The vital role of the "ulama" in post-Assad Syria

The influence of these religious scholars transcends borders and their opinions carry weight that cannot be underestimated.

With the prospect of a post-Assad Syria, the opposition are preparing for a transition government. Apart from preparing the way for democracy, they must also calm sectarian tensions, disarm Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters and control radical elements in society. The possibility of achieving that seems remote considering that their last meeting in Cairo, on the 3 July, ended in fisticuffs. However, the Syrian Sunni ulama, contrary to perception, could be the solution.

Up to now Western policy makers and the media have overlooked this important segment in Syrian society. According to a recent lecture by Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi at Royal United Services Institute, these Sunni religious functionaries number over 10,000 strong. The main prerogative of these ulama or scholars is religion. In reality, however, depending on their expertise and qualifications, they deal with everything from birth, marriage, jurisprudence, finance, academia and worship. Their position has been established since the Umayyads made Damascus their capital in the seventh century. The influential role they played is found in the voluminous biographical dictionaries and histories of the region. Even a cursory visit to the Umayyad central mosque reveals plaques testifying to their hallowed status.

This historical influence still reverberates. When reports came out that Hama and Homs were hot beds of sedition organised by religious scholars as well as Muslim Brotherhood members it was hardly surprising. The two towns, ten minutes drive from each other, sit on the fertile plain known as "the land of a thousand martyrs" in memory of those Muslims warriors who fell in the early Islamic conquests. Homs is the burial place of Khalid bin Walid, a celebrated general from the conquest period. The two cities have been a centre of four Sufi religious fraternities, active since Ottoman times. Since the 60s the area has served as a recruiting ground for the likes of Muhammad as-Siba’i, one of the main ideologues of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. As-Siba’i himself was from a local scholarly family. Many Syrian ulama are from families whose religious pedigree goes back for centuries. The lineages of Sheikh Ratib Nabelsi, a man with over 54,000 ‘likes’ on his FB page, and Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi go back to Ottoman times and beyond. The ulama, irrespective of the authorities, are still viewed by many as the true inheritors of the Prophet.

This is why the Syrian ulama cannot be ignored and are most definitely here to stay. Consider that on Thursday nights, the beginning of the Syrian weekend, the lectures of Sheikh Ramadan Buti attract bigger crowds than the night clubs around Bab-Touma, Damascus. Visit Rukn ed-Din a stone’s throw from Sheikh Ratib Nabelsi’s mosque and witness his mp3 lectures compete with the latest offering from Lebanese pop starlets. The late Sheikh Ahmed Habbal, the Syrian equivalent of Dostoyevsky’s father Zossima from Brothers Karamazov, used to attract hordes of followers. In the 80s, following the massacres in Aleppo and Hama, the ulama played an instrumental role in preventing Hafez al-Assad from outlawing the Hijab. In fact, the influence of these religious scholars transcends borders. According to his biographer Dr. Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi, founder of the Tunisian Ennahda party, used attend the lectures of Sheikh Ramadan Buti, Wahb Az-Zuhayli and was heavily influenced by Mustafa as-Siba’i. The opinions of Syrian ulama, though not binding, carry weight that cannot be underestimated.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the media and policy makers are doing. Their judgment is informed by stereotypes of Iranian and Saudi religious functionaries. Moreover, as Thomas Pierret, in The Role of the Mosque in the Syrian Revolution observes, the Sunni ulama appear divided. However, this overlooks the historical context of how Syrian ulama have interacted with power. Traditionally, some take a Burkean position and co-operate with the government because the prospect of civil instability is worse and unconducive to spiritual growth. This is the rationale for the attitude of Sheikh Ramadan Buti and others who have been slow in condemning the government’s actions. The second is the gradualist approach represented by the Rifa’i brothers in Kafer Souseh, Damascus, who remain aloof from authority and hope to achieve political change bottom up. Then there is the position of scholars from Homs and Deraa like Sayasne or the jurisprudent Rizq Abazayd and others like Sheikh Muhammad a-Yaqoubi who see themselves as representatives of the people. They believe they must critique and if necessary, prevent the authorities from abuses of power.

