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Syria: Islam, Arab nationalism and the military.

One of the Syrian Islamic movement's most obvious characteristics is its limited impact on a populace obsessed with defining its national destiny. More than any other Arab country, Syria has always debated its future, its ideal political system and its national identity with great earnestness. Ever since the emergence of modern Syria with its current Western-imposed boundaries, Syrians have searched for a more palatable alternative national existence. This search has taken the form of a philosophical quest as well as a practical one. Moreover, modern Syria's truncated geography, which suffered the loss of the Lebanese mountains, the Turkish territories and Southern Syria (Palestine and Jordan) resulted in a determined effort to overcome the limitations of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This quest continued even after independence, when the Sykes-Picot and San Remo boundaries hardened into the map of the modern Syrian state. Syrians found themselves torn between a commitment to republicanism and the lure of unification with contiguous monarchic regimes such as the Hashemites of Jordan and Iraq. The quest for an alternative national map, hence, was never free of its own risks and always generated intense political and ideological rivalries.

From the beginning, the Islamist role in this quest was a limited and isolated effort. The general acceptance of the basic premise of the Islamist position was always there, but in practical terms the movement often lacked relevance, as well as strategic allies. Additionally, when compared to other rival ideologies such as those of the Baath party or the Arab nationalist movement, political Islam paled in the richness of its thought and its originality. A derivative of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Syrian Islamist thinking was often burdened with the legacy of that movement, particularly in its confrontation with Nasserism. Rather than draw some benefits from its association with the Arab world's most illustrious and oldest Islamist movement, Syrian Islamic organizations were tainted with the failure of their ideological forebears. Thus Syrian political Islam faced more challenges and organizational obstacles than similar movements in predominantly Muslim countries.

A relative latecomer to the pluralist political scene in Syria, the Islamist movement was not actively engaged against the French colonialists. Other ideological manisfestations preceded them on the Syrian scene, such as the People's party and the Nationalist party. Far from being mass political parties, these two coalesced around interest groups within the higher strata of society. But the two groups spearheaded the Syrians' rejection of the French- and British-imposed settlement of 1918. The Nationalist party, which was later led by Shukri al-Quwatli, advocated Arab unity through the efforts of the Arab League of States and was unwilling to sacrifice its republican system of government. The People's party, on the other hand, later led by Rushdi al-Kikhia, was willing to accept unions even with monarchic regimes. (1)

There were also mass parties capable of presenting the public with a coherent political program. The Syrian Social National party (SSNP) of Anton Saadah, for instance, first emerged in 1935, posing as a secular nationalist movement. The Baath party, both before and after its merger with Akram Hourani's Arab Socialist party, assumed the mantle of the early pan-Arabists while adding the dimension of Arab socialism to its ideology. Following its merger with Hourani's party in 1953, the latter's emphasis on the plight of the Syrian peasantry and the Baath commitment to socialism presented a powerful ideology. (2)

Emerging in the 1940s, the Baath, as well as the SSNP, emphasized the transitory nature of the Syrian state and the desirability of achieving larger territorial units. The Muslim Brotherhood, which also emerged in the 1940s, challenged the current territorial definition of Syrian nationalism. Thus the entire ideological spectrum from independence onwards was dominated by the debate over the principles of nationhood and nationalism. Competing ideas of the Baath, the SSNP and the Brotherhood, nevertheless, were distinguished by the clarity of their discourse and the symmetry of their philosophies. Whereas the SSNP championed the vision of regional nationalism, basing its logic on geography as the great definer of nationhood, the Baath anchored its ideology in the principles of language and history. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, raised the issue of religion as the most logical and enduring bond among people, proclaiming the ideal of the unity of the Muslim world as the desired shape of the future. (3)

In addition, Syrian pluralism during the post-independence period, as well as various superimposed one-party solutions, gave rise to a multiple array of political parties. There was, for instance, the Syrian Communist party, which emerged both in Syria and Lebanon in 1925 and drew its support primarily, but not exclusively, from non-Muslim minorities and intellectuals. Under the leadership of Kahled Bikdash since 1932, the Communist party was able to activate large Muslim sectors, such as the Syrian Kurds, and to draw closer to the Arab nationalist forces. Bikdash also enjoyed a wide popular base in the Damascus region, particularly following the 1954 parliamentary elections. However, Bikdash never enjoyed serious support outside the Syrian capital. Neither did the ideological basis of the party, namely internationalism, ever touch the psyche of the majority of Syrians. Under the Shishakli regime, a single official party known as Harakat al-Tahrir al-Arabi (The Arab Liberation Movement) attempted to fill the void created by Shishakli's disbanding of all political parties in 1952 but did not last beyond his termination. (4)

Nasser's cancellation of all Syrian political parties in the Syrian region of the United Arab Republic also resulted in the creation in 1958 of Al-Ittihad al-Qawmi (The National Union). (5) Syria's commitment to political pluralism was thus weakened in the early 1960s. The Hafiz Asad regime, which began to dominate Syria in 1963, proved reluctant to superimpose another single-party system. The Baath party, by then purged and redirected, was assured a dominant position in both the Peoples' Council (Majlis al-Shaab), and in the National Progressive Front, which included five other parties but not the Brotherhood. (6)

Perhaps what the Islamist movement symbolized for the Syrian people was not a political program but the civilizational heritage of Islam. It appears that very few people took the Brotherhood's emphasis on the universal political bond of Islam and the inevitability of the universal Islamic state seriously. What is clear, however, is that just as the Arab bourgeoisie constructed a political program with which to resist and challenge the French, and Marxist groups came forward with a social program in the 1940s to challenge the unequal distribution of wealth, Islamic organizations proposed a civilizational program demanding that values be an important component of the national identity. (7) Thus, the Islamist movement did not contribute greatly to the Syrian discourse on the definition of nationhood and the nation. With its heavy emphasis on Muslim history and heritage, the Islamist movement appeared marginalized and out of touch with the political realities of the 1940s, 1950s and the 1960s. Given this context, the question then becomes: How and why did the Muslim Brotherhood rise to challenge one of Syria's most resilient authoritarian regimes during the 1970s and 1980s?


An examination of the historical background of the Islamic movement in Syria will shed some light on the significance of Syria's Islamic credentials, as well as on the Egyptian Islamist ties that nurtured the current movement. Throughout history, the Syrian lands have contributed their share of Islamic thinkers and religious legal scholars (ulama). By virtue of its background as the center of the first Arab empire, the Umayyid, and its numerous ancient mosques and religious schools, beginning with the Umayyid Mosque, Syria was as much the heart of the Muslim world as was Egypt. Famous religious families transmitted Islamic scholarship from one generation to the next, particularly in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.

During the present era, the College of Islamic Law within the University of Damascus has become the training ground of some of Syria's and the Arab world's distinguished Muslim legal, or Sharia, scholars. (8) Although lacking the ancient roots and global fame of al-Azhar University of Cairo, Kulliyat al-Sharia of Damascus has enjoyed the general independence and immunity extended to the University of Damascus for much of its recent history. This institution was able to determine its own curriculum and keep the government at bay. Thus, even after the neo-Baath regime attempted to infuse a strong pan-Arabist direction in the university's curricula, the Sharia College was able to maintain its own emphasis on the separation of the Sharia and civil law. (9) Some of the distinguished-- and politicized -- professors of this college, such as the early leader of the Brotherhood, Dr. Mustafa al-Sibai, have been able to enrich the program of study by the addition of courses on various Islamic sects to the well-established curriculum emphasizing the four legal schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Appointed as dean of the Law Faculty at Damascus University in 1955, al-Sibai, then in full bloom as a party leader and member of parliament, proceeded to enrich and redesign the curriculum. He is also credited with initiating during this period the massive project of the Encyclopedia of Islamic Law (Mawsuat al-Fiqh al-Islami). This tradition of blending scholarship and political activism extended to other Islamist leaders who were products of the Sharia College, such as Sheikh Muhammad Abual-Nasr al-Bayanuni and Said Hawwa. (10) Thus, the presence of a distinguished Sharia college in Syria fostered and intensified modern Islamic studies in a manner that was lacking in countries without such institutions, such as Jordan, Lebanon or even Palestine.

It should be evident, however, that Islamic scholarship and moderate Islamic activism preceded the establishment of Damascus University and its various colleges. The transformation of the Islamic scholarly circles into a political movement was not completed until the rise of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt and the development of similar organizations in Syria. Syrian Islamists, naturally, underplay this direct connection between the two organizations. According to their view, the earliest Islamic societies or organizations, taking the name of jamiyah, were in direct response to the rise of Protestant and Jewish societies that targeted the Arab Christian population, particularly in Lebanon.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century, according to this view, saw the rise of Islamic societies that were outwardly dedicated to social-welfare activities. These were intended also to counteract the transmission of Western, and therefore un-Islamic, values. Among the earliest of these was the Ottoman-sponsored Jamiyat al-Maqasid al-Khairiyah, which emerged in 1878 in Beirut. Eventually, this organizational prototype spread to other Arab countries. These societies provided Islamic educational opportunities for the poor, as well as welfare benefits. A network of these organizations developed in Syria decades before the emergence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. (11)

Other Islamic centers of learning and activity became politicized as the result of the spreading fame of the Egyptian organization and the return of Syrian students from studies at al-Azhar. The first of these to exhibit Islamist political views was the Aleppo Sharia College, known as Dar al-Arqam, which trained Islamic activist students in the 1920s and 1930s. Al-Arqam is credited with giving rise to the earliest of the Islamic brotherhoods in Syria. Similar organizations soon developed in other major cities, with groups in Damascus, Hama, Deir al-Zour and Lattakiyah taking the name of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Horns known as al-Rabitah. Muslim brotherhoods also developed in some European countries and wherever Syrian students pursued higher studies. These organizations came together in 1937 and held their first annual meeting at Homs under the name of Tantheem Shabab Muhammad.

Another conference followed in 1938 at Damascus. It was during the latter annual meeting that the decision to headquarter the organization at Aleppo was made, largely to conceal activities from the eyes of the government in Damascus. During the fourth annual meeting at Aleppo, Shabab Muhammad took the decision to organize quasi-military groups known as Al-Saraya and Al-Futtuwa. By 1944, the annual meeting at Aleppo adopted resolutions to create a Damascus-based executive committee representing the organization's various branches. The name Shabab Muhammad was changed to the Islamic Brotherhood party (hizb). A higher institute of learning was established at Aleppo, Al-Mahad al-Thanawi al-Arabi (The Arab Secondary Institute), as well as a publishing house at Damascus and a paper under the title of Al-Manar. A new leadership emerged represented by Muhammad al-Mubarak, Mustafa Sibai and Dr. Marouf al-Dawalibi. Both al-Mubarak and al-Dawalibi eventually became prominent members of various coalition cabinets and were typical of a generation of Brotherhood members who did not hesitate to take part in mainstream Syrian political life. Dawalibi often rose to the position of prime minister and minister of defense, while al-Mubarak was usually selected as minister of agriculture. Sibai served several terms as a member of parliament. (12)

Some of the Brotherhood's later leadership, such as Issam al-Attar, who inherited Sibai's mantle in 1957 on the eve of the creation of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961), was entrusted during this period with the editorship of Al-Manar. Thus, with most of the Islamist institutions in place, it was no surprise that the visit of Hasan al-Banna to Syria in 1946, and his inspection tour of the Brotherhood's main military training camps at Qatana, resulted in the unification of all clubs and organizations. The year 1946 witnessed the transformation of the movement into a political party, and a major departure from the Egyptian Brotherhood's political strategy developed. (13) While the Egyptian Brothers under al-Banna's leadership rejected the notion of participating in a non-Islamic liberal political system, the Syrian Brothers were actively present in the center of parliamentary life. This fact, however, does not mean that they enjoyed a position of dominance, but rather a marginalized and somewhat ineffective role. Yet, despite frequent Baathist allegations of the Brotherhood's lack of influence over Syria's intensely competitive party life from the 1940s to the 1960s, it was able to define several crucial issues and fight significant battles. (14)

Typically, most histories of this period emphasize the rise of the Baath and the triangular relationship between this party, the old traditional political groups such as the National and the People's party, and the army. Until 1956, when Adnan al-Malki was assassinated, the SSNP was also an important element in the political spectrum. But a careful reading of all of these histories reveals a significant thread of Islamic activism represented by the Brotherhood's ideological approach to politics, and a steady legitimization in the eyes of the Syrian public. The Brotherhood's greatest difficulty, however, has always been in defining itself. Its greatest competition was not from the Communist party or even the SSNP as might be expected, but from the Baath, which captured the imagination and the political allegiance of Syria's rising masses.

