Syria: a fight to the death?
In 1982 Hafez al-Assad, the President of Syria and the father of current president, used the military to murderous ends in order to suppress an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. The memories are still very fresh.
Hama Massacre in Syria
In February 1982 the secular Syrian government of President Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father, faced a mortal threat from Islamic extremists, who sought to topple the Assad regime. How did it respond?
President Assad identified the rebellion as emanating from Syria's fourth-largest city – Hama – and he literally levelled it; pounding the fundamentalist neighbourhoods with artillery for days. Once the guns fell silent, he ploughed up the rubble and bulldozed it flat, into vast parking lots. Amnesty International estimated that 10,000 to 25,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, were killed in the merciless crackdown.
At the time, the regime actