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Will Syria Become An Islamist State?

A Syrian rebel prays on a street in the northern city of Aleppo in January. Many Syrians are debating what role Islam should play in Syria if the current secular government is toppled.
Muzaffar Salman
A Syrian rebel prays on a street in the northern city of Aleppo in January. Many Syrians are debating what role Islam should play in Syria if the current secular government is toppled.

The author, a Syrian citizen living in Damascus, is not being identified by NPR for security reasons. Many Syrians interviewed for this piece asked that their full names not be used, for their safety.

In most every Arab country where there's been an uprising in the past couple of years, Islamists have gained influence or come to power. Is the same thing destined to happen in Syria if President Bashar Assad's secular government is ousted?

Syrians may not know the answer, but they certainly are talking about it.

Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled for 30 years, have a history of cracking down harshly on Islamist groups. The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, is made up of a wide range of secular and Islamist factions. And Syria itself is a multiethnic and multireligious society that includes Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze and others.

There are secular Syrians who support the Assad regime and secular Syrians who oppose it. There are religious supporters of the government and religious opposition groups. Urban Syrians tend to be more wary of militant Islamists, compared with those who live in rural areas.

A Complicated Mosaic

If it sounds complicated, it is.

Some of those who support the Assad regime, whether secular or religious, cringe at the mere mention of Islamists, especially when referring to the Syrian rebels, who have been growing strong in the country's north, in places like Aleppo.

Aleppo, the country's largest city and a commercial hub, has been a major battleground since last summer. Government forces and rebels both hold part of the city.

Residents walk near a mosque damaged in recent violence in Douma, near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Activists say it was shelled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad.
Shaam News / Reuters/Landov
Residents walk near a mosque damaged in recent violence in Douma, near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Activists say it was shelled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian government's official line has been that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are among the main "conspirators" against Syria. Qatar and other Gulf countries have been funding armed rebels throughout Syria.

"They sprout like mushrooms, the Islamists, all around us in this region," said the wife of a high-ranking official.

"And it's Saudi Arabia that's feeding and encouraging them," she said. "They're the cause of all our problems here in Syria."

But despite the apparent rise in popularity of Islamist militants, mainly in rural Syria, many in Syria's secular opposition say they do not believe that the Islamists would rule after Assad.

They claim that only Sunni Arabs would vote for an Islamist group like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had a presence in Syria for decades.

"Take Egypt," said one activist. "They're 90 percent Sunni and Arab, yet the [Muslim Brotherhood] barely won by a thin margin."

"So imagine a country like Syria," he says. "We're only 60 percent Sunni Arab. Islamists simply don't have the numbers here."

Of course, that assumes that Syria would have free, democratic elections.

The Role Of Islam

In addition, such words offend some religious Syrians who think that Islam should have a larger role in Syrian life.

"We are Muslim, and the term 'Islamist' is derogatory and invented by the West," said a college-educated woman in her 30s, who also describes herself as being against the current government.

"Of course, post-Assad Syria will have an overall Muslim character, but it will be nothing like the so-called Islamists brandishing their guns today," she adds.

Many other religious Damascenes share her discontent with the Islamist rebels, who appear to make up a substantial part of the armed insurgency in Syria today.

Samar, 46, attended religious lessons for years, sometimes clandestinely in private homes. A few years ago, the authorities began to encourage these lessons to be held in public spaces, like mosques. But prior to that, due to Syria's strict anti-congregation laws and the regime's sensitivities to religious teachings, people often held such meetings in secret.

Samar is a fast-talking, high-energy, well-heeled woman. She wears a hijab — the head covering worn by many Muslim women — never misses a prayer and devotes her free time to charity. She is especially busy now with all the displaced families in Damascus who are in desperate need.

Despite her religiosity, Samar's opposition to the Islamist rebels is so strong that, when asked about them, she responded with a Syrian gesture that denotes spitting.

"Tfoooo," she said.

"You think they know anything about Islam?" she added. "Unfortunately, we live in an age where any no-brains that brandishes a gun and screams 'God is great' thinks he's speaking for Islam, when he is merely just a hoodlum with a gun."

For this reason, Samar explains, she has never supported the uprising.

"Not because I like the Assad regime. I don't. And I do want radical change," she says. "But not like this. Not with hoodlums wreaking chaos and destroying Syria in the name of Islam. Tfooo on them."

Rana, another religious woman of the same generation, embraced the uprising from the beginning. She has both the financial means and a Western passport, yet she refuses to flee the rising violence in Damascus because of her activism and charity work.

"It's my jihad to stay here and help," she said. In Arabic, jihad can refer to a holy war, but in this context, it means to struggle.

Like Samar, Rana envisions a future where Islam plays a major role in Syria. And she is also like Samar in that she does not see how this might be possible, given current choices.

"There are no real representatives of true Islam today. Not in Syria, and not the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt," Rana said.

Rana has grown disillusioned with rebel fighters, who have been accused of committing numerous abuses by human rights groups.

And there is also an ideological schism. Islam in Syria goes back nearly 1,400 years, with a rich heritage and a generally moderate approach.

Many Syrians balk at what they perceive as Islamist fighters from Syria and abroad who have links to Wahhabism, the puritanical interpretation of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.

Natural tension between moderate and more rigid traditions persist. For example, Wahhabi teachings object to Syrian religious traditions, like visiting a holy man's shrine, something that is common in Sufi Islam.

"We don't want to rid Syria of Iran just to bring Saudi in its stead," Rana said, referring to the fact that Iran has been a staunch ally of the Syrian government.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Regardless of what might come after Assad, many minorities have already made up their mind about what they will do if he falls.

"We're leaving," said Hanan, a grandmother and a devout Shiite who lives in an affluent Damascus neighborhood. "Because we know that whoever takes the rein after Assad will commit massacres against us."

Shiites are a small minority in Syria.

Many religious minorities share Hanan's fears. This is particularly true of the Alawites, the sect to which Assad belongs. They make up around 10 percent of the population, but have held many top positions since Hafez Assad took power in a 1970 coup. The Alawites think they will be killed or, at best, relegated to second-class citizenry.

But as one figure in the Syrian opposition notes: "It's been part of Assad's mythology that he is the sole protector of minorities. Yet funny enough, religious and ethnic diversity has existed in Syria for thousands of years before Assad came along."

But as Syria's uprising turned civil war drags on, militancy among the fighters has continued to grow.

"In the end, those with guns will rule, at least initially," said another activist. "They'll be hardened and vengeful after all this fighting. And Assad's mythology may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy after all."

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