Sunni Revivalism

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The morning headlines screamed news of Israeli forces detaining Palestinian officials, and by the late afternoon the patrons of the Rawdha Café in Damascus were astir. Emotions ran high as the crowd chanted and taunted, and waved flags. Some painted their faces with national colors as if ready for battle. By evening time, the masses of young and old had noisily spilled out into the street — the much-vaunted “Arab Street”— and swarmed in front of what passes for Syria’s parliament, shouting and honking. Germany had just beat Argentina through penalty kicks in the World Cup quarter finals.

Across town in the Christian-heavy Bab Touma area, a riot in the making was nipped in the bud when the local law enforcement menacingly waved their batons at over-zealous fans of Germany who, judging by the ratios of flags hanging off balconies and store-fronts, were well represented among Syrian youth.

Where was the “Death to Israel” demonstration, usually seen on TV stomping away at a burning Israeli flag? The World Cup spectacle in one of the Arab world’s most symbolic and vitriolic capitals, and all the attendant efforts by its populace to download and disseminate codes to get around the scrambled satellite signals carrying the games, would strongly suggest that the age of “Big Ideas” — unifying the Arab nation, the liberation of Palestine, resurrecting the caliphate — has been eclipsed by complacency and mindless entertainment.

But the radical agenda is still aglow under the ashes of defeat, and it is being fanned by has-been regimes and a widespread Sunni Islamic revivalism. It may look manageable now, but it lays the foundation for the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, from the ground up.

During the half-time break, a law student turned to me and lamented the fact that they were here at the café cheering on Argentina and checking out the pretty girls while Gaza was being pounded by Israeli shells. His radicalism was dormant for the time being, but unmistakably there. The regime’s belligerence, has always been on display in its traditional rhetoric and terror-aiding actions, but it may have become passé as the jihadists redefine radicalism, and count the Assad dynasty among the toadies of Israel and the West — a categorical accusation being hurled against all Shias.

The white Opel station wagon with license plate number “39255 Police” that was parked outside the Bab Touma police station that night had an odd poster pasted on its back window: The Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, with Hezbollah chairman Hassan Nasrallah on his right and the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on his left. This was a very potent piece of state-sanctioned propaganda: Mr. Assad’s choice of friends puts him firmly outside what would be considered reputable international company, but to the trained Sunni Syrian eye it also highlighted the “otherness” of the regime — a Shia Alawite minority ever ready to fight off a much larger majority through its control of the security services, in a land traditionally associated with Sunnism, and augmented by a regional Shia alliance with Hezbollah and Iran.

The scripted radicalism of the regime feeds into the dominant trends of Syrian society, and just as many of Syria’s Sunnis as Shias seem to be hanging pictures of Hezbollah’s Nasrallah. But when these Sunnis are told of what Al-Qaeda’s Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi had recently said about Hezbollah, namely that they are in fact Israeli and “Crusader” agents who are out to undermine Sunnism, there is a momentary pause of confusion. Most will then break out into a song and dance about sectarian harmony in Syria, but some will slip up by claiming that there is no difference between “Muslims and Shias” thus semantically casting the latter outside the confines of Islam. Some would draw a distinction between the Lebanon’s mainstream Shias and the Alawites — a heterodox sect with strong pagan and schismatic roots historically held in universal contempt, and since assuming power under the guise of a secular military and Ba’ath Party, viewed with seething hatred.

However, the Assad regime, while associating itself with the street mob on such issues as Israel, is quickly finding out that more and more Syrians are enthralled by the radicalism of Zarqawi, and in no small measure due to his distinct Sunni agenda. Since an earlier confrontation almost a quarter of a century ago with Sunni fundamentalism and the Muslim Brotherhood’s terror campaign, the supposedly secular Ba’athist regime had tried to control religion by facilitating its spread. A nationwide Assad Academy to inculcate the Koran into children through summer classes at mosques has been active for decades, as well as a subtle alliance with Sufi movements.

The journey back to religion is a trend seen all over the Middle East, but in Syria, it seems to be taking a far more nuanced character, as politicized Sunni revivalism. Islamism has become a fashion statement: the Syria’s upper and middle classes are playing catch-up with the rest of society, and tailoring fundamentalism to their sensibilities. For now, it has taken the form of cultish associations that provide social services and a wallop of sermonizing such as the Qubeisiyyat, the followers of Munira Al-Qubeisi, who have attracted the attentions of the Arab press, or it has been expressed by the rising popularity of CDs with “soft Islamic” chanting or lectures by Egyptian “do-gooder” Amrou Khaled.

There is a giddy buzz surrounding two concerts in Damascus and Aleppo to be staged by “Islamic Rock” heartthrob Sami Yousef who is on tour through the Middle East. It all looks pretty harmless on the surface, but the country’s canaries, its minorities, are shrieking a very different tune: Syria’s Alawites, Christians and Shias interpret these trends as a threat, and they may be right. The jihadists cannot be any happier; they can point out tens of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that claim that the revival of Islam, and its glory, will be borne out in the lands around Damascus.

Syria’s population seems to be self-policing itself along the confines of Shariah: who needs a caliphate to enforce the veil when a nagging aunt can hound younger nieces into submission? Some will argue that this turn to religion does not automatically mean that Syria is going to turn into another fringe regime like the Taliban, since Islam can sustain many interpretations and has done so over the centuries. But what happens when the legacy of radicalism, nurtured by regimes such as the Ba’ath, merges with the concept of jihad that comes along with the baggage of adhering to the tenets of Islam? On the big issues, such as the confrontation with Israel or the West, Syrians have not mellowed out.

The jihadists claim to have the answer to the Islamic nation’s ills.Their social codes may be a tad constrictive to the elite, but in a situation where Islamic mores gain ground as secularism is disgraced and defeated, the strictures of Shariah would be easier to swallow. There is also a popular willingness to welcome the jihadist anti-Shia message, which is especially relevant to the hated Alawites. Meanwhile, with much of the region in a shambles, young Syrians resort to celebrating the sport victories of other nations, but they await their own moment of glory in battle.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C., who recently visited Syria. He can be contacted at

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