In secular Syria, an Islamic revival

A state with a history of quashing rebellious Islamic groups is seeing an upswing in religious faith

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Turmoil in the Middle East and the sluggish pace of domestic political reform is fuelling an Islamic resurgence here.

Although the regime is deeply hostile to extremist Islam, analysts and diplomats believe that Islamic groups could play an increasingly influential role if the state's hold on the country weakens.

Young Syrians are filling mosques, many women have taken to wearing the head scarf known as the hijab, and underground women's religious discussion groups are increasingly popular despite being banned. The austere Wahhabi brand of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden is preached in some small towns in northern Syria. Even longtime Baath partisans are embracing religion.

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"The Islamic awakening dominates conservative neighborhoods in cities and small Sunni towns," says Samir al-Taqi, a Syrian political analyst. "In Damascus, through a network of mosques, they dominate between 60 to 65 percent of pious Muslims.... I see many secular people, including Communists, turning to religion."

Analysts say the Islamic resurgence is a reaction to the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the faltering domestic reform program. The Syrian authorities are closely monitoring the Islamic resurgence, buying off some clerics as a means of controlling them, analysts say.

But diplomats and analysts believe that the regime's control over Islamism could slip in the face of mounting frustration with rampant corruption and the failure to implement promised reforms.

"A constituency is being created for Islamic leaders who might emerge if there is instability or the regime falls," says a diplomat in Damascus.

The Islamic resurgence in Syria also resonates with thousands of foreign Muslims who study Islam and Arabic in Damascus.

Islamic educational institutions are closely watched, not only by the Syrian authorities but also by Western intelligence agencies concerned that they may become recruiting grounds for militant Islamic groups. Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, studied urban planning during the 1990s in this conservative Sunni Muslim city in northern Syria.

In April, Asif Mohammed Hanif, a British Muslim suicide bomber blew himself up in a Tel Aviv pub. He had studied Arabic at Damascus University in 2000 where it is speculated - although unproven - that he was recruited by Hamas. Captain James Yee, a Muslim military chaplain at the Guantánamo Bay detention center who was arrested two weeks ago after being caught with classified documents, studied Islam and Arabic in Damascus for four years in the mid-1990s.

Diplomats say there are no indications that radical Islam is being preached in the schools, as they are closely supervised by the Syrian authorities. Indeed, one diplomatic source believed that the number of foreign students visiting Damascus had probably not increased significantly. "It's just that we are paying much closer attention to who is here now," the source says.

Sheikh Saleh Kuftaro, the son of Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, said that only moderate Islam was taught in Damascus.

"We are ensuring that the Islamic awakening among our youth is kept clear of extremism," he says. "We know that our mosques are full of young people. Thank God we do not have extremism here. But we are always afraid that it might prevail in countries around us."

Sheikh Kuftaro runs the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation, a Damascus-based group for religious education which caters to some 5,000 students, 20 percent of them foreigners. "As an Islamic thinker, I am for a moderate secular state working for the religious beliefs of all.... There is no room for political Islam on our agenda," he adds.

Such sentiments sit well with the views of the Baathist regime in Syria. Syria has a long and bloody history combating radical Islamist movements. A violent campaign against the regime by the Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s was ruthlessly suppressed with tens of thousands of people killed and imprisoned.

But a stronger brand of Islam than that espoused by Sheikh Kuftaro is beginning to emerge in some of the more conservative towns. Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa, who preaches at the As Sahour mosque in the outskirts of Aleppo, has gained a popular following through his fiery anti-American sermons.

"Our hearts are filled with joy when we hear about any resistance operations in Iraq against the American invaders. We ask people to keep praying to God to help achieve victory for Iraq against the US," Sheikh Qaqa says.

Qaqa's Islamic values go far beyond vocal - and popular - hostility toward US Mideast policy. For example, he openly calls for an Islamic state based on sharia law in Syria, the antithesis of established Baath Party ideology.

"Yes, I would like to see an Islamic state in Syria and that's what we are working for," Qaqa says. There are even indications that Qaqa's support base is becoming organized. His followers hold meetings in a building that serves as an office and library. Several of his followers wear camouflage military trousers.

"It's a symbol," he says, "of our readiness to protect ourselves from any foreign invasion."

But this is still Syria and the sheikh is careful not to portray himself at odds with the authorities.

"We are calling for, and working with, the government to cooperate together to prevent a clash and achieve national unity in an Islamic manner," he says.

And despite his support for the Iraqi resistance, he says that he is constantly dissuading Syrians who seek his advice from crossing into Iraq as volunteer fighters. Furthermore, on one wall of the As Sahour Mosque is an inscription in Arabic reading "No to Explosions" beside a cartoon depiction of a bomb with a red line through it. It is Qaqa's symbol of reassurance to the regime that he and his followers do not support violence.

Syria's deep secular roots and its broad confessional and ethnic composition - with Christians, Kurds and Bedouins - is likely to weigh heavily against the creation of an Islamic state, says Mr. Taqi, the political analyst.

"But it's now becoming a more militant populist Islam here," he says. "They are more ready to act but it's still a time of gathering forces."

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