Riding the Islamic bandwagon might ostensibly help the regime survive its confrontation with America, with the West in general, with Israel, and promote its interests in Iraq and Lebanon.
In order to survive and appease the increasing number of Islamists in Syria, the Baath regime in Damascus is allying itself with the Islamic revolution in Iran, and supporting radical Muslim organizations like Hizballah, Hamas, and insurgents in Iraq. President Bashar Asad always finds time to meet with Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Yousef al-Qaradhawi, a radical Egyptian cleric.
According to recent Syrian media reports, Asad has ordered the establishment of a college for Islamic studies at Aleppo University. Earlier, Aleppo has been declared the "capital of Muslim culture." The Tishreen newspaper also reported that the government had approved the establishment of "Islamic banks." Several Arab Muslim banks have opened branches in Syria: for example, the International Islamic Bank of Qatar. In total, Syria has now nine Islamic banks. The difference between this type of bank and ordinary banks is two-fold: Islamic banks allege that they do not pay or take interest, which according to shari'a law is usury and un-Islamic. The truth of the matter is they do pay and take interest, but they call it murabaha (shared profit). The other difference is that Islamic banks have gender-segregated customer service halls with separate entrances.
As part of the Islamic onslaught, mosque sermons during Friday prayers blast America and brand it as the "devil of all devils." Damascus Radio and TV interview Muslim clerics and ask them about their views on the West. The answer is aggressive and rejectionist: The West lacks all standards of democracy and morality.
It seems, however, that so far political Islam is apparently not helping the regime quell growing dissent. There is simmering social unrest among Syria's 19 million people. Low-key market reforms and access to satellite TV international stations and the Internet have generated a consumer culture obsessed with getting ahead, and have unleashed discontent demanding economic, political, and social reforms.
Socialism and Pan-Arabism, two major pillars of the Ba'ath regime have become obsolete slogans and no longer inspire. The gospel of greed is replacing collectivism. "All public sector companies are making huge losses," says Mohammed Al Bairaq in an article in Tishreen. "A virulent form of crony capitalism is taking place," says Zuhair Gannum, an Independent member of parliament.
Under the rule of Hafiz Asad, father of the current president, nobody dared to mention political Islam. It was severely reviled. Islamists were stigmatized and crushed by Hafiz. Now, the Syrian regime is hoping that introduction of political Islam and use of Islamist discourse can help dampen the grass-roots challenges to government authority which are mounting especially among Islamic adherents. Syria's allies in the region, the Iranians, the Saudis, Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and insurgents in Iraq, use political Islam as a mobilizing ideology.
A Syrian professor told me, on condition of anonymity, that Asad's regime has found that Baath socialism no longer resonates with the wider population and secularism is too abstract. The Ba'ath-led government is fostering a resurgent political Islam to distract from the party's failings. Another faculty member at Damascus University said the Syrian government is playing with fire. The Syrian Islamists are waiting for a chance to topple the Ba'ath regime. They have never, and will never forget, the atrocities which the regime inflicted on them over the last three decades, such as the massacre of tens of thousands in Hama in 1982. Sooner or later they will take revenge.
The real problem of modern Syria lies in misguided official policies, political and economic. Syria's intellectual elite appears as resistant to ideological indoctrination as ordinary folks. Perhaps most important, the Syrian regime simply does not have enough moral authority itself to introduce genuine reforms. The best solution to Syria's problems is neither political Islam nor more rigid propaganda, but greater civic freedom, tolerance, individual rights, and less confrontation with major players in the region. The Syrian regime seems not to have learned from the Iraqi experience and Saddam's defiant discourse and irrational political course of action. All this is, however, problematic and risky, not only for the Ba'ath regime, but also for Israel and the West. Democratic, fair elections in Syria might bring the Muslim Brotherhood and other Muslim radical groups to power, like the one which brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian elections.
The Syrian regime focuses on and enlarges its adversaries' shortcomings and mistakes, but it never reports about its own errors and deficiencies. Local troubles are attributed to "imperialist and neo-colonialist" pressures. The Syrian mass media are propagandistic depicting an avuncular regime and giving a distorted picture of the enemy. For example, the media rarely report about Iraqi suicide bombings and other attacks in which innocent civilians are murdered en masse. But when the Western media report about civilians and children mistakenly killed by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian media rush to repeat and exaggerate the news.
If Syrians were free to express their views about Asad, the majority would want him and his regime to relinquish power.
Dr. Sami Alrabaa, a sociology professor in Germany, is a columnist for the Kuwait Times.