All of these positions are understood and accepted as valid within the Syrian tradition. Hence both "government" and opposition scholars like the late Grand Mufti Ahmed Kaftaro, the highest official of religious law in Syria, and the late Sheikh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghudda, a scholar affiliated to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, are celebrated. Syrian society understands well the dilemma that the ulama face. The present positions of Syrian ulama then, should not serve as a basis for their marginalization in the political process. However much their presence irks policy makers, ignoring them jeopardizes the whole democratic project in Post-Assad Syria and closes off access to an important player in Syrian society.

Arguably, they are better placed to deal with the situation than the SNC. Whilst opposition groups have suffered severe repression since the 70s, the government détente with the ulama meant that religious activity could occur, albeit under close scrutiny. Consequently, the ulama managed to build up grass roots support through their charity work. Scholars like Muhammad al-Kheir, a director of an educational institute or Sheikh Yahya, a local Quran teacher in Rukn ed-Din, operate clothes and food banks and run co-operatives that offer interest free loans. They command considerable moral authority in the local community. Consequently, men like them are well placed to disarm FSA fighters and counter radical elements within the country.

In fact, bar a few firebrands, the ulama are aware of the Syrian sectarian milieu. This is evidenced by the efforts of the previous Grand Mufti of Syria Ahmed Kaftaro and the current one, Ahmed Hassoun. Both have always stressed the plurality of Syrian society. As part of a compact of 107 ulama, Syrian scholars have urged the FSA to follow the proper rules of engagement including the respectful treatment of Syrian minorities. Whether the FSA is complying is another matter. However, according to Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi at his recent RUSI lecture, this seems to be occurring.

With the prospect of sectarian tensions, radical elements and civil war; it seems that the ulama have the moral authority to tranquillize Post-Assad Syria. Perhaps that is exactly what is needed considering that so many lives have been lost. In the likely scenario that Post-Assad Syria will be a Sunni-dominated entity their influence and significance should only be ignored at the cost of further instability.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits the Al-Farabi historic cultural centre in Damascus. Photograph: Getty Images

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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Should Jeremy Corbyn go? Two Labour Party members take different views

The Labour leader says he will not betray its members. But what do they think?

The Labour MPs stand on one side. The Momentum activists stand on the other. Both claim to represent the real voice of Labour voters, and therefore the true democratic will. 

 

But Labour voters are divided too. We heard from two Labour Party members with very different views about Corbyn:

 

Stay

Sophie Dodds

On 8 May 2015 I felt pretty wretched. Since 2010 my world had seemed to have become increasingly constricted. Rent had gone up at least 5 per cent every year; wages had not kept pace. East Coast Rail had been handed to a private company which increased ticket prices. For the first time ever, I was being told my diabetes medication would have to be switched to cheaper, less adequate brands, and it was getting harder and harder to get appointments with my nurse. And these were just the ways in which politics had touched me personally.

I went to the anti-austerity march that June and it gave me hope. I didn’t see Jeremy Corbyn speak at that but I was given some leaflets and heard Charlotte Church’s incredible speech, so decided to look into him. I watched a panel debate with all four candidates for the Labour leadership and my mind was settled.

 

Corbyn stood there and calmly and repeatedly stated that the poor should not have to pay for the results of an irresponsible financial sector, and that most economists agree that austerity does not work. He seemed to understand not only how Britain had arrived where it had, but what was going on in the world as a whole, and how we would have to fit into that. He understood that people and politics are complicated and that evangelical solutions will never get us anywhere. He was also the most charismatic of the bunch – not in the traditional, swept-back hair kind of way – but he had a rare air of intelligence, honesty and, to use that hackneyed phrase, integrity.

