The events of the "Arab Spring" took the world by surprise. Yet, the roots of those rebellions run deep and nowhere more so than in Syria, where the fighting continues to be fierce and deadly. This month, Fred H. Lawson traces the history of one leading force in the ongoing Syrian uprising: the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers led a violent campaign to overthrow the Syrian regime in the 1970s, but more recently have advanced a platform that calls for liberal reform and constitutional government. Whatever the outcome of the current struggle, the Muslim Brotherhood is certain to play a central role in Syria's future.
Read more on the Middle East: U.S.-Iraq Relations; Turkish Politics; Coalition Warfare in Iraq, U.S. Counterinsurgency Strategy, U.S.-Iranian Relations, Iraq and The Sunni-Shi'i Divide, and The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.
At the end of March 2012, Syria's major opposition groups gathered in Istanbul to work out a coordinated strategy to overthrow the Ba'th Party-led regime of President Bashshar al-Asad.
Despite the obvious importance of the meeting—Russian President Dmitry Medvedev presciently called it the last chance to avert a prolonged and bloody civil war—opponents of the Ba'thi order remained deeply divided. Much of the internal friction grew out of deep-seated mistrust and animosity between Islamists (groups whose political platform calls for government policy to rest on the tenets of Islam) and non-Islamists (ones whose political ideology is not built on overtly religious principles).
Important constituencies of the umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), are staunch non-Islamists. Two weeks before the March conference, prominent civil rights activists resigned from the SNC, charging that it had fallen under the control of Syria's primary Islamist organization, the Muslim Brothers (also known as the Muslim Brotherhood).
Representatives of the country's Kurdish population walked out of the Istanbul meeting as well, complaining that the SNC had no intention of setting up a secular state that would give Kurds adequate political and cultural autonomy.
In the days leading up to the Istanbul congress, the Muslim Brothers released a revised Covenant of National Honor, which laid out a "new social contract" that promised to "protect the fundamental rights of individuals and groups from any abuse or excesses, and ensure equitable representation of all components of society."
The Covenant envisaged the establishment of a republican parliamentary system of government, in which members of parliament would be selected through popular elections. It advocated a separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary, and stipulated that the rights of citizens would be "endorsed by heavenly religions and international conventions."
Some of these democratic elements were discernible in the platform that the SNC drew up during the March meeting. But the rhetoric of SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun's closing address, which called on delegates to take a formal oath in support of the proposed Transitional Authority in Syria, evoked the medieval Islamic ceremony of swearing public allegiance to the ruler (bay'ah).
Liberal activists associated with a rival opposition camp, the National Coordinating Committee, protested that the SNC had pandered to the United States and Europe while abandoning the fighters on the ground. At the same time, dissident members of the Free Officers Movement pulled away from the SNC-affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA), pointing to the inordinate influence that the Muslim Brotherhood exerts over SNC policy.
Nevertheless, the Turkish government welcomed the SNC's platform and pushed for the SNC to be recognized by the international community as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
When the collection of Western and Arab Gulf states known as the Friends of Syria convened in Istanbul on April 1, it endorsed Turkey's position and pledged to step up material and moral support for the SNC and FSA alike. Gulf foreign ministers set up a sizable fund to enable the SNC to distribute regular salaries to FSA troops and construct a tighter command structure.
These foreign measures to fund and support the SNC—and the tactical setbacks suffered later in April by the Syria-based leadership of the uprising, the Local Coordinating Committees—helped strengthen Syria's Islamist organizations in the midst of the current violence and unrest.
Since early in the last century, a variegated Islamist movement—most notably the Muslim Brothers—has played a central role in Syria's politics and society. Today, Islamist political groups remain perhaps the most influential, powerful, and well organized force in Syria's opposition to Bashshar al-Asad. However, the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood has changed substantially over the decades, as have relations between the ruling regime and the Brotherhood.
