Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

Influence of Islam Grows in Syria

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 19 March 2010
Citation / Document Symbol SB No. 97
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Influence of Islam Grows in Syria, 19 March 2010, SB No. 97, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bb06c9a1e.html [accessed 21 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Government, having cracked down on Islamists in the past, is worried about fanaticism.

By an IWPR-trained reporter (SB No. 97, 19-Mar-10)

Abu Samer Mohamad al-Debes starts his day with a ritual. No matter where he is at 8.30 am, the 37-year-old Damascus taxi driver tunes in to Radio Orient.

Whether driving a client through the streets of the capital, or waiting for a fare, he listens devotedly to religious advice presented at that time by Sheikh Nabulsi, a revered cleric in Syria.

"Starting my day with his sermons makes me feel optimistic...He puts us on the right path," Debes said.

He said he often asks passengers not to speak to him during the radio show, which calls for listeners to maintain good relations with family and neighbours and to treat others with respect as Islam commands.

The great popularity of Sheikh Nabulsi, whose programme attracts all sorts of listeners from housewives to workers and young people, is a sign of the growing influence of Islam in Syrian society in recent years.

This trend, which affects all social classes, has also manifested itself through a surge in the sales of religious books, an increase in the number of mosques and Koranic institutes, the rise of Muslim clerics as media icons, and the growing number of veiled women.

Today, banners calling on women to wear headscarves or on Muslims to show devotion to the prophet Mohammad are displayed in much of Damascus. Many restaurants refrain from serving alcohol and men praying at the sides of streets have become a common sight.

"Syrian people have always been observant, but religious devotion was moderate and open, and more focused on the essence of religion rather than appearances," said Wael al-Sawwah, a Damascus-based author and researcher.

"What is happening in Syria today is a drift towards fundamentalism," he added.

Sawwah believes that this trend is mainly the result of the spread of Wahhabism, a conservative strand of Islam coming from Saudi Arabia. He said that large numbers of Syrians left to work in the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s and returned as adherents to the strict Islamic values of these societies.

Even officials have started worrying about the impact of religion in Syrian society.

In January, Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser on media and political affairs to President Bashar al-Assad, warned at a Baath party meeting against "the growth of religious fanaticism".

"We are facing a big challenge," she reportedly said, adding that fundamentalism resulted from the fact that government policies had failed in filling the political void.

Many critics say, however, that officials have played an active role in emboldening pro-government Muslim clerics.

Omar Qawsh, a Damascus-based political analyst, said that it was mainly after the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 that clerics in their Friday sermons started galvanising the masses into clinging to religion in the face of Israeli and US interests in the Arab region.

He stressed that the prevalence of this type of religious discourse was encouraged by the state.

Sheikh Abdallah Nasser, a young Damascus cleric, agrees that the Syrian government today blesses the new phenomenon of the Islamisation of society.

Officials have realised that promoting Islamic trends wins the regime support from the people, following the repression of Islamists in the 1980s, which was received badly by the population.

At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, the Baath regime, which came into power following a military coup in 1963, violently crushed an Islamist uprising in the country.

For Qawsh, the political analyst, the roots of the new wave of Islamisation are linked to external factors, namely the September 11 attacks and the subsequent "war on terrorism" by the West - which was regarded by many in the Arab world as a war on Islam.

"People felt that religious devotion was protection against western hostility," Qawsh said.

One of the main manifestations of the impact of a more conservative Islam on society is the growing number of veiled women.

"Women's situation in Syria has changed," said a university professor who teaches social sciences.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that "a woman who doesn't put on a headscarf is looked down on as someone who is not committed to religion", albeit not in all social circles.

He said that more and more parents are pushing their daughters to wear the veil and that men today look for veiled girls to marry.

But the main party promoting the veil today is the Qubaysiat, a religious group established by a female preacher, Munira al-Qubaysi, 40 years ago. This mainly female movement, which organises religious lessons and discussion circles for women, has grown in popularity in recent years with tens of thousands of followers.

The group persuades women to wear the headscarf by offering them jobs or helping them to find pious husbands.

Over the years, the movement has become deeply rooted in society through the establishment of charity organisations and educational facilities.

One adherent to this group said that the movement is influential because it targets girls from a young age. Asking for her name not be mentioned, she added that many followers work in the educational field and so are able to spread religious values in state schools.

The increasing interest in Islam has also been reflected in the popularity of religious publications. According to a survey carried by an economic magazine in December last year, religious books are the best-selling titles in Syria.

Books on the life of the prophet Mohammad and his teachings or on miracles in the Koran are more and more prominent in Syrian bookstores. Recordings of religious sermons by famous clerics are also marketed.

"The more I see young people attending my lectures, the more I feel that the status of Islam in our society is improving," Sheikh Nasser said.

People have lost faith in secularism because it failed to offer them anything new, he said.
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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