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Muslim Brotherhood in Syria

Throughout its fifty years of activity in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood has been principally an opposition movement that has never held political power. The brotherhood traces its origins to the 1930s, when the Syrian people were engaged in their struggle to achieve national independence from French rule. The structural changes that Syria experienced during the interwar years were especially disruptive in the town quarters. Small merchants and artisans suffered under the weight of expanding European trade. The laboring classes found it increasingly difficult to feed their families because of the high inflation rates of the period. Uprooted rural dwellers in growing numbers entered the peripheral quarters of the towns, having been pushed off the land by drought or, more commonly, by indebtedness to absentee landowners and moneylenders. All sought the support of local leaders who could help them articulate their grievances and meet their needs. By this time, the leaders of the national independence movement had become increasingly distant from their urban constituencies, owing to their preoccupation with negotiations with the French Mandate authorities. This distance enabled newer, more radicalized groups to begin to challenge the leadership of the veteran nationalists.

To address the pressing social and psychological needs of the urban masses, the vast majority of whom belonged to the Sunni Muslim rite, there arose in the towns a variety of socially and politically active organizations, some of which were religious beneficent societies (jam’iyat) headed by men who had received formal religious training in Islamic law. The House of alArqam in Aleppo was one of these societies. On the eve of Syria’s independence, the House of al-Arqam moved its headquarters to Damascus, the Syrian capital, where it became known in 1944 as the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ihkwan al-Muslimun). It is generally thought that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which had been established in 1928, influenced the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Some Syrian students who had studied in Cairo became familiar with the ideas of Hasan al-Banna’, the Egyptian organization’s founder. One was Mustafa al-Siba’i, the Syrian brotherhood’s first general supervisor (al-muraqib al-`amm), who became acquainted with al-Banna’ in Cairo. Others were inspired by a tour of Syria made by members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1930s.

The earliest goals of the Muslim Brotherhood were to spread Muslim education and ethics and to inculcate anti-imperialist feelings among the urban populace. It was through schools and magazines associated with the brotherhood that such ideas were disseminated. Its first published program in 1954 failed to offer a detailed strategic plan, dwelling instead on the goals of combating ignorance and deprivation and establishing a political regime based on Islamic law. For a period after Syria gained independence, the brotherhood put forward a vague notion of Islamic socialism but eventually abandoned it. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Syrian organization has never produced a systematically articulated set of principles and program of action. The closest it came to this achievement was the 1980 proclamation of the Syrian Islamic Front to which the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood belonged.

The Arab military defeat in Palestine in 1948 enabled the brotherhood to expand its following in the Syrian towns, especially in Damascus where its members controlled roughly a fifth of the parliamentary seats allotted to the capital and its environs in the 1950s. In this period, the brotherhood competed with Communists, Ba’thists, Nasserists, and other opponents of the veteran nationalists who had governed Syria since independence in 1946. The challenge posed by the Nasserist movement to the brotherhood was particularly effective because the two movements shared the same political constituency, the Sunni Muslim urban trading classes. Not surprisingly, the brotherhood supported Syria’s secession in 1961 from the Egyptian-dominated United Arab Republic, established in 1958. [See also Nasserism. ]

The Bath Party’s seizure of power in 1963 focused the Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition squarely on the radical, secular, nationalist regime’s socialist policies and its introduction of large numbers of rural peoples into the state bureaucracy. These measures not only upset the interests of urban absentee landowners, merchants and industrialists, middle-level bureaucrats, and the liberal professions, but also threatened the positions of the urban artisan and small trading classes that formed the main constituency of the Muslim Brotherhood. Religious leaders associated with the brotherhood promoted civil disobedience against the Ba’thist regime’s secular policies. But in the aftermath of Syria’s military defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and the establishment of Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’thist government in 1970, a schism developed within the brotherhood. Militants in Aleppo and Hama pressed for a policy of armed struggle against the Assad regime but they were countered by the Damascus followers of `Isam al-`Attar, a religious shaykh in the Syrian capital who had replaced Mustafa al-Siba`i in 1961 as general supervisor of the brotherhood. The `Attar wing of the organization had identified a certain convergence of interests between the urban artisan and trading classes that supported the brotherhood in Damascus and the Assad regime’s gradual adoption of economic liberalization and its willingness to attract to Syria investments from the Arab oilproducing states of the Persian Gulf.

The Syrian regime’s honeymoon with the Damascus branch of the Muslim Brotherhood did not last long. President Assad’s secular constitution of 1973 provoked widespread protests in the Syrian towns led by the brotherhood and forced him to amend the constitution to require that the president had to be Muslim. By the mid-1970s, the northern militants in the brotherhood had gained the upper hand over the Damascus branch; during the next seven years they escalated the level of violence against the Assad regime. This phase in the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle against the Syrian government was closely identified with the leadership of `Adnan Sa’d al-Din, a teacher and writer from the central Syrian town of Hama, who had become the brotherhood’s newest general supervisor. Several factors prompted the brotherhood to adopt a strategy of armed struggle (jihdd): the Syrian government’s intervention in 1976 in the Lebanese civil war against the Palestinians and their Lebanese Muslim allies; growing corruption stemming from the government’s economic liberalization policies; and, above all, the increased power that the president’s own rural-based community of `Alawis, a religious minority who constituted only io percent of the Syrian population, had achieved at the expense of the country’s Sunni majority, and especially the Sunnis of the towns. From this time onward, the brotherhood’s opposition was defined as one of Sunni majority against `Alawi minority and of town against countryside.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics at first focused on assassinating `Alawi officials but soon expanded into armed attacks on prominent institutional symbols of the Assad regime including Bath Party offices, police stations, and army units. Most notable were the June 1979 killing of eighty-three `Alawi artillery cadets in Aleppo, large-scale demonstrations and boycotts in Aleppo, Hama, and Homs in March 1980 and an attempt to assassinate Assad himself later that year. Those who carried out the violence against the regime and its supporters tended to be university students, school teachers, and members of the liberal professions. Their leaders were also engineers, dentists, and teachers who came from small trading families and the middle levels of the Muslim religious establishment.

To counter this violent opposition, the Syrian government decreed in July 198o that any association with the Muslim Brotherhood was punishable by death. It began to crack down on the brotherhood with its formidable military resources, in particular its dreaded security forces composed almost exclusively of `Alawis. Under this pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood regrouped under the banner of the Syrian Islamic Front (al-Jabhah alIslamiyah fi Suriyah), a broad-based alliance of Islamic opposition groups established in October 198o and headed by the brotherhood. Shaykh Muhammad alBayanuni, a member of the religious establishment in Aleppo, became the Islamic Front’s secretary-general, but its strongman was `Adnan Sa`d al-Din, the brotherhood’s general supervisor. The front’s chief ideologue was Said Hawwa, a religious figure from Hama who, with Sa’d al-Din, had been a leader of the northern militant faction that had taken control of the brotherhood in the mid-1970s.

The culmination of five years of terror and counterterror was a showdown between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian regime in February 1982 in the socially conservative Sunni stronghold of Hama. There the brotherhood sparked an armed uprising and seized control of the town in its strongest bid ever to challenge the Assad regime’s legitimacy. Within two weeks, the regime had restored its authority over Hama, but not before its military forces killed between five thousand and twenty thousand inhabitants of Hama and razed large sections of this ancient town. Assad’s regime had dealt a devastating blow to the brotherhood and in so doing put all its political opponents on notice that it would not countenance any challenges to its rule. The lesson of Hama appears to have been taken to heart for little has since been heard from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that struck roots in both town and countryside, in Syria the brotherhood was exclusively urban based. This can be explained in part by the fact that the Syrian countryside was to a large extent populated by heterodox sects such as the `Alawis, Druze, and Isma’ilis. The Syrian brotherhood specifically appealed to townsmen from the class of small tradesmen and artisans. This class has long been closely intertwined with the Sunni religious shaykhs attached to the neighborhood mosques that are located in the heart of the local suqs or bazaars where small tradesmen and artisans work and live. The religious shaykhs provided the brotherhood with many of its leaders over the years and with the strong religious values to which its membership subscribed. Because many shaykhs from the middle rungs of the religious establishment also earned their livings as traders, they, like their followers, supported free enterprise and thus stood in opposition to the socialist and quasi-socialist reformism of the Ba’thist governments that have ruled Syria since 1963.

In the 1970s, when the Muslim Brotherhood became the most visible and powerful opponent of the Assad regime, it attracted to its ranks large numbers of students, school teachers, engineers, and other members of the liberal professions, many of whom came from small urban trading families. These elements contributed to the organization’s increased militancy in this period and to a noticeable generation gap between its younger, better educated militant youth and their elders. Only rough estimates exist for the size of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although its numbers have fluctuated widely over the decades, it probably reached its maximum size of around ten thousand during the late 1970s. The Syrian government’s efforts to destroy the organization by military and legal means reduced its ranks to fewer than five thousand on the eve of the Hama uprising in 1982 and to far fewer afterward. Since then the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has been in exile and its rank and file underground in Syria.

The ideological orientation of the Muslim Brotherhood is best summed up in the Islamic Front’s proclamation of November 198o. Although it was designed to appeal to all political opponents of the Assad regime, the proclamation nonetheless pointed to several specific positions that the brotherhood had adopted over the years. It raised the prospects of civil war along Sunni`Alawi lines unless the leaders of the `Alawi community rejected Hafez al-Assad’s political leadership. It emphasized the Syrian people’s right to regain their basic political and civil liberties, which were described as being as important as the people’s right to basic economic security, of which they had also been stripped. It called for an independent judiciary and for a government based on the rule of law and on the Islamic principle of mutual consultation (shura). And it emphasized the importance of jihad (struggle in the name of Islam) as a means for ending sectarianism and establishing an Islamic state in Syria. Many of the values and directions highlighted in the proclamation were not exclusively Islamic in character, particularly those that emphasized natural rights and liberties. In this sense, the brotherhood was in step with a wide variety of opposition groups throughout the Middle East that had already made individual freedoms their highest political priority as they struggled against the authoritarian governments that dominated the region.

