In Syria, Providing a Voice for Moderate Islam

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Syria remains a secular country but the capital is showing signs of transformation. Slighted political parties that call for Islamic modernism and the advancement of technology are only a few of the changes.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Fourteen Marines and their civilian interpreter were killed in western Iraq today. The US military says they died early this morning when their amphibious vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb during combat operations near the Syrian border. One Marine was wounded in the attack. Today's violence comes after seven Marines died earlier this week also in western Iraq. We will continue to cover this story as it develops.

An Islamic revival of sorts is under way in Syria. It's being carefully watched by the government there, long considered one of the most secular in the Arab world. A quarter-century ago, Syrian security forces brutally suppressed an Islamist rebellion that had brought the country to the brink of civil war. Now the Syrian government is trying to co-opt religious fervor. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

(Soundbite of voices)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

On a hot Saturday afternoon, with ornate ceiling fans whirling over thick carpets, a group of women gather for an Islamic study group at a mosque in Damascus.

(Soundbite of woman singing in foreign language)

AMOS: The modest dress is fashionable--Islam with flair--some head scarves of bright pink. A few wear jeans. These popular groups are one sign of an Islamic revival.

Another is this computer and bookshop, the House of Knowledge, with displays of digitized Korans, hand-held and wide-screen size. Find any verse with the touch of a button...

Unidentified Man: Just a little touch.

(Soundbite of man singing in foreign language)

AMOS: ...with a choice of six famous Koranic readers. A salesman explains the software for this $900 computer was developed in Syria.

Unidentified Man: It's a lot of--expensive. You know this is a complete computer system and this device should be available in each home.

AMOS: The bookstore, across from the Russian Cultural Center, once sold Marxist literature, just one of the failed ideologies that makes Islam seem like the answer, says Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi.

Mr. IBRAHIM HAMIDI (Syrian Journalist): It did not happen in one night. It happened gradually, so in 25 years, the secular Syria became Islamist.

AMOS: To contain the region's radical wave, says Hamidi, Syria promotes a state-sanctioned Islam, giving it plenty of media time and government money.

Mr. HAMIDI: We have now 8,000 mosques. By opening institutes to teach Koran, now we have 120 institutes. Their official strategy is to support moderate Islam in Syria.

AMOS: And to support moderate clerics.

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AMOS: One of the most well-known is Muhammad Habash. The director of the Islamic Study Center, Habash is also a member or parliament. His views are influential at a time of uncertain change.

Mr. MUHAMMAD HABASH (Islamic Cleric/Member of Parliament): We need democracy development, democratic development in Syria, and then modernize of Islam will go ahead.

AMOS: Democracy is essential now, warns Habash.

Mr. HABASH: We have in Syria--like 50 percent of the people in Syria who are looking for Islamic solution, but which kind? Which kind?

AMOS: Syria feels it is again threatened by radicals drawn to the country as an underground route to Iraq. In the past few months, Damascus has deported more than a thousand Arab militants to their home countries, but there is domestic support for these extremists, says Hamidi.

Mr. HAMIDI: In society where 20 percent unemployment rate, where you have one million unemployed, in society when you have lack of freedom of expression in society, where next door the Americans are occupying Iraq, so all these elements make conservative society more ready to be extremist.

(Soundbite of voices)

AMOS: Damascus still seems a secular, tolerant city. While Friday prayers are packed, so are Damascus nightclubs. Satellite dishes sprout from every rooftop. But everyone feels change is coming. A new law is expected soon opening the way for political parties to challenge the ruling Baath Party, in power for 40 years. Will moderate Islam have a political voice? Josh Landis, an American professor living in Damascus, says one Islamist group is trying to make a comeback now.

Professor JOSH LANDIS (Damascus Resident): On the grand strategy, the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to figure out how to engage, how to get back into the political game, because they lost. They were forced out.

AMOS: Officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood is still a force among the majority Sunni Muslim population. Its leadership, mostly exiled in London, has called for democracy in Syria. Over the years, it has moderated its message, even changed its Web site logo for broader appeal, says Landis.

Prof. LANDIS: By getting rid of this Koran and the swords and looking like jihadists, you also can begin to discuss things with Christians and with other minorities, and ultimately, they're going to have to discuss things with Alawites.

AMOS: Especially the Alawites, a minority religious sect who hold power in Syria, including the president and top officials in the security services. Landis says the Muslim Brotherhood declared Alawites apostates, non-Muslims, in the 1980s, a position they have not officially changed.

Prof. LANDIS: Now this regime has never forgiven them for that, and it'll take some real work for the Muslim Brotherhood to convince Syrians they don't remain those bloodthirsty Koran-holding, sword-wielding fanatics that they were in the 1980s.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

AMOS: In a radio studio in Damascus, Muhammad Habash broadcasts his popular program three times a week. He believes moderate Islam must have a place in Syrian politics. He's even tried to broker a dialogue between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. HABASH: Honestly, we launched this kind of reconciliation one year ago, but we didn't find any positive result.

AMOS: One government official has made contact, Sami Al-Khiyami, Syria's ambassador to London.

Ambassador SAMI AL-KHIYAMI (Syrian Envoy to London): Well, I always sat down with some of the Muslim Brotherhood in the past, if they are not involved in any violent act, if they happen to be of the present generation, etc.

AMOS: But Khiyami says the Muslim Brotherhood, or any political party based on religion, has no place in Syria.

Mr. AL-KHIYAMI: You cannot basically convince the man holding a holy text that there is another opinion that he has to take into account.

AMOS: Many Syrians warn that if moderate Islam does not have a voice, Islam in Syria could become more radical and once again go underground.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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