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Religious Surge Alarms Secular Syrians

Islam's Clout Among Frustrated Youth Challenging Governments Across Mideast

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A21

NASIRIYAH, Syria -- A religious revival is sweeping Syria, challenging the secular, ruling Baath Party to allow more Muslim influence in government and frightening many Syrians schooled for decades to fear political Islam.

Growing religious feeling can be seen across the landscape, from the proliferation of head scarves worn by young women in Damascus to an enormous privately funded mosque nearing completion in downtown Aleppo, Syria's second city. Muslim clerics, meanwhile, are growing increasingly bold in asking for democratic political reforms that could give them a larger role in government.


Head scarves, like that worn by a woman in the Old City of Damascus, have proliferated as symbols of piety and protest against the Syrian government. (Photos Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)

Alarmed by the trend, some within Syria's secular intelligentsia and middle class have begun writing and organizing against it. From his airy home in Nasiriyah, a town 35 miles northeast of Damascus, Nabil Fayyad, a secular writer, accused the government in print last September of softening its stand against the increasingly popular Islamic movement, its chief rival for power, amid pressure from the United States to reform.

"It's a temporary cooperation," said Fayyad, 49, a thin, excitable Sunni Muslim who was arrested by government agents and held for a month soon after his columns appeared in a Kuwaiti newspaper to which he frequently contributes. "Nowadays, they have the same enemy: the United States. But once the U.S. soldiers leave Iraq, what happens to us?"

Islam's growing political clout is challenging governments across the Middle East, even those built on Islamic principles, as religious sentiment intensifies among young, frustrated populations. Syria's ruling Baath Party, an Arab nationalist movement, has been at odds with Islamists for more than 35 years.

A military coup in 1970 brought to power a clique of officers, led by Hafez Assad, who were members of the Alawite sect, a secretive branch of Shiite Islam that comprises about 10 percent of Syria's 18 million people. Many Sunni Muslims, who account for more than 70 percent of the population, do not consider Alawites true Muslims, and Assad's legitimacy was always suspect among Syria's Islamists. In the late 1970s and early '80s, Assad's government staged a crackdown on a militant Islamic movement that killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Now, however, some senior government officials have suggested that the Baath Party endorse Islam to shore up its own declining popularity among the country's youth. Those proposals have exposed schisms inside the 4 1/2-year-old administration of Assad's son and successor, President Bashar Assad, who is trying to limit the party's decisive role in shaping political and economic policy.

"The basic attitude of the Baath Party is totally secular and against religious interference," said Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah, a party member who has been an outspoken proponent of reducing its size and clout to allow deeper reforms. "There may be some Baath members who have made such alliances. But that is not the prevailing idea among the Baath or among Syrian government officials."

Since Syria's Baath Party was established in 1963, domestic Islamic movements have shifted between militancy and moderation. After years of quiet, a small group of Islamic militants, some of them refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, shot up an empty U.N. building in a wealthy Damascus neighborhood last April. The bizarre attack, which Dakhlallah described as a "byproduct of fundamentalism," killed two people. Two of the men arrested have been sentenced to death.

Salah Kuftaro, a Sunni cleric and son of the late grand mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kaftaro, preaches to 10,000 people who gather each Friday at the Son of Light Mosque in Damascus. Kuftaro runs the country's largest Islamic education and charitable foundation, and in the past three years, enrollment has jumped from 5,000 to 7,000 students.

"The revival we are witnessing has nothing to do with September 11, but the total failure of secular Arab governments," said Kuftaro, 47, a large, good-natured man who in daily life favors a suit and tie to religious robes. "This has forced our young people to look for alternatives."

Only a few years ago, Kuftaro acknowledged, such talk would likely have brought Syrian police to his spacious office in the foundation's gleaming marble headquarters. But in recent months, he has become more public in his calls for an "Islamic democracy" in Syria, modeled on the system in neighboring Turkey.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the group behind the 1982 uprising in the city of Hama that was brutally put down by government troops, appealed last year for its imprisoned members to be granted amnesty. The government declined the request but agreed to review individual cases. Hundreds of prisoners were released, almost all of them jailed for their alleged connection to Islamic movements, Western diplomats said. In addition, Kuftaro and others say that clerics have more leeway to discuss politics in the mosques, although the unwritten rule is that criticism must be restricted to the United States and Israel.

Sadiq Azm, a leading Syrian writer who has criticized Arab nationalism and political Islam for decades, said religion will inevitably exert more influence here as pressure builds for the government to reform a largely stagnant economy and closed political institutions. But Syria's Islamic community is fractured, he said, with opinions ranging from militant to "good-for-business Islam" that takes into account the rights of religious minorities.


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