The Syrian Brotherhood found itself operating not only in one of the most nationalist political environments in the Arab World, but also in a country where secular Arab nationalism seemed to have won the day. Moreover, this secularism, which was enunciated by the main ideological currents, such as the SSNP and the Baath, did not come at the expense of Islam. Indeed, one of the main difficulties of standing up to the Baath was always the latter's ability to reconcile Arab nationalism, Arab socialism and Arab Islam. Not unlike the Brotherhood, the Baath -- even its prominent Christian leadership -- has always emphasized that Islam was "the eternal mission" of all Arabs. In the view of Michel Aflaq, Islam was not only a divine and religious system, but also an expression of the genius of the Arab nation. Since the Arab nation is eternal, renewing itself across human history, then Arab nationalism is one of its latest manifestations in the current historical stage. Thus, nationalism reaches its zenith only when it reunites with historical Islam, since both are no more than the manifestation of the nation in two distinct times. (15) Obviously, the Brotherhood's adherence to traditional Islam limited its intellectual appeal, given the Baath's modern elaboration on the interconnection between religion and nationalism.

The Syrian Brotherhood, however, did depart from the ideas of Orthodox Islam in its elaboration on Islamic socialism. Partly influenced by the ideas of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb -- especially his concept of Islamic social solidarity (al-takaful al-ijtimai) which he popularized during the 1940s -- and partly in response to the politicization of the Syrian peasants and workers, the Brotherhood adopted a strong socialist position. (16) Beginning in 1949, Sibai emphasized in his speeches and publications, particularly in his book Ishtirakiyat al-Islam (Islamic Socialism, 1960), a system of Islamic socialism based on almsgiving and collective and social responsibility. Inspired by the works of mostly Egyptian Islamic reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, and in recent years by the writings of Khaled Muhammad Khaled, Sibai attempted to reconcile traditional Islamic concepts with the modern ideas of socialism and progress.

Rejecting communism and its emphasis on class conflict, Sibai's reconciliation effort equated the role of the Islamic capitalist with that of the Islamic worker by focusing on the meaning of Islam's demand for social solidarity. But here again the Brotherhood's refusal to anathematize socialism as a godless ideology had to confront the concept of state socialism adopted by its strong Nasserite enemy and its Baathist rival. Baathism also began to advocate clear socialist ideas around 1949, when the party started to seek parliamentary representation. The Baath postulated the concept of a socialist state, based on a total redistribution of wealth, as the ultimate vehicle for the destruction of the Arab social system everywhere. (17)


The Brotherhood was not only marginalized as a result of Baathist ideological appeal, however. The Brotherhood's own ideology at times seemed a historical and politically irrelevant as a result of being incapable of responding to national dilemmas. One of the dominant crises of Syria's post-independence period was the defeat of Arab Palestine and the rise of a threatening and alien state to the south. The Syrians immediately became fixated on the issue of Israel, not only because of the failure of the Arab nations to preserve Palestine from what was perceived as another neo-colonial and imperial aggression, but also because of a potential strategic stand-off with Israel. Both on ideological and pragmatic policy grounds, Israel posed a severe challenge to the Syrian political system. The most logical and practical response to this development became quickly defined as an immediate call to unification with neighboring Arab states. The Palestine question lent greater credence to the romanticized Baathist call for Arab unity. The efforts of Ahmad Shuqairi, veteran Palestinian statesman, to focus Syrian foreign policy on Palestine and its grievances continued until Husni al-Zaim's coup in 1949. Concern for Palestine revived again during the dictatorship of Adib al-Shishkali. Disputes over the damming of Lake Houleh (1951-52) and the Eric Johnston Plan (1953) highlighted the Israeli-Syrian Jordan River conflict and helped maintain Syria's concern over its strategic vulnerability to the south. (18) By contrast, the Brotherhood's call for an Islamic state and Islamic unity provided no answers to Syria's strategic dilemmas.

The Syrian Brotherhood also bore the full brunt of the Nasserite vilification campaign against the Egyptian Brotherhood during the 1950s. Not only were the Syrian Brotherhood's ideas deemed unfashionable, Nasser's 1954 confrontation with their Egyptian counterparts and his rising popularity with the Arab masses darkened the Brotherhood's image in Syria. Nasser's relentless propaganda machine, which reached the entire Arab world, emphasized the Brotherhood's evil politics and the bankruptcy of its ideas. The Nasserites never acknowledged the Brotherhood's anti-British and anti-Zionist campaigns in Palestine nor its social-welfare programs on behalf of Egypt's poor. (19) Although the Syrians emerged as the only surviving Arab representatives of the Islamist movement, the continued rise of Nasser's popularity, particularly after the Suez War, contributed to their increasing unpopularity. The Suez War also invalidated the logic of Islamic unity. (20)

Neither were the Syrian Islamists aided by the intensifying struggle between the SSNP and the Baath following the execution of Saadah in Lebanon in 1949. Accused of handing over Saadah to the Lebanese authorities, Zaim's government suffered a great loss of legitimacy, which led to further divisions within the ranks of the armed forces. (21) When the SSNP sought to accelerate its rise within the military by assassinating Deputy Chief of Staff Adnan Malki in April 1955, the center of its activities shifted to Lebanon. More important, leadership within the armed forces began to shift to the Baathists. (22) Indeed, this internal struggle within the various ideological factions of the armed forces was being resolved in favor of the Baath beginning in the mid 1950s. The Brotherhood was uninvolved and was viewed as being seriously opposed to the encroachment of the military on civilian political life. The Brotherhood's reaction to the rising influence of military leaders explains its marginalization in Syrian politics as well as its evolving role as a member of several anti-military parliamentary coalitions.

