Bitterness, al-Buti and Competing Syrian Narratives

25 Mar

Bitterness, al-Buti, and Competing Syrian Narratives (Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies. By Sherifa Zuhur)

One of the bitter tastes of the war in Syria has been the characterization of events by certain enemies of the Syrian opposition. Many simply refer blithely to imperialism and the “disaster” of Libya. Or Iraq. Or to their own ideas of the current admittedly confusing power struggles in Egypt.

Whenever we discuss Syria on the Sociology of Islam list – well, there is no discussion! Only counter-posts. All that some of us may know about Syrian society, politics and Islamist politics is rendered invisible in the face of other regurgitated narratives. If we respond based on our knowledge, we are accused of imperialism, wrong alliances, wrong doctrine, war-mongering, wa, wa wa.

And in the face of the instant experts on Syria in cyberspace and on Twitter – does anything we know about Syria matter anyway?

When Syria’s top cleric. Sheikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti was assassinated, Thomas Pierret (IMES, University of Edinburgh) who has supported Syria’s revolution posted this:

A short biography of Sheikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, the pro-regime Syrian scholar

Syrian regime loses last credible ally among the Sunni ulama
By Thomas Pierret (Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, University of Edinburgh)
For Syria Comment, March 22, 2013
With the assassination of Sheikh Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti (b. 1929), who was killed in Thursday’s bomb attack at the al-Iman mosque in Damascus, the Syrian regime lost its last credible ally among the Sunni religious elite. A Muslim scholar of world standing, al-Buti had conferred religious legitimacy on the Asad dynasty for more than three decades, with far more influence than discredited state creatures like Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassun.
The son of a Kurdish cleric who fled Kemalist repression and sought refuge in Damascus in the early 1930s, al-Buti earned a doctorate at al-Azhar before joining the staff of the faculty of sharia at the University of Damascus, of which he was dean from 1977 to 1983. In the meantime, he also became famous for polemical essays that were enormously popular among the religious-minded youth of the 1970s.
A staunch traditionalist, al-Buti was struggling on two fronts: on the one hand, he refuted western ideologies such as Marxism, nationalism and of course secularism; on the other hand, he relentlessly attacked the proponents of Islamic reform, from modernist Muhammad ‘Abduh to Salafi literalist Nasir al-Din al-Albani.
Al-Buti always remained a bitter enemy of non-traditionalist brands of Islam: a decade ago, he branded Islamic MP Muhammad Habash a “heretic” because he had claimed that the gates of paradise were open to Christians and Jews; a few years ago, al-Buti encouraged the regime to “cleanse” the country of Salafi zealots. His profound hostility to the central tenets of Baathist ideology did not prevent him from concluding an unlikely alliance with the Asad family.
Al-Buti made his first gestures of support for the regime during the 1979-82 insurgency: whereas most of his senior colleagues were either silent or supportive of the opposition, he vocally condemned the attacks carried out by Islamic militants. This stance was in line with his long-standing opposition to both military and political activism in the name of Islam, which had resulted in poor relations with the Muslim Brothers. Al-Buti’s quietist approach, which he fully expounded in 1993 in a book entitled Jihad in Islam, was in no way related to some secularist principles, but to the belief that Islam should be ‘the common element that unites’ all political forces rather than the preserve of one of them.
In exchange for helping the regime to defeat its Islamic opponents, al-Buti was endowed with informal leadership over Syrian Islam: although he did not occupy any prestigious position within the Ministry of Religious Endowments (awqaf) until his 2008 appointment as the preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, he enjoyed a close relationship with Hafiz al-Asad, who used to grant him long personal meetings. Contrary to many pro-regime sheikhs, al-Buti did not use his political connections for personal enrichment. What he obtained in exchange for his loyalty was visibility through a weekly program on state television, as well the possibility to intercede in favour of some of his exiled colleagues who were willing to come back to the homeland. Therefore, criticisms of al-Buti’s pro-regime stance often went along with recognition that he had helped improve the situation of the religious elite after the fierce repression of the early 1980s.
Under Bashar al-Asad, al-Buti remained loyal to the regime in exchange for some concessions to the religious sector. In 2005, he branded the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri as a US-Zionist conspiracy aimed at destroying Syria and Islam. Likewise, he described the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2007 as part of a US plan aimed at dividing Sunni and Shia Muslims, whom he called to unite, thereby repelling the opposition’s denunciation of the regime’s alliance with Iran. ‘Compensation’ for these declarations included a crackdown on women rights activism, more freedom for religious activities, a faculty of sharia in Aleppo, and the establishment of a short-lived League of the Ulama.
Following his appointment as the preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in 2008, al-Buti became increasingly influential within the Ministry of Religious Endowments by being entrusted with the supervision of an ambitious reform of higher Islamic education. On the eve of the 2011 revolution, however, relations with the authorities turned sour as a result of secularist measures such as a ban on face-veil (niqab) in schools and universities, as well as because of the broadcasting of a Ramadan series he deemed offensive to Islam.
In August 2010, al-Buti suggested that attacks on religion would entail painful retribution on the part of the Almighty: in a ‘vision’ he had in a dream, he said, he had seen a ‘devastating divine wrath filling the horizon’. A few months later, the Kurdish scholar first thought that this retribution had come under the form of the winter drought which for the third year, was hitting the country’s agriculture hard.
When demonstrations started in March 2011, al-Buti declared that this was the actual fulfillment of the godly vision he had had a few months earlier. Once again, the cleric gave credence to the regime’s narrative by speaking of a ‘Zionist conspiracy’. Although during the first weeks of the uprising al-Buti obtained further concessions like the closure of Damascus’ casino, the creation of a state-run Islamic satellite channel and his appointment as the head of a newly-created Union of the Ulama of Bilad al-Sham, his support for the regime gradually became unconditional and, above all, unlimited. A few days before his assassination, that is, two years into a conflict that had witnessed mass killing and destruction at the hands of the regime’s military, al-Buti was still encouraging the faithful to wage jihad in the ranks of the ‘heroic’ Syrian Arab Army, which he once compared to the Companions of the Prophet, in order to defeat the ‘global conspiracy’ against Syria.
Al-Buti, was the only respected scholar to express such vocal support for the regime after March 2011, the other religious sycophants being obscure, third-rank clerics, like Ahmad Sadiq, who was shot dead in Damascus a year ago. Therefore, regardless of who actually committed Thursday’s bomb attack (those who accuse the regime stress the fact that the attack took place in a heavily guarded neighbourhood, the al-Iman mosque being located a few meters away from the headquarters of the Ba‘th party; they also insist on the fact that bombing a Sunni mosque is an unprecedented pattern of operation on the part of Syrian insurgents (but it has been witnessed in Iraq), the tragic demise of al-Buti means that the regime has now ceased to enjoy any meaningful source of religious legitimacy among the Sunni clergy.

Note: the official `ulama of Syria were deliberately weakened, ineffective and isolated, in my own view. I had tried in the early ‘90s to interview a few and selected the wrong topic – a slightly progressive fatwa from the World Shari`ah Council. Pierret has written a good summary of the failings of those in the largest cities here:

What isn’t stated here is that there was an increasing presence of Islamist thought and social symbols in Syria (as throughout the region) even as the state and its alter-ego false political party, and business groups struggled against it.

As’ad responds:

1) When you say this, Thomas: “‘Compensation’ for these declarations included a crackdown on women rights activism…” Are you implying that Al-Buti was more reactionary and more misogynistic than the clerics who are on the side of the opposition? Are you implying that Al-Buti was, say, was more reactionary that Ahmad Mu`adh Al-Khatib who spent years railing against Facebook, masturbation, and who hailed Saddam Husayn for “terrifying Jews”? Or do you concede that the clerics of the opposition are in fact more reactionary than Al-Buti, who was influenced by the Nasserist-reformed Al-Azhar were he studied? Also, what crackdown of women rights activism are you talking about? Are you referring to the time when Al-Buti convinced Bashshar to rescind an order to ban niqabls on college campuses in Syria?

2) Your last section is rather confusing and appears to be propagandistic in purpose when you write: “Therefore, regardless of who actually committed Thursday’s bomb attack (those who accuse the regime stress the fact that the attack took place in a heavily guarded neighbourhood, the al-Iman mosque being located a few meters away from the headquarters of the Ba‘th party; they also insist on the fact that bombing a Sunni mosque is an unprecedented pattern of operation on the part of Syrian insurgents (but it has been witnessed in Iraq), the tragic demise of al-Buti means that the regime has now ceased to enjoy any meaningful source of religious legitimacy among the Sunni clergy.” So you are here recycling the standard unfounded, unsubstantiated accusations by the armed opposition (who basically accuse the regime of every crime and bombing in Syria, including bombs that target the regime or even `Alawite neighborhoods) in order to echo the trend of Saudi-Qatari media which insist that every bomb in Syria (especially when children are killed, as was the case in this particular bomb in a mosque which killed scores of people other than Al-Buti) in order to accuse the regime of killing a man who you yourself label as “the last credible ally among Sunni `Ulama’”? Do you see how the paragraph does not cohere unless you are telling readers that the regime is now going on a rampage to kill its “last credible allies”? You need to decide here: either the regime killed him or he was not then the “last credible ally” of the regime. In fact, Thomas: the opposition realized that the attempt to blame the regime for this murder is quite odd and bizarre, so some opposition groups in fact claimed (rather laughably and posthumously) that Al-Buti joined the cause of the opposition (quietly and silently) only days or hours before he was killed (although, of course, there is no evidence of that whatsoever and the cleric remained loyal to Bashshar’s regime to his last days).

3) What is missing from your piece is that the exile opposition and armed groups have been denouncing Al-Buti and even calling for his murder for long months. The campaigns against Al-Buti have been relentless by various parts of the opposition particularly because he was a “credible”—to use your language—clerical ally of the regime. What is also missing is that Al-Buti recently supported the Fatwa by Mufti Hassun which attempted to monopolize Jihad in Syria by calling on Syrians to join the cause of the Syrian army, which may have sealed his fate.

