Saturday, December 3, 2011

Secular Syria's Opportunistic Use of Islam

by Valentina Colombo

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," -- stressing that the only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through "an 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 trying to play what is probably its final trump card. Syria's President, Bashar Assad, the head of the secular Baath party, has chosen to pin his survival on 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 invasion of Kuwait in 1991 with the "Flag Law No. 6 of 1991," by adding green between the stars the takbir, or the words, Allahu Akbar ["Allah is Greater"] to show that his battle was an Islamic battle, so too the Syrian regime is now trying to survive by an opportunistic use of Islam.

On July 31, Syrian authorities announced the launch of the religious satellite channel "Noor al-Sham" ["The Light of Syria"]. While other actions have been attemps by the Syrian gvernment to appease its Muslim constituency, launching the satellite channel is the first time Syria has been directly promoting an Islam of the State.

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 -- in a move that angered many conservative Muslims -- transferred to administrative jobs; although the Education minister in Syria's temporary government, Ali Saad, later said they teachers could return to their jobs.

This decision, along with the decision to close down Casino Damascus, were clearly attempts just to appease the Muslim Brotherhood who represent a consistent and strong part of the Syrian rebels -- and not officially to promote Islam as the satellite channel does.

"Noor al-Sham" is apparently to broadcast Friday sermons and various religious programs "in a way to provide a right understanding of Islam and the Islamic rules." The Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohammad Abd al-Sattar al-Sayyid, underscored the important timing of launching the channel on the occasion of Ramadan, by saying that the channel aims at "spreading sharia sciences and Islamic culture and introducing the great values of love, fraternity and religious tolerance 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 wide before the Arab and Islamic civilization with all its spectra." It is hard to believe in the official statement of the regime in a country where, even though 74% of the population is Sunni Muslim and only 11% belong to the ruling Shi'ite Alawite sect, the Alawites have been in power for nearly 40 years.

A further paradox in Syria is the fact that Article 35 of the Constitution reads: "The freedom of faith is guaranteed. The state respects all religions," and, "The state guarantees the freedom to hold any religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order." -- but Article 3 clearly states: "the religion of the President of the Republic has to be Islam," and "Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation."

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

The Assad family has also recruited a prominent cleric sheikh, Muhammad al-Bouty, a member of the Islamic law department at Damascus University; he has spoken out in favor 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 legitimized the regime's brutality. Al-Bouty was the first to announce during the first month of the revolts, and after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the birth of a religious channel from Damascus It seems ironic that a television channel is now defending all forms of Islam in a country such as Syria where a sect, considered heretical by some, has been ruling for decades without any respect for democracy and tolerance.

By appealing to religious passions, however,Assad is playing with fire. He has already tried to delegitimize the protesters as extremist Islamists in a bid to garner the support of Syrian liberals and Christians. Now he is trying to revive an Islam of the State to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood after attempts to appease it have failed -- as in the town of Hama, stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the main centers both of revolt and cruel repression.

On the strength of the Tunisian and Egyptian experience, The Muslim Brotherhood has no intention of kneeling down and getting on good terms with the Syrian regime. On the contrary, its members are trying to hijack the revolution just as they have hijacked political Islam. As in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian revolt that was started mainly by secular young 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 sad to realize that the Syrians might be getting rid of one dictatorship which exploited religion, only to fall into the hands of another dictatorship, the Muslim Brotherhood's, which has turned religion into politics. It is also sad to realize that the future of Syrians is in the hands of people who do not care about human rights and freedom, which are supposed to be the true main goals of the initiators of the Arab spring.

In Islam, the sanctity of life does not depend on religion. All Syrians - Muslims, Christians, Jews – have been victims of dictators, and all of them deserve true freedom of faith, of expression and thought. All Syrians deserve to be able to live with their faiths in privacy, without having to account either to the regime or to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Valentina Colombo


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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