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Syria's Unpredictable Force: The State-Sanctioned Clergy

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 27, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Even before the message is delivered in the form of a Friday sermon, the medium is already humming with an efficiency that makes the Abu Nour Mosque one of the Arab world's most startling examples of Islamic evangelism.

In a nine-floor building of white stone and black marble, its windows graced with a stone arabesque, two cinema-like screens display a nearly 20-year-old speech by Syria's late grand mufti to thousands on red carpets in the worship hall waiting for the Friday prayers. Overhead, along white columns supporting the vaulted ceiling, four television sets broadcast the same images. Captions beneath the taped message direct worshipers to http://www.abunour.net/ and another Web site. The sites clock 200,000 hits a month.

Inside curtained cubicles, interpreters render versions of the Arabic speech into English, Russian and French. On the Web site and in DVDs, that sermon and others are available in a number of other languages: Spanish, Japanese, Turkish and Chinese.

The sermon that follows is tame, a homily on the importance of scholarship in Islam. The reach is what matters -- propelled by a generous, donation-driven budget and the growing religiosity of Syria's society, and tolerated by an ostensibly secular government.

As in virtually every Arab country, a generation-long religious revival is reshaping Syria, long known as one of the Middle East's most secular states. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood was the most visible face of Islamic activism, taking the country to the brink of civil war in the early 1980s before retreating under a crackdown whose legacy still shadows the country. The Brotherhood remains a force inside Syria, but in terms of institutions, organization and followers, it is the state-sanctioned version of Islam -- Abu Nour is an example -- that wields the most influence and that may emerge as one of the most dynamic currents in a time of change.

Its institutions are spreading their influence in Syria, with access to both money and media. While careful in their criticism, its preachers have a greater sway than others in their revivalist mission. The government draws red lines, but sees in their moderate message a counterbalance to a more radical Islam and in their strength an ally in its confrontation with the United States.

The space they have begun to enjoy makes for an unpredictable force in a diverse country of 18 million. While often portrayed as a state teetering between dictatorship and democracy, Syria is far more complicated, its destiny far more opaque. At work are struggles between secular and religious forces, government and opposition figures and, at Abu Nour and elsewhere, government-backed clergy and a more radical strand buoyed by the war in Iraq. All are shaping the identity of a country where the prospect of change -- still undefined and fiercely debated -- courses through almost any conversation.

The sense of transition is so strong that some government-allied preachers are already beginning to ponder their reputation in the event of tumult or the government's fall. Across the border is the example of Iraq, where the clergy, both Sunni and Shiite Muslim, emerged in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003 as one of the few institutions able to exert influence.

'Biding Their Time'

"They're simply biding their time at this stage, knowing that things will come their way, that their organizational skills will allow them to fill any gap," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a publisher who runs a nongovernmental organization in Damascus that focuses on civic awareness. "They're in no hurry. They've bided their time for decades, and they're very patient."

Syria and, in particular, its capital remain far more secular than many other Arab locales -- Cairo or Baghdad, for instance. Damascus's cobblestoned Old City has undergone a renaissance. Its distinctive houses, with their balconies suspended over winding alleys, have given way to festive bars and chic restaurants that cater to the late-night hours of Syria's moneyed classes.

But the struggle over identity in Syria often plays out in spheres where the state has little control. The faithful are drawing borders between themselves and a Baathist government that came to power more than 40 years ago in the name of secular Arab nationalism. The veil for women is the most common manifestation, and its spread in the past decade remains striking. Other outward shows of piety also are widespread: men wearing beards and forgoing gold rings, which the prophet Muhammad is said to have discouraged. More and more Syrians visit mosques, even in the capital's ritziest districts.

For much of Syria's independence, the Muslim Brotherhood catered to such religious sentiments, particularly among Sunnis, who make up the majority in Syria. (President Bashar Assad and his closest allies belong to the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.) But in a bloody confrontation with the government in the late 1970s and early '80s, thousands of the Brotherhood's followers were killed or imprisoned, and its leadership was driven into exile.

The group remains a wild card in Syrian politics. Some opposition figures -- divided and counting their support in the thousands -- have called for reaching out to the Brotherhood as a way to strengthen their voice. From exile, the Brotherhood urged a national dialogue in April. The government itself has flirted with reconciliation, though it remains divided.

"We worry" about the Brotherhood's influence, said Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah, considered a reformer in the government. "I am personally against a coalition between religion and politics, especially in multi-religious societies like Syria and Lebanon."