Economic policies were also stressed in the proclamation. It insisted on the reintroduction of the ownership of private land and on giving workers ownership rights of public industries. The emphasis was clearly on buttressing private enterprise and reducing state controls over the movement of capital and the running of industry. The Islamic Front’s economic orientation closely corresponded to the defined interests of the Sunni trading and manufacturing classes in the Syrian towns, major contributors to the membership and coffers of the Muslim Brotherhood. They strongly opposed the government’s economic favoritism toward the military, workers in modern industries, and rural minorities, especially the `Alawis.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood’s crushing defeat in Hama in 1982, its political prospects have not been promising. The strategy of armed struggle proved to be a major blunder from which the organization has yet to recover. Divisions within its leadership over whether to continue or abandon its militant tactics and over the Islamic Front’s relations with neighboring states also contributed to its fragility. Outside support has not been forthcoming. Soon after coming to power in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini disappointed the brotherhood when he made it clear that his government supported the Syrian regime because it was the only major Arab state to side with Iran in its war with Iraq that began in 198o. Iraq’s victory over Iran in 1988 briefly freed the rival Ba’thist regime of Saddam Hussein to resume its efforts to destabilize the Assad regime, but Iraq’s defeat in the Persian Gulf war in early 1991 has, for the time being, drastically reduced its threat to Syria. The best prospects for external support have come in recent years from Jordan where Islamic movements have expanded their political influence.

Ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to resume its leadership of the Syrian opposition will depend on how successfully President Assad and his `Alawi supporters continue to wield the carrot and the stick. In the new post-cold war era, the Syrian regime no longer enjoys the patronage and protection of the former Soviet Union. American pressures on Syria to negotiate a less than advantageous settlement with Israel, especially in the aftermath of the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative of 1993, and the continued fragility of the Syrian economy may well reduce the Assad regime’s already narrow base of support, encouraging its opponents to resume their struggle. The visible but limited political successes registered by Islamic movements in other Arab countries offer Assad’s opponents some hope. These are the kinds of conditions that may enable the Muslim Brotherhood to reemerge in Syria.

[See also Syria and the biography of Siba`i.]

Carre, Olivier. Les freres musulmans: Egypte et Syrie, 1928-1982. Paris, 1983. Comparative study of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria over a fifty-year span.

Commins, David D. Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria. New York, 1990. Informative study of the Islamic societies and movements that were precursors of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dam, Nikolaos van. The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism, and Tribalism in Politics, 1961-1978. London, 1979. Dekmejian, R. Hrair. “Syria: Sunni Fundamentalism against Baathi Rule.” In Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World, pp. 109-125. Syracuse, N.Y., 1985. Insightful analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle for power and the nature of its leadership.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. “The Islamic Movement in Syria: Sectarian Conflict and Urban Rebellion in an Authoritarian-Populist Regime.” In Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World, edited by Ali E. Hillal Dessouki, pp. 138-169. New York, 1982. Excellent overview of the place of Islamic movements during the past three decades. Kelidar, Abbas. “Religion and State in Syria.” Asian Affairs 61 (February 1974): 16-22. Useful account of the conflict of religion and state at the time of the Syrian constitutional crisis in 1973. Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945. Princeton, 1987. Comprehensive study of interwar politics and society in the period when the Muslim Brotherhood first emerged.

Mayer, Thomas. “The Islamic Opposition in Syria, 1961-1982.” Orient 24 (December 1983): 589-609. Useful examination of the conflict between the Ba’thist regime and the Muslim Brotherhood over a twenty-year span.

Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers London, 1969. Remains the best study of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Perera, Judith. “The Shifting Fortunes of Syria’s Muslim Brothers.” Middle East (London) (May 1985): 25-28.

Reissner, Johannes. Ideologie and Politik der Muslimbriider Syriens. Freiburg, 198o. Unique study of the intellectual origins and ideological development of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the 1940s and 1950s.

Seale, Patrick. Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley, 1988. Fascinating biography of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad based on a wide variety of sources, including extensive interviews with the subject.

Seale, Patrick. The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958. London and New York, 1965. Remains the most perceptive account of Syrian politics in the postindependence period.



Abd-Allah, Umar F. The Islamic Struggle in Syria. Berkeley, 1983. The most comprehensive study of modern Syrian Islamic movements available in the English language.

Batatu, Hanna. “Syria’s Muslim Brethren.” MERIP Reports 12.9 (November-December 1982): 12-20, 34, 36. Penetrating social analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.


Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/muslim-brotherhood-syria/

  • writerPosted On: September 30, 2014
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