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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder