Nir Rosen writes: James Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, warned last month of al Qaeda taking advantage of the growing conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime and its supporters frequently claim that the opposition is dominated by al Qaeda-linked extremists. Opposition supporters often counter that the uprising is completely secular. But months of reporting on the ground in Syria revealed that the truth is more complex.
Syria’s uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria’s demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East. A minority is secular and another minority is comprised of ideological Islamists. The majority is made of religious-minded people with little ideology, like most Syrians. They are not fighting to defend secularism (nor is the regime) but they are also not fighting to establish a theocracy. But as the conflict grinds on, Islam is playing an increasing role in the uprising.
Mosques became central to Syria’s demonstrations as early as March 2011 and influenced the uprising’s trajectory, with religion becoming increasingly more important. Often activists described how they had “corrected themselves” after the uprising started. Martyrs became important to a generation that had only seen martyrs on television from Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. “People got more religious,” one activist in Damascus’s Barzeh neighborhood explained, “they got closer to death, you could be a martyr so people who drank or went out at night corrected themselves.” Some Arab satellite news stations have also contributed to the dominance of Islamists by interviewing more of them and focusing on them as opposed to more secular opposition figures or intellectuals. In Daraa activists complained that satellite networks were marginalizing prominent leftists.
Clerics were influential from the beginning in much of the country, but their authority is not absolute. Sheikhs have often played a positive role in the uprising, enforcing discipline and exhorting armed and unarmed activists to act responsibly. One reason why Homs has not descended into Bosnia-like sectarian massacres is because of the strong influence of opposition sheikhs. [Continue reading…]