Syria: Islam on rise in Syria 25 years after revolt crushed

Middle East Times
Inspired by political triumphs by Islamists in several Arab states a growing number of young Syrians have been attending weekly Muslim prayers in mosques, and more and more women are taking private lessons to study the Koran and wearing the veil.
"Almost 30 percent of Syrian men are taking part in Friday prayers in the 9,000 mosques of Syria," said Islamist MP Mohammed Habash who heads the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus. "We are witnessing a religious awakening that will bring back Islamic values," he said.
Another sign of the moves toward Islam is that some restaurants on the banks of the Barada River, a leisure spot near the Syrian capital, have stopped serving alcohol.

And space has been reserved for families, in keeping with Islamic tradition to keep singles segregated. The same trend is being seen at Ain-el-Figeh, another popular resort.

Bookshops specializing in works on Islamic Sharia law are growing in number, as are Islamic cultural or charity shows in conservative towns such as Aleppo, Idleb and Hama.

Tens of thousands of people were killed when the security forces put down an Islamist revolt in the northern city of Hama in 1982, but analysts say that the political and social situation in the country is contributing to Islam's newfound popularity.

"The worsening economic and social situation, corruption and dictatorship all feed the Islamist trend and give it a wide audience," said a former communist activist.

Akram Al Bunni, a Marxist writer and political scientist, said that by blocking political reforms in a bid to impede religious movements, the state was "throwing young people into the arms" of Islamists.

"Since their defeat [in Hama], the Islamists have adopted a strategy of infiltrating society from below, thanks to Saudi financial aid," said Rami, a student at the faculty of journalism in Damascus.

"Saudi Arabia has financed the construction of hundreds of mosques, especially in Christian and Druze regions," he said.

A moderate Islamic trend led by Salah Kaftaro and Mohammed Habash has also come to the fore, pressing for an "official Islam" that would counter fundamentalist tendencies.

Along the same lines, the state has authorized some 300 theological institutes to open their doors and give lessons in mainstream and conventional Islam while keeping watch for extremist elements.

Since 1980, active Muslim Brotherhood members can face the death penalty although hundreds of detained Islamists including its former leaders have been set free under amnesties.

Most of the movement's exiled members returned to Syria during the 1990s.

After having failed to overthrow the Baathist secular regime with the Hama revolt, the Muslim Brotherhood is looking to the ballot box as the path of power like in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

January 31, 2006