Published: October 24, 2003
LEPPO, Syria, Oct. 19 Two decades after Syria ruthlessly uprooted militant Islam, killing an estimated 10,000 people, this most secular of Arab states is experiencing a dramatic religious resurgence.
Friday Prayers draw overflowing crowds. More heavily veiled women and bearded men jostle unharried among city pedestrians. Family restaurants on the outskirts of Damascus do not serve alcohol, and one fashionable boutique even sports a sign advertising Islamically modest bathing suits.
Syrian experts on religious matters and others attribute the phenomenon more creeping than confrontational to various factors. It is part of the appeal of Islam particularly in the Arab world, as a means to protest corrupt, incompetent, oppressive governments.
The widespread sense that the faith is being singled out for attack by Washington has invigorated that appeal, at a time when the violence fomented by radicals had tarnished political Islam.
In Syria, some experts attribute the sudden openness of the phenomenon to a far more local fear.
The hasty collapse of the Baath government next door in Iraq stunned Syria's rulers, particularly the fact that most Iraqis reacted to the American onslaught as if they were bored spectators.
In the face of threats from the United States and Israel, Syria seeks to forge nationalist sentiment with any means possible, experts believe, including fostering the very brand of religious fundamentalism that it once pruned so mercilessly.
"This is an attempt at mobilization," said Abdul Razzak Eid, a well-known political writer in this historic city, the country's second largest, 210 miles north of Damascus. "They want to creat an aggressive feeling against the Americans."
It is, he and others note, a dangerous game. Experiments at fostering fundamentalist movements to counter some perceived threat can backfire.
"There is no overt political Islam," Mr. Eid said, "but they are building a base, and the moment they have the chance, they will act to become fanatic, extremist movements."
Syria, of course, knows about extremist movements. Increasingly violent skirmishes with the Muslim Brotherhood prompted President Hafez al-Assad to move against them in 1982, sending troops to kill at least 10,000 people and smashing the old city of Hama.
Hundreds of fundamentalist leaders were jailed, many never seen alive again.
Syria's various secret services then tracked radical militants around the world one reason the government could provide so much helpful information to the United Stataes about Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Domestically, though, Hafez al-Assad did two things that helped foster the current resurgence. He built hundreds of mosques, trying to counter the sense among Syria's Sunni Muslims that his minority Alawite sect was religiously suspect.
He also founded myriad schools to study the Koran, which Syrians say in recent years dropped the gentle Sufi Islam once prevalent here, replacing it with the more intolerant Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia.
The official face of Islam in Syria nevertheless appears particularly benign. The country's grand mufti, Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro, who is nearly 90, rarely meets reporters, using his son Salah as his spokesman.
Salah wears a tie and no beard, greeting visitors from behind a desk whose most prominent picture shows his father meeting Pope John Paul II.
"Extremism does not exist unless there is a kind of longstanding oppression against religious people," he said. "This kind of oppression does not exist here."
He acknowledged that there was jockeying in the Muslim world over what form of Islam might prevail, but pronounced Syria free of that. "Our religious community in Syria is always under surveillance by the government," he said, and I support that so no extremists sneak in among us."
Some Syrian intellectuals say militant Islam has peaked. They say the government manipulates the religious resurgence as a safety valve, periodically loosening the restraints to see who is involved so they can be monitored.
"The regime on this issue continues to put the question ina very drastic way, `It's either us or a Taliban government,' " said one Syrian intellectual.
Syria, Long Ruthlessly Secular, Sees Fervent Islamic Resurgence
Published: October 24, 2003
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Such experts say the government opened the doors to jihad in Iraq to see who would go, detaining those who made it back alive. Islamic activists make up the biggest block of political prisoners, human rights activists say.
Syrian observers also attribute a heavy government hand to the fatwa that the grand mufti issued last spring sanctioning suicide attacks against the American forces in Iraq, a ruling that his son now describes as a mistake.
Yet questions linger about just what kind of influence the extremists might have.
Some of the thousands of foreign students who studied in Syria have ended up as suspects in various cases, the most prominent in the United States being Capt. James J. Yee, the chaplain for the Guantánamo prisoners accused of spying for Syria. The younger Mr. Kuftaro says no records have been found of Mr. Yee formally enrolling here.
In Aleppo, Sheik Souheb el-Chami, director of the Ministry of Islamic Endowments office, says that he offers periodic guidance on the content of Friday sermons, but that otherwise the prayer leaders write their own.
He called it "only natural" that a sermon would reflect the mood in the street about America's role in the region.
In discussions with him and other officials, questions about political Islam in Syria veered off into conversation about extremism being inspired by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Virulent sermons delivered by young mullahs like Sheik Mahmoud al-Ghassi, who leads a mosque in the working-class district of Saqhour, provide the most startling example of the careful line negotiated by the politically inclined.
In his sermon last Friday, he attacked the "atheist dogs" waging war in the region. He painted economic sanctions threatened by the United States Congress as part of an Israeli plot to control all from the Nile to the Euphrates. He even offered mild criticism of his own government for relying on international organizations like the United Nations to rescue Syria.
Islam is the only weapon required, he said.
"The Koran is stronger than America," shouted the tall, thin, bearded sheik, his voice rising to fevered pitch. "Be prepared with all your strength so that the enemy of God shall be intimidated."
By the time he finished the hourlong sermon cataloging the multiple evils facing Syria, many of the hundreds of worshipers in his rough concrete mosque were weeping.
Sheik Ghassi known as Abul Qaqa, the name of one of the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad and the Arabic word for the sound of clashing swords demurred when asked directly whether he would like to see an Islamic state in Syria. But in the course of an interview, he suggested that Islamic rule here would be something organic once everyone realized that the faith can solve the country's problems.
"You leaders and presidents," he said in his sermon, which also included praise for President Bashar al-Assad, "be worried about your thrones and your financial assets, because Islam will stay forever and no power on earth, whatever it does, whatever it mobilizes, can touch Islam."
In the call and response segment at the end of the prayers, when the sheik called for freeing the prisoners from Guantánamo, he was answered with a resounding "O Lord!" When he called on God to preserve Syria's rulers, the volume diminished considerably.
The problem with the Americans in Iraq, he said, quoting an Arabic proverb, is that "they are like the mascara man who says he will make you look more beautiful and then pokes out your eyes."
A few of the young men around the sheik sport military fatigues, and he has distributed various videotapes in this heavily Sunni Muslim city something impossible in Syria without government approval that show them going through calisthenics and paramilitary training exercises.
The fatigues "are a symbol of their readiness to defend the nation anytime, when there is any aggression by any state," he said, adding: "We shall not let history record that any power came here without facing resistance. We shall resist even with our fingernails, and we shall repel the aggressor."