Across the Bay

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Arabism and Islam in Syria

Syria's Baathism has come full circle. You may have seen Michael Slackman's recent NYT article where he pointed out the regime's attempts at courting religion in order to undercut the Muslim Brotherhood (among other things).

A couple of days ago as-Safir reported that the ruling "secular" Arab Socialist Baath party has begun preparations for a conference of Islamic parties, to be hosted by Damascus for the first time in its history.

The report quoted Baathist reformer Ayman Abdel Nour as saying: "the party's foreign policy is in harmony with the policies of Islamist parties in the Arab world and outside it," especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq. (Abdel Nour, as the Slackman piece notes, has become so disillusioned with the "reformist" policies of Bashar that he's decided to leave Syria, especially after Bashar has launched a campaign to purge "reformist Baathists." You know, they were holding back his "reformist impulses" like the "old guard." But now that he's "consolidated power" just watch all the ensuing reform and be amazed!)

In fact, the last conference of Arab parties (where Bashar's speech was laced with Islamic overtones, and specifically laid out the amalgamation of Islam and Arabism) also included a bunch of Islamic parties.

But the report put it well, noting that there was a political direction in the Baathist leadership to ally "the concepts of Arabism and Islam."

Of course, this is nothing new. As this report in Levant News notes, Saddam tried similar tactics, and there are others that the report doesn't note. (I would add how Egypt has been doing this for decades despite being billed as "secular Arab nationalist." The fact is that they have completely handed the social and cultural spaces to the clerical establishment.)

It's certainly nothing new as far as Syria is concerned. Whether it was Bashar instructing mosques to declare Jihad on the Americans in Iraq, or his amalgamation of Arabism in Islam in practically every speech he's made, or whether it was the Sunnification of the Alawis under Hafez Asad as well as the establishment of the most mosques and religious schools in Syrian history, the Asads have always ceded to Islam. And it wasn't, as Josh Landis so stupidly put it in a recent post, that Hafez, having failed to "convert Syrians to liberalism," turned to Sunnifying the Alawis! I mean, with all due respect to Hafez's glorious history of liberalism and all! (I mean, really, Josh... Do read however his paper on religious education in "secular" Syria. That was when he was still writing useful and readable material).

Readers of my blog know that this amalgamation of Arabism and Islam is a hallmark of Arab nationalism and of Baathism (see, e.g., this earlier post. See also this old piece Lee Smith).

But more specifically, as I've argued repeatedly on this blog (see here, and here), the dominant discourse in the region has indeed been an amalgamation of Arabism and Islam, which I and Chuck Freund have called (Pan-)Arabist Islam(ism).

This is the dominant category that people still ignore today due to the ridiculous artificial and anachronistic categories dictated by the orthodoxy of ME studies. This is the discourse of the Khomeinist Shiite Hezbollah, the Sunni Islamist Hamas, and the Syrian Baathist regime. It appropriates all the anti-Western, Third Worldist, Arab nationalist rhetoric, but reframes it in a way that makes more explicit what Aflaq and Rida had already proposed earlier in the 20th c.

It's the logical trajectory of Baathism coming full circle in none other than Bashar Asad (who Landis was assuring us was no "real" Baathist).

Addendum: See this (French) article on Islam in Syria from the Lebanese French-language Magazine. It's got a lot of nonsense, but also some interesting stuff. The part on Jund al-Sham is mainly nonsense. Jund al-Sham is likely either a creation of the regime, or at the very least, an organization deeply penetrated by the regime's intelligence services (as are various Islamist organizations in Lebanon).

Update: More on the regime's resort to religion from Ibrahim Hamidi in al-Hayat. He notes the establishment of a faculty for Shari'a in Aleppo and the licensing of three Islamic banks among other things.

Hamidi writes that the main reason behind these moves is the attempt to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. He quotes an anonymous source splitting the finest of hairs in comparing the MB to Hamas, and rationalizing why the regime embraces Hamas (and its logic) in foreign policy but bans the MB at home: "there's a big difference between the MB and Hamas. The latter is a mujahid movement of resistance. There's a difference between politicizing religion and between having religion in the heart of resistance action."

That answer actually perfectly captures the regime's ideology and, as I noted before, the core of "(Pan-)Arabist Islam(ism)."