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The revolt of the Sheikh

What role will the ‘Ulama’ – the Syrian oppositional scholars – play in a post-Assad Syria?

Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi has become one of Syria’s leading opposition scholars (Ulama).  Before the uprising Syrians respected Al-Yaqoubi due to his pedigree.  He descends from a line of Damascene scholars originally hailing from Algeria. His father was a famous Sufi mystic whose face is still found on posters in the more religious quarters of Damascus.  Al-Yaqoubi would probably have followed in his father’s footsteps had he not stood up on the pulpit of the Grand Umayyad mosque and denounced the regime.  He fled his homeland and found himself addressing foreign dignitaries like the King of Morocco and think tanks like the Royal United Services Institute, whilst remaining in close contact with the brigades who regularly consult him on matters of jurisprudence.  He is set to play an important role in post-Assad Syria given that Syrian civil society groups are still in their infancy and Syrians might resort to traditional personalities like him for guidance.  On a recent visit to raise funds for a hospital I asked Al-Yaqoubi about his role in shaping his country’s political destiny.

Why did you speak out against the Syrian Government?

I spoke out against the regime in defense of the people. It is a religious obligation to support the weak and oppressed and speak up and not hide the truth. When something kills, it is our job to denounce the killing; it does not make it different when the murderer is the government – it actually becomes more incumbent on religious people, since often rulers in the Middle East try to use religion to justify their power.

What did the government do to you after your speech at the Ummayyad mosque?

I delivered two speeches on Friday, both can be found on Youtube. The following Friday after the first sermon – where I denounced the murder of around 300 Syrians, shabiha or secret service men came to the mosque with concealed guns before the prayer started. I assigned one of my students to speak and waited till May 5th when I delivered my last speech in which I denounced the regime and declared my support of the uprising and demanded full withdrawal of their military presence from neighbourhoods, the release of all prisoners and the removal of all military barricades. I described and denounced the way people were being killed at military checkpoints and held the government responsible for all casualties.  I had already asked my wife to leave our family home and I immediately after the speech went into hiding. Our neighbors told us that the secret service came for me three times. I left Syria after a few weeks before a warrant for my arrest was issued. Soon after I left my name was on the government’s ‘wanted list’.

How can the Syrian Ulama help in post-Assad Syria?

The Syrian Ulama represents moderation. After the collapse of the Assad regime they will be needed to heal wounds and reconcile the various groups – especially the three million Baa’th party members who are not criminals. They will also have to confront the extremism of the hard-line salafists who just started their religious war against the rest of the Sunni population. Two months ago, Jabhatul Nusra demolished a shrine of a saint in Aleppo on the basis that it is un-Islamic; I issued a statement condemning it and called for wise people to come out and try to stop them.

What are you doing next?

Now I am trying to form a political movement putting together Sunnis and Sufis to rescue the country and save our people from falling prey to either extremism or secularism.

How can you and your likes alleviate sectarianism in Syria?

The Syrian Ulama are not new to such work. It was always the Ulama who called for the protection of the minorities and defended their rights. Christians have nothing to fear from the Ulama.

Can the likes of you moderate the Salafist brigades within the opposition?

Salafists are of two types: moderate, with whom we can have dialogue; and extreme who do not recognize our authority.

Is the future bright for Syria in the long run?

Yes – It is certainly going to take time to make the change, heal the wounds and rebuild the country.

What can the West do now?

The West made several mistakes in handling the Syrian crisis.  Early last year we warned and suggested that the FSA should be promoted and funds should come through it but nothing was done till several military groups grew strong outside the FSA and are now in control of half the country.

Why are the Ulama important in Syria?

Traditionally the Syrian Ulama are leaders. However, by having a few famous Syrian Ulama siding with the regime, the Syrian Ulama lost a lot of ground to the Salafists but still in terms of numbers, the followers of the Ulama are wider.

Why should the West trust the Syrian Ulama and by extension you?

Many of the Syrian Ulama’s works are transparent; they do not have a hidden agenda and will not consider violence as an option.  However, if the West does not want to trust us, we ask for an exchange of interests. The West has its interest and we have our own – several of these interests converge and we do not mind exchanging interests. We do not consider the West as an enemy; we are not in a state of war with them and have several treaties with them.

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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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide