One day before the start of Ramadan, the once avowedly secular regime of Bashar Assad in Syria has found religion amid growing civil unrest threatening to reach the capital Damascus.
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A new government-run religious TV station, Nour A-Sham (The Light of Syria) began test broadcasts on Friday, the official SANA news agency reported. The channel is to broadcast Friday sermons and religious programming "to provide a correct understanding of Islam and Islamic rules," SANA reported.
Worldwide observance of Ramadan to begin
Meanwhile, in the coastal city of Tartus, a conference titled "Reform From a Religious Point of View," brought together the country's Minister of Religious Endowments and pro-regime clerics, trying to subdue the popular uprising through religious argumentation.
"The clerics are complementing the role of the security forces," Faraj Bayrakdar, a Syrian poet and dissident living in Sweden, told The Media Line. "Every tyrannical regime has used clerics to get legitimacy, and Assad's is no exception."
Assad's Baath party, which took control of the country in a military coup in 1963, traditionally banned public religious discourse as part of its secular, Socialist and pan-Arab ideology. The regime’s newfound religiosity comes as the death toll in the country dramatically peeked over the weekend and the once secular agenda of the anti-government opposition, which called for political reform, has taken on an increasingly religious tinge.
At least 45 civilians were killed in the central Syrian city of Hama on Sunday, as troops and tanks stormed civilians shouting "God is great!" Three weeks ago in Istanbul, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Support of the Syrian People issued a religious opinion (fatwa) declaring support for the Syrian revolution to be a religious obligation.
In their closing statement, the Istanbul clerics called on pro-Assad clerics to stand up to him or "face the consequences in this world and the afterlife."
In addition to dispatching troops, Assad has adopted a variety of tactics to quell protests now into their fifth month. He has blamed foreign interference for instigating the protests, boosted subsidies and promised democratic reform. Nothing has worked, and Bayrakdar said the Syrian public isn’t buying the regime's new religious veneer either.
The killings are now estimated to have reached in excess of 1,400 people and even those far removed from the violence are witness to them through pictures and videos sent by cellphone cameras, he said.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank, said Assad was acting out of concern that Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, might spur a surge of new protests. The president is trying to counterbalance religiously inspired calls to protest via an alliance with clerics who favor the status quo.
"This is a preemptive move to try and retake control of the situation," Hamid told The Media Line.
"There is no justification for protests because a series of reforms is underway," Minister of Endowments Muhammad Abd A-Sattar Al-Sayyid was quoted by London-based daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat
, adding that Syrian clerics have religiously prohibited demonstrations. The daily reported that religious figures and mosque imam's across the country has been directed to discourage protests during Ramadan.
One prominent "recruited" cleric is Sheikh Muhammad Al-Bouty, a member of the Islamic law department at Damascus University, who has spoken out in favor of the Al-Assad regime, and has released fatwas banning protests.
Al-Bouty, 82, even went so far as to condone forcing protesters to bow down to a portrait of Bashar Assad, a punitive measure used last week by security forces against protesters in the city of Duma is southern Syria. Al-Bouty had declared that "those who call for toppling the regime want to topple Islam."
"This happened because that man [the protester] took to the street and called for the overthrow of the regime, cursing his president," Al-Bouty argued on his website Naseem Al-Sham.
In response, furious residents of Deir A-Zor, a town in northeastern Syria, burned Al-Bouty's books in a public ceremony on Friday, saying that his religious rulings legitimized the regime's brutality.
"He who shares the benefits of this world with the ruler, will share its
torment in the afterlife," an unnamed resident was recorded as saying
on a video posted on the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya.
But analysts warned that Assad is playing with fire by appealing to
religious passions. Al-Assad himself is an Alawaite, a heterodox Muslim
breakaway sect whose adherents account for less than 15% of Syria’s
population and aren’t regarded as true Muslims by many.
Hamid noted that Assad had previously tried to delegitimize the
protesters as extremist Islamists in a bid to garner the support of
Syrian liberals and Christians. Christians, who account for 10% of
Syria’s population, have been wary about joining the revolutions for
fear that the country’s Sunni majority will replace the Ba’ath regime
with a Muslim one hostile to other religions.
"We shouldn't overdo the Islamic angle," Hamid said. "The Muslim
Brotherhood is playing a significant roll in the protests, but the
regime wants to use the specter of Islamic danger to recruit Christians
and secularists to its side."