The History of Political and Militant Islam in Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 16

The rise of political Islam in Syria can be traced to the 1940s, when a Muslim group called al-Gharra entered parliament, creating an Islamic Bloc to oppose the secular and civilian regime of President Shukri al-Quwatli. In 1944, its leaders presented a long list of demands that included installing special tramcars during rush hour to separate the sexes, shutting down all cabarets and casinos that served alcohol, arresting the owners of nightclubs, and the establishment of a moral police squad, similar to the one in Saudi Arabia, to be charged with patrolling streets and punishing transgressors of Islamic norms. In May 1944, al-Gharra violently protested against a charity ball held in Damascus, which wives of the ruling elite were planning to attend unveiled. Demonstrators took to the streets, carrying revolvers and knives, stoning cinemas that welcomed women and burning nightclubs. To win, the president decided to discredit the clerics in districts where they enjoyed most power; the poor neighborhoods of Damascus.

Quwatli got Adila Bayhum, head of the independent Women’s Union, to temporarily cease the free distribution of milk to the city’s poor. When mothers came to collect, they were politely turned away and told, “go to the shaykhs, let them give you milk.” [1] Then, Quwatli cut off flour distribution in Midan, where the Islamists were popular, knowing perfectly well that nobody else could provide bread since the government controlled all flour rations in the wartime economy. [2] The clerics could not deliver, and overnight the demonstrations supporting the Islamic groups turned against them. This civilized and effective approach is what Syria needs today in order to curb the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other emerging Islamic group.

Consecutive regimes, especially after 1963, did not pursue moderate approaches, however, and clashed with the Brotherhood twice, in 1964 and 1982. The Brotherhood considered the Ba’ath to be secular heretics, and the Ba’athists considered the Brotherhood leaders to be dangerous fanatics who needed to be rooted out from Syrian society. The Muslim Brothers were disturbed by the Ba’athist takeover of 1963 and began to drum up anti-Ba’athist sentiment in Syria’s urban interior. Secret cells of Islamic groups were formed to bring down the Ba’athist regime. In Aleppo, for example, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman Abu Ghuddah, an ally of pre-Ba’athist Syrian President Nazim al-Qudsi and former Mufti of Aleppo, created the Movement for Islamic Liberation. [3] Inflammatory speeches aroused the street, and pulpits were used to denounce the Ba’athist regime. By April 1964, rioting had developed into a religious war in the conservative city of Hama, where arms were used against the government. The prime agitator was Marwan Hadeed, a Muslim leader from Hama who claimed that the Ba’athists, alongside all secular people, were infidels who must be put to the sword. He created a street militia of Islamic extremists to strike at anyone related to the regime, called al-Tali’a al-Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard). [4] It became unsafe for Ba’athists to walk the streets of Hama unguarded, since those who were caught were beaten, and in some cases killed, by the Islamists. The most famous assassination was that of Munzir al-Shimali, a young member of the Ba’ath National Guard, who was killed and mutilated in Hama. [5] This enraged the Ba’athists and Defense Minister Hamad Ubayd ordered the Syrian Army into Hama, bombarding districts of the city where the Brotherhood were located. Street fighting ensued, and the insurgents took up residence at the Sultan Mosque which was air raided under orders from President Amin al-Hafez. [6] In all, around 70 members of the Brotherhood were killed. Defeated, they put down their arms and ceased their militant activity for the next 15-years, when they re-emerged in 1979 to challenge the regime of President Hafez al-Asad.

A combination of factors triggered the Brotherhood to re-activate in the mid-1970s. First, they had recovered, physically, morally, and financially, from the defeat of 1964. Second, their outrage was at its peek when Asad went to war in Lebanon in 1976, supporting the Christians against the Palestinian guerillas of Yasser Arafat. Third, mass recruitment into the Ba’ath Party made it easy to infiltrate and work from within against the regime. Fourth, the Brotherhood had a strong monopoly over schools, thus enabling it to indoctrinate many children and young adults.

Islamic terrorism reached its peak in June 1979 when the Artillery School was attacked in Aleppo, resulting in the deaths of all its young Ba’athist cadets. Not all of the victims of the violence were Alawi Ba’athists; indeed even members of the Sunni Muslim clergy were targeted by the Brothers and their militant allies. The most prominent victim was Sheikh Mohammad al-Shami, who was slain at his mosque, on February 2, 1980.

Faced with a relentless Islamist onslaught, the Ba’ath regime struck back with remarkable ferocity. At the Ba’ath party’s Seventh Regional Congress (December 23-January 6, 1980), Rifaat al-Asad, the president’s brother, famously proclaimed that loyalty was a must: he who is not with the Ba’ath at this stage is against it. [7] On June 26, 1980, the Brothers tried to kill Asad in Damascus and in turn, he passed law 49 on July 8, which stipulated that membership in the Brotherhood was a capital offense, punishable by death. The fighting peaked on February 2-3, 1982 in Hama, where the Brothers took to the mosque pulpits and called for a “total war” against the Ba’athist regime. Authorities responded with force, giving the Syrian Army orders to crush the insurgency. The army responded positively, crushing the insurgency, and killing many thousands in the process. The defeat in Hama was a massive setback for the Brothers who disappeared from the Syrian political landscape for the rest of the 1980s.

