Friday, June 10, 2005

Blanford on Khaznawi and Qaqa

Nicholas Blanford, correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, get the story of Sheikh Khasnawi's murder this past weekend. From the June 16, 2005 edition

A murder stirs Kurds in Syria
Syria's 1.7 million Kurds are impatient over their rights, and key to Syrian stability.

QAMISHLI, SYRIA – At a meeting of Syrian political-intelligence officers in late April in the Kurdish northeast, the only item on the agenda was Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi. He was becoming a problem for Syria, says a Western diplomat familiar with the meeting.

Photo: FATHER AND SON: A photo of the late Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi, whose body was found in June, held by his son, Morshed.

A moderate Islamic cleric who once worked with the Syrian government to temper extremism, Sheikh Khaznawi was emerging as one of its most outspoken critics. He advocated Kurdish rights and democracy, galvanizing many of the 1.7 million Kurds against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Kurds were gaining political power in Iraq, Lebanon was casting Syrian troops out, and the US was criticizing Syria's government.

"[Syrian intelligence] wrote a report saying he ... should be stopped. They said he would start a revolution," says Sheikh Murad Khaznawi, the eldest of Sheikh Mohammed's eight sons.

On May 10, the cleric disappeared in Damascus. Three weeks later, he was found dead. His murder sent shock waves through Syria's marginalized Kurdish community, sparking mass demonstrations earlier this month and mobilizing a community that represents the most potent domestic threat to President Assad.

"The sheikh was a symbol for the Kurdish people and he wanted all the people to unite and struggle peacefully," says Hassan Saleh, secretary-general of Yakiti Party, a banned Kurdish group.

The Syrian authorities deny involvement in Khaznawi's killing. But analysts and diplomats note that the cleric's death coincides with a crackdown by Damascus against internal political dissent.

"The stability of Syria is in the hands of the Kurds," says Ibrahim Hamidi, correspondent of the Arabic Al Hayat daily. "They have a unique position. They are organized, they have an Islamic identity, regional support through the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, international support with some European countries lobbying for them, and political status because of [the Kurdish empowerment in] Iraq."

Syria's 1.7 million Kurds comprise the largest non-Arab group in Syria, making up about 9 percent of the population. Most Kurds live in the Hasake province. The area's economic importance and the Baath Party's Arab nationalist ideology have ensured that the province has long been under firm state control.

In 1962, a year before the Baath Party took power, a census stripped around 120,000 Kurdish Syrians of their citizenship, reclassifying them as "foreigners," who carry red identity cards rather than passports. Today, some 300,000 Kurds live here.

In the early 1970s, thousands of Arabs were resettled on confiscated Kurdish property along a 200-mile strip on the Turkish border as part of an Arabization policy that included banning Kurds from schools.

Preaching individual rights

It was in this milieu that Sheikh Khaznawi was raised. He was born into a respected religious family that followed the Sufi branch of Islam, a movement of organized brotherhoods, known as Tariqas, each one headed by a sheikh. But the young Khaznawi broke with Sufi tradition and began preaching individual freedom and self-responsibility rather than collective obedience to a single leader.

"The sheikh used to speak against the majority of Sufi ways. He said it was like drugging the mind," says his son Murad.

A father of 16 children, he cut a distinguished figure in his traditional garb of gray tunic and tightly wrapped white turban. He possessed a good sense of humor and, unlike most Islamic clerics, was happy to shake hands with women. Khaznawi's moderate ideas, which included support for secularism and tolerance of other faiths, won him a growing number of followers and endeared him initially to the Syrian government, which views Islamic extremism with hostility.

The Kurds' Status in Syria

• Population: 1.7 million. As Syria's largest non-Arab group, Kurds account for approximately 9 percent of the country's total population.

• Stateless Kurds: In 1962, more than 120,000 Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship. Today the number of Kurds without Syrian passports has swelled to more than 300,000.

• Hasake Province, where most Kurds live, is the main source of Syria's oil and gas reserves and a major center of cotton and wheat production.

In March 2004, simmering tensions in the Kurdish northeast exploded into bloody clashes between Kurds, Syrian security forces, and Arab tribesmen. The government asked Khaznawi to travel to Qamishli to help ease tensions. His mediation helped calm the situation, but he grew increasingly active in advocating Kurdish rights. When 312 Kurdish detainees were released in March, Khaznawi was there to greet them. In April, on the anniversary of the death of a Kurd in last year's riots, he publicly denounced the government's treatment of Kurds.

"After that he was warned by the security [agents] that what he was doing was dangerous," says Mr. Saleh. Then, Khaznawi traveled to Brussels in February and met with the exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization which fought a terrorist campaign against the government in the early 1980s. The meeting earned him another warning from state security.

In April, he gave an interview with the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper in which he was quoted as saying, "Either the regime will change or the regime must go.... The reason I can speak out is because the Americans are trying get rid of dictators and help the oppressed."

Khaznawi began receiving death threats from Islamic extremists who abhorred his moderation and his criticism of suicide bombings in Iraq. Also threatened was his colleague Mohammed Habash, director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, an institution that advocates moderate Islam.