As`ad AbuKhalil


One Response to “Bitterness, al-Buti and Competing Syrian Narratives”

  1. Sherifa Zuhur March 26, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

    And a great response by Thomas: As’ad,

    1. Whoever read al-Buti even superficially knows that, although he studied at al-Azhar in the early 1960s, he was definitely not influenced by any kind of reformist thought (btw, it would be great if your claim of the contrary was substantiated). See for instance his Kubra al-yaqiniyyat al-kawniyya (1969), which is a harsh denunciation of the reformist nexus (Afghani, ‘Abduh, and rationalist interpretations of scriptures in general). It’s based, among other things, on accusations of crypto-Shiism (for Afghani – unless that one is in Shakhsiyyat istawqafatni, I don’t remember and can’t check at the moment) and Freemasonry. Likewise, al-Buti’s rejection of Islamic political activism was based on an arch-conservative reading of al-Ghazali’s political theology. Al-Buti was in fact far more deeply influenced by his father Mulla Ramadan and his other master in Damascus, Sheikh Hassan Habannaka, both of which were strong traditionalists (see Hadha walidi). Al-Buti devoted much of his energy to the defense of the traditional madhahib against calls for expanding the scope of ijtihad. To give you an example: more than 20 years ago, Muslim Brothers-affiliated scholars like al-Qardawi issued fatwas allowing Muslims living in the west to acquire the citizenship of their country of residence, whereas al-Buti always opposed it; likewise, Qardawi and his likes made it permissible for western-based Muslims to contract a loan with interest in order to purchase their first residence, which al-Buti also opposed.

    Therefore, I’m certainly not willing to concede that Mouaz al-Khatib (who tends to follow al-Qardawi’s opinions in matters of fiqh, and anyway is himself very different from other oppositional clerics) is more reactionary than al-Buti, quite the opposite. I’ll give you another an example.

    The “crackdown” I’m referring to consisted in an early 2007 ban on two feminist associations which al-Buti had publicly (and namely) demonised since 2005, because they were lobbying for a secular reform of family law. He had accused them of being part of a foreign conspiracy aimed at destroying Syrian society from within. The ban was pronounced the day al-Buti appeared on television to comment upon Saddam’s execution in a way that was very pleasant to the regime. The previous year, al-Buti had also secured a ban on an anti-hijab book.

    Had your “enquiry” about Mouaz al-Khatib really gone beyond a selective reading of his pieces on Facebook, Saddam and masturbation, you may have come across the following denunciation of al-Buti (and others, including presently exiled oppositional ulama like Osama al-Rifa’i)’s lobbying for repression against feminist activists, in a text called Freedom … However long the road may be, published by al-Khatib on April 2, 2007. It says (sorry for the instant translation, Arabic version is below):

    When a secular feminist association was closed down, most Islamists rejoiced as if they had liberated Andalusia. As far as I am concerned, I accept the closure of an association in only one case, that is, when it is proved that it is spying for a foreign state. Otherwise, the hand that is called upon by the Islamist in order to silence the secularist today is the same hand that will be called upon by the others against the Islamists if the situation was to change. Whoever thinks that this (i.e. the closure of the association) is a victory is in a state of delusion: Imam al-Ghazali said humans need relentless enemies more than unctuous friends. Islamists should not think about repression, from the beginning to the end, they should instead (sorry, need more time to translate that correctly) “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, confront deviant thought with correct thought, and (also need more time for that one).

    وعندما أغلقت إحدى الجمعيات النسائية العلمانية سُرََّ أكثر الإسلاميين وكأنهم حرروا الأندلس، (وأنا أقبل إغلاق الجمعية بحالة واحدة وهو إذا ثبت أن لهذه الجمعية نشاطاً تجسسياً خارجياً) .. أما ماعدا ذلك فإن اليد التي يستقوي بها الإسلامي الآن لإسكات العلماني هي نفس اليد التي سيستقوي بها الآخرون على الإسلامي يوماً إذا تغيرت الرياح، ومن ظن أن في الأمر نصراً فهو واهم وقد قال الإمام الغزالي أن حاجة الإنسان إلى عدو مشاحن هو أكثر من حاجته إلى صديق مداهن، وعلى الإسلاميين أن لا يفكروا بالقمع لا في البداية ولا النهاية وعليهم أن يمدوا بساط الإسلام بـ(لا إكراه في الدين) وأن يلجموا الفكر المنحرف بالفكر الصحيح، وينهوا الشغب بالسكينة التي يمكن أن يقدموها للمجتمع.

    2. The last section is indeed confusing, because it was written hastily, and at a time the exact details of the attack were still not fully clear. I don’t think the regime killed al-Buti, and I don’t think the latter was about to change his mind. In other words, I’m not doing “propaganda”, contrary to what you elegantly suggest.

    3. Al-Buti has indeed been denounced by the opposition, not so much because he was a credible ally of the regime (Grand Mufti Hassun, a ridiculous puppet, has been attacked even more, and his son was killed), but because for the last two years he was provocatively praising an army involved in mass killings. I’ve seen very harsh comments and even insults against al-Buti, but I missed the calls to murder him; I’d be interested to have the references if possible.

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