To compensate for the losses it inflicted in 1982, the regime constructed hundreds of mosques throughout the country, and encouraged people to be pious but not fundamentalist and militant, as the Brotherhood had been. This eventually back-fired as “backdoor” sermons on political Islam started to surface once again in the early 1990s. Fiery and militant preachers took over numerous mosques, and banned books by the legendary jihadi ideologue, Said Qutb, were distributed widely.

The U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in March-April 2003, has played an important part in reviving Syrian militant Islam. While some Americans regularly accuse Syria of giving shelter to an assortment of Iraqi and foreign militants – ranging from Saddam Hussein loyalists to Takfiris – the Syrian authorities and the wider public have to contend with the very real twin threat of the revival of the Brotherhood and its many militant and Salafist offshoots. The official position of the Syrian government is that it cooperates with the Americans, if only to neutralize the militant threat inside Syria. True, Syria did turn a blind eye to the fighters who crossed the border to fight in Iraq in 2003, but it soon corrected this policy.

When the fighters were defeated or deported back to Syria, a combination of frustration, anger and despair overtook them. Unable to strike at the Americans in Iraq or the Israelis in Palestine, they unleashed their anger on their fellow Syrians. In addition to the Mezzeh attack of 2004, a group of terrorists were apprehended, after a shooting that caused panic among picnickers, in July 2005 on Mount Qassioun overlooking the Syrian capital. Earlier in the summer of 2005, Syria announced that it had arrested one man and killed another who had been planning an attack in Damascus on behalf of Jund al-Sham, a terrorist organization that has recently emerged in the country.

In order to defeat political Islam in the long-term, the Ba’ath regime continues to promote moderate Islam through regime-friendly clerics like the deputy Mohammad Habash, the Aleppo-based preacher Mohammad Kamil al-Husayni, and new Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, who has announced that he is categorically opposed to political and militant Islam. One of these clerics, for example, has a sign on the gates of his mosque in Aleppo saying: “No to explosions!” There is some speculation that in the event of the sudden demise of the Ba’ath regime, the Brothers and their militant allies would quickly acquire ownership of the Syrian state. Certainly the events in neighboring Iraq since the invasion should be a wake up call for Washington. In Iraq, the U.S.-led invasion has ironically buried Iraqi secularism for good, thus surrendering control of the political landscape to Shi’a and Sunni Islamists

Living in Damascus, one gets the feeling that although overt religiosity is increasing, not all religious people are willing to support, let alone fight for the Islamists. Yet, the Islamic groups do represent a certain segment of Syrian society that cannot be ignored. Recently, some reconciliation steps have been taken by the government, including several amnesties which have set free over 1,000 members of the Brotherhood. In September 2001, Asad allowed the return of Abu Fateh al-Baynouni, the brother of the party’s leader, Ali Sadreddine. [8] But the regime has made it clear that a return to organized political activity, for either the Brotherhood or any other Islamic party, is a red-line that the Islamists would cross at their peril. The regime, however, would be committing a grave mistake by not giving the Islamic activists a platform to express their views (as decided by the Ba’ath Party Conference of June 2005). True, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood remains dangerous, but turning a blind eye to it will not make them go away, nor will it make them any less pernicious.


1. Author’s interview with Dr Munir al-Ajlani, a deputy in Damascus in 1943 (September 2, 2000).

2. Ibid.

3. Bawwab, Sulayman. Mawsou’at A’lam Souriyya fi al-Qarn al-Ishreen (vol II 1999). Abu Ghuddah was exiled to Saudi Arabia and remained there until being pardoned in 1997 when he agreed, at the age of 80, to refrain from any political activity. When he died in February 1997, President Hafez al-Asad sent his condolences to the Abu Ghuddah family and his death was broadcasted on the 9:00 pm news on Syrian TV. This was considered the first rapprochement between the Asad regime and the Brotherhood after the events of 1979-1982.

4. Interview with Ali Sader al-Din al-Baynouni, the leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, on al-Jazeera TV on July 7, 1999. See also, Ta’ammulat Istratijiyya fi al-Ahdath al-Souriyya (Strategic Observations in Syrian Events), al-Hayat March 11, 2005.

5. Seale, Patrick. Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East p.93 (London 1988).

6. Interview with ex-President Amin al-Hafez on al-Jazeera TV, episode 12 (June 6, 2001).

7. Tishreen (July 1, 1980).

8. The Daily Star (September 21, 2001).