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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Under Trump, American democracy will change – with the whole world at stake

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Is this the collapse of the pluralist order?

In the weeks since 8 November, when Donald Trump won a majority of the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by three million, the culture of informed, participatory, representative democracy has taken one hit after another.

Before our eyes, the American republic, that most durable of representative democratic experiments, is morphing into something unrecognisable. At the federal level, the mediating, moderating institutions are withering away, leaving an abyss in the centre of US politics that Trump threatens to fill with a toxic appeal to race and religion baiting. Day after day, one reads reports of hate crimes and a surge in incivility – of Muslim women attacked in the streets, of swastikas painted on buildings, of Latino kids in schools being taunted about the wall that Trump has promised to build on the Mexican border. The Ku Klux Klan has rallied in several cities. “Alt-right” groups – some of which share members with neo-Nazi organisations – have held triumphalist events in Washington, DC.

Through it all, Trump has spent his time not trying to show that he will be a unifying president, not condemning this wave of violence, but instead holding his own rolling series of triumphalist rallies designed to shore up his personality cult.

Trump is only nominally a Grand Old Party Republican. His power derives not from understanding the ins and outs of party politics, playing by the long-established rules of a two-party system, nor from having studied the workings of the constitution, nor from any specialised legal or diplomatic knowledge. Rather, it stems from direct appeals to “the people”. Though a billionaire, Trump has fashioned himself as a far-right populist, a leader who speaks to the sensibilities of the mob with no time or patience for nuance.

He has enthusiastically endorsed “the torture” against terrorism suspects; collective punishment and executions; religious tests of entry for would-be immigrants; registries of Muslims; the jailing of his political opponents; clampdowns on free speech and on the functioning of investigative media outlets; stop-and-frisk policing strategies against minorities; wholesale deportation policies; and many other noxious ideas. He has deliberately coarsened America’s political language – systematically humiliating opponents and bringing his crowds down with him into the political sewers in which he thrives. His project is that of the classic totalitarian: make everyone and every major institution of state so grubby, so complicit, that, over time, they come to feel that they have no choice but to collaborate with an agenda of oppression.

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Totalitarian projects garner support until they throw entire populations into disaster – into economic calamity, into spiralling conflicts and wars, into civil strife. Trump, as he makes policy on the hoof and hires a cabinet that seems to be made up of equal parts fanatics, conspiracy theorists, incompetents and generals, shows no sign of understanding this. He is a leader without internal limits.

Using his Twitter platform, in particular, Trump spent the weeks between election day and his inauguration wielding a wrecking ball against everything from environmental policy to gender equality regulations; from the “one China” policy carefully respected by leaders of both parties for more than 40 years to policies against expanded Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Three days before Christmas, he suggested that the US would be expanding its nuclear arsenal under his leadership.

This isn’t just dangerous; it’s beyond idiotic – a man who will soon wield unholy power over the lives of everyone on this planet intervening in the most delicate of policy areas with the bluntest of cudgels. The idea of making nuclear policy through 140-character tweets is insane, the stuff of bad late-night comedy rather than serious international diplomacy. And yet, intellectually, this is where America’s incoming leadership now resides.

Trump’s actions over these past weeks indicate that he is a person of staggering hubris, of thoughtlessness, of impulsiveness – and that, as he presented himself time and again during the election season, he is a boy-man, with the sensibilities of a teenager rather than a mature adult. He comes across as someone megalomaniacally confident that he can think and do no wrong; who wants to listen only to sycophants; and who is convinced that his brand of instinctual politics (the kind that has no need for dreary, real-world interventions such as daily security briefings) will triumph over all.

On the night of the election, the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, wrote an impassioned essay about what he identified as an “American tragedy”. But this doesn’t do full justice to the catastrophe that Trump’s election represents. His is a triumph of the will, as surely as was Hitler’s rise to power in 1932-33. He has ridden and will continue to try to ride roughshod over his opponents – both within the craven GOP, which has sacrificed all semblance of democratic credibility in pursuit of power, and in the Democratic Party and beyond.

Because he enters the White House as a conqueror rather than a product of years of politicking within the existing governing structures, he knows that he can appeal to “the people” – not all of the people but those white, conservative, mainly rural and suburban residents who make up the core of his support – to get his way.

Will Trump succeed in this mad re-imagining of what the United States is? There will be large opposition – on the streets, on university campuses, in the courts and in the state houses of liberal states up and down both coasts. In wealthy and large states such as California, where the cities, state legislatures and the governor’s offices are united in opposition to huge parts of Trump’s agenda, it is likely that on a day-to-day basis residents will avoid the brunt of the impact.

It is entirely possible that there will be a flowering of radical politics in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York and Boston, as well as inward migration from the heartlands of large numbers of political progressives and members of racial and religious minorities. Yet in more conservative parts of the country – in Texas, say, or Oklahoma, Mississippi or Alabama, or a host of other states dominated by reactionary political leaders – life for immigrants, the working poor, single mothers and Muslims (just to take a few examples) will become harsher. In many states, it is not at all clear that the political leadership will be willing or able to stand up to Trump’s mob.

It’s also far from certain that local police forces or county sheriffs will be able, or even particularly inclined, to stop the unleashing of pogroms. After all, these are places where law enforcement long turned a blind eye to lynch mobs directed against black residents and black-run businesses. It is not such a stretch to imagine a similar passivity in the face of anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican violence today.

Nor, on the international stage, is it likely that this troupe of political novices will be able to control the forces of resentment they are unleashing. Trump’s cabinet is full of Islamophobes who believe that the entire Muslim world is now America’s enemy. It is dominated by China-haters and climate change deniers. By the time Trump assumes the presidency, he will have done an almighty job of pissing off swaths of the world’s population.

The optimistic scenario is that the world turns its back on an inward-looking America, getting on with the serious business of international affairs while the pre-eminent superpower throws a four-to-eight-year tantrum. It is more likely, however, that there will be a scramble for influence as US soft power wanes and other powerful countries and non-state organisations seek to fill a vacuum created by the dearth of sensible American voices and policies. Such players could range from economic powerhouses such as China and Germany, seeking, or being forced to accept, a bigger military and geopolitical role, to resurgent powers such as Russia – as well as non-state actors ranging from terrorist entities such as Isis to techno-anarchist groups such as WikiLeaks.

As America’s image mutates, they will have a growing opportunity either to sow instability or to reshape regions of the world in their own image. The nightmare scenario is that Trump, relying on his instincts in place of the counsel of experts, seeks to shore up America’s declining influence through spasmodic demonstrations of military power – bullying and threatening one country after another, much as fascist regimes did in the 1930s. The consequences could be disastrous: US nationalism unleashed could plunge the world into conflict.

Thus we hover on the edge of a catastrophe: a great democracy that has come to be controlled by demagogues, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation, itching for an excuse to implement emergency measures against Muslims and others, convinced that its military might will cow the rest of the world into toeing the Trumpian line.

Sasha Abramsky writes for the Nation magazine and is the author of “The American Way of Poverty” (Nation Books)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era