Saturday, March 25, 2006

What is the Government's Religion Policy?

Is the Syrian Government trying to provoke sectarianism?
by an Anonymous Syrian, living in Syria
March 20, 2006

One of the central policies of the Baath Party from its inception has been to build “true” national consciousness and to treat all Syrians, regardless of their religious background, as equals. This is a laudable goal. It is why the Baath Party won many supporters among Syria’s minorities and even among the Sunni majority. Every Syrian with the slightest notion of our land’s painful history, knows the price Syria has paid for its religious divisions. Indeed, the main factor legitimizing the present Baathist government is its promise to protect Syria from the run-away sectarianism that has been the cause of such suffering and weakness in Lebanon and more recently in Iraq. But is the Baath party serving the cause of unity?

There have been a series of events which make one question the sincerity of the government's policy. First, the government’s lopsided foreign policy, which has lead up into such a close alliance with Iran is worrying. Many Syrians do not believe this is in the national interest. It deepens sectarian apprehensions in the country because one must wonder what concessions are being made to Iran.

Over the last 2-3 weeks, the Ministry of Islamic Trusts (Wazarat el-Awqaf) has banned religious lessons from being conducted in Mosques in Damascus. Mosques are now required to kick everyone out and close their doors after prayers. This is not the first time the government has done this. In reaction to the bitter experience with the Muslim Brotherhood during the early eighties, the government banned all educational activities conducted in mosques. This draconian policy did not end the desire of Muslims to study their religion, nor did it end the practice; it merely displaced it. Within a few years, religious classes were being held in homes around the large cities. As a result, the government reversed its policy, banning the lessons in private homes and reopening mosques to Qu’ran lessons. This way an undercover Mukhabarat agent could sit in and report back all activities. This has been the established routine for almost 20 years. The late Hafez Al-Assad even encouraged the establishment of Qu’ranic lessons in every mosque under the name of the Assad Institute for Teaching the Qu’ran. This policy made Syria a center of moderate Islam. Extremism was not taught in mosques. Syria’s native brand of Islam (moderate Sufism) was given a chance to flourish while other, more intolerant, varieties of Sunni Islam, such that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Wahhabism, were discouraged. Exceptions were rare.

About 20 days ago, the Minister of Awqaf re-imposed a ban on lessons in Mosques. Reportedly, Muhammad Habash, a sheikh and MP who is closely affiliated with the government, was expelled from a mosque for remaining inside it after prayers were finished. He was there to film a biography.

So far, this law has not included Aleppo, where Qu’ran lessons continue to be conducted in mosques, but people in Damascus are complaining bitterly about this new situation. This policy will be self-defeating, as it was twenty years ago. By halting the instruction of moderate Islam under the surveillance of the mukhabarat, the government will open the door for more radical versions of Islam.

Another event sure to kindle the flames of sectarianism has taken place in Raqqa. The Iranians have funded the construction of a huge Shiite shrine there. It was inaugurated a few days ago with a huge celebration called The Memory of the Battle of Siffin. It was at the battle of Siffin, near Raqqa, that Imam Ali was tricked by Mu’awiyya into suing for peace. Mu’awiyya’s troops raised Qu’rans on the ends of their spears to bring a halt to the fighting and demand mediation. Ali, who preferred conciliation, stopped the battle even though many claim he was winning. This pacifism let to infighting among his supporters. The Khawarij, or dissenters, who believed Ali had sinned by not letting God decide the outcome on the battlefield, denounced Ali and abandoned him. This left Ali’s forces weakened and vulnerable to the Umayyads claimed the Caliphate and established a new dynasty in Damascus, which was to ensure that Sunni Islam predominated throughout the Middle East.

Ever since, the Shi’at Ali, or partisans of Ali, have been persecuted underdogs in the Arab world. Celebrating the battle of Siffin in Syria is sure to exacerbate sectarian sensibilities at this time. The Iranian backed celebrants will criticize the Sunnis and praise Shiites. The government’s yielding to Itan in its desire to promote their version of Islam at this time does not seem to be the best thing to do to promote national unity.

