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Q&A with Syrian jihadist: Minorities have nothing to fear in post-Assad Syria

A Syrian leader who waged jihad in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq says that a year of reexamining the Quran has caused his group to treat other religions with more tolerance.

By Correspondent / September 29, 2011

People protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in the city of Homs on Sept. 16.

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North Lebanon

Six months into the uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the confrontation continues to be defined mainly as one pitting the country’s majority Sunni population against the minority Alawites – adherents of a Shiite offshoot who form the backbone of the regime.

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The country’s other sects – the Christians, Druze, Ismaelis – generally have stayed on the sidelines, nervously pondering a future that some fear may echo the sectarian strife that plagued Iraq from 2003.

But Sheikh Louay al-Zouabi, the secretary-general of Syrian Salafist group Al-Muamineen al-Yousharikoun (The Believers Participate), insists that minorities having nothing to fear in a post-Assad Syria and that all should be allowed to play a role.

Still, as a veteran “Arab Afghan” who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, lived in Sudan at the same time as former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, waged jihad in Bosnia in the mid 1990s, and spent six years in a Syrian jail, he has a tough sell ahead of him if he is to convince the skeptics.

The Monitor recently talked with Mr. Zouabi at a safe house in north Lebanon.

CSM: Many Syrians, especially those from minority communities, are scared that if the Assad regime falls, the country may slide into sectarian chaos similar to neighboring Iraq. They are worried that the majority Sunni community may not look after their interests once the Baath Party’s secular regime is removed.

ZOUABI: What I am trying to do is to stand up and talk to the entire world. Yes, I have been to Afghanistan and Bosnia and that means that I am accused of being a radical. The Assad regime is trying to scare the West [by saying] that we want to be the masters of Syria. This is not true. We are willing to share power with everyone – Druze, Alawite, Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians. It is not true what the regime is saying about us. Let the whole world know that Bashar al-Assad is lying. We are not hard-liners.

CSM: But you admit that you fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where you knew many of Osama bin Laden’s key lieutenants, and that you fought in Bosnia in the mid 1990s. Surely you face a tough sell to persuade minority sects in Syria that you are not a militant Islamist.

ZOUABI: I am a salafist, but that is not the same as being Al Qaeda. My views as a salafist are not the same as those of Al Qaeda… I am [like] Al Qaeda except [the difference is] that I am willing to talk [to Christians] and I oppose the killing of innocents. I don’t want to attack any group, whether they are Islamic or not.

CSM: Where do you stand on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the resistance against coalition forces in Iraq?

ZOUABI: I did not support the Sept. 11 attacks. We don’t want to kill any civilians. This was the difference between us and Al Qaeda. The Iraqi jihad was justified because it was [against] an occupation. I am willing to be friendly with every country, but not with an occupier. We supported the resistance in Iraq, but not the killing of civilians. I met with American officials and I told them that I could be their enemy in Iraq because of the occupation but I could be their friend in Syria when they come as visitors.

CSM: Salafism practices an austere version of Islam and traditionally views other sects, including Shiite Muslims as apostates. Why do you now say that you are not only willing to talk and cooperate with other sects but to treat them as brothers?

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