In a country where conservative Islamic sentiment is rising, Islamist scholar Mohammed Habash's moderate views strike a jarring chord.
Dressed in a tailored tweed suit, he looks more like a college professor than the traditional image of an Islamic religious leader in robes and headdress. But Mr. Habash says he is indeed from the conservative tradition of Islam and was educated only in religious schools.
His interpretation of Islam, however, is anything but conservative. He promotes a reformist vision of Islam that accepts Western ideas, including secular forms of government. Women, he says, are permitted by Islam to receive the same level of education as men and to fully participate in public life, even as religious, political, and business leaders. He advocates peaceful resistance to the US-led occupation in Iraq, in contrast to some clerics in Syria's Sunni Muslim heartland who have encouraged the insurgency. And he rejects what he calls the "monopoly of salvation," the belief that Islam is the only true religion.
"We have to accept other religions," says Habash, director of the Center of Islamic Studies in Damascus. "Islam has to confirm what came before and not cancel [Judaism and Christianity] out. Also, it is not wrong to absorb new ideas from the West and East."
His views have put him at odds with Syria's conservative Muslim clergy that brands all religions other than Islam false and views the West suspiciously.
Even the late Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the moderate Grand Mufti of Syria who was a mentor to Habash, released a statement condemning some of his protégé's ideas when Habash was campaigning in Syria's 2003 parliamentary election. Nonetheless, Habash was elected with the highest number of votes after the ruling Baath Party candidates.
The growth of conservative Islam in Syria is partly a reaction to decades of secular Baathist rule and poor economic opportunity. About 20 percent of Syria's workforce is unemployed, and 20 percent of the population of 17 million falls below the poverty line. "Throughout the Arab world, radical Islamization appears to have been the result of many factors - the failure of secular Arab nationalism, the failure of states, and, perhaps most of all, the failure of economic development," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst.
Israeli-Palestinian violence and US Mideast policies have further radicalized Muslims, say experts.
Muslims also are spurred into action by the spreading influence of Western ideas, like globalization and secularism, which threaten to marginalize Islam, says Sadeq al-Azm, a Syrian professor of philosophy teaching in the Netherlands.
"Fundamentalists believe this is the final confrontation," he says. "If the modernization of states continues like this, what is there to prevent Islam from eventually becoming like Christianity in Europe? They feel that if they don't stand up now and draw a line, that's it."
The internal debate among Muslims in Syria comes amid signs that the Baathist regime is slowly shedding secularism as Islam grows more influential. "The government is on its way to abandoning secularism," says Sheikh Wehbi Zubeidi, a conservative cleric. "They raised this slogan [in the past] just to establish national unity ... but secularism was not accepted by the Syrians because we are very religious."
In 1982, the Syrian government suppressed an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization that had conducted a wave of assassinations and bombings against Baathist officials from the late 1970s.
The confrontational approach favored by Islamists two decades ago has been replaced by a subtle "Gramscian" strategy, says Professor Azm, referring to the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci who advocated toppling capitalism through infiltrating institutions rather than direct attacks.
Indeed, some analysts say that the Islamist penetration of the state is well under way. They point to the arrest in October of Nabil Fayyad, an intellectual who has written of the growing power of Islamists in Syria. They say his arrest by the intelligence services and month-long detention came at the urging of Islamist elements in the government.
"Islamists are spreading like wildfire," says a Syrian human rights activist who asked not to be named. "People are rejecting the ideology of the Baath party, but they are not rejecting Islam."
And that has spurred some concern among Syrians that Washington's intense pressure on Damascus over a wide range of issues - including Iraq and terrorism - is part of a US plan to remove the Baathist government. Given the lack of any organized secular opposition, regime change, many Syrians say, could pave the way for Islamist rule.
The current regime is dominated by the minority Alawite sect of Islam, considered apostates by extremist Sunnis. Some analysts say that the Alawites view the Sunnis as their "strategic enemy."
"Some Alawites say in private that ultimately they and the Americans agree on the danger of Islamic terrorism and the worst possible thing that could happen is an Islamist victory over the Americans in Iraq, because it would embolden the Islamists here," says a Syrian political analyst who requested anonymity.
Habash says US policies in Iraq and the Middle East have helped fuel Islamic radicalism and undermine his attempts to forge understanding. "Believe me, we are suffering a lot here for being friends of the West," he says.
Last month, Habash was denied entry to the US, despite having a valid visa from the US Embassy in Damascus. He was informed upon arrival in Washington that, according to new regulations, all Syrians have to obtain permission from the secretary of State to visit the US. "The Americans are not making any distinction between [Islamic] conservatives and the path of renewal [moderates] which I follow," he says. "Unfortunately, they treat us all the same, as if we are all followers of Osama bin Laden."