The End of Colonial Rule in Syria and the Beginnings of the Islamist Movement
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a variety of nationalist movements struggled against the French-dominated imperial order that was imposed on Syria at the end of World War I.
The leading nationalist party, the National Bloc, consisted of liberal constitutionalists, but during the late 1930s an Islamist current started to gain momentum.
Islamist organizations responded to the severe economic problems facing the country by offering financial assistance and social programs to the general public, filling a vacuum left by the national government.
Well-to-do urban merchants and tradespeople, almost all of whom adhered to the orthodox Sunni interpretation of Islam, set up a variety of civic and benevolent societies. Some of these associations—such as the House of the Elect in Aleppo, the Society of the Bond in Homs and the Young Men's Muslim Association in Damascus—were headed by religious scholars with formal training in Islamic law. Their charity and activism earned the loyalty of many Syrian Muslims.
During World War II, the House of the Elect relocated to Damascus. There it forged links to other Islamist societies and in 1944 rechristened itself the Syrian incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that had originated in Egypt sixteen years earlier.
In 1946, shortly after French imperial authorities pulled out of the country, the Brothers elected prominent religious scholar and activist Mustafa al-Siba'i to be its first General Supervisor.
In its early months, the Muslim Brotherhood called on the National Bloc-led government of newly independent Syria to nurture Islamic morals and ethics, and to refrain from practicing political and economic discrimination—as the French had done—along religious lines.
The organization's early manifestos underscored broad goals of combating popular ignorance, immorality and economic deprivation. The Brothers also pushed for the consolidation of a fully independent and self-sufficient Syria.
These objectives were disseminated through neighborhood schools and periodicals sponsored by the organization, most notably "The Lighthouse," a newspaper published in Aleppo.
After Syria's defeat in the 1948 Palestine war, the Muslim Brotherhood expanded its membership in urban areas, especially Damascus, where members consistently won a fifth of the parliamentary seats allotted to the capital area.
Throughout the democratic era of the 1950s, the Brothers competed not only against the veteran liberals of the National Bloc, but also against a range of newer, more radical parties. These included the Syrian Communist Party, supporters of Egypt's President Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir, and the Arab Socialist Resurrection (Ba'th) Party, which called for regional unity and wholesale redistribution of wealth.
Rivalry between the Muslim Brothers and Nasirists proved particularly intense, since both appealed to the same constituency, the Sunni petite bourgeoisie of the larger cities and towns.
Growing competition from Communists and Ba'this during the mid-1950s led the Brothers to formulate a mixed bag of economic and social reforms that pointed in the direction of "Islamic socialism." Not surprisingly, the organization's members welcomed Syria's 1961 secession from the Egypt-dominated United Arab Republic, which had been set up in 1958 by military commanders affiliated with the Ba'th Party.
Islamists and the Ba'th Regime
The rise to power of the Ba'th Party in Syria led to a redefinition of the political platform of the Muslim Brothers.
In March 1963, officers with ties to the Ba'th Party and other radical movements engineered a coup d'état that pushed out the liberal constitutionalist elite. In response, the Muslim Brothers mobilized popular opposition to the redistributive economic and social policies that the avowedly socialist, secularist regime introduced.
The Brothers further criticized the Ba'th Party for inserting significant numbers of cadres into key positions in the state apparatus, particularly individuals who hailed from the disadvantaged and heterodox 'Alawi and Isma'ili communities of the western and southern provinces.
Policies adopted by the Ba'thi leadership in 1964-65 not only damaged the interests of large landowners, rich merchants and private industrialists, all of whom were predominantly Sunni, but also jeopardized the livelihoods of the small-scale manufacturers and shopkeepers who had long backed the Muslim Brotherhood. Religious notables sympathetic to the Brothers orchestrated a succession of public demonstrations and protests against the regime, particularly in the north-central cities of Aleppo, Hama and Homs.