 

I was clearly not the only person to respond to him in this way. The trade unions got on board and tens of thousands of people paid their £3 and signed up for the right to vote for him. All manner of respected public personalities, from journalists and economists to comedians and musicians, spoke at his rallies. A core of young, digital-savvy and politically disillusioned talent formed and Momentum took shape.

 

There is a fundamental gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour Party membership, and a further gulf between those two groups and the rest of the British electorate. We live in fractured times, in which social media only serves to deepen those fractures. As the first Labour leader to be voted in by his own membership, rather than selected by the PLP, Corbyn was never going to have an easy run of it.

 

As for the EU referendum, not only was I 100 per cent sure of where Corbyn stood on this, but he put forward what I felt was the strongest argument for staying in the EU – the protection its laws offer to workers’ rights. Any reserve he showed in his enthusiasm for the EU was simply a reasonable reaction to its very real flaws. Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather be in the EU than out of it, but let’s not forget what happened to Greece. Let’s not forget TTIP.

The mutiny in the PLP has nothing to do with the EU. It’s been coming since he was first elected leader. The PLP are mainly Blairites. At some point or other this s**t was going to hit that fan. If they oust Corbyn, who do they think is going to lead them?

I suspect that the next time Labour win (if there still is a Labour Party by then) it will be under someone a bit more shiny, a bit more slimy, or possibly some charismatic Sturgeon who maintains her right to slash and burn as necessary.

But Godammit, whilst I still have the power to, I will keep voting for that socks and sandals man. And if they oust him for good? Well, at least I will save £5 a month on my Labour membership.

Go

Simon Foster

You've spent the last five days lamenting the loss of your Interrail pass, predicting a return to wartime rationing and contemplating overturning an incredible democratic mandate. Yet now a new post adorns your timeline. Your Facebook profile picture remains a snap of you “finding yourself” on your gap year in Thailand but it is now joined with a curious red banner proclaiming "I'm With Corbyn". You're with who?

Surely we can't be thinking about the same Corbyn? The Corbyn who remained practically invisible during the referendum campaign, surfacing only to reveal that he was "7 out of 10" in favour of Remain. The same Corbyn who refused to put party politics aside to campaign with Cameron even after private polling indicated this would help the Remain vote. Indeed, the very same Corbyn whose team under Seamus Milne actively worked to sabotage Labour In. Surely you cannot still be defending this champagne socialist?

I admit I am towards the more social democratic wing of the Labour Party - sorry, I mean I am "Blairite vermin" (the term adorned on a t-shirt worn by a delightful Socialist Workers' Party member during a recent pro-Corbyn march). I didn't vote for Jezza's vision of a “kinder politics” last September and have been calling for his ousting pretty much ever since.

I am honestly speechless at the continued unwavering support of my Facebook friends for a man whose utter incompetence has lead to a referendum result which most of them have despaired over.

Let's make no mistake here - the big loser of the referendum was the Labour Party. Much, if not most, of the blame for that rests on the shoulders of Jeremy Corbyn. A Britain Stronger In Europe memo leaked just three weeks before polling day revealed that up to 50 per cent of Labour voters weren't actually sure what the party's position on the EU was. How truly pathetic.

Is it really at all surprising then that come Thursday all the Northern Labour heartlands and 64 per cent of C2DE workers voted Leave? So surely we should all now be in agreement that Labour lost this referendum. Spectacularly. Yet I'm sure the Corbyinstas will blame it all on Tony Blair. Is there anything for which Corbyn is to blame which cannot instead be blamed on a Prime Minister who stepped down almost 10 years ago?

I guess this shouldn't even be a surprise to me. Some of those proclaiming their solidarity with Jeremy now are the same people who previously defended the anti-Semitic actions of Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone by claiming this was the imaginings of the "right-wing media".

As far as I can see it you can either be a Brexiteer, happy that the referendum campaign secured you the working-class votes necessary for your shock victory, or you backed Remain and are furious with Corbyn's lacklustre support. How can you possibly continue to support him when he ensured this defeat was inevitable?