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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 February 2006, 11:05 GMT
Syria witnesses Islamist revival
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Damascus

Syrian women in Damascus
After decades of secular rule, religion is making a comeback
For centuries, the traditional sound of Islam coming from the northern Syrian town of Aleppo, has been the rhythmical chanting of the word "Allah", as men young and old rock back and forth in a small room in the back of a house.

Beating their drums, chanting faster and faster, the men hope to achieve a trance that will bring them closer to God in the traditions of the mystical or Sufi Islam.

The musical capital of the Arab world in many ways, Aleppo's song and dance have been heavily influenced by Sufism.

But today, it is mostly a very austere call to prayer that can be heard around the city as a growing number of women adopt the full Islamic cover, hiding their hands and faces behind back cloth.

Religion is making a comeback in Syria, where people feel the state's socialist and pan-Arab ideologies have failed for the last four decades.

We have a phenomenon of radicalisation taking place in schools and university
Salam Kawakibi

"We have a phenomenon of radicalisation taking place in schools and university," said Salam Kawakibi, a political analyst in Aleppo.

Mr Kawakibi said he was shocked when he was recently asked to get out of a city cab because the driver could smell he had a bottle of arak, a local aniseed sprit, with him; alcohol is banned by Islam.

"The danger is the influence of Salafism and Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, because all the Syrians who work there, come back with new practices which they impose on their families and entourage," Mr Kawakibi said.

Co-opting Islam

After ruthlessly crushing a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in 1982, the Syrian government has found it is unable to contain the rise of religion.

Poster reading: "President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian people don't bend except to God"
President Assad's government has co-opted Islam
So instead, the authorities have decided to go with the trend and co-opt the symbols of Islam.

"After the clashes of 1980, the state tried to create an official Islam. They encouraged the building of mosques and the creation of religious schools. They think it is a way to control society," Mr Kawakibi said.

"Before, government officials started their speeches with secular phrases, now they start with 'Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim'," the Arabic for, "In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful".

Syria's staunchly secular Baath party encouraged people to go to the mosque in order to keep them away from politics.

The authorities are now warning the international community that if the US wanted to effect regime change in Syria as it did in Iraq, it would bring radical Islamists to power; Islamists in a way created by the state itself.

Strategy backfires

At the start of the war in Iraq, Syria actively encouraged Arab fighters to join battle with the Americans hoping that an insurgency next door would keep Washington busy and unable to turn its sights on Damascus.

These people, who have been trained in Iraq, are now coming back to Syria and could use their tactics against a new enemy - possibly the state
Marwan Qabalan

But US pressure, as well as the presence thousands of American troops just across the border in Iraq, eventually played a part in convincing Syria to crack down on the cross-border flow of insurgents.

According to several analysts, Syria had also realised its strategy could backfire.

"Initially they thought they thought they were getting rid of the extremist elements in Syrian society by sending them to die in Iraq," said Marwan Qabalan, a Syrian political analyst. "It was a clever strategy - you want to undertake jihad, go do it somewhere else."

But according to Mr Qabalan, memories of Afghanistan were quick to haunt the authorities.

Out of control

Thousands of Arab men from around the region joined the anti-Soviet front in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

After the fighting was over, the Afghan Arabs, as they became known, started returning home with new, deadly skills, posing a threat to their own governments and beyond.

Muslim activists burn the Danish embassy
Muslim activists burned the Danish embassy in Damascus

"These people, who have been trained in Iraq, are now coming back to Syria and could use their tactics against a new enemy - possibly the state," Mr Qabalan said.

It is difficult to estimate how many Syrians went to Iraq to fight and how many have returned, but dozens of men who did have reportedly been arrested or are under close surveillance.

But at some point, a threat to the state could come not only from the radical fringes but also from the ordinary Syrians who want to see Islam play a role in political life.

Muhammad Habash, the only Islamist MP in the Syrian parliament, says the Baath party has not allowed the emergence of any real Islamist leaders, but pressure is growing.

"Personally, I don't see the need for Islamist parties and I don't think there will be an Islamic state in Syria if there is full democracy," Mr Habash said.

"But conservative Islamists have the right to ask for Islamist parties."

And while the Syrian government thinks it can maintain control over the increasing religious trend, many analysts now believe the Islamists could outsmart the state.


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