This event along with the closure of mosques to lesson is putting the advocates of modernity into a real difficult position with their supporters. The average Sunni is wondering whether there is a systematic plan to erase him out. Radicals can now come in with a convincing argument.

Considering the current situation in Iraq and the surge of sectarianism in the region, this would seem the least wise thing to do at this time. The event is being done at a time when Sunnis in Damascus are prevented from enjoying the kind of freedom enjoyed for the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, Aleppo is celebrating its status as Capital of Islamic Culture, but the emphasis of the celebrations are largely on Aleppo, the city, and not on it’s Islamic Culture. There has been some grumbling in the city about this.

These events raise a few questions: Is the government trying to suffocate moderate Sunnis? It is hard not to believe that by driving Islamic lessons underground, Takfiri groups will sprout up in ever greater abundance. Would such a rise in radicalism (indirectly instigated by the government) give the government reasons to stop the current demand for greater political freedom? Is the government trying to play the Sunni - Alawi game to divide the country once more along sectarian lines? Has Syria leaned so far toward Iran that it must appease it on the religious question? These are a few of the questions that Syrians are asking themselves.


At 3/25/2006 03:01:00 PM, Blogger Metaz K. M. Aldendeshe said...

WHAT ?????? and ???????? and ?????????? and here is a reminder, Presidents Assads first and foremost Political and in the past financial supporters are Sunni Moslems. Both inside the country, and outside of it, as the case of Saudi and Egyptian supports. Even now, President Assad enjoys the support of all Sunni rulers.

There are no truth whatsoever to the sectarian angle and spins when it come to Syria. Simply put. Like Hafez, Bashar is a Nationalist Leader, one that can maintain the unity of the State of Syria. Looking at Iraq and Lebanon, one would be a criminal not to accept that. Most Syrian will prefer having Bashar Assad ruling than someone like that of King Hussain or Sadat.

The number one issue of importance to Syrians is maintaining unity of state and avoiding Civil War, even if that means suffering to great extent.

The issues of concern to Syrians are not religious, it is the Political and Economic system introduced to Syria by the Baath party, that is all. The problems we are facing today are not caused by religious or sectarian strife’s, but by economic inequity and stagnation of the Economic and Political institutions of the Baath party.

We need to open dialog with Bashar Assad and the Baathists. That matters and it will give us a chance to get ahead.

At 3/25/2006 03:09:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

Yeah, this is what the Jews at the Pentagon would like you to think. Look what they did and are doing in Iraq, look what are they trying to push in Lebanon, they are failing badly. This is typically Jewish thinking and Jewish strategy to insue civil strifes and prosper from it.

Landis, you are way far out on vacation in Zionville with this article and this perception of Syrian people thinking.

At 3/25/2006 05:25:00 PM, Blogger Charles Malik said...


This post directly contradicts your academic work on Sunni extremism in mosques in Syria. Which am I supposed to believe: your published articles, or your blog?

At 3/25/2006 05:43:00 PM, Blogger t_desco said...

Syria's ex-VP planned defection since '03-Islamist

DUBAI (Reuters) - Syria's exiled Muslim Brotherhood leader said on Saturday that former Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam informed the group in 2003 that he planned to break ranks with President Bashar al-Assad.

"I might be revealing a secret (but) the position that Mr. Khaddam has taken was no surprise to us," Ali Bayanouni told Al Jazeera television.

"In 2003 ... an envoy came to us voicing his (Khaddam's) support and emphasising that we should continue our moderate and open approach and saying that he would join the opposition and announce this position when circumstances permitted," he said.

I wonder if he sought contact to other "interested parties" as well.