Faced with widespread popular disaffection, the authorities turned for help to radical activists in the labor movement and the Syrian Communist Party. The regime also cultivated closer relations with the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and the other countries of the Communist bloc. East Germany, in particular, provided the government with substantial economic and technical assistance, which came heavily imbued with notions of secularist modernism.
The political-economic program espoused by the Ba'th Party-Communist alliance in the mid-1960s led the Muslim Brothers to jettison the remains of its earlier platform of Islamic socialism. The organization instead became a champion of private property and limited state authority, principles congruent with the interests of Syria's beleaguered urban petite bourgeoisie.
In the wake of Syria's defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, and with the rise of a more pragmatic wing of the Ba'th Party led by Hafiz al-Asad in 1969-70, a schism developed inside the Muslim Brotherhood. Militants in Aleppo and Hama pressed for armed struggle (jihad) against the Ba'thi regime, but were countered by the Damascus-based followers of 'Isam al-'Attar, who had replaced Mustafa al-Siba'i as General Supervisor in 1957.
The Damascus moderates discerned a convergence of interest between small-scale manufacturers and tradespeople and the pragmatic wing of the Ba'th, which expressed a willingness to deregulate the economy and solicit investments from the Arab oil-producing countries of the Gulf.
Parting of Ways: President Hafiz al-Asad and Muslim Opposition
During the 1970s, Islamist tensions with Ba'th Party escalated and increasingly turned to violence.
The moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood led by al-'Attar initially welcomed the November 1970 coup that brought Hafiz al-Asad to the presidency, and took provisional steps to reconcile with the Ba'thi pragmatists.
Militants in the northern cities, by contrast, rejected any sort of rapprochement with the Ba'th Party, and the honeymoon between the al-Asad leadership and the Damascus wing of the Muslim Brothers soon collapsed.
When the government issued a revised, overtly secularist constitution in 1973, the Brothers launched a series of mass protests, forcing the government to back down and stipulate that Syria's head of state must be a Muslim.
This phase of the Islamist movement's campaign against the Ba'th Party-dominated order is closely identified with the leadership of 'Adnan Sa'd al-Din, a schoolteacher and writer from Hama, who became General Supervisor of the Muslim Brothers in a disputed election in 1971.
Several factors laid the groundwork for the turn to armed struggle during Sa'd al-Din's term in office: the flagrant corruption that accompanied the implementation of the government's economic liberalization program; Syria's military intervention in the civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1975 and above all, the rising political and economic influence of the 'Alawi minority, whose gains came largely at the expense of urban and rural Sunnis.
At first, Islamist militants targeted prominent figures in the Ba'th Party and armed forces, particularly high-ranking 'Alawis. But through the 1970s, violence broadened to include assaults on government facilities and public symbols of Ba'thi rule, including district party offices, police stations and military encampments.
Militants drew encouragement from the 1978-79 revolution in Iran, in which a network of Islamist guerrilla forces fought alongside religious scholars and tradespeople (so-called bazaaris) in the cities to overthrow a well-entrenched authoritarian regime.
Armed struggle against the Ba'thi leadership in Syria peaked at the close of the decade, with the execution of eighty-three 'Alawi cadets at the military academy in Aleppo in June 1979, a cluster of mass demonstrations and boycotts in Aleppo, Hama and Homs in March 1980, and a failed attempt to assassinate President Hafiz al-Asad later that year.
In the face of escalating violence, the authorities decreed in July 1980 that membership in the Muslim Brotherhood would incur the death penalty. The government then cracked down on the organization using its formidable elite military and security units, whose ranks consisted almost exclusively of 'Alawi personnel.
Violent Suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s
The Brothers regrouped under the banner of the Islamic Front in Syria, a broad alliance of Islamist organizations that came together in October 1980.
Muhammad al-Bayanuni, a respected member of the religious hierarchy of Aleppo, became the Islamic Front's Secretary General, but its leading light remained 'Adnan Sa'd al-Din, the General Supervisor of the Muslim Brothers. The chief ideologue of the Islamic Front was a prominent religious scholar from Hama, Sa'id Hawwa, who along with Sa'd al-Din had been a leader of the northern militants during the mid-1970s.
