by Matthew Barber—This story first appeared on Syria Comment
From the beginning of the uprising, mainstream Syrian Sunni ‘ulema—the traditional scholars who have spoken for Islam for centuries and who most Syrians recognize as the quintessential voices for religious interpretation—have been marginalized in the Syrian opposition, as Islamists of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood persuasion steamrolled their way to dominance in both the SNC and the National Coalition. But an emerging Sufi current within the Syrian resistance could soon provide an alternative to Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and change the dynamics of the political opposition.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi has just been elected to the National Coalition, the first figure of the Sufi ‘ulema to break through the Islamist exclusivity that has kept them out until now. His appointment will be announced shortly at a National Coalition conference. Along with other Sufi sheikhs, al-Ya’qoubi is heading up efforts to solidify a Sufi bloc of political leadership and nationalist-oriented rebel groups fighting in Syria who give allegiance to the leadership of Sufi ‘ulema. He also supports efforts to train Syrian rebels in Jordan.
Early on in the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood worked to dominate the political opposition. The SNC primarily consisted of parties loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. The National Coalition was later created to break this one-sided disparity, but ended up being dominated by others with Muslim Brotherhood connections, as well.
While this was the reality of the external opposition, an imbalance also formed on the ground inside Syria, as Islamist rebels received more foreign support and rose to prominence. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi feels that the U.S. made the mistake of “leaving of the ‘Syrian file’ to the regional powers,” which allowed this trend to intensify as Gulf powers targeted Islamist groups with their aid. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been primarily involved in arming rebels, but the Saudis recently pulled back their level of support. They have an ambivalent relationship with Islamist movements; on the one hand, they support the proliferation of one of the most extreme and anti-Sufi forms of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world. Simultaneously, they fear Islamist movements such as the MB who pose a political threat to monarchy. As the character of the militarized opposition has evolved increasingly toward Islamism, with a recent climax of Jabhat al-Nusra announcing allegiance to al-Qaida and declaring an Islamic state in Syria, reports suggested that the Saudis decided to cut off support they had been offering.
Declining aid, however, has ironically resulted in the end of much of the support that nationalist-oriented rebels were receiving, and many rebels have complained that the remaining contributions from Qatar are reaching only the Islamist fighters. Continuing trends solidifying Islamist domination of both the political and military oppositions have further weakened the desire of the international community for intervention in Syria, though the fact that several regions are now controlled by al-Qaida-linked groups has prompted some to call for the preparation of a drone strategy for Syria, prompting fears that it will end up looking like another Afghanistan.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi’s entrance into the political opposition marks a development running counter to the dominant Islamist trend. Al-Ya’qoubi is respected as one of the leading scholars and Sufi clerics in Syria, and has been ranked as the second-most influential Muslim religious figure of the country. The brand of Islam he represents is expressed in a statement of sympathy he issued following the Boston Bombing. He studied in the West and is fluent in English and Swedish. Traditional ‘ulema like Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi served for centuries as the interpreters of Islamic sources and traditions, but after the fall of the last Islamic empire, the process of modernization that accompanied the rise of the nation state presented a challenge to their role of traditional authority. The erosion of their power was further aggravated by the emergence of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood who introduced new interpretations of Islamic texts, contrary to the classical traditions that had existed for centuries. Under the Ba’athists, some of Syria’s ‘ulema became seen as coopted figures who stayed close to the regime and lent it legitimacy. Others however, remained at arm’s length from the regime, and when the uprising began, they asserted their criticism of it, as did Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi. In addition to his widespread recognition among Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims, his credibility is bolstered by being the cleric who issued the first fatwa against Bashar al-Assad, in July of 2011.
After publically criticizing the regime’s violence against demonstrators in two sermons delivered at mosques in April and May 2011, he fled Syria and issued his fatwa against the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi represents the kind of moderate, traditional Islam that most Syrians are familiar with, the Islam challenged by both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Though taking an unambiguous stance against the regime’s violence, injustice, and terror, he also continues to exert his influence encouraging rebels to avoid terrorism through fatwas condemning tactics such as car-bombings, kidnapping, landmines, the killing of prisoners, and violence against non-combatants politically aligned with the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi has combatted the fatwas of extremist clerics who have called for the targeted sectarian killing of Alawite women and children by issuing his own fatwas prohibiting the killing of civilians of the Alawite minority. He maintains a very clear position defending the rights of all minorities, including those condemned by extremists as heterodox.
Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi also differs with the Islamist agenda to “Islamize” Syria’s laws. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups promote a kind of activism that seeks to implement a greater degree of Islamic law in the state. The growing use of “Islamic law” by Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups in territory controlled by rebels likely prompted the announcement by Mu’az al-Khatib of an effort to introduce a “code” of Islamic law sanctioned by the opposition that the rebels could implement—an apparent attempt to assuage this desire manifesting in a stampede toward “shari’a” while ensuring that such a law would be relatively moderate. Where does Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi stand on this issue? He thinks Syria’s current family laws are just fine, and are already sufficiently compatible with the shari’a. He also believes that legal reform should not be pursued before a constitutionally-based committee can be formed which would tackle any needed changes, after the regime has fallen and a new Syrian government has been created.
Despite being well-known in Syria and playing an important role in the history of the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi ‘ulema like him have been excluded from the political opposition. Desperation following the slow, groaning crisis of the opposition’s ineffectiveness, as well as fears that figures like al-Ya’qoubi may band together and form an alternative opposition have led to his appointment to the National Coalition, following a letter he drafted to Mu’az al-Khatib, signed by 25 Sufi sheikhs and containing an ultimatum about the need for their participation in the political process.
One obvious question is: what level of real influence will the Sheikh have? Does his participation mark the beginning of a trend, or will he merely be the NC’s token member of the ‘ulema?
In addition to having already played an important role throughout the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi leaders have been building influence lately, working together for about six months to form an umbrella organization for rebel groups comprised of Sunnis and Sufis aligned with Syria’s mainstream values, rather than Islamist agendas. The organization is called the Movement for Building Civilization. He and his peers have produced a charter document which rebels groups can sign, pledging agreement with a set of foundational principles, including:
Removing the regime while not destroying the state—protecting public institutions;
The rejection of revenge, retaliation, and execution during the uprising, keeping the trials of war criminals for after the collapse of the regime and the establishment of a new government;
After the collapse of the regime, rebel groups should cease to carry arms and their members should return to civilian life or join the national army;
All ethnic and religious communities are to be defended as equal citizens under the law;
No ethnic or religious group is to be held responsible for the crimes of the regime;
A future Syrian government must operate according to a separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers;
The future government must be a democracy of political multiplicity and the 1950 Constitution should be in effect during the interim period until a new parliament is elected and a new constitution is agreed upon.
Many young sheikhs who joined the Syrian uprising are frustrated with their lack of options regarding conservative political movements to be aligned with. The three main options are Salafis, Hezb al-Tahrir, and Muslim Brotherhood movements, none of which well-represent mainstream Syrian Sunnis who look for the legitimacy of ‘ulema leadership. This concern was a primary motivation for the creation of the Movement for Building Civilization. Al-Ya’qoubi and the sheikhs he works with are in contact with over 200 rebel groups who consult them regarding principles, goals, and methods, but many of these groups are disillusioned with the inability of the Sufi and ‘ulema leadership to offer them any kind of practical monetary support. Lacking funding, groups that would like to follow moderate figures of the ‘ulema will remain vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist forces. The formation of a Sufi bloc within the opposition could provide an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, one that would represent far greater numbers of Syrians. Sheikh Ya’qoubi has stated that he supports a government in which the Muslim Brotherhood can operate, but that he opposes a monopoly of any one faction. He told me in a recent conversation: “We may have to deal with an Ikhwaani prime minister in the future Syria. That is democracy. But the real question is: will the government be of all one color, or will it be inclusive?”
There’s no question about which demographic will win this war: the next power in Syria will be Sunni. And the question goes beyond “how big” a Sunni win will occur. The real question is: which Sunni group’s brand of Islam will define the political paradigm of the new state? The influence of ‘ulema who respect Syria’s diversity, promote a tolerant social sphere, and support an inclusive government structure will be extremely important in the nation’s future, and the international community should be in conversation with them.