"They warned me and Khaznawi that we were playing with fire," says Mr. Habash. "I'm afraid. I think there's a clear plan of the fundamentalists to fight the renewal [moderation] of Islam."

Early last month, Khaznawi received a call from people claiming to be followers of his father, who died in 1992. They told the cleric that their father was ill and wanted to see him. Could he come to their house for breakfast? He was suspicious, but he accepted. He left the Islamic Studies Center on the morning of May 10 and was not seen again. "He said he would go to breakfast, but unfortunately he went to his death instead," Habash says.

Kurds rising

Khaznawi's disappearance spurred some 10,000 Kurds to demonstrate in Qamishli on May 21, calling on the government to reveal his whereabouts. But the government denied any knowledge of the kidnapping.

On June 1, Khaznawi's family was informed that their father had been found dead in Deir ez-Zor. His body, which was buried in a cemetery on the edge of town, showed signs of torture. "The security told us he had been buried for 12 days," says Sheikh Morshed Khaznawi, another of Khaznawi's sons. "We didn't believe them because the depth of the grave was only 70 centimeters [two feet] and Deir ez-Zor is very hot. He should have decayed very badly."

The Syrian authorities blamed the cleric's murder on a "criminal gang." Two gang members were arrested and were shown confessing on television.

Tens of thousands of mourners attended Khaznawi's burial and some 10,000 (mostly Kurd) protesters took to the streets of Qamishli on June 5. The demonstration turned violent when police and Arab tribesmen beat the protesters, including women, then looted dozens of Kurdish-owned shops.

"We have exceeded the culture of fear that the regime planted in us," says Machal Tammo, of the Tayyar Mustaqbal, a Kurdish Party. "For this very reason, the regime does not want us to ask for our demands peacefully."

More rights for Kurds?

The main road between Hasake and Qamishli cuts across a barren terrain of harvested wheat fields, the monotony of the featureless plain occasionally broken by small man-made hills, known as tells, which have been part of this ancient steppe for more than 4,000 years. The hot wind creates spinning columns of dust which pirouette and sway gracefully across the fields of golden stubble.

At the entrance to Qamishli today, plainclothes Syrian intelligence officers with rifles keep an eye on passing traffic. More intelligence officers sit on stools beside their vehicle at a roundabout. Security has grown tighter since Khaznawi's kidnapping and murder.

Morshed Khaznawi, who bears a striking resemblance to his slain father, demands an international investigation into his father's death. "We think the Syrian authorities have complete and total responsibility," he says.

But Mr. Habash and some analysts doubt that the regime was behind Khaznawi's death, pointing to a long-running family dispute and the enmity he aroused among Islamic extremists.

"I believe the children of Mashouq are in the eye of the storm and have a desire to accuse the government," Habash says. "Mashouq had good contacts with the regime, government, army, and intelligence. His political activities were not enough to get him killed."

Following the March 2004 riots in Qamishli, Abdullah Derdary, the Syrian planning minister, traveled to Hasake province and reassured the Kurds that economic assistance was on its way.

"Nothing happened and this time no one believes them," says a Western diplomat familiar with Kurdish affairs. "They are looking at Iraq and thinking we can organize ourselves and the regime knows it."

During the 1990s, Syrian Kurds were permitted to fulfill their military service with the PKK, the Kurdish armed separatist group that was fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey. Damascus and Ankara signed a security pact in 1998 which ended Syria's support for the PKK. But, according to the diplomat, many Syrian Kurds have slipped into northern Iraq to continue fighting with a newly resurgent PKK, which could have alarming implications for Damascus.

Still, there are indications that the government is taking the Kurdish dilemma more seriously. The government recently appointed Major General Mohammed Mansoura as head of Syria's powerful political security department. General Mansoura has extensive experience with the Kurds having headed the Hasake branch of military intelligence from 1982 to 2002.

Regardless of who killed Khaznawi, the death of the respected cleric has refocused attention on Syria's Kurds. Last week's Baath Party Congress referred to unspecified steps to help the Kurds - widely reported to involve granting citizenship to the 300,000 stateless Kurds.

But for many Kurds such government measures are too little too late. "The Kurds are really fed up. They don't care anymore," says Maan Abdelsalam, a Syrian civil rights activist.

Nick also sent this story on Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa that he wrote back in 3 October 2003 for the Monitor.

In secular Syria, an Islamic revival

A state with a history of quashing rebellious Islamic groups is seeing an upswing in religious faith
ALEPPO, SYRIA – Turmoil in the Middle East and the sluggish pace of domestic political reform is fuelling an Islamic resurgence here. Although the regime is deeply hostile to extremist Islam, analysts and diplomats believe that Islamic groups could play an increasingly influential role if the state's hold on the country weakens.

Young Syrians are filling mosques, many women have taken to wearing the head scarf known as the hijab, and underground women's religious discussion groups are increasingly popular despite being banned. The austere Wahhabi brand of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden is preached in some small towns in northern Syria. Even longtime Baath partisans are embracing religion.

