Jihadist phenomenon is alien to Syria's social fabric

Salafist jihadism in Syria grew tremendously when jihadist Shia groups from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq entered the Syrian theatre.
Wednesday 03/10/2018
A Syrian boy shouts slogans against the Syrian government in front of a flag of the armed Islamic opposition group, the Nusra front, during a demonstration in Aleppo, Syria. (AP)
Roots of extremism. A Syrian boy shouts slogans against the Syrian government in front of a flag of the armed Islamic opposition group, the Nusra front, during a demonstration in Aleppo, Syria. (AP)

The Islamist jihadist phenomenon in Syria has gone through several crucial turning points. Since the contraction of the Muslim Brotherhood’s footprint after events in Hama in 1982 and the subsequent failure of the budding jihadist cell “the Fighting Vanguard," political Islamist currents that were submissive to authority and Sufi in nature gained currency.

The popular religious landscape had been constrained and any religious interpretation of Islam that was judged by the political authority to be subversive became prohibited.

This restriction, however, and the manipulation of religion that went along with it, negatively affected Syrian society and the prevailing brand of moderate, popular Islam that was more inclined to distance itself from politics and align with non-violent Islamic philosophies, such as the doctrines of Sufi jurisprudence and the ideas of non-violent Salafism preached by Sheikh Jawdat Said.

Despite that Syria has always been a multi-confessional country in which various religions coexisted in a spirit of tolerance, the country was not immune to influence by jihadist ideology, given steam by the experiences of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and others, and which framed jihad as fighting invaders and occupiers.

With the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, those currents gained popularity and became even more tempting to many in Syria and elsewhere. In March 2003, the Sufi-trained former Mufti of Syria Ahmed Kuftaro called Muslims to jihad and martyrdom. That was the starting point in Syria for the creation of jihadist incubators and support networks in the most marginalised environments that constituted perfect grounds for enlisting extremists under the supervision of Syrian authorities.

Employed by the Syrian regime to tame and mould jihadist ideas in accordance to the Ba’athist anti-imperial political ideology, the mechanisms for controlling and monopolising the religious sphere did not survive after the 2011 uprising. The regime's violence in repressing demonstrators, compounded with the rise of divisive sectarian polarisation between Sunnis and Alawites, as well as between Sunnis and Shias, propelled the hard-line extremist battalions to the forefront.

Terminological vagueness between the call for "liberation" from invaders on one side and the call for "freedom" from political tyranny on the other helped transform jihadist Salafism from a fringe religious current to an active movement.

Its presence and strength in Syria grew tremendously when jihadist Shia groups from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq entered the Syrian theatre. Those groups purposely created a Crusade-like ethos of mobilisation for holy war that lured many foreign jihadists to the scene.

They contributed to the spread and popularisation of the concept of jihad and widened the popular acceptance of jihadist thought. For the Sunni branch of jihadist Salafism, the path to salvation for the umma was equated to the establishment of a Sunni Islamic regime that adhered to the teachings of Islam and made of them the legal and constitutional reference for the state.

With time, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and all other Islamic movements expanded the capability and geographical range of militant political Islam and sold it as the only alternative for fighting injustice.

Jihadist ideologies and currents quickly became so varied in discourse and ideas that a catastrophe was on the horizon.

Political Islam did not produce a homogeneous Islamic project. Rather, the result was the emergence of warring factions feuding over the sacred. Each faction had a project for Syria that ran contrary to competing projects. The Islamic State was, nonetheless, the most dangerous organisation in its doctrinal excesses and extremism.

All these religious currents failed to establish a moderate and unified Islamic religious line that could be acceptable locally, regionally and internationally. They have not developed a real social project commensurate with their refusal and rejection of any non-religious social model.

They only caused cycles of violence in their futile fights over territory, targets, resources and social incubators, given their belief that organised militias derive strength and legitimacy from the social milieu in which they operate.

Varied also were their methods of subjugating, co-opting and controlling social environments, ranging from helping and integrating into communities to forceful coercion and oppression.

Some factions, such as the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front and al-Rahman Legion, transformed into self-sustaining proto-states, which yielded a social milieu temporarily forced into submission due to poor living conditions.

Such cases cannot be considered a veritable ideological adoption of extremist Salafist ideology by the general population but rather reflect the people’s willingness to accept the establishment of an Islamic state that is nominally less extreme.

The transition from the prevailing model of Levantine-Sufi Islam, which finds itself in the same boat as other numerous minorities in multi-ethnic and multicultural Syria, to a flux of jihadist factions and extremist Islamism, has reconfigured the religious landscape in Syria and contributed to the spread of jihadist Islamist thought, both Sunni and Shia. It also prolonged the war in Syria and deepened the sectarian divide.

Extremist jihadist factions easily lend themselves as effective engines for current and future chaos and destruction. Because they are useful for these ends, their elimination by military means is almost impossible. More battle fronts mean more bloodshed and more rancour.

In the absence of more effective and durable solutions to this phenomenon in Syria, the future of post-war Syria looks bleak.