Progression of Islamism in Syria
Islamism in Damascus
Despite its secular political system, Syrian society is being more and more overtaken by Islamism, which is beginning to penetrate the Arab world.
The increasing participation of young people in Friday prayers, private Koranic lessons for women and spreading adoption of the veil are manifestations of the resurgence of Islam in the Syrian street. Syrian legislator and Director of the Center for Islamic Studies, Mohammad Habash, tells AFP that nearly 30% of Syrians now attend Friday prayers in Syria’ 9,000 mosques. If women and children are counted, the number of faithful is 12 million, out of a population of 18 million. We are witnessing a religious revival, which presages the return of Islamic values, says Habash.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which defied the Ba’ath Party (a secular and pan-Arab movement), were harshly oppressed in February 1982 in Hama, north of Damascus. The repression resulted in thousands of dead and arrests in the city, which was besieged by the army.
In another sign of the resurgence of Islam, restaurants along the Barada River, a zone reserved for leisure and relaxation near Damascus, no longer offer alcoholic beverages. Dining areas are now reserved for families –an Islamic tradition.
Traditionally secular bookstores have gradually given up terrain to stores specializing in the distribution of works on Sharia, Islamic law. Islamic cultural centers and charities are multiplying, especially in conservative cities of Aleppo, Idleb and Hama, north of Damascus.
The worsening economic and social situation, corruption and dictatorship feed the Islamic movement and guarantees it a wide audience, says a former Communist militant, on the condition of anonymity.
Political analyst Akram al-Bounni believes that by blocking the opening up of politics to religious movements, the government drives youth into the arms of the Islamists and increases their audience. Following the 1980's repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the authorities have been encouraging moderate, apolitical Islam to avoid being labeled hostile toward Islam by the Sunni majority. Islamism will weaken with an opening towards democracy, says al-Bounni.
Following their defeat in Hama, the Islamists have adopted the strategy of penetrating society from the bottom up, thanks to its network of associations and to financial assistance from the Salafists, says Rami, a student at Damacus University’s School of Journalism. The Saudis have financed the construction of hundreds of mosques, especially in Christian and Druze areas, where minarets are have sprouted up all over, he adds. To counter this tendency, Syrian authorities are making a media event out of their participation in religious rites.
A moderate Islamist movement led by Salah Kaftaro (son of the Mufti of the Republic) and Mohammad Habash has been born. The movement is working towards official Islam, whose objective is to contain the influence of radical religious movement, which is spreading through the country in areas where Sufi Islam is traditionally practiced by the majority. In pursuing this strategy, the government has approved the opening of 300 theological institutes. Besides providing a specialized and conformist Koranic education, these institutes allow the security services to identify and to monitor extremists elements. Since 1980, membership Muslim Brotherhood can be punished by the death penalty but hundreds of Islamist prisoners, most of whom are leaders Brotherhood, have been granted amnesty. Most exiles returned to Syria in the 1990’s.
After having failed to topple the government by armed insurrection, the weakened and divided Muslim Brotherhood no longer dissimulates its objectives. They hope one day to take power through the ballot box and to participate in a future democratic government.