To understand Syria's unstoppable slide towards military role and the eventual military capture of most institutions in the country by Baathist officers, one needs to examine the unusual career of Akram Hourani. The rise of the military to power was one of the Brotherhood's greatest defeats. Hourani, on the other hand, was driven by his own life experiences to search for a suitable philosophy of national salvation and the means by which to provide Syria's masses with social and economic equality. Joining the SSNP in 1936, he was the mainstay of this party in his hometown of Hama until the 1950s. He also represented the SSNP in parliament while still impressed with its advocacy of Greater Syrian unification. But, at the same time, he began to champion the rights of the peasants in Hama, an area noted for its feudal estates, and eventually organized Hizb al-Shabab (the Youth party). (23)

By 1950, this party took the name Arab Socialist party and began to expand into Damascus, where it also competed with the Brotherhood for the allegiance of student groups. The party merged with the Baath of Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar in 1953, becoming the Arab Baath Socialist party. (24) While still Hama-based, the party adopted a clear socialist plank, calling for the redistribution of large estates to the poor, for a neutral foreign policy, and for the suppression of religious sectarianism. The Arab Socialist party thus sounded very much like the Arab Baath except that Hourani was credited with enunciating a clear socialist line before the Baath did. (25) Hourani's former party, however, differed from the Baath in its deemphasis of the idea of Arab unity.

Hourani, nevertheless, was just as obsessed with Arab nationalism as were Aflaq and Bitar. Hourani was also traumatized by the twentieth-century Arab confrontation with Israel and the Western Powers and the failure of Arab arms. While the Muslim Brotherhood saw the decline of the Arabs as the result of the absence of Islamic moral values and the onslaught of Westernization and modernism, Hourani approached this as a political and social dilemma. When Hourani began to strengthen his ties to the Syrian military establishment and to politicize their ranks, the pattern of Syria's historical development began to change. And of all of his varied and socially committed legacies, he will always be remembered for facilitating the militarization of Syria's parliamentary and republicanist system of government.

Hourani's attraction to the military was at first motivated by nationalist considerations and only later by social necessity. As a young man, he used to incite members of the Army of the Orient, which the French created in Syria and Lebanon, to rebel against the colonial administration or desert altogether. Some of these enlisted officers joined Hourani in Iraq in 1941 to battle British troops and assist the cause of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. Hourani also joined Syrian officers fighting on the Palestine front while an elected member of parliament. He volunteered for this duty alongside some prominent military officers like Adib Shishakli. His access to the military, despite his lack of any military credentials, had been made possible by the presence of the military academy in nearby Homs. Thus, although he himself was studying law, his contacts were with the officers and cadets of this French-founded military academy training young men for service with the Army of the Orient. (26)

Hourani's influence was largely exercised over the Hama officers, specifically the fourth batch, who graduated between 1946 and 1952, and particularly the class of 1948. This group was apparently committed to Hourani's leadership and, due to the 1948 Palestine war, was extraordinarily politicized. Most of this class of officers held the civilian politicians responsible for their defeat. The failure of civilian government to save the honor of the military in the Palestine war was blamed on prevalent feudal conditions such as existed in the Hama region. Thus, Hourani's call for the need to launch social and economic changes and to transform the army into the instrument of progress and reform resonated with the officers and enhanced Hourani's popularity. Loyalty to Hourani even rivaled the officers' allegiance to the Baath and the SSNP, both of which had also infiltrated the military ranks. Hourani gained the officers' trust because he constantly championed their cause in parliament against the severe criticism of the politicians. (27)

Thus, the military in Syria emerged after independence fully politicized and rent by competing ideologies. Hourani's success in winning a large number of officers to his passionate concern for national revival and social justice was due to his lack of hesitation when it came to encouraging their entry into political life. Hourani went to the extent of supporting several military takeovers of government beginning with the coup of Husni al-Zaim in March of 1949, that of Sami Hinnawi in August of 1949, and that of Adib al-Shishkali in December of 1949. In all of these, Hourani, inspired by the progressive and reformist model of Ataturk, worked with each and every military leader by writing their press communiques and promoting their progressive policies, such as al-Zaim's extension of the franchise to women. He was rewarded with the post of minister of agriculture by the Hinnawi government. Always denying his role in backing these military takeovers with strategies and policies designed to appeal to the public, the so-called "midwife of all coups" was clearly supportive of the military in order to weaken his own traditional political enemies. When Shishkali eliminated all political parties, Hourani turned against him, just as he turned against Nasser's successful effort to muzzle the political parties of the UAR's Syrian region. (28)

The army's steady encroachment on civilian politics was of such concern to successive Syrian regimes that special measures had to be taken in order to prevent future coup attempts. Indeed, during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the military were so torn by ideological divisions that they were viewed as a natural segment of the politically active classes. But so were the students, also in the forefront of the political struggles of that period. When the neo-Baath took over the reins of government under Asad beginning in 1970, he banned all political activities among students and the military except for the Baath party. Other political parties were not allowed to organize or recruit members from these two groups. Recognition of their volatility has always haunted the Syrian body politic. (29)

When examined against this background, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood will be seen as an important player in the central political struggles of the post-independence period. It should also be apparent that Syrian politics cannot be understood without grasping the role of the Brotherhood. Analysis of the militarization of politics, therefore, becomes just as important as various Arab unification schemes, Nasserite Arab nationalism and major social legislation involving property rights. Attempts to write new constitutions also stirred the Brotherhood to action while at the same time revealing its limitations and inability to recruit followers. The Brotherhood suffered repeated failures to respond to various Arab foreign-policy issues affecting Syria.

One of the unusual features of the Syrian Islamist movement, as indicated earlier, was its participation in parliamentary politics long before resorting to revolutionary violence during the 1970s and early 1980s. Beginning in 1947, the Brotherhood ran candidates for parliament from Damascus and was able to enjoy relative freedom of expression and organization until the rise of the Shishakli regime. By 1949, Sibai had won a seat in a new elected body to draft a constitution and had become part of an Islamic Socialist bloc dedicated to the adoption of a constitution with an Islamic orientation. (30) This bloc consisted of four deputies, but the winners of that year were the independents led by Sami Kabbarah. The total size of the newly created Constituent Assembly was 116. The brainchild of the new army dictator Sami Hinnawi, this assembly was elected in November 1949 with the full backing of the People's party in order to pave the way for a Syrian-Iraqi union. The Constituent Assembly went as far as the drafting of a new presidential oath, which deleted the statement "I pledge to respect the republican system of government."

