Allah and state auditoriums have been used for the country’s first Qur’an reading competition.

In February, Syrian protesters burned and looted the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus in a display of anger against the publication of cartoons negatively depicting the Prophet Mohammed. At the time, security officials did little to quell the demonstrations, which were organised by Islamic study centres in the capital.

Among citizens, too, overt signs of religious devotion are becoming more frequent. An increasing number of young women are wearing headscarves, while green flags – representing Islam – adorned private shops on the Prophet’s birthday in April.

Though three quarters of Syria’s population are Sunni Muslim, the ruling party has long drawn its leaders from the minority Allawi sect, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam, which – along with Druze and other Muslim sects – makes up just 16 percent of the national population. Pan-Arab and secular, the Ba’ath Party has historically ruled on a domestic platform of protecting the rights of Syria’s minorities.

For Habbash, the state’s changing approach to Islam comes against a backdrop of regional upheaval since the launch of the US-led “war on terrorism”, which has seen Islamist parties winning elections in Iraq and Palestine, escalating conflict between Israel and Islamist militia groups in Lebanon and an increasingly influential role for long-time Syrian ally and theocratic republic Iran. “The Syrian regime realised it has the same agenda as conservative Islamists,” said Habbash. “They’ve formed an alliance to resist the current US administration’s plan to change the region.”

However, warns Aleppo’s Mufti Ibrahim Salkeeni, US intervention in the Middle East has also served to radicalise many young Syrians. “American practises in Iraq and Palestine are pushing some young people in Aleppo to become like time bombs – and we don’t know when these will explode,” he said. “The more the pressure increases, the more explosions there will be.”

With daily terror attacks in neighbouring Iraq, many ostensibly claimed by Islamic extremist organisations, security forces have waged a public campaign against Islamist groups operating inside Syria. Dozens of clashes between Syrian anti-terrorism forces and militant groups have been reported by official state news agency SANA. One such group, Jund as-Sham, or “Soldiers of the Levant”, has reportedly planned terror attacks against public buildings in Damascus.

“Syria is aiming to change its policy of silence on these issues,” said Imad Fauzi Shueibi, head of the Data and Strategic Studies Centre in Damascus, in an interview last year. “It wants to show the US that Syria is supporting the campaign against terrorism.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose exiled leader Ali Sadradeen Bayanouni recently united with former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam to lead an opposition group calling for regime change in Damascus, remains outlawed. Association with the group is punishable by death. “The Muslim Brotherhood represents perhaps two percent of Syrian Muslims,” said Sheikh Mahmoud Abu Hudda, an Aleppo dentist and Islamic scholar who has lectured in Europe and the US on Islam’s place in what he calls the “global culture”.

Though independent political parties are not legal under the autocratic Syrian regime, senior members of the Ba’ath party are currently negotiating the introduction of a new Parties Law that would grant licenses to those parties not based on ethnic identity or religion.

For Mohammed Akam, professor of Arabic-language studies at Aleppo University, the state’s increasing acceptance of Islam’s role in society is a welcome development. Nevertheless, he added, the new strategy is no substitute for the reformation of an outdated political system. “The conflict between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood was actually a conflict of ideologies,” he argued. “We need a party without ideology. Between secularism and freedom, I prefer freedom. Secularism is a kind of ideology, but democracy is a way of including all.”


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