Syria regime using influential Muslim clerics to fight extremism
BEIRUT - After 9-11, a group of Damascus-based seculars tried setting up a centre to study jihadist thought that led to the attacks on the United States. The project never kicked off because of a shortage of funds and lack of coordination between its founders, an assortment of Ba’athists, Communists and Nasserists.
The premises were eventually sold to a bank and the project abandoned. Last May, a similar initiative was announced in Damascus with the same agenda. This time, however, it was being handled by powerful Muslim clerics with plenty of cash at their disposal. They promised to combat radical Islam with a softer, more moderate version of Islam.
Seeing little promise in secularised thinkers who couldn’t put their words into action, Syrian officialdom put its full weight behind the clerics.
Al-Cham International Islamic Centre for Combating Terrorism and Extremism, inaugurated by President Bashar Assad in May, is officially attached to the Ministry of Religious Endowments. It includes a department to train mosque preachers, an academy for sharia studies and a centre to monitor radicalism in Syria and throughout the Arab world. Top-line clerics from Damascus and Aleppo are among the centre’s faculty and founding committee.
Days later, prominent cleric Sheikh Mahmoud al-Hout returned to war-torn Aleppo, after seven years of silent defection in Egypt. His comeback was orchestrated by the Russians, who are handling reconciliation agreements in Syria, especially with religious or social figures who carry weight on the Syrian street.
An important figure in his native Aleppo, Hout is poised to return to the al-Naha Islamic Centre, which he helped found before the conflict started, training a new generation of “moderate” Islamists. Last year, the Russians secured the return of Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, a prominent tribal chief from Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River who joined the opposition in 2011.
Syrian authorities clearly see promise in the clerics, who they believe are the only components of society capable of delivering progress. Courting them pays off and it makes authorities look good, especially considering accusations they are waging “war on Sunni Islam.” The snuggling up to this very powerful street is not new.
After a bloody showdown with the Muslim Brotherhood in February 1982, then-President Hafez Assad ordered a nationwide construction of mosques with centres for memorisation of the Quran.
When the current conflict started in March 2011, authorities swiftly succumbed to demands by influential Umayyad mosque preacher Said Ramadan al-Bouti, described as “painful” by the Ba’athists. They included closing the Damascus Casino, lifting a ban on wearing the niqab at government-run schools, and setting up a satellite television channel for the preachers called “Noor Cham.”
Secularists and Arab nationalists cried foul, both then and now, warning that such measures were leading to the “Islamification of Society.”
Last year, a presidential decree was passed, greatly empowering the clerical community or creating what many described as a “state-within-a-state.” Months of chronic shortages in heating fuel and gasoline diverted people’s attention from how powerful these figures had become, especially after they set up the “Religious Youth Team,” mandated to monitor public vice and collect alms from worshipers.
They were also allowed to rent properties of the Ministry of Religious Affairs — being the wealthiest ministry in Syria — generating income to bankroll their projects, such as charity groups or the Cham Centre. Ministry property could be rented to restaurants, hotels or commercial establishments, generating steady tax-free cash, exempted from the red tape of the Ministry of Finance.
To do away with the dual religious authority in Syria, the new law gave the Minister of Religious Endowments the right to hire and fire the mufti of the republic, an authority previously vested in the presidency.
Future tenures would be fixed at three years, although the current mufti has been at his post since 2005 while his predecessor held the job from 1965-2005. Also, authorities created the “Higher Fiqh Council” composed of 20 clerics to decide on issues of Islamic jurisprudence, all led by the minister.
The upper hand in the future of Syria will be for the clerical community, no doubt. Apart from a handful of notable exceptions who defected to join the opposition, its main figures put their full weight behind the state in 2011, delivering one favour after another. It is now time for payback, they believe, through greater autonomy for the preachers and more powerful tools at their disposal, like schools and universities, satellite channels and a state-of-the art think-tank in Damascus.