Shortly after I arrived in Damascus this summer, I dropped by the offices of Dr. Mohammed Al Habash, one of Syria’s leading religious scholars, to interview him about the rise of Islam in his country. But the Danes beat me to him. Habash’s Islamic Studies Center was hosting the first official Danish delegation to travel to Syria since a mob, infuriated by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper, had attacked and burned the Danish Embassy in February. On this more pleasant occasion, Syrian and Danish clerics and scholars traded papers and business cards, and almost everyone acknowledged that Christians and Muslims had lived side by side in Syria for hundreds of years. Then, the Danes left the area under close protection.
In general, Syria is a welcoming place–as long as you’re not Danish or Israeli. There are plenty of imams like Habash who preach brotherhood and peace, and plenty of cab drivers with cousins in Michigan. But there’s also an angry religious sentiment growing in the country, fueled by what Syrians see as Western atrocities in the Middle East: the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Syrian Golan, and the recent Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.
For the Syrian Baath regime, this poses a particular dilemma. The battles being fought to protect Arabs from imperialism and Zionism aren’t being waged by the Syrian state. They are being fought by holy warriors: Al Qaeda in Iraq, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon. The rise of these Islamic standard-bearers, moreover, has coincided with a series of embarrassments for the regime: the ongoing U.N. criminal investigation into last year’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the forced withdrawal of Syrian soldiers from Lebanon, the talk in Washington of regime change.
Surrounded by enemies and facing a restless public, the Syrian government has begun taking up religion. Earlier this year, about the same time that U.N. investigators were asking to interrogate Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, billboards began appearing around Damascus with a photograph of the president admonishing his countrymen in Arabic and English: syrians bow only to god. What makes this kind of religious rhetoric significant is that Syria’s Baathist regime has been ruthlessly irreligious for most of its history. And with good reason: Its secular ruling class is largely composed of an Alawi Muslim minority, in a country that is about 75 percent Sunni Muslim.
The Sunnification of Syria has been evident for some time. You can see it in Damascus, where it’s getting harder to find restaurants that serve alcohol outside of the Christian Quarter and a few well-to-do neighborhoods. The wealthy and well-connected have figured out which way the wind is blowing and are writing checks to Islamic charities. And, at the border crossings to Jordan and Lebanon, the long lines of women in black make you feel like you’re on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
But this year was a turning point in the regime’s relationship with religion. For the first time since the Baath Party took power in 1963, the government allowed Syrians to openly celebrate the Prophet’s birthday in April. The president himself prayed publicly on the occasion, even though, just a few days earlier, he had been conspicuously absent from a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Baath Party’s founding. Symbolic gestures like these have been followed by more practical ones that have slowly relaxed state controls over religious institutions, for example, allowing Islamic education to take place in mosques.
The new coziness between mosque and state crystallized in my mind when I visited the Grand Mufti Ahmed Badr Al Deen Hassoun, Syria’s head holy man, at his offices in the ministry for religious endowments. On the wall was a photograph of the mufti and the president. This wouldn’t have been so surprising–muftis are, after all, presidential appointees–except this particular picture showed the president kissing the Koran. Later, as I was about to ask His Holiness about the recent landmark meeting between senior Syrian clerics and senior military chiefs, in walked an Air Force lieutenant general, who introduced himself as Mohammed and took a seat on the sofa across from us. Though the military has long been the most enthusiastic enforcer of Syrian secularism, the general cheerfully mentioned that the grand mufti was a great friend, with whom he prayed every Friday and from whom he sought advice on all matters. The mufti smiled like a turbaned cheshire cat.
This tilt toward Mecca has obvious benefits for the Syrian government: Now that the lure of pan-Arab socialism has vanished into history, God can replace it as a rallying point against the West. (There are obvious parallels to the Islamic rhetoric that came out of Baghdad in the final years of Saddam Hussein’s embattled Baathist regime.) But it also has dangers. The last time Syrians mixed religion and politics, in the 1980s, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood began a terrorist war against the state, which ended only when the government practically destroyed one of its own cities, Hama.
This time around, the Syrian government is trying something different: It is promoting a particular brand of moderate Islam. That’s where Habash and a number of other regime-friendly clerics like the grand mufti come in handy. Habash, who is also a member of the Syrian parliament, is the leading theologian behind a movement called Renewal Islam, which advocates a whole-scale reinterpretation of Islam for the modern era by emphasizing the diversity within Muslim doctrine and traditions. Habash–whose business suits, suave English, and trim beard make him the very model of the modern major media mullah–explained to me that, although Renewal Islam types like himself represent just 20 percent of practicing Muslims in Syria, they have an important resource to draw on: the country’s long tradition as a center of Sufism.