Elements within the army, particularly the Baathists and Hourani's supporters, were fiercely against the proposed Hashemite-Syrian union. This led to another coup attempt by an old military associate of Hourani, Adib Shishakli. The Syrian army feared such a union because of the possibility of absorption by its larger Iraqi counterpart, while the old political classes feared a permanent assault on the legal constitution, which was nullified by Zaim's coup. (31)

Fear of opposition by the Baathist and pro-Hourani officers was so great that politicians, such as the People's party stalwarts, were pushing Hinnai to make some arrests in order to facilitate the creation of the new Constituent Assembly. This polarization of the political scene in which the Muslim Socialist bloc was on the side of the Hashemite union met with failure when Shishakli took power. But a new alliance emerged between the People's party and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was anti-army. Both of these parties saw in the Iraqi-Syrian union a way out of the Pretorian dilemma. The People's party remained dependent on the Brotherhood's support even after Shishakli's coup and worked to undermine a proposed new government to be led by Hourani, for fear of losing the Brotherhood's support. The latter made known its animosity to Hourani's pro-army candidate and to increasing military influence over civilian politics and scuttled any plans to support Hourani. Shishakli, the new strongman, thus used Hourani during the early phase of the coup in order to keep the old parties, the People's and National parties, in check. The Brotherhood, though not powerful on its own, was important as a swing party. (32)

The Muslim Brotherhood paid the price for its antipathy to army rule when it became the first casualty of Shishakli's abandonment of his brief experiment with democracy. The new dictator closed the offices of the conservative National and People's parties, as well as those of the Cooperative Socialist party and the Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, but not before witnessing a great battle over the proposed new constitution. (33) Two issues divided the Syrian public: a proposed clause limiting land ownership and paving the way for a redistribution of wealth, and another declaring the republic to be an Islamic country.

In the debate over land ownership, elected members sided with the conservative bloc, which barely managed to beat back Hourani's progressive group and its demands for reform. (34) In the other debate over the identity of the state in the new constitution, Sibai led the fight over declaring Islam the sole religion of the state. But he lost in favor of those who insisted only on delineating Islam as the religion of the president of the republic. This statement was then buttressed by declaring Islamic jurisprudence to be the main source of legislation and the state to be the sustainer of all divine faiths. The debate over secularizing the state was also joined by some of Syria's Christian religious leadership. The Greek Orthodox Bishop of Hama, Ignatius Harika, protested in the pages of the national press that the new constitution threatened to relegate Christians to the status of a permanent minority. Other bishops representing Syria's Christian mosaic also protested, directly to the government, plans to declare Syria a Muslim state.

The Muslims, for their part, interjected Islamic values in the national debate when Sibai called from the floor of parliament for banning youths from frequenting movie houses. This demand bought ridicule to the Islamics, who had recently inveighed against female participation in scouting parades and the attendance of unveiled women at coeducational institutes of higher learning. Preoccupation with the dress code of female students was, therefore, deemed nefarious by an assembly fixated on the issue of land reform. (35)

The greatest confrontation between the Islamic constituency and Shishakli took place over the issue of civilian control of the Ministry of Defense. More important, the man chosen by President Hashem al-Attasi to head the government after several short-lived cabinets led by the People's party and the independent Khaled al-Azm was Sheikh Dr. Maarouf al-Dawalibi. The sheikh was considered part of the left wing of the People's party but of a decidedly Islamic orientation. Dawalibi then assigned to himself the portfolio of the Ministry of Defense without prior consultation with Shishakli. The implication of this development, which epitomized the People's party's interest in banishing military influence from the cabinet, was that, theoretically at least, Dawalibi could ask the president and the parliament to remove Shishakli from the position of chief of staff. (36)

This short-lived experiment in civilian-military rule, which extended from Shishakli's takeover of power after the end of Hinnawi's military regime in December 1949 to December 1951, ended when the military dictator instigated a coup against his regime. Shishakli removed from office and imprisoned members of the civilian government, including the president. Another military figure, Fawzi Silo, became head of state and Shishakli head of the cabinet. The military blow appeared at first to be directed at the traditional parties that had dominated Syrian politics until that time. But soon the Baath and the Arab Socialist party were also dissolved. Shishakli then created his own political organization, the Arab Liberation Movement, which reduced Syria to a one-party state for the first time ever. He also mobilized large segments of students, youths and minor government officials to join his party, as well as sizeable numbers from the SSNP. Only the Baath and the Arab Socialist party remained active in the field as Shishakli's illegal opposition, spearheading a general rejection of the principle of military dictatorship. These conditions lasted until another coup removed Shishakli in February 1954. (37)

The efforts of the Brotherhood and the People's party to stop the army's encroachment on civilian politics thus failed, largely because neither group had any substantial links to the military. When elections for a new parliament took place after Shishakli's removal, the Brotherhood did not participate at all. Clearly, the Brotherhood failed to impress the Syrian voters with its resistance to the military dictatorship. Indeed, in the elections of September 1954, the People's party, which had led the struggle against the army, lost badly because of its attempt to bring Syria into the Iraqi axis. Enjoying control over 43 seats (out of a total of 119) in the 1949 parliamentary elections, the People's party won only 30 seats (from a total of 142) in 1954. By contrast, the Baath occupied only one seat in 1949, but won 22 seats in 1954. Clearly, the pan-Arabist ideology was winning over the traditional fixation on alliances with dynastic Arab regimes. The Brotherhood's attachment to the traditional parties and its animosity towards a radicalized military institution had weakened its political position. (38)

