Political Islam in Syria

This is an excerpt of the section on Syria from my 1980 monograph Political Islam (pp. 66-70).

Syria, once an example of post-colonial instability, has now known nearly a decade of continuous rule by President Hafiz al-Asad and his Baath Party. It is a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in the modern history of Syria. And yet few regimes are so vulnerable to the Muslim appeal; the foundation of Asad’s rule is constant vigilance.

Asad and many of his lieutenants hail from a religious minority. The Alawis, centered in Latakia in western Syria, are an underdeveloped community that constitutes roughly 11 percent of Syria’s population. Like many other provincial Syrian minorities after World War I, the Alawis had been encouraged by the French to press for separate statehood, and at several points Alawis did resist integration into the Syrian state. Eventually they gave up any separatist ambitions, but they were not to be ruled by others. Their rise to disproportionate power in the united Syrian state is a result of their primacy in the armed forces, to which they flocked (earlier with French encouragement) in order to escape the dead end of a depressed and static community. As Syrian politics increasingly fell within the military domain, the Alawi quest for upward mobility was richly rewarded: Alawis stand at the summit of the Syrian political structure.

This sudden and unanticipated rise bred resentment. For at the forefront of the struggle for independence had been the Sunni Muslims populating the major cities of Syria’s heartland. They had enjoyed the preference accorded Sunnis under Sunni Ottoman rule; they had fought for greater privileges in the Arab Revolt; they resisted the French; they, along with Syrian Christian intellectuals, had developed the guiding principles of Arab nationalism; and they had stepped into positions of authority with the departure of the French. Then—following a series of coups d’etat—Sunnis found themselves on the political doorstep as the prime qualification for political leadership became military rank.

The injustice in Sunni eyes was compounded by the fact that Alawis had emerged on top after the bloodletting had ended. Syria’s Sunni ulama had considered the Alawis heretical, beyond the Muslim pale; Alawi beliefs and doctrines were ridiculed, and were no more than tolerated under Ottoman rule. This should not have mattered: Sunni Arab nationalists had long avowed their secularism. That avowal, however, was at least partially a device to reconcile others to Sunni rule, while now it was being used to reconcile Sunnis to the rule of others. Enough Sunnis had identified their nationalist aspirations with their Islam and confused Syrian independence with the rule of their own community to leave a bitter taste of disappointment with this ironic turn of events.

These are the sorts of prejudices with which Asad has had to cope. His predecessors in power faced Sunni disturbances during the 1960s, but Asad hoped to avoid the same problems by adhering to a judicious Muslim policy. Despite his own secularist disposition, Asad made public displays of piety: he prayed at a major Sunni mosque in Latakia, where he kissed the Quran; his portrait was inserted in a government edition of the Quran (the famous “Asad Quran”); he trekked to the Lahore Islamic Summit in 1974 where he publicly prayed alongside the other Muslim heads-of-state; and he made the pilgrimage. The Alawis, too, were rehabilitated. The regime circulated theological tracts which declared that Alawis constituted an integral segment of the Islamic community. Since the more ecumenical Sunni ulama recognize Shi‘is to be Muslims, the regime went to the trouble of having a notable Shi‘i dignitary in Lebanon declare that the Alawi faith was, in fact, a branch of the Shi‘a. Finally, Asad took pains to assure Sunnis of ministerial portfolios and positions in the civil bureaucracy.

This did not, however, prevent a recurrence of the violence that plagued Asad’s predecessors. The Sunni merchants in the bazaars of Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, and Homs were being made to feel the pinch of socialist policies they found spokesmen in those Sunni ulama who remained independent of state control, in an alliance not unlike that in Iran. Their resentment was touched off in January 1973 when the government released the text of a new draft constitution that omitted the customary article prescribing Islam as the religion of state—almost certainly a triumph for secularist ideologues in inner-Baathist circles. A group of Sunni ulama proclaimed, however, that the new constitution wiped out fourteen centuries during which Syria had been the pride of Islam, a theme that they repeated in the mosques. Asad could not retreat—he might have caused too much ill-feeling within the Party—but he did attempt to reach a compromise by proposing that the new constitution require a president of the Muslim faith. In accord with this decision, a public referendum was scheduled on the proposed amendment. But the situation actually deteriorated after Asad’s offer: at issue was not the constitution, but Alawi primacy.

The parallels with Iran’s violence are striking. The uprising—“a crisis that shook the regime almost to its foundations,” according to Abbas Kelidar—began in the urban mosques with sermons by ulama. The congregations moved from the mosques to the streets. Clashes with police led to exchanges of gunfire, leaving casualties in both ranks. Baath offices (like those of the official Rastakhiz party in Iran) became the target of attacks. The merchants shut their shops in general strikes that affected Hamah, Homs, and Aleppo. In Damascus, a general strike was averted only by last-minute intervention of ulama. The principal shari‘a court judge was arrested for advocating a boycott of the referendum the Shari‘a Judicial Council went on strike in protest. Aleppo College went on strike; Syrian soldiers took the campus and, evoking a charge that later often reverberated in Iran, were rumored to have shaved the beards of arrested theology students before sending them to prison. Slogans proliferated on public buildings: “Islam is the road to victory,” “religion to God is Islam,” and “Islam is our constitution.” The uprising ended only with the despatch of armored units into the cities.

In subsequent years, Asad was far more cautious, and his opponents were driven underground. They began a campaign of assassination directed against Alawi officials and officers, in streets and homes. In June 1979 this campaign reached new heights: a Muslim group engineered an attack on a military school in Aleppo, killing over 60 officers, the great majority of whom were almost certainly Alawis. Asad responded with a spate of executions—not of the perpetrators, but of those convicted of similarly-motivated offenses on earlier occasions. The shift to this kind of operation by Sunni recalcitrants is almost certainly a sign of weakness; it is difficult to imagine any Syrian regime being brought down by terrorism, but the Muslim opposition has managed to create an atmosphere of public insecurity that may embolden others better poised to act.

In any case, the Sunni-Alawi issue has already had a telling effect upon the government’s policy. Eager for wider acceptance, Asad has sought consensus through the Arab nationalist war with Israel. The military ability of the Alawis is their political mandate, and in moments of crisis the regime issues appropriate reminders. In 1967, before Asad’s rise to power, his Alawi predecessor (Salah Jadid) had distracted Syrians from a similar spate of internal violence by aerial duels with Israel which charged the atmosphere for the subsequent June war. In 1973, semi-official Syrian sources announced that the Sunni riots were coming at a time when the Israelis were planning a “new aggression.” In 1979, the attack on the Aleppo school was quickly followed by the Syrian air force’s unsuccessful intervention in an Israeli air raid over Lebanon. The need for this sort of outlet and the pursuit of legitimacy through military achievement have sustained Asad, but have kept Syria out of the “peace process.” Without the conflict with Israel, Asad would be forced to emphasize even further a secular Arab nationalism that remains compelling for many Syrians but leaves a permanent pocket of violent dissent. In Syria, for an Alawi amid Sunnis, Islam remains a rigid constraint, a source of legitimacy upon which Asad cannot draw. He must continue to turn elsewhere.