Six years of armed struggle culminated in the February 1982 confrontation between the Muslim Brothers and the Ba'thi regime in the long-time Islamist stronghold of Hama. Militants proclaimed a popular uprising and seized control of several neighborhoods in the heart of the city. It took elite military and security forces two weeks to crush the revolt, during which time between 5,000 and 20,000 civilians were killed and the central business district and historic grand mosque were razed to the ground.
The showdown dealt a devastating blow to the Muslim Brothers, and put Islamist activists on notice that the authorities would no longer tolerate violent challenges to Ba'th Party rule.
After the crushing defeat at Hama, prospects for Syria's Muslim Brotherhood dimmed dramatically. Armed struggle proved an utter failure, and severely damaged the organization's reputation among the general public.
Divisions inside the leadership over whether or not to maintain a belligerent posture toward the regime, as well as over relations with Islamist movements based in neighboring countries, contributed to the weakness of the Brothers throughout the 1980s. Desperate for allies, the organization forged a coalition with an assortment of parties and movements opposed to the Ba'th Party, which emerged in mid-1982 as the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria.
Rapprochement at the End of the 20th Century?
By the early 1990s, contacts between the leadership of the Muslim Brothers and the authorities became more frequent, and in December 1995 General Supervisor 'Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah returned to Syria from exile in Saudi Arabia.
Abu Ghuddah pledged to refrain from any kind of political activity, and settled down to teach theology and Islamic law in Aleppo. The organization's leadership in London then elected 'Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni to the post of General Supervisor.
As the decade went by, prominent Islamists expressed increasingly moderate, liberal sentiments. In August 1999, Brothers associated with Abu Ghuddah issued a proclamation that called on the regime to abandon autocratic rule and establish a political system based on "democracy, freedom and political pluralism."
Such demands were reiterated after the death of Hafiz al-Asad in June 2000.
When Bashshar al-Asad was elected to the presidency a month later, General Supervisor al-Bayanuni told reporters that the Muslim Brothers did not even have to be permitted to operate legally inside Syria. It would be enough to come up with some kind of "formula" that would allow the organization to "express its views" concerning important public issues.
In May 2001, the Brothers published a Covenant of National Honor, which called for the creation of a "modern state," that is, "a state of rotation" in which "free and honest ballot boxes are the basis for the rotation of power between all the sons of the homeland." The document made no mention of the traditional Islamic concept of consultation between rulers and ruled (shura), nor of the implementation of state laws that encourage public adherence to the Islamic way of life (shari'ah).
An April 2005 statement once again demanded "free and fair elections" and immediate termination of the state of emergency imposed in 1963.
General Supervisor al-Bayanuni announced in January 2006 that the organization had decided to join the National Salvation Front, headed by Syria's former vice president 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam, in a campaign to replace the Ba'thi order with a liberal democratic system. In taking this step, the Brotherhood openly allied itself with the civil rights activists who had issued the Damascus Declaration in October 2005, as well as with dissident Ba'this allied to Khaddam.
Not all Islamist militants agreed with these political moves. Cadres opposed to negotiating with the regime and working with Khaddam resorted to armed struggle in an attempt to discredit al-Bayanuni's leadership. Gunmen attacked a United Nations office in Damascus in April 2004, and clashes with the security forces erupted in villages around Hama during the summer of 2005.
A more intense firefight occurred in the suburbs of Aleppo that December, and security forces carried out a large-scale raid on a militant hideout in the coastal mountains in March 2006. Under pressure from the militants, and unable to exert any real influence inside the National Salvation Front, General Supervisor al-Bayanuni announced in April 2009 that the Muslim Brothers had pulled out of the Front.
