Syria’s opportunistic use of Islam

20 September 2011

Facing serious oppositions to his regime, Syria’s President Bashar Assad is playing his “trump card”. EFD’s Valentina Colombo draws attention to the opportunistic use of Islam made by Syrian regime to legitimise its brutality.

While the UN Security Council has finally condemned “...the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities,” saying the sole solution to the Syrian crisis is “ inclusive and Syrian-led political process, with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population which will allow the full exercise of fundamental freedoms for its entire population, including that of expression and peaceful assembly,” the Syrian regime is seeking to play its trump card.

It is curious that Syria’s President Bashar Assad, the head of the secular Baath party, has chosen to throw his lot in with Islam. Like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Syria has always presented itself as a secular country, led by an Arab nationalist party. But just as Saddam modified the original Iraqi flag after the 1991 invasion of Kuwait, with Flag Law No. 6, by adding the takbir, or words, “Allahu Akbar”, meaning "Allah is Great" in Arabic, in green between the stars to show that his battle was an Islamic one, so too nowadays the Syrian regime is looking to survive through an opportunistic use of Islam.

Regime measures aim to curry favour with Syrian Muslims

On 31st July 2011, the Syrian authorities announced the launch of the religious satellite channel “Noor al-Sham” [“The Light of Syria”] - no doubt a direct result of the political situation in the country. While other actions have been attempts by the Syrian government to appease its Muslim coinstituency, launching the satellite channel is the first time Syria has directly promoted a form of state-backed Islam.

Earlier steps taken by the secular-baathist regime towards Islam were different. In July 2010, Assad banned the niqab [full head cover] in univerisities, and last June hundreds of primary school teachers, who were wearing the niqab at government-run schools, were transferred to administrative jobs in a move that angered many conservative Muslims. However, last April, Ali Saad, the Education minister in Syria's temporary government, said that teachers could return to their jobs. This, along with the decision to close down Casino Damascus, was clearly designed to appease the Muslim Brotherhood who represent a consistent and significant element of the Syrian rebel movement rather than officially to promote Islam, as the satellite channel does.

“Noor al-Sham” is to broadcast Friday sermons and various religious programmes “in such a way to provide a proper understanding of Islam and the Islamic rules.” The Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohammad Abd al-Sattar al-Sayyid, underscored the timing of launching the channel on the occasion of the beginning of Ramadan, by saying that the channel aims to “...spread sharia sciences and Islamic culture and to introduce the great values of love, fraternity and religious tolerance that Damascus has always been known for.” He added, possibly unconvincingly, that “…the channel’s motto is not to exclude anyone as it will provide a platform for every scholar and a door for every science.”

Even the Minister of Information, Adnan Mahmud, said “…the channel will open its doors to the whole spectrum of Arab and Islamic civilization.” It is hard to believe the official statements of the regime of a country where eventhough 74% of the population is Sunni Muslim and 11% belong to the ruling Shi’ite Alawite sect, the Alawites have been in power for nearly 40 years.

A further paradox of Syria is the fact that Article 35 of the Constitution states that “...the freedom of faith is guaranteed. The State respects all religions,” and that “…the State guarantees the freedom to hold any religious rites, provided they do not disturb public order”; but Article 3 clearly states: “…the religion of the President of the Republic must be Islamic,” and “…Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation….”

Cleric equates attack on government with attack on Islam

It seems clear that the ruling Assad family has always made opportunistic use of Islam without regard for Syria’s citizens.

The Assad family has even recruited a prominent cleric sheikh Muhammad al-Bouty, a member of the Islamic law department at Damascus University, who has spoken out in favour of the regime and has released fatwas banning protests. Al-Bouty even condoned forcing protesters to bow down to a portrait of Bashar Assad, a punitive measure used by security forces against protesters in the city of Duma in southern Syria. Al-Bouty declared that "…those who call for toppling the regime want to topple Islam." In response, residents of Deir al-Zor, in northeastern Syria, burned al-Bouty's books in a public ceremony, and said that his religious rulings legitimised the regime's brutality. Al-Bouty was the first to announce the launch of a religious channel from Damascus after a meeting with Bashar al Assad during the first month of the revolts.

We have a paradox. On the one hand here is a Sunni cleric, al-Bouty, defending an Alawite ruler, Assad and his brutal regime, and on the other, a religious channel defending all forms of Islam which is at the very least ambiguous in a country like Syria where a sect, considered heretical by some, has been ruling for decades and which does not show respect for democracy, tolerance and human rights

Assad “playing with fire” by appealing to religious passions

Assad has already tried to delegitimise the protesters as Islamist extremists in a bid to garner the support of Syrian liberals and Christians. He is now trying to revive a form of state-backed Islam to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood after attempts to appease it failed as shown by the recent events in Hama, the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the main centers both of revolt and repression. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the strength of the Tunisian and Egyptian experience, has no intention of kow-towing and co-operating with the Syrian regime. On the contrary, it seeks to hijack the revolution just as it has hijacked Islam. As in Tunisia and Egypt, in Syria a revolution, started by mainly secular young people and intellectuals, has turned into the Brotherhood’s revolution. It looks as though Islam is the only solution and the only weapon against the regime. This is the reason why Assad’s last hope is to use the same weapon – religion - for his own interests.

It is tragic, as well as absurd, to realise that Syria could rid itself of one dictatorship, which has exploited religion to the end, only to find itself subjected to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has turned religion into politics. It is sad to realise that Syria’s future is in the hands of people who do not particularly care about respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, starkly contrasting with the main objective of the Arab Spring’s real protagonists who wanted to ensure these values be upheld.

Those of all religions deserve to be freed from dictatorship

The Arab Spring must leave behind those using Islam opportunistically: the respect and dignity of the individual does not depend on religion. All Syrians - Muslims, Christians and Jews – have been the victims of a dictator and all of them deserve true freedom of faith, of expression and thought. Muslim Syrians deserve to be able to observe their faith in private without having to answer either to the regime or the Muslim Brotherhood.

This article originally appeared here.