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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496