At 3/25/2006 11:25:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

I would not be surprised if the west wanted Syria to stop religous studies at the mosques ,Syria,s association with Iran comes as a repeat to the eighties when Syria was being attacked by the MB and later Israel to stop it from stoping Camp David and the unilateral peace between Israel and Egypt,and Iran which was being attacked by Saddam Iraq to protect the Gulf states and the spread of the Islamic revolution,Syria allways felt that Israel is the only majer enemy Arabs and moslems have and any war between arabs or moslem is a destraction and should not take place,The presure from the US and the west and their corupt Arab states did not ease on Syria untill Syria made it,s unquestionable stand with Iran and for confrontation,Syria made it clear that destabelising Syria will destabelise the whole is sad to see conflict between moslem sunni and Shaaias that will only make the minority like the christian suffer and Israel happy watching the moslems killing each other ,Syria,s stand with Iran is not religous but political and out of nessesity and Iran does not represent Shaai Arabs we have to remember that Hussein was an Arab and the son of law of the Prophet and any war between sunni and shaai arabs is part of our history and the civel war that led to the establishment of the Ommayad Khhalefa as did the civel war in the US that saved the union.

At 3/25/2006 11:48:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

I am surprised that Zyad Al Ayoubi, Awkaf minister, is agreeing to the order, to evacuate the mosques whence the salat is over,, I expect him to critised this law, or to resign,

At 3/26/2006 06:41:00 AM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

You are right that this article, sent to me by a Syrian writer, does not express my interpretation. It contains new information (discouragement of Qu'ranic classes in Aleppo mosques - building of a Shiite mosque under Iranian sponsorship), it gives us an understanding of how some Syrians interpret these events, and it provides analysis). These are the reasons I published it. I could have added a disclaimer at the bottom of the article to the effect that "the views of the author do not reflect the views of 'Syria Comment', or something of the sort so often used by journals. I assume that readers understand by now that everything published on 'Syria Comment' does not reflect my personal views.

One could easily argue that Shiites should be encouraged to build mosques in Syria, just as Sunnis do, that Iranian financial support for mosque building is no more sectarian than support by Gulf countries, that diversity is good in and of itself, and that the battle of Siffin is an important historic event in Islamic history and should be commemorated.

I did not editorialize, because any intelligent reader can editorialize for himself depending on his views.

If you disagree with the interpretation of the author of this article, explain how we should interpret these events, rather than criticizing me for publishing the article.
Best, Joshua

At 3/26/2006 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3/26/2006 11:18:00 AM, Blogger Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

- Josh,

This is sheer Neocon propaganda: the leaders of the Baath party be they Syrian or Iraqi have always been dedicated to the defense of progressive and secular ideals.

Always short on facts, the cheaply Neoconish New York Sun recently published yet another article purporting to “prove” the existence of secret links between the Iraqi Baath party and Al Qaeda- see link below:
Saddam, Al Qaeda Did Collaborate, Documents Show

However, reading the article in question only “reveals” that:
“The document has no official stamps or markers”
“The question of future cooperation [between Saddam and Bin Laden] is left an open question”
“New documents […] did not prove Saddam Hussein played a role in any way in plotting the attacks of September 11, 2001”

Funny how after their Iraq debacle, the Neocons haven’t stopped peddling the tall tale of Saddam’s alleged “connections” with OBL: the Leninist thugs of Washington are decidedly obsessed with Saddam and the Baath party…even after they’ve been rendered inoffensive- assuming they ever posed a threat to America any other country.

Bush, Cheney & Co. have always lied about the nature of the Iraqi regime, repeatedly accusing Saddam Hussein of being an Islamic fundamentalist in cahoots with Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban: unfortunately, after having been bombarded with fabricated infomercials produced by Israeli “Middle-East experts”, the American public eventually came to believe exactly what the Neocon wanted: that Saddam was kind of a later days bloodthirsty Saracen, on the verge of conquering the Infidel pastures of Wyoming and Oklahoma!

