Tel Aviv bomber Hanif studied Islam in Damascus
This BBC article (thanks to Miriam) tells us that while Syria has a strong tradition of moderate Islam, radical Wahhabism is now spreading there. It doesn’t, of course, explain why. But the radical appeal is always the same: they present themselves as representing “pure Islam,” and they have the texts to back up their claims. Moderates worldwide are usually moderate because they ignore those texts “” not because they have a response to the radicals that is coherent and convincing on Islamic grounds. Sheikh Kuftaro, despite all his talk of moderation here, called for jihad against the US last winter. Early in the Iraq war he issued a statement saying: “I call on Muslims everywhere to use all means possible to thwart the aggression, including martyr operations [that is, suicide attacks] against the belligerent American, British and Zionist invaders. . . . Resistance to the belligerent invaders is an obligation for all Muslims, starting with (those in) Iraq.”
More and more people are finding comfort and inspiration in religion and, even in secular Syria, religion is becoming more important.
More Syrians are going to the mosque, more women are wearing the hijab and underground women’s religious discussion groups are mushrooming even though they are banned.
The austere Wahhabi brand of Islam practised by Osama bin Laden is also growing more popular and clerics are calling for jihad in Iraq and Palestine.
But Syria remains one of the countries in the region where moderate Islam is still thought to be the dominant trend as Christians, Sunnis, Shias and Alawites continue to co-exist.
At the Abu Nour mosque in Damascus, every Friday the faithful gather around Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of the republic and great advocate of inter-faith dialogue.
The message there is one of moderation, and prayers are said for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sheikh Salaf Kuftaro, the son of the grand mufti, says there is no room for political Islam on the agenda of the foundation.
“We try through our teachings to inculcate in the minds of our students of the Sharia the notion of moderation, tolerance and dialogue with non-Muslims and respect,” he said.
“We believe this is one of the pillars of our religion, Islamic schools such as ours have a great role at a national and Muslim level, at a time when Islam is being accused of being a religion of extremism and terrorism.”
Of the 5,000 students who attend classes at the foundation, around 1,000 are foreigners from all over the world. Americans, Japanese and Norwegians all come to study Arabic and Islam.
For those whose Arabic is not advanced enough yet, the Friday sermon is simultaneously translated into several languages, including English and Turkish.
“I’ve chosen this particular place, Abu Nour, from its reputation of being a balanced teaching school of the religion,” said Mansour, a 22-year-old American from Atlanta, Georgia.
“This school is not about debating, it’s not about having dialogues on current events. This school is about teaching the language and the fundamentals of religion and that’s what I mean with balance.
“It doesn’t try to have a mental influence on your political views because we do hear about other schools which want their students to be more indoctrinated with their philosophies.”
Certainly, some people seem to be coming away from Syria with a less tolerant message.
In April last year, Asif Muhammad Hanif, a British Muslim who had studied Islam and Arabic in Damascus, blew himself up in an Israeli pub in Tel Aviv.
After the bombings in Turkey last year against British and Jewish targets, Syria expelled 22 Turks, three of whom had been studying at the Abu Nour foundation.
Sheikh Kuftaro said the foundation and other Islamic institutes could not be held responsible for the actions of every person that once attended the school.
Although this has also been the official line, in March Syria announced it would no longer allow new foreign students to register at the Islamic schools, a sign that that the authorities are worried.
“You can never be sure whether the energy of fundamentalists is going to be invested in anti-Americanism or domestically,” said Syrian analyst Samir Taqi.
“As long as the Americans are behaving this way and Muslims feel humiliated by the US, I think it is difficult to imagine that these fundamentalist currents are going to be used against the regime but it depends on developments.”
For now, the regime is still tolerating the growing Islamist trend in Syria as it diverts people’s frustrations towards the outside world – specifically the Israelis and the Americans.