A year later, an influential radical Islamist castigated the Brothers for negotiating with the authorities and asserted that a resumption of armed struggle was the only way "to force the Ba'thist regime into introducing serious political reforms."
The organization's leadership council in July 2010 replaced al-Bayanuni with Muhammad Riyad al-Shaqfah, a 66-year-old engineer from Hama. The new General Supervisor appointed Muhammad Faruq Taifur, also from Hama, to be his deputy. Both men had engaged in armed struggle against the Ba'th Party during the early 1980s, and Taifur had been a particularly outspoken critic of al-Bayanuni's dealings with the government.
Islamist Activism and the 2011-12 Uprising
Sporadic manifestations of popular discontent in Aleppo and Damascus in February and March 2011 elicited no immediate response from the Muslim Brothers.
In fact, when widespread unrest flared around Dir'a in mid-March, state officials alleged that General Supervisor al-Shaqfah had helped to instigate the violence. Al-Shaqfah responded by issuing a carefully worded statement that expressed sympathy for the objectives of the protesters but kept the Brotherhood at arm's length from the disorders.
Representatives of the Brothers traveled to the Turkish city of Antalya in September to join other opposition groups based outside the country in setting up the Syrian National Council. Of the 29 members of the original SNC secretariat, four were Muslim Brothers, a number matched only by the civil rights activists associated with the 2005 Damascus Declaration.
Meanwhile, inside Syria local militias composed largely of former soldiers launched attacks against Ba'th Party offices, military installations and other targets associated with the regime beginning in June 2011. Virtually all of these guerrilla formations took names drawn from the early days of Islam: examples included the 'Ali bin Abi Talib and Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Brigades in Jabal al-Zawiyyah and the God is Greatest (Allahu Akbar) Brigade of Al Bu Kamal.
Some of the militias built ties to the Free Syrian Army, and therefore indirectly to the Muslim Brotherhood, but others received inspiration from independent preachers of a more radical, populist disposition.
One such figure, 'Adnan al-'Ar'ur, galvanized the crowd at a public rally in Idlib in early November, prompting General Supervisor al-Shaqfah to invite the Turkish army to cross the border into northern Syria to protect the civilian population.
Religious notables who might have played a role in mobilizing popular opposition to the Ba'thi regime largely refrained from doing so.
Thomas Pierret reports that the al-Hasan mosque in the Midan district of Damascus served as the staging point for a series of protests in July 2011, but that preachers who spoke out in support of the demonstrators found themselves forced out of their official posts and physically attacked.
"After August 2011," Pierret observes, "mosques gradually lost their importance in the uprising for at least two reasons: first, in Damascus and Aleppo, repression succeeded in making demonstrations increasingly rare in rebellious places of worship; second, in the regions where the opposition was most powerful (the governorates of Homs, Hama, Idlib, and [the countryside around] Damascus), it became increasingly militarized and took control of several towns and neighborhoods, thus reducing the importance of mosques as 'safe' zones for demonstrations."
By May 2012, the frequency and destructiveness of car and suicide bombings in Aleppo and Damascus had risen sharply. No demands or claims of responsibility accompanied the attacks, and opposition spokespeople tended to charge that they had been carried out by the security forces in an effort to discredit the regime's adversaries.
Such bombings were more likely the work of the Assistance Front for the People of Syria, whose public pronouncements echoed the rhetoric of al-Qa'idah. The Front's adoption of indiscriminate violence posed a fundamental dilemma for the Muslim Brothers.
On one hand, such attacks underscored the deteriorating position of the mainstream Islamist movement, and of the SNC as a whole, in the face of unrelenting, brutal repression on the part of the regime.
General Supervisor al-Shaqfah, in a rare display of desperation, gravitated toward the militants in mid-May when he told a Saudi newspaper that the only way forward for the opposition was "through the use of weapons."
