Islamist Groups Pose Challenge To Syrian Revolution

As Islamists rush to exert control in Syria, democratic opposition factions must work together to ensure a future democratic state, writes Youssef Fakhreddine

al-monitor A man with a weapon holds an Islamist flag during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Bustan al-Qasr district in Aleppo, March 22, 2013. The flag reads, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."  Photo by REUTERS/Giath Taha.

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syrian, islamists, islam and democracy, islam, conflict

Apr 10, 2013

At a time when the majority of Syrians are hoping that their revolution will pave the way toward a future filled with freedom and political participation, some Islamists are endeavoring to exploit the circumstances, instill their rule and exclude all others. The de facto, mostly chaotic authority in many areas lacks required organizational skills, while in other areas it is purely motivated by a voracious desire to rule, making it difficult to deal with. The Shariah councils, which Islamists of all varieties are keen to have present everywhere — whether in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) brigades or in local councils — are reflections of the institutions that they long have desired to have under their control.

The Islamists justify the establishment of these organizations by claiming that they are urgent solutions to the problem of chaos, just as they have justified all their other actions. But despite the sometimes valid nature of their rationalization, it has over time become clear that this justification is in fact a cover they use for the Islamization of society and the institutions that are being set up in liberated areas.

Even self-styled moderate Islamists have begun to exploit the growing fear that people have of Jabhat al-Nusra, to focus attention on the necessity of these Shariah councils. These councils have garnered consensus among the different Islamist factions because they hand true authority to the “guardians of religion,” thus guaranteeing them the outcome of the electoral process that society insists upon.

These councils would allow the Islamists to overcome the results of elections, if their machinations failed to assure them victory, by granting them powers to oversee the work of elected officials. This falls contrary to the democratic principle of “popular sovereignty” and would allow Islamists an opportunity to transform Syria into a theocracy. It also would give them all the time needed to deal with, and even choose, the future conditions that best suit their interests. The situation can be compared to sowing the seed of Islamic rule within the state: a seed that can be easily institutionalized later on and tied to a general supervisory Shariah body. Thus, Syria would be transformed into a Sunni version of the Shiite clerics’ rule in Iran.

In a style reminiscent of the rise of armed resistance in Syria, the Islamists are moving forward to impose their views. To do this they are relying on the regime’s tyranny — which drove a wedge between it and revolutionary society — and on the great financial requirements of social institutions (such as local councils) that spare no effort to provide for the daily needs of people living in areas affected by the conflict. They are also relying on exploiting  the crumbling traditional structure of society, which is still trying to resist their hegemony. They march on, aided by the weighty absence of secular forces, which split into critics and supporters of the revolution. These forces’ influence was negatively affected by the regime’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the popular movement, while the Islamists reaped the rewards.

The security agencies, when they prohibited people from gathering in cities to demand freedom and violently repressed their movement, sabotaged the process of national integration (which was largely secular) that sprouted in the early months of the movement. This led to an isolationist trend among all religious sects in search of protection. It also marginalized the role played by cities and urban factions in favor of poor neighborhoods and rural areas that are much more religiously inclined.

The movement’s leadership was thus passed on to disenfranchised religious segments of society, while religious sects insulated themselves and armed groups emerged in need of a combat doctrine. Political monies were funneled exclusively to the Islamists as the secularists found themselves in a state of retreat. Meanwhile, their [religious] allies began, with time, to demand that the popular movement adopt some of their traits (from the names of brigades, to the Shariah councils) in order to receive any aid from them.

The Islamists realize that they are faced with an extensive building project, where disagreements about nomenclatures and nominal matters form part of the process through which the future ruling elite, and its ideology, will be produced. As circumstances converge in their favor, observers might be erroneously inclined to believe that the Islamist movement is inevitable and ordained. But they forget that the Islamists are exploiting temporary and fleeting circumstances that will be negated by their mistakes borne out of overconfidence.

While this faction of Islamists based its agenda on exploiting favorable conditions that would lead to the establishment of a tyranny — such as the regime’s oppression and destructive behavior, the wrath of a revolutionary society against the aggression perpetrated by sectarian allies of the regime, the fear of a Kurdish separatist tendencies and the anxiety felt toward radical Islam — other conditions necessary for the emergence of tyranny were collapsing, as cities and towns crumbled and new segments of society joined the revolution’s ranks.

The internal opposition has formed ties with the opposition abroad and no one — for the foreseeable future — has the ability to break these ties, as attention remains focused on the challenges arising from the war. These include rebuilding the infrastructure and industries that were destroyed, as well as rebuilding the state itself which, in addition to its prestige, has lost a lot of its army’s strength, cohesion and installations, not to mention that its coffers are nearly empty.

These factors, along with the increased motivation of people to participate in their country’s political process after long years of being prevented from doing so, will make it hard for the Islamists to establish a new dictatorial regime. There is the possibility that a long civil war could erupt if the Islamists refuse to abandon their quest to build the state of their dreams.

The determining factor in the coming phase will be the success or failure of rational factions — be they democratic secularists or moderate Muslims — to elevate the political process and propose modern constructs that would guarantee the participation of Islamists. They must make it clear to the Islamists that what is important in Islam is its purpose, and that the Shariah councils will be on a par with elected supervisory bodies. Distinguishing between these two must not be predicated on which is more closely related to Islam’s teachings, but on which of them is furthest away from oppressing the people.

Such a discourse will surely lead to the thwarting of any attempt to replace the Baath Party’s tyranny with that of clerics. In addition, this cultural-political conflict will drive all political factions that participate in it to lower the bar of their expectations and strive to move closed-room political bargaining to the open space of social cohesiveness, so that the political arena may gain legitimacy through consensus and elections. This would give rise to a reconciled, politically and intellectually diverse elite focused on guaranteeing the widest-possible representation for the task of rebuilding the country.

The cost paid by the Syrian people might have been lower had the international community dealt differently with the revolution. Many factors prevented such a change from occurring, not least of which the exploitation by the American administration of crises it viewed as opportunities to exhaust its opponents while hiding behind the latter’s views, all the while casting the political and moral blame on them alone.

US President Barack Obama’s administration did not care much about the magnitude of the tragedy that befell Syria, because it was confident that the conflict would remain geographically contained, and because it constituted a way to drain its enemies. Similarly, it goes to follow that the US will not give much thought to the magnitude of the suffering that the Syrian people will endure during the transitional phase as long as the US believes that it possesses enough clout on a devastated country in need of reconstruction aid for long years to come.

America then is another faction that overestimates its ability to control the course of events, and deals with matters as if they were predetermined. But developments associated with the Syrian revolution — which the American administration wanted to keep contained until the regime was forced to accept a settlement without actually crumbling — have proven that once social forces get unleashed, they spread wildly in every direction without regard to anyone’s interests but their own. As a result, the Syrian revolution will surely have repercussions on the whole region sooner or later, despite any belief to the contrary.

In conclusion, putting the Syrian house in order will prove difficult in the absence of a clear restructuring process on the part of all democratic forces (secular or moderate Islamist), and as a result of Islamist factions rushing to control everything in sight. But the repercussions of the destructive war that plagues the country, and its inevitable effect on the surrounding region, necessitate concerted efforts on the part of all rational internal and external factions. They must work to produce a process based on the need to build a civil democratic state and the formation of the proper culture needed to build it, as the revolution has always demanded. This is a difficult challenge to say the least, but one that must be tackled in order to prevent a protracted war that would endure even if the regime were to fall tomorrow.

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