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Syria Uprising…Salafist or Not

Published: 29/03/2012 04:18:59 PM GMT
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DAMASCUS - As opposition groups squabble over politics and world powers are unable to stop the bloodshed of civilians, Islamists are seeking to make religion the unifying basis of the uprising against the regime of Syrian Pre (more)

DAMASCUS - As opposition groups squabble over politics and world powers are unable to stop the bloodshed of civilians, Islamists are seeking to make religion the unifying basis of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

"At first Syrians called on the West and NATO,” Lebanese Muslim scholar Sheikh Abu Abdullah Zahed told Reuters.

“Now they are calling on God,” he added in his library, where Islamic flags hang on the walls.

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Zahed is one of Salafist scholars who are seeking to make religion as the unifying basis of Assad's opponents.

He offers his Islamic flags that hang behind him to people who join anti-Assad protests in his hometown of Tripoli.

"At first no one raised anything other than the Syrian flag. Now some are raising the Islamic flag," Zahed said.

More than 9,000 people have been killed in Assad's security crackdown on anti-regime government a year ago.

Syrian authorities blame “terrorists” and foreign-backed armed groups for the violence, saying they have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.

It is hard to know what impact Salafist groups are having in Syria, which has restricted access to journalists.

But in Lebanon, there are signs they are gaining ground, according to Reuters.

From the seaside city of Tripoli to border towns along the rocky foothills of Syria, where rebels and refugees cross the frontier, Salafists are showing up in greater numbers.

When night falls on the border, Syrian protesters set tires ablaze and fly their colorful independence flag.

But as the flames grow higher and the night wears on, they are overtaken by young men whose black banners emblazoned in white Arabic script declare: "There is no God but Allah."

Salafists say they are drawn to the anti-Assad revolution because their religion says they should aid the oppressed.

But some Syrian activists sheltering in Lebanon say Salafist scholars don't represent them but are taking over at rallies.

"I try to speak at protests and some sheikh comes up and takes over,” Musaab in Wadi Khaled, a farming village on the mountainous border with Syria, told Reuters.

“These protests are for the people not the sheikhs. Then we are all accused of being Salafists and sectarians.”

But Salafists deny the claim, saying they are helping refugees and supplying many doctors and clinics that treat wounded Syrians smuggled into Lebanon.

"The state has fallen short in terms of helping the Syrians but we are happy for it. People who come here for help will leave with more Islamic thinking," said Zahed.


But Syrian activists say they lead a grassroots, inclusive movement but are unfairly stereotyped because many of them are religious.

"I want a pluralistic state that is democratic and belongs to everyone,” said a Syrian activist in Tripoli, who calls himself al-Shami, which means “the Syrian”.

“Why are people so afraid? Yes, our revolution has Salafists, we have Islamists. Everyone is participating in the revolution.”

He tugs on his brown, bushy beard: "Do we have to shave our beards so people don't feel threatened? We're not terrorists."

Some Islamists are struggling to prove that their conservative views do not make them militants who can't work with foreign powers.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most organized opposition group abroad, includes followers from many Islamic backgrounds.

The group is in Turkey this week meeting with foreign powers along with secular and minority leaders.

The Brotherhood has set out a platform for a future Syria that is democratic and pluralistic.

But it has yet to convince minority groups who are wary of the balance of power and fear Islamists will change their tone if the uprising succeeds.

But activists in Syria say it is that radicals next door that have some activists worried, pointing to calls for jihad by some protesters.

"If the Syrians call us to jihad we will do it, God willing,” said Sheikh Salem al-Rifai at his Tripoli mosque, as crowds of men filed out from afternoon prayers.

“The UN can call it international terrorism or whatever they want.”

Minor Syrian imams have already called jihad but many Syrian sheikhs are wary and appear to be holding off an irrevocable escalation that would allow in foreign fighters.

There are already reports of Iraqi, Libyan and Lebanese fighters entering Syria and activists say they may be motivated by Sunni sectarian loyalties.

In the meantime, groups such as Al-Qaeda could appeal to poorly armed rebels facing Assad's tanks and artillery.

Zahed, the Lebanese sheikh, said Al-Qaeda sympathizers were certainly interested in Syria but he had seen no evidence that the militant network was setting up a base in Lebanon or Syria.

"Al-Qaeda would need more time. It's like opening a new branch of a restaurant. You can't just show up and start right away. It takes months to find the right place and the staff."

Gulf Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both called for arming the anti-Assad rebels. While they have not yet won wide support for this, light weapons are already being smuggled in.

But some activists like Al-Shami, who plans to leave Lebanon to join a rebel unit, are suspicious of outside involvement.

"We don't want outsiders to lead our revolution, not secular, not Muslim Brotherhood, not Salafists," he said.

But that doesn't mean they won't accept help."We are drowning right now," he said. "If someone reaches out his hand to me, I will take it."

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