The rise of Nasserite Egypt, in the meantime, and its confrontation with the Egyptian Brotherhood further marginalized the Syrian Brotherhood's role in Syrian parliamentary politics. With the 1954 arrest of the leader of the Egyptian Brotherhood, Hasan al-Hudhaibi, the entire Arab arena endured a period of polarization between the forces of Arab socialism and pan-Arabism and those of the Islamic revival. This explains Sibai's decision to refrain from running in the 1954 parliamentary race. (39) Nasser's rise to Arab prominence as a result of successful opposition to Britain's regional pacts, as well as the survival of the Nasserite regime following the Suez War, had a negative impact on the Syrian Islamic movement. The first development, Egypt's neutrality, eliminated Syria's Hashemite Iraqi option once and for all, and with it one of the Brotherhood's opportunities to curb the influence of the military on Syrian life. The second development strengthened the appeal of other political parties, such as the Baath (which united with Hourani's Arab Socialist party in 1952) since it shared much of the ideological highlights of Nasserism. Thus, when Sibai ran for election from his Damascus base in 1957, he scored badly against Riyadh Malki, brother of the recently assassinated military leader Adnan Malki. Both Malkis were Baathists. (40)

As expected, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed plans to unify with Nasser's Egypt in 1958. The only other party to adopt a similar stand was the Communist party. (41) By that time, the Syrian Brotherhood had turned increasingly towards the task of Islamizing society rather than the state through education and the propagation of moral values. It was during that period that the Egyptian propaganda machine began to refer to the Muslim Ikhwan (Brothers) throughout the Arab World as Ikhwan al-Shayatin (the Brothers of Satan). It was also during this period that the leadership of the Syrian Brotherhood passed to a new figure, Issam al-Attar. In 1957, Sibai's failing health and partial paralysis prompted him to retire from active leadership in favor of this Damascene high-school teacher of Arabic literature. (42) Although the Brotherhood opposed the union with Egypt, al-Attar exercised quite a bit of restraint during this time by avoiding any open condemnation of Nasser's government. Indeed, the Brotherhood under al-Attar's leadership found itself caught between opposition to Nasser's regime and support for Nasser's demand that the Syrian armed forces be isolated and prevented from influencing politics. Unity with Egypt was also regarded as a way of weakening Syria's Communist party. When Nasser substituted his own party, the National Union party (al-Ittihad al-Qawmi), Syria was headed towards a single-party system once more.

Some Syrians claimed that the Brothers and their supporters did actually join the ranks of the National party in large numbers. Even Khaled al-Azm commented on al-Attar's puzzling reticence and refusal to voice any open criticism of the union or the Egyptian regime after the dissolution of the union. The only substantive and open criticism of Nasser was leveled by some religious figures such as Sheikh Ali al-Tantawi. He complained in a statement to Nasser that union with Egypt resulted in the deterioration of moral standards as young Egyptian males flooded the Damascus youth festival. He bitterly complained about the popularization of ballet dancing for females and students' co-educational summer camps. The Brotherhood was also able to bounce back from years of inaction by winning three seats from Damascus as well as seven from the provinces in the parliamentary elections of 1961. Other Brotherhood figures who won seats in these same elections included future leader Abd al-Fattah Abu-Ghuddah from Aleppo. (43)

Following the dissolution of the Syrian-Egyptian union, al-Attar emerged as a rising political star largely because of his willingness to build bridges to the armed forces. Breaking away from the traditional anti-military stance of the Brotherhood, al-Attar seems to have been motivated by a greater fear of the Communist party. The military insurrection at the two bases of Qatanah and al-Kiswah in 1961 was attributed to al-Attar's influence over Abd al-Karin al-Nahlawi who spearheaded the sessionist movement against the union. (44)

Despite al-Attar's ability to maneuver between different political and military currents in the early 1960s, he was always conscious of his party's limitations. He was never in favor of waging armed straggle against any Syrian regime. He always argued that an uprising against the Baath, firmly in control after 1963, would only bring about the physical destruction of the Brotherhood and the people of Syria. After the military coup of the Baathist officers in 1963, the Brotherhood came under increasing attack by the new leadership of Asad and Salah Jadid. Exiled in 1963, al-Attar continued to lead the Brotherhood from his new residence in Aachen, West Germany. The leadership of the organization passed then to local leaders such as Marwan Hadid of Hama, until his death in jail in 1967. Hadid was not supported by the rest of the Islamic movement in Damascus, which did not approve his total determination to seek a military confrontation with the Baath.


The split between the Damascus leadership and the northern leadership developed openly in 1969 precisely over the principle of armed conflict with the ruling regime. The northern leadership, which supported an armed uprising against the Baath, included in addition to Hadid the likes of Said Hawwa, Abd al-Fattah Abu-Ghuddah and Adnan Saad al-Din. A mediation effort between the two factions by Muslim representatives from other Arab countries failed to bridge this gap. The split was not repaired until the emergence of the Syrian Islamic Front in 1981, when al-Attar once more resumed his involvement as part of the new collective leadership, though from a distance. (45)

The ability of the Brotherhood to mount acts of violence against the regime at Hama beginning in the mid 1960s was attributed to the availability of training camps in Jordan and later in Iraq. Hadid called openly for the arming of all Brothers in order to challenge the regime over its plans to conduct a plebiscite on the proposed constitution of 1973. Assassinations of prominent secularist figures such as Muhammad al-Fadhel, president of the University of Damascus, and Yousef al-Sayigh, a professor at the medical college and a personal friend of Asad, as well as bombing incidents in various cities were all intended to destabilize the new Baathist regime. The assassinations reached a high level in 1979, when Soviet officials were targeted, then reached new heights at Hama in 1982. (46) The battle intensified when the 1973 constitution was debated, but the constitution was ratified with a wide popular margin. Article 3, section 1, was amended in the old constitution to read that the religion of the president was Islam and Islamic jurisprudence was the mainstay of legislation. Article 1, section 1, stated that the Arab Syrian Republic is a democratic, popular and socialist state. (47)

Groups opposed to the spirit of the constitution, mainly the Islamists, took to the streets in massive demonstrations and riots, especially at Homs and Hama. Said Hawwa also succeeded in gathering a large number of signatures from religious scholars who protested the constitution. As to the government, the Brotherhood focused its opposition on whether a non-Sunni president could ever head the Syrian state. Asad, in a move to forestall their criticism, increased his public observance of the Friday prayers at Damascus' Umayyid Mosque. As the government's response to these acts of resistance increased, other groups began to express solidarity with the Brotherhood. The Lawyers' Syndicate of Damascus, for instance, protested publicly on June 22, 1978, the kind of harsh treatment directed at the Islamists. By February of 1980, the Engineers' Union had issued similar statements calling on the government to respect the principles of democracy and human rights.