"The Islamic awakening dominates conservative neighborhoods in cities and small Sunni towns," says Samir al-Taqi, a Syrian political analyst. "In Damascus, through a network of mosques, they dominate between 60 to 65 percent of pious Muslims.... I see many secular people, including Communists, turning to religion."

Analysts say the Islamic resurgence is a reaction to the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the faltering domestic reform program. The Syrian authorities are closely monitoring the Islamic resurgence, buying off some clerics as a means of controlling them, analysts say.

But diplomats and analysts believe that the regime's control over Islamism could slip in the face of mounting frustration with rampant corruption and the failure to implement promised reforms.

"A constituency is being created for Islamic leaders who might emerge if there is instability or the regime falls," says a diplomat in Damascus.

The Islamic resurgence in Syria also resonates with thousands of foreign Muslims who study Islam and Arabic in Damascus.

Islamic educational institutions are closely watched, not only by the Syrian authorities but also by Western intelligence agencies concerned that they may become recruiting grounds for militant Islamic groups. Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, studied urban planning during the 1990s in this conservative Sunni Muslim city in northern Syria.

In April, Asif Mohammed Hanif, a British Muslim suicide bomber blew himself up in a Tel Aviv pub. He had studied Arabic at Damascus University in 2000 where it is speculated - although unproven - that he was recruited by Hamas. Captain James Yee, a Muslim military chaplain at the Guantánamo Bay detention center who was arrested two weeks ago after being caught with classified documents, studied Islam and Arabic in Damascus for four years in the mid-1990s.

Diplomats say there are no indications that radical Islam is being preached in the schools, as they are closely supervised by the Syrian authorities. Indeed, one diplomatic source believed that the number of foreign students visiting Damascus had probably not increased significantly. "It's just that we are paying much closer attention to who is here now," the source says.

Sheikh Saleh Kuftaro, the son of Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, said that only moderate Islam was taught in Damascus.

"We are ensuring that the Islamic awakening among our youth is kept clear of extremism," he says. "We know that our mosques are full of young people. Thank God we do not have extremism here. But we are always afraid that it might prevail in countries around us."

Sheikh Kuftaro runs the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation, a Damascus-based group for religious education which caters to some 5,000 students, 20 percent of them foreigners. "As an Islamic thinker, I am for a moderate secular state working for the religious beliefs of all.... There is no room for political Islam on our agenda," he adds.

Such sentiments sit well with the views of the Baathist regime in Syria. Syria has a long and bloody history combating radical Islamist movements. A violent campaign against the regime by the Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s was ruthlessly suppressed with tens of thousands of people killed and imprisoned.

But a stronger brand of Islam than that espoused by Sheikh Kuftaro is beginning to emerge in some of the more conservative towns. Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa, who preaches at the As Sahour mosque in the outskirts of Aleppo, has gained a popular following through his fiery anti-American sermons.

"Our hearts are filled with joy when we hear about any resistance operations in Iraq against the American invaders. We ask people to keep praying to God to help achieve victory for Iraq against the US," Sheikh Qaqa says.

Qaqa's Islamic values go far beyond vocal - and popular - hostility toward US Mideast policy. For example, he openly calls for an Islamic state based on sharia law in Syria, the antithesis of established Baath Party ideology.

"Yes, I would like to see an Islamic state in Syria and that's what we are working for," Qaqa says. There are even indications that Qaqa's support base is becoming organized. His followers hold meetings in a building that serves as an office and library. Several of his followers wear camouflage military trousers.

"It's a symbol," he says, "of our readiness to protect ourselves from any foreign invasion."

But this is still Syria and the sheikh is careful not to portray himself at odds with the authorities.

"We are calling for, and working with, the government to cooperate together to prevent a clash and achieve national unity in an Islamic manner," he says.

And despite his support for the Iraqi resistance, he says that he is constantly dissuading Syrians who seek his advice from crossing into Iraq as volunteer fighters. Furthermore, on one wall of the As Sahour Mosque is an inscription in Arabic reading "No to Explosions" beside a cartoon depiction of a bomb with a red line through it. It is Qaqa's symbol of reassurance to the regime that he and his followers do not support violence.

Syria's deep secular roots and its broad confessional and ethnic composition - with Christians, Kurds and Bedouins - is likely to weigh heavily against the creation of an Islamic state, says Mr. Taqi, the political analyst.

"But it's now becoming a more militant populist Islam here," he says. "They are more ready to act but it's still a time of gathering forces."
Photo: Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa (left) and a supporter, in Aleppo. Qaqa has called for an Islamic state in Syria, and for the defeat of US forces in Iraq. NICHOLAS BLANFORD. Nick adds:

Hassan Fatah told me he met with Qaqa in February 2005 in Damascus. The beard had gone and he was wearing a leather jacket. Very strange.
For more on the Qaqa story see Ghaith Abd al-Ahd's story on how he organized mujahidiin to fight in Iraq during the first months of the Iraq War here. Syrian Jihadists and Iraq - the Real Story


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