x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Syria's moderate Islamic groups key to the way ahead

Their country is in a full-fledged civil war, and the silence of moderate religious leaders may have contributed to the continuation of violence.

One of Syria's unresolvable predicaments is the presence of extremist groups in the country's protracted civil war.

The myth that this started with just 12 foreign jihadi fighters and the regime's narrative that it is combating terrorism has unfortunately become a hard reality - the stories about Al Qaeda and its franchises remain seductive for the media.

Having lived in Syria nearly all my life, it is difficult to accept my beloved country being portrayed either as a land of terrorism and radicalisation or as a land of dictatorship and authoritarianism.

Against this background, questions must be asked about moderate religious leaders. Where have moderate Islamic organisations and figures been during the uprising? What are their stances about the current situation? And what is the nature of their relationships with the regime?

The Assads, both father and son, have successfully used religion to gain the support of religious figures and institutions. The resurgence of moderate Islamic institutions, beginning in the late 1980s with government support, was meant to confer legitimacy on the Assad regime after its bloody confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hafez Al Assad tried to win hearts and minds through the Baathist ideology and the education system. Despite his violent suppression of dissent and attempts to remove a constitutional clause outlining that Islam was the religion of the president, he changed course to reframe and reshape Syrian national memory after the Hama massacre in 1982, in which tens of thousands were massacred.

He perhaps realised that complete separation of religion from politics in a Sunni-majority country was unrealistic. On the other hand, Bashar Al Assad found outlets to work with moderate Islamic groups to ensure the sustainability and survival of the regime and its cronies. He supported moderate Islam by issuing a decree to approve the establishment of a large number of Islamic institutions. Ironically, the regime complicated the political and social dynamics by simultaneously supporting radical militants in Iraq.

But support for religious organisations was mostly restricted to charitable, social and educational activity that had no political agenda. Friday sermons served as a mouthpiece for the regime and for Baathist ideology.

Religious leaders endorsed the discourse of the Assad regime and refrained from criticising it. For different purposes, the regime and Islamic figures and institutions alike sought to Islamise society and found a framework for survival in this compromise.

The situation changed with the uprising. The moderate clergy has abrogated any role it could have, shamelessly abandoning the country and its people. While it is still ambiguous whether they were ever in fact co-opted by the regime, they opened the way for radical groups to hijack the uprising and undermine its cause.

Mohammed Habash, a moderate religious scholar and former member of parliament, has been inconsistent. In the beginning of the uprising, he allied with the regime and defended its conspiracy theory about the protests. Then, he changed his position to join what he called the "third way", rejecting both the regime's approach and the protesters' demands for regime change.

He asked the government to respond to people's demands without clearly condemning the atrocities. He later called on the regime to change its policies, and dubiously criticised the regime's attacks on civilians. Mr Habash remained lenient and vague, issuing general statements to stop the killing. He used to have enormous followers in Syria, yet he has had little effect even after he left Syria in early 2012.

The Qubaysi sisters, a secretive women's religious organisation, have also been inconsistent. This raised questions about their allegiance to the regime over the decades, as people suspected the organisation was set up by the regime itself rather than by independent religious women.

The Qubaysi sisters have not spoken out against the Assad regime. Many of them have said they were neither pro-regime or anti-revolution; such a dubious claim does not lend them much credibility. The mysterious nature of this movement was more pronounced when Mr Al Assad had a two-hour meeting with a group of Qubaysi sisters in December 2012, sparking further questions about their collaboration with the regime.

Some members of the Qubaysi movement defended themselves by saying they were forced to the presidential palace under escort and without their prior knowledge. But that has also been disputed.

There are many other models of moderate Sunni leaders and movements that had been influential within Syria's communities yet their position toward the deteriorating situation remained lenient, intangible or passive. They were also silent on calls for jihad or fatwas that dehumanise Syrian women.

Religious moderates could have played an important role in mass mobilisation and awareness to avoid further violence and crowd out extremist factions.

With their country in a full-fledged civil war, moderate religious leaders are expected to play a central role in mediation, reconciliation and transitional justice.

Ultimately, their silence and inaction is not only deplorable but may in fact have contributed to the continuation of violence.


Jasmine Roman is a pseudonym for a Syrian writer

On Twitter: @JasmineRoman01