These independent actions prompted a crackdown by the government and a general official effort to create organizations totally subservient to the regime. General strikes were then instigated by the Brotherhood in the northern and coastal cities and eventually in Damascus. When the Syrian Islamic Front emerged in 1980 bringing new allies to the Brotherhood, the Front was led by Sheikh Muhammad Abu al-Nasr al-Bayanuni, who represented Aleppo's determination to use violent means. (48)

The Baath regime, however, not only crushed the Islamic Front militarily, it was able to mount a determined and successful propaganda campaign against it. The wave of assassinations, which targeted leading academic figures in 1976, was said to have coincided with the Camp David negotiations. The Baathist regime suggested strongly that the Islamist campaign of destabilization was instigated by the American CIA, West European governments and allied Arab regimes such as Jordan. The Iraqi government, adamantly opposed to the Asad variation of Baathism, was also accused of hatching plots against Syria. The presence of one of the leaders, Adnan Saad al-Din in Saudi Arabia, and another, Abu-Ghuddah in the Persian Gulf area, confirmed the Syrian contention that the conservative Persian Gulf states were behind the Islamist uprising. When the Islamic Front attacked the artillery school of Aleppo resulting in the death of hundreds of cadets, followed by attacks on Bathist civilian headquarters and military offices at Hama in February of 1982, the regime was deeply involved in Lebanon. These attacks were viewed as part of a wider Zionist/imperialist conspiracy targeting Syria during one of its most vulnerable decades. (49)

The Islamic Front was also inspired by the success of Khomeini's Islamic regime in Iran, although there was never any link established between the two. When one of the Front's leaders, al-Bayanuni, was interviewed by Eric Rouleau on the pages of Le Monde in May 1981, he declared that armed struggle against the Syrian regime was not enough. This fight should be followed by a popular uprising, he added, just like the uprising that swept away the shah's regime in Iran. (50) In his frequent references to these violent years, Asad repeatedly accused the Islamic Front of collaboration with the Western powers. (51)

Asad responded to the uprising by striking back at the Front's external sources of support. A Brotherhood training camp was raided inside Jordan in 1980, and a prominent critic of the Syrian regime's handling of the Islamic uprising, Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lawzi, was assassinated. A bombing incident resulting in the death of al-Attar's wife, Bayan al-Tantawi, in Aachen in 1981 was also believed to be the work of the Baathist regime. The 1980 murder of former Baathist leader and head of a pan-Arabist splinter group in Paris, Salah al-Din Bitar, was attributed to worsening Syrian-Iraqi relations. The Asad regime felt besieged and feared plots by Bitar, who was suspected of enjoying Saudi or Iraqi backing. Asad's suspicion of U.S. collusion with the Islamic uprising was confirmed on February 10, 1982, when the U.S. State Department and the Aachen-based Brotherhood announced the Hama uprising simultaneously. By that time, the Hama revolt was one-week old, but news of it had not yet been leaked to the outside world. (52)

Following the quashing of the Islamic revolt, the Baathist regime adopted certain measures designed to co-opt the Islamist movement. A campaign to build more government-financed mosques was launched. Sharia institutes were revitalized and the Asad Institutes for the recitation of the Quran were started. Beginning in the early 1980s, the Ministry of Religious Trusts undertook the task of helping build these schools upon receiving applications from specific regions and villages. (53) Syria began to experience the phenomenon of official Islam as part of a determined effort to close all avenues to revolutionary Islam.

Since the accession of Bashar al-Asad to the presidency, human-rights advocates and intellectuals impressed upon the regime the need to ease restrictions on dissent. By November 16, 2000, a general amnesty was declared resulting in the release of some 600 political prisoners from Syrian jails. The exiled secretary-general of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in London, Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, retorted that, although this was a positive development, there were still thousands of detainees in Syria's jails. (54) One of the Bayanuni brothers, Abu-Fateh, was permitted to return to Syria after being sent into exile in 1982. Immediately following his return, it became clear that he was part of a move to create a Communist-intellectual-Islamist front against the Asad government. Surprisingly, the administration cracked down on the Communist party, rearresting its leader, Riyadh al-Turk, but not on the Islamic leaders. According to some analysts, al-Bayanuni's return was a calculated move by the regime in order to deepen divisions within the Muslim Brotherhood resulting from this tactical shift favoring reconciliation with Syria's leftists and communists. (55) The Muslim Brotherhood, it seems, is still incapable of mounting an exclusive campaign against the government.


The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had the unusual experience of participating in electoral politics in order to achieve its goals. This facet of the Syrian Islamist experience sets it apart from other Islamist movements in the Arab world. Until the rise of the Baath Military Committee in 1963, the Brotherhood was part of the parliamentary scene. This distinction points to the contradiction between the implied revolutionary message of the Brotherhood and its acquiescence in the evolutionary parliamentary process of government in post-independence Syria. Willingness to run for public office before the complete Islamization of society meant that the Brotherhood was willing to enter the world of coalitions and political compromises irrespective of the restraints on its ideology. The Brotherhood, thus, was mired in Syria's chaotic post-independence politics while simultaneously engaged in its other task of recruitment and education.

The second distinctive feature of the Syrian Islamist movement was the stiff competition it faced from other concurrent ideological movements. For most of the Arab world, the virulent Islamic revival of the 1970s came on the heels of the collapse of the modernist Arab nationalist wave. But for the Syrian Islamists, an array of ideological configurations made it difficult for them to swim against the current. Furthermore, the Islamists were unwilling to place the Palestine question at the top of their political agenda as did their pan-Arab rivals. Rejection of the West, a belief in the efficacy of arms, and a strong faith in secularism and supra-nationalism forced the other parties to focus on the Zionist enemy. The Brotherhood, however, focused on moral values, an enmity towards the military, and a traditional approach to foreign alliances.