Yet, as we now know, the truth is otherwise: there never were any “links” between the Baath party and Al Qaeda, no spooky “secret meetings” in Vienna or Prague or “somewhere in Eastern Europe” between “Saddam’s diplomatic envoy and Bin Laden’s righthand man” as Vice-President Dick Cheney had alleged on numerous occasions

In Fact, Saddam Hussein was a staunchly secular Arab nationalist, a disciple of professor Mitchell Aflaq, the French-educated Orthodox Christian philosopher. And, if anything, Christian minorities and women were generally overrepresented in Saddam’s government: Vice-President Tareq Hanna Aziz was actually Catholic and so were Saddam’s Chief of Staff and many of the senior civil servants working at the presidential palace.

And check out this article for a fascinating firsthand description of Saddam’s Tickrit “spider hole” hideout:
“Pinned to the outside wall of the hut was a cardboard box depicting biblical scenes such as the Last Supper and the Madonna and child with the English inscription "God bless our home." Inside the bedroom was a 2003 calendar in Arabic with a colorful depiction of Noah's Ark. Soldiers were surprised at the Christian decorations”

Yes these US soldiers were “surprised” after having been brainwashed about Saddam’s penchant for Islamic fundamentalism…which turned out to be just another lie churned out by Washington’s Neo-Conmintern propaganda factory.

Like him or not, Saddam Hussein was a truly modernist, Westernized Arab head of state who protected women’s rights and enforced affirmative action programs in favor of Iraq’s tiny Christian minority. “Old Europe’s” foreign policy establishment viewed the Iraqi Baath party essentially as a strong bulwark against both Persian-Khomeinist fundamentalism and Wahhabi-Afghan terrorism.

The Israelis and Washington’s Neocons thought otherwise: now we have to deal with the strictures of Sharia Law, the rise of Hamas and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) which they have deliberately brought to power…

At 3/26/2006 03:20:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3/26/2006 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Metaz K. M. Aldendeshe said...

That was a very good comment, a very strong comment. It shows Syria's tolerance of various religions and yes we do have devil worshippers in the Al Jazeera area and they do build worship centers. Which part of that comment you objected to? Why not talk about it, rather than delete it.

All what was said is that look for some Ehud in Kiriat Israel sending this anon article. It pointed out the fact that this is part of an orchestrated campaign to start a conflict in Syria between Shia and Sunni. That in fact Syria has every Christian sect on earth and every Moslem Sect around, we even have in Aljezeera area Devil Worshippers and Yezidis. They all build worship centers and no one ever makes fuss about it, so why on earth you are making such a big fuss of a Shia shrine.

So what is the objection to that Landis or whoever deleted the comment? You are telling me that there are no orchestrated Jewish campaign to ensue conflict between Sunni and Shia?

At 3/26/2006 10:58:00 PM, Blogger I Want to Break Free said...

As the writer of this message and as a Syrian Sunni living in Syria (unlike most of the other posters), I want to know why Tehran does not have a single Sunni mosque in it while we allow them to build shrines all over Syria. My dear Syrian Ex-Pats, please remember that we Syrians living in Syria still take our religion very seriously. Please do your part in pressing for democratic changes in Syrian from where you are while allowing democracy to flourish in this Blog and accept certain painful facts reported from Syria. Worrysome as they might sound, they are very true comments. Please try to give your own interpretation to the factual events in recent days.

At 3/26/2006 11:15:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

"....As the writer of this message and as a Syrian Sunni living in Syria (unlike most of the other posters)...."

You think we are that fools, We know you are a Jew living in Kiriat Israel or Kiriat AIPAC.

You wants Sunni Mosque in Tehran, why not ask the Wahabis Saud to open one. No one stopping them, I can assure you of that. You take your religion seriousely, go campaign for it.

At 3/27/2006 04:31:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

The author of this article is not a "Jew living in Kiriat Israel," such accusations are just silly.

Even if she/he were, the facts of the article remain.


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