Given far more sway are a generation of influential clerics, encouraged by the government, who are free to preach, accept students and proselytize as they wish. They espouse a conservative vision of society but a politically subdued message.

"I'm not looking to speak in the name of God," said Mohammad Habash, an influential cleric. "That benefits no one."

Message of Pluralism

Habash is an independent member of Syria's largely ineffectual parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Center. A slight man with receding hair and a trimmed beard, he delivers a message of pluralism that evokes the reformist impulse in political Islam seen among some activists in Egypt, Turkey and Jordan.

With government permission and funding from the Sunni-dominated business class in Damascus, Habash has organized forums and convenes daily study groups. Each day, he provides an hour-long message for a private radio station, and he is planning a two-hour program for a new Syrian satellite television channel. He eschews any political agenda but tried -- by his own admission, unsuccessfully -- to broker a reconciliation between the government and the Brotherhood.

Some of Habash's colleagues, particularly those expecting dramatic change in Syria, have urged him to keep his distance from the government to preserve his reputation. He remains careful in his criticism. But he has called for change, warning the government of trouble if it takes only half-hearted reforms.

"If they miss this chance," he said, "the future will be very difficult here in Syria, in its political life."

Almost since the dawn of Islam in the 7th century, the clergy have struggled with where to draw the line between their independence and authority. Often, it was drawn close to rulers whose writ was absolute, and some in Syria still use an old term to describe today's generation: mushayikh al-sultan , clergy beholden to power (and enriching themselves along the way).

But Syria is in the throes of reviewing what constitutes authority and the legitimacy it brings, as the government struggles to justify its rule, break its isolation and fend off U.S. attempts to undermine it. Even if the clergy pose no threat to authority, they have a say in defining the ideologies that underpin Syrian identity -- whether Arab nationalism, Syrian patriotism, secular liberalism or an Islamic universalism. The clerics' influence, some believe, is almost sure to grow in any transition that Syria undergoes.

"In a democracy, they would start to be a power, but not now," said Haitham Maleh, a lawyer and opposition activist who has tried to defend Muslim Brotherhood detainees. "If they felt protected, they would start saying, 'We are here.' "

That struggle for identity is perhaps felt most acutely in Aleppo, a graceful city of 2 million in northern Syria that has long vied with Damascus for influence and is considered today one of the most religiously conservative.

In its Old City, among displays of cardamom, ginger, cumin, hibiscus and dried lemons, once-ubiquitous pictures of the president and his late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, are overshadowed by religious banners celebrating the prophet Muhammad's birthday. Graffiti in its oldest neighborhoods read "God" and "Muhammad."

Distance From Politics

The chief cleric in the city is Ahmad Hassoun, a charismatic, 55-year-old former member of parliament. He is widely rumored to facilitate the passage of fighters to Iraq, a charge he denies. He espouses a moderate Islam that eschews politics and embraces justice. At the same time, he denounces the Arab nationalism that has underpinned the government, even as he supports what he describes Assad's attempt to reform a leadership that "for 40 years has been accustomed to deciding by itself."

In Damascus, his words are echoed by Salah Eddin Kuftaro, who oversees the sprawling infrastructure of Abu Nour Mosque. Arab nationalism, he said -- code that many use for Baathist rule -- has meant little more than "more weakness and defeat."

Kuftaro's office, adorned with a picture of his father, the late grand mufti of Syria, and a smaller portrait of the president, sits on the fourth floor of a facility that serves 7,000 students from 60 nationalities, up from 3,000 a decade ago. Its annual budget is nearly $1.5 million. One room houses 13 computers, used to update the mosque's two Web sites. Its charity assists 1,500 orphans.

Kuftaro said his father gave him sage advice: "Our distance from politics delivers us success." He remains firmly allied with the government. But he added, "It is incumbent on us to speak about politics, even if we don't exercise them."

"What is demanded from the Syrian leadership is to speed up its steps of reform," he said, wearing a dark pinstripe suit. "The flood is coming, and it will be overwhelming. The tsunami of the American hawks will never give mercy to any person."

On this Friday, as thousands left after the weekly sermon, Kuftaro encountered Syria's speaker of parliament, Mahmoud Abrash. Seated in chairs, they exchanged pleasantries. They chatted. Their pictures were taken. Then Kuftaro spoke, walking the line between what was expected of him and what he expected.

"God bless the parliament and the president," he said to Abrash. "You are making religion victorious."

"Victory to religion!" Kuftaro then declared. "Victory to parliament!"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company