Since the early days of the protests in Syria, differences have intensified between secular and Islamist groups. Day after day these differences have intensified and diverted attention away from the main goal of the movement: freedom.
Five hundred days have passed since the protests began and many fear that the revolution may be turning toward extremism and radicalism in light of the shift toward militarization and because of the way minorities are viewed. Most dangerously, the extremist movement has emerged as a front line force with widespread popular support. They have issued fatwas that incited the killing of a young female activist who expressed her opinion on her Facebook page. Furthermore, Islamists have declared that the revolution is theirs and claimed that no other force has offered Syria more than what it was given under the religion banner of the revolution.
Islamists do not hesitate to defend their goal of establishing an Islamic state or carrying flags similar to those waved by the Salafists, while displaying the national flag that demonstrators had carried in the early days of the revolution has decreased. Islamists believe that demonstrators have emerged from mosques and that the religious environment, which Syrians salute, is the platform that has given the armed and peaceful movement a religious character.
With the differences between secular forces and Islamists on one hand, and each side’s fear that the other will come to power on the other, the crisis is now at a crossroads. It in unclear where the crisis is heading, especially given an increase in those taking up arms.
Secularists are afraid of the ever increasing negative influence that Islamists are having on the civic movement. Ahmed, an activist from Damascus involved in the peaceful movement, asserted that the religious forces’ control would certainly have a negative impact, as “most of those who planned for the movement were liberals and Islamists did not have any significant role at the time.”
This young Damascene added that the protest movement has sought peaceful change from the beginning. However, some Islamic parties have joined the movement and encouraged armament. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists’ allies have received funds from external sources and the peaceful movement was undermined. All of these reasons made liberals and most Syrians confused. They have not yet decided how to proceed: Should they back down from supporting the revolution or proceed forward, supporting a different and unknown revolution?
Wael, a university student, believed that “the [course of] madness that the regime is following by pursuing a security or military solution has pushed the people, as it was expected, to resort to radical forces that they believe would provide them with a greater support, like some revolutionary groups and coordination committees have found. Some have even said that the revolution is the property of the single sect that offered the largest number of martyrs and detainees.
Most of those who stressed rationality and the concept that the revolution must be for all Syrians disappeared from the internal arena after being murdered, arrested or accused of treason. This allowed extremist opinions to emerge, and after that, the level bloodshed rose in towns and villages. The Free Syrian Army brigades were given religious names and demonstrations took on a religious character. Some organizers had requested that women either not participate or dress modestly. This would divert in the interest of Islamic forces.
In contrast, Nader, a civil activist from Daraa, believes that the rise in Islamic forces, along with the revolution’s increasingly religious nature, will have a negative effect on the revolution. However “those who pretend to be Islamist are influencing the revolution. Their knowledge of religion is superficial. There are few Islamic and extremist groups in Syria, but they are wildly known due to the media exaggeration and religious money”.
Nader adds: “On the other hand, concerns over the possible domination of the Islamic forces may be [exaggerated]. For example, when demonstrators chant ‘O God, we have no one but you,’ it is not the religious identity or authority which they seek. It is rather [a way for them] to appeal to God, amid a revolution that lacks a protector or authority to back it. Thus, it is only normal for the demonstrators to develop an attachment to God.”
Others dispel these fears. Some say that “the Syrian society is a predominantly religious one, and the revolution is a reflection of society, its rhetoric, demonstrations, and demands. Religious forces represent a large part of the Syrian society. But the presence of the other forces is necessary so the revolution would not develop a religious character, and for asserting the comprehensive character of the revolution.”
At the same time, these forces fear the unknown. No one can predict the [future] size of the religious movements or their behavior, since they had been completely blocked for a long time. The biggest fear yet is the dominance of loyalty to this [religious] doctrine over loyalty to the homeland. Bassem, an activist in the civil movement in Damascus, shares this opinion. He says that the biggest threat posed by the religious forces at this stage would be “if they take advantage of the religious heritage of the rebellious Muslim-majority of Syrians to achieve future political goals. These parties, in general, systematically incite sectarian and emotional sentiments against the Syrian regime. In my view, this method matches that of the regime, which has used [religion] for mobilization and to strengthen its staff and put them at the front line in the war it is currently waging on the Syrian people.”
The young man continues: “On the other hand, I find that lot of religious icons and leaders at home have failed. They failed to fulfill what the revolutionary people expect from them. This has caused high frustration in the street, prompting [the people] to ride the wave of armament, which is mostly backed by foreign Islamist forces.
The influence of these currents in the [Egyptian] street is commensurate with the amount of arms and ammunition they can provide. Today, the problem does not only lie with these religious forces, because they are mere pawns among a greater group of forces that are seeking to exploit the popular revolution in Syria to achieve various economic and strategic objectives.” Bassem, however, rules out the possibility of the state taking a religious form.
The religious system, in its raw/initial form, requires a base that is related to the composition and structure of the state, and popular support for such a system. The Syrian social fabric, from east to west, and despite its religious heritage, is not used to being under an Islamic theocracy ever since the Ottoman occupation.
Therefore, the people will not allow a religious force to rise to power to impose an exclusionary religious system. “The main fear is over the rise of Islamic currents that claim to be secular and modern, and promote the idea of a civil state, while hiding agendas of Islamic rule. Such currents will gain great popularity among the majority of the Syrian people, who are overwhelmingly moderate Muslim.”
In the future, these currents will [impose] religion and attempt to gradually Islamize the state, through amending certain laws and making institutional changes, with the aim of [changing] the ideology of the political system in Syria to suit its own principles and convictions, of course backed by popular support.