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In secular Syria, an Islamic revival

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

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"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."

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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."