In Habash’s telling, there are two great strains within Sunni Islam: Wahhabbism and Sufism. For Habash, the crucial distinction between the two is that the orthodoxy of Wahhabbism says that Islam and the Koran have a monopoly on spiritual authority and that their meaning was fixed for all time somewhere back in the tenth century; the heterodoxy of Sufism, by contrast, holds that there are many paths to the same God. “Sufi understanding can help defend us against a Wahhabbi direction and point us in a Renewal direction,” he said.
This is the kind of thing Habash and his allies say when they go on Syrian state television, and soon they’ll be able to say it on a channel of their own. Sham TV, Syria’s first privately owned TV station, will probably launch by the end of the year. The station, named after an archaic Arabic term for Syria, is backed by moderate Islamists and will devote 20 percent of its programming to religious material. There are also rumors that the Baath Party will soon allow moderate Islamists to form their own political party. As it stands now, the government bans all parties except those in the Baath-led National Progressive Front, none of which are religious.
But the fact that Renewal Islam is getting state support could be a sign that it’s just another declining industry in Syria’s command economy. When I went to prayers one Friday at the Damascus mosque where Habash preaches, I didn’t get the sense that I was at the epicenter of a religious renaissance. The mosque was friendly enough, its cool white walls and pink rugs a pleasant refuge from the midday summer sun. And, after the sermon, a group of mosque elders graciously invited me and a couple of other foreign visitors to tea. But it quickly became clear that Habash’s congregation felt they were stranded survivors in a rising fundamentalist tide caused by U.S. support for Israel and the occupation of Iraq. “You have no idea about the anger in the streets over American policy,” an English teacher told me. “If the government cannot control it, it will be impossible for people like us. One day, instead of Mohammed Habash in Syria, you will have a Mohammed bin Laden.”
Habash, who said he has been targeted for assassination by an Al Qaeda website, takes the threat of rising Islamic radicalism seriously. “If just 1 or 2 percent of Syria is radical,” he said, “that’s still about 100,000 or 200,000 people.” Of course, it suits the Syrian government and its moderate religious allies to be seen as holding the line against Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers. But there are signs that the Syrian security services are legitimately worried about rising Islamist anger.
For one thing, the government appears to have stemmed the flow of insurgents into Iraq. The United States admitted as much last year. One former jihadi, who had gone to fight the Americans in 2003 but is now a news presenter at a Damascus TV station, told me that, while the younger men in his home village outside of Aleppo are even more eager to fight than he was–”They want to cut the heads off American solders … this is extreme. I think American soldiers should be shot with guns”–the Syrian government wasn’t letting them go.
The government is also cracking down on the sale of songs and videos that support the resistance against the United States in Iraq. The country used to be awash in them, but, when I went shopping for some one day in Damascus, I came away empty-handed. The DVD merchants said state security had confiscated all their copies. “The government doesn’t want people to watch them and get frustrated,” one shopkeeper said.
But that frustration may just be going underground. The one jihadi music video that I saw–a friend showed it to me on his mobile phone–was for a song titled “The Battle of Falluja.” The footage was typical stock of Americans in Humvees and mujahedeen in pickups, but the music was more interesting: Sufi-style chanting and drumming. The singer’s accent, my friend said, was from the Euphrates valley, somewhere in the border region between Iraq and Syria. And the lyrics were pure Sufi poetry: “My heart is a palm tree in Tikrit / It gives great praise to the fighters of Falluja / who write history with bullets.”
The mystics, it seems, have turned militant. So I asked a Syrian friend from the Euphrates valley to make a reporting trip on my behalf to his hometown near the Iraqi border. (Pink-faced foreign correspondents can’t just wander around eastern Syria asking questions about jihad.) He returned a few days later with a story about how Sufi prayer circles, where men in trance-like states impale themselves on swords and allow themselves be bitten by snakes, have turned into forums for expressing anger at the U.S. occupation and massacres committed by militias loyal to Iraq’s Shia-led government. “Refugee families want us to sing about Sufi shrines in Iraq, to protect them from destruction by the Americans and the Shia,” a Sufi sheik told my friend. “Many fighters return from Iraq and want us to remember their struggle in our songs.”
The Sufis with whom my friend spoke weren’t yet angry with their own government for not supporting the insurgency, in part because they know Syria is surrounded by hostile powers. But it remains to be seen how much longer the government can count on Sufi quiescence. As refugees from the latest Lebanon war poured into Syria over the summer, feelings were running high for the government to join Hezbollah in a fight it almost certainly would have lost. How long before the warrior poets of the East become angry at a government that won’t let them fight? One day, perhaps, I’ll find myself listening to a Sufi song that runs: “My heart is a palm tree in Damascus.”
Andrew Lee Butters is a writer based in Beirut.