On the other hand, any shift in a more militant direction contradicted the liberal democratic principles enshrined in the Covenant of National Honor. More importantly, signs of a change from liberal reform to armed struggle played directly into the hands of the regime, which consistently warned that the moderate platform advanced by the Brotherhood was little more than a façade.
Aware of the dilemma, the organization's representatives stood aside as civil rights activists tried to replace Ghalioun with a more overtly secularist figure at a May 2012 SNC congress in Rome. Ghalioun won re-election, and immediately announced that he would use funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to strengthen the weaponry of the Free Syrian Army.
Activists inside Syria nevertheless complained that Ghalioun's re-election smacked of personalized leadership, a charge that persuaded Ghalioun to resign his post.
He was replaced as head of the SNC by a Sweden-based Kurdish academic, 'Abd al-Basit Saida, in a bid by the Muslim Brothers to reassure Syria's restive Kurds that their interests would be accorded greater attention in future.
Syria in the Context of the Arab Spring
Islamist political movements have played a crucial role in many countries during and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and Syria is no exception.
Syria's Muslim Brothers closely resemble the primary component of the Islamist movement in contemporary Tunisia, the Awakening Party.
Both organizations were ruthlessly suppressed under the old regime; the leaderships of both built up an extensive infrastructure outside their respective countries, and maintained little if any contact with grassroots activists at home. Both gradually shifted their platforms away from violent confrontation and in the direction of liberal democratic principles and practices; and both forged tactical alliances with proponents of western-style civil rights as conflict against the regime escalated.
As a result, the Awakening Party in Tunisia can credibly claim that it refused to compromise with the corrupt and dictatorial regime of President Zain al-'Abidin Bin 'Ali. Islamist critics of the party can find no grounds for mobilizing challenges from the extreme end of the political spectrum, although there is smoldering resentment among younger activists against the aged leaders who spent the last two decades residing in Europe and Saudi Arabia.
The Awakening Party consequently faces little competition from radical offshoots, and enjoys a high degree of internal unity. There is every reason to expect that given the chance, it will make good on its liberal democratic platform.
Egypt's Muslim Brothers have taken a much different path from Syria and Tunisia, so we can expect Islamist movements to play a different role in the Egyptian case. Despite being formally outlawed during the era of President Husni Mubarak, the organization sponsored candidates in parliamentary elections, ran an influential newspaper and played an active part in the life of civic associations.
Islamist critics can find compelling grounds for charging that the Egyptian Brotherhood was not tough enough in resisting the old regime, and a variety of radical Islamist parties have in fact sprouted up to challenge it in the post-Mubarak era.
More importantly, younger Muslim Brothers joined the protesters in Liberation (Tahrir) Square, against the explicit orders of senior leaders. Lingering tensions between youthful activists and an elderly, largely out-of-touch leadership give the Brothers a strong incentive to act in an assertive and inflexible way in the ongoing negotiations over the constitution and the presidency. There is thus good reason to doubt that the Egyptian Muslim Brothers will remain firm proponents of liberal democracy.
Syria's Muslim Brothers have more in common with Tunisia's Awakening Party than it does with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Dealings with the authorities in the late 1990s were kept tightly under wraps and have been largely forgotten, so the present leadership can claim that it consistently resisted the Ba'th Party.
The reformist program advanced by the organization during the 1950s and 1960s laid the foundation for its current liberal democratic platform. Moreover, the indigenous militant wing of the Syrian Islamist movement remains virtually non-existent, while the Assistance Front seems to be connected to The Islamic State in the Land between the Two Rivers, an affiliate of al-Qa'idah based across the border in Iraq.
Islamist critics of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood have therefore been unable to generate much traction, so the organization exhibits a remarkable degree of solidarity in its campaign against the al-Asad regime.
As the Syrian uprising continues, and the numbers of human casualties rise with horrifying rapidity, the Islamist movement in general, and the Muslim Brothers in particular, can be expected to dominate the Syrian opposition for the foreseeable future.
Check out a lesson plan based on this article: Religions of the Middle East
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