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The Cost of the Syrian Uprising: Shaykh Al-Bouti

22nd March, 2013
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By H.A. Hellyer

Thursday evening in Damascus saw a suicide bombing take place in Masjid al-Iman -- one of the more famous mosques in Syria's capital city. At least 42 people were killed; among them was a famous Sunni religious scholar (‘alim), 84-year old Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti. Of Kurdish origin, he was a renowned scholar worldwide, with students from across the Muslim world, including within Muslim Western communities. His fame was built upon his commitment to classical Sunni thought, and his opposition to different types of Salafism, including Saudi Wahabism and Muslim Brotherhood thought. More recently, however, he was infamous for his backing of the Syrian regime: a rarity among Muslim religious scholars after the brutality of the regime against the popular uprising became clear.

The regime, unsurprisingly, condemned the attack as the work of the Syrian opposition. The leadership of the Syrian opposition in turn condemned the attack, suggesting it was the work of the regime or rogue elements, despite their opposition to his political stances. Mouaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, called the attack a crime, lauding the credentials of al-Bouti, while making clear his political disagreements with him. The Free Syrian Army denied responsibility, saying it would never attack a mosque, and the pro-revolution Sufi shaykh and religious scholar Muhammad al-Yaqoubi likewise denounced the attack, calling for prayers for al-Bouti’s soul and those who had been killed in the attack. Seldom has there been a figure that in the midst of war would have found mourners for his death on all sides of the conflict.

Already, uncertainty has begun to set in about the attack. All entrants to the mosque would have been searched, as has been standard practice in Damascus when al-Bouti was giving a lesson, as he was in this case. Heavy security had surrounded al-Bouti for many months, and he had not been in hiding. Had the Free Syrian Army the opportunity to so easily target regime supporters and actors, many of the top brass of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would have met the same fate by now. Pro-FSA activists have suggested that the attack might have taken place precisely to delegitimize the FSA at a time when it was (presumably) about to receive an influx of foreign arms. What has confused matters further is that pro-revolution activists and supporters in and out of Syria have claimed al-Bouti had asked members of his family to leave Syria on the same day he was killed. Others suggested al-Bouti had begun to ‘understand the atrocities of the regime’, and that the regime had planned to have him killed as a result. Without hard evidence, which will be difficult to get, none of that can be confirmed and verified.

Experts on the radical element among the Syrian opposition, such as Christopher Anzalone, a specialist on such movements at McGill University, however, suggest that that any number of groups could be behind the attack. In particular, Jabhat al-Nusra, the radical Salafi extremist group, has been suggested – something that is entirely possible, considering al-Bouti’s vivid opposition to Salafism prior to, and following the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Anzalone pointed out to me that since the group emerged early last year, it has “used hyper-sectarian rhetoric and framing to legitimate its "jihad" against the al-Asad government”. Beyond all of the confusion, those in Syria sitting on the fence vis-à-vis the conflict are not likely to react with outbursts of support for the opposition. If anything, more Damascenes are likely to turn against the uprising with more fervour.

Al-Bouti’s reputation inside and outside of Syria is unlikely to change as a result of his death. His supporters argue that in recent history, al-Bouti was critical to the survival of Sunni Islamic scholarship in the country, irrespective of his political stances. Prior to the uprising, al-Bouti was hardly unique in advocating a quietist, even supportive stance of the regime – the brutality of the Syrian government against dissent, and the fear of violent turmoil made that a common and pragmatic position, even among anti-government Syrians. In the aftermath of the uprising’s beginning, they claim that at 84 years of age, with his movements closely guarded, he was unaware of the regime’s wanton killing of civilians, and inclined to trust the regime’s propaganda against the rebellion. Al-Bouti’s opponents, however, will continue to insist that his support for the regime and opposition of the Syrian revolution ensured that many Syrians would be willing to stand by the government. In that regard, al-Bouti’s opponents and supporters might be in agreement.

In the meantime, the dozens of Syrian civilians that died in Masjid al-Iman will be buried along with tens of thousands of martyrs in this increasingly destructive conflict. Syria’s price for freedom from the tyranny of the Assad regime has already been dear – and it is likely to become more so. Revolutionary Syrians may have hoped al-Bouti would have been part of a new Syria that would have been free, pluralistic and independent. Instead, he will be buried along with many other Syrian martyrs before the carnage ends, and victory for the struggle of a better Syria is won.

H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs. Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer


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