Thirdly, the Syrian Brotherhood was limited in its recruitment policy and overlooked the rising military sector as a potential defender of the state against outside enemies and as an instrument of social change. This limited the Islamist recruitment pool to students and the professional classes. But even these two sectors were not exclusively available to the Islamist organizations since the pan-Arab parties also targeted these groups.

When the decision was made to confront the Baath militarily in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Brotherhood made the tactical mistake of seeking refuge in enemy territory: Jordan and Iraq. This, coupled with the Islamists' alleged collaboration with the United States, enabled the Asad regime to mount a successful vilification campaign against the Brotherhood. The Islamist uprising, therefore, failed to rally anti-regime and pro-democracy forces behind it. The Islamist movement in the 1980s became a suspect and isolated phenomenon and was rendered incapable of giving voice to all forces opposed to the neo-Baath. What could have been a general uprising against the Asad brand of Baathism turned into a limited insurgency weakened by its foreign associations.

(1) George Jabbour, Al-fikr al-siyasi al-mu'asser fi-Souriya [Modern Political Thought in Syria] (Beriut: Al-Manarah, 1993), pp. 142-144.

(2) Ibid, pp. 141-42.

(3)Ibid, pp. 241-42.

(4) Ibid, pp. 139-40, 145-46.

(5) Hamdan Hamdan, Akram Hourani, rajul lil-tarkh [Akram Hourani, Man of Destiny] (Beirut: Bisan lil-Nashr, 1996), p. 315.

(6) U.S. Department of State, Syria: Background Notes, Vol. V, No. 13, November, 1994, pp. 1-3.

(7) Dirasah 1987, p.47.

(8) Umar F. Abd-Allah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1983), p. 33.

(9) Jabbour, op. cit., p. 116.

(10) Abd-Allah, op. cit., pp. 33, 99.

(11) Ibid, pp. 88-91.

(12) Adel Ridha, Qiraah fi fikr al-Asad [A Reading in Asad's Thought] (Cairo: Dar Akhbar al-Youm, 1993), p. 404.

(13) Muhammad Khaled Hussein, Souriya al-muassirah, 1963-1993 [Modern Syria, 1963-1993] (Damascus: Dar Kanan, 1996), p. 173.

(14) Naji Abd al-nabi Bazzi, Sryia, sira al-istiqtab [Syria, the Struggle for Co-optation] (Damascus: Dar ibn al Arabi, 1996), p. 290.

(15) Hamdan, op. cit., p. 121.

(16) Abd-Allah, op. cit., p. 145.

(17) Jabbour, op. cit., pp. 345-46, 351.

(18) Ibid, pp. 133-34, 181-83, 242.

(19) Abd-Allah, op. cit., p. 100.

(20) Jabbour, op. cit., p. 242.

(21) Bashir Fanseh, Al-Nakbat wa al-mughamarat [Catastrophes and Adventures] (Damascus: Dar Yarub, 1996), p. 180.

(22) Muhammad Nimer al-Madani, Adnan al-Malki (Damascus: Al-Dar al-Hadeethah, 1996).

(23) Adnan al-Mallouhi, Akram Hourani: arrab al-inqilabat fi Souriyah [Akram Hourani: The Midwife of Coups in Syria] (Damascus: Dar Dimashq, 1995), pp. 89-90.

(24) Jabbour, op. cit., pp. 145-46.

(25) Jonathan Owen, Akram Hourani: dirasah hawl al-siyasah al-Souriyah ma bayn 1934-1954 [Akram Hourani: A Study on Syrian Politics Between 1934-1954] Wafa Hourani, translator (Homs: Dar al-Maaref, 1997), pp. 110-112.

(26) Hamdan, op. cit., pp. 50-51.

(27) Owen, op. cit., pp. 105-107.

(28) Fanseh, op. cit., pp. 94, 100, 207-208, 234-35.

(29) Jabbour, op. cit., pp. 121-22.

(30) Ibid, p. 141.

(31) Hamdan, op. cit., pp. 173-75.

(32) Hani Al-Kheir, Akram Hourani: bayn al-tanaqulat alsiyasiyah wa al-inqilabat al-askariyah [Akram Hourani: Between Political Movements and Military Coups] (Damascus: Maktabat al-Shrq al-Jadid, 1996), pp. 59, 64-65.

(33) Ibid, p. 71.

(34) Owen, op. cit., p. 131.

(35) Fanseh, op. cit., pp. 266, 280, 289.

(36) Al-Kheir, op. cit., pp. 67-68.

(37) Bazzi, op. cit., pp. 257-60.

(38) Ibid, pp. 259-79.

(39) Abd-Allah, op. cit., pp. 97-100.

(40) Jabbour, op. cit., p. 141.

(41) Bazzi, op. cit., pp. 291, 303.

(42) Abd-Allah, op. cit., pp. 100-102.

(43) Samir Abduh, Hadatha thati marrah fi Souriyah [Once Upon a Time in Syria: A Study of Syrian-Arab Politics in the Periods of Unity and Separation, 1958-1963] (Damascus: Dar Ala al-Din, 1998), pp. 34, 110, 114, 118-9.

(44) Hamdan, op. cit., pp. 374-75.

(45) Abd-Allah, op. cit., pp. 101-118.

(46) Ridha, op. cit., pp. 399-407.

(47) Al-Asad 1973, p. 11.

(48) Abd-Allah, op. cit., pp. 111-30.

(49) Hussein, op. cit., pp. 181-82.

(50) Lucien Bitterlin, Hafiz al-Assad: masirat Munadhel [Hafiz al-Assad: The Biography of a Patriot] Elias Bidyouwi, translator (Damascus: Dar Tlas, 1994), p. 312.

(51) Ibid, p. 330.

(52) Patrick Seale, The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 329-31.

(53) Ridha, op. cit., p. 417.

(54) "Asad's Dispensation," Middle East International, No. 638, November 24, 2000, p. 11.

(55) "Syria: Two Arrests and a Return," Middle East International, No. 659, September 28, 2001, p. 26.

Dr. Talhami is D.K. Pearsons professor of politics at Lake Forest College. She is the author of Syria and the Palestinians: The Clash of Nationalisms (see review on page 164).
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Author:Talhami, Ghada Hashem
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Date:Dec 1, 2001
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