Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Islamic Fundamentalism Takes Root In Syria

by George Baghdadi

Mystery Lingers Over Damascus Bombing

(IPS) DAMASCUS -- The high medieval fortress has stood out for centuries in the ancient city of Aleppo in the north of Syria. But now this city stands witness to a sight unknown here until recently; a large number of women dressed in black from head to toe.

The marketplace now wears a distinct look of Islamic revivalism. Few had expected to see this in Syria.

Adib Yasserji, 31, is among those who have turned actively to Islam in this city. He teaches at Aleppo University, but also runs a small publishing house that brings out religious books.

Yasserji sports a neatly trimmed beard, and keeps a picture of his religious teacher over his desk.

"People's needs are basically the same regardless of time and place -- good environment, good education, proper employment," he says. "People in the West try to express this in a political way. I am trying to express it through religion.."

Some of the recent titles of his publishing house are 'Islam and Democracy,' 'Debating the Future of Human Rights' and 'A Life of Dissent'.

There are mosques and religious schools aplenty where such books find readers. These were built by the Syrian government unaware that people would begin to drop the gentle traditions of Sufi Islam for the more intolerant Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia.

The language of politics was cast once in terms of nationalism or sides taken in the Cold War. Now everywhere political life seems to give truth to the slogan "Islam is the answer!"

The answer is clearly fed by anger over pictures of the occupation of Iraq and violence in the Palestinian territories beamed into people's homes every day.

The new "Islamic awakening" has come up as "a reaction to the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and faltering domestic reforms," says Yaseen al-Haj Saleh, Syrian writer and human rights activist.

Clerics in Syria, as in other countries such as Egypt and Indonesia, have long scoffed at rigid Islamic rules such as the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia. They have long argued that Islam is adaptable to modern life.

Islam is a faith of many faces, from the Wahhabis to the Sufis, from Shias to Sunnis. There have been also the largely secular Muslims as in Syria, and the militants under the command of extremists as with some groups in Afghanistan. But a new Islamic revivalism is evident among the hitherto moderates.

Several Islamic groups condone, or at least do not condemn, the Sept. 11 attacks. They justify violence in the name of jihad.

As long as Americans stay with their present policies and Muslims feel humiliated by them, "we should consider that all scenarios might open to every possibility," says Samir Taqi, former member of the Syrian parliament, and long time political analyst.

"Islam is also filling a void left by the collapse of communism, the failure of pan-Arab nationalism and a general malaise that has left Arabs searching for identity," says Abdul Razak Eid, a well-known political writer in Aleppo.

Syria's secular authorities have always kept a tight lid on Islamic unrest. The pan-Arab Ba'ath party which has ruled Syria since 1963 crushed an extremist movement in the 1980s after it launched a string of deadly attacks across the country.

But Syria, one of the most secular Arab countries, is now experiencing a dramatic religious resurgence that authorities cannot check.

Young Syrians have begun to fill mosques, bearded men now make up a lot of people seen walking about, and women have taken to the Hijab, the Islamic head dress.

Several women's religious discussion groups have begun to meet underground despite a ban imposed by the authorities.

Syrian state television reminded people of government views on the matter when it aired a supposed confession by one of two "Islamic extremists" caught for the attack on a vacant UN building late April that left four people dead.

"I was trying to respond to the aggression against Muslims of oppressive states like Israel, the United States and all other infidel countries," an arrested youth who called himself Ahmed Shlash Hassan said in a supposedly voluntary confession.

The arrest and the description of the attackers as "Islamic extremists" was a message how the government would view such acts. But the government is unable to contain a revivalism that stops short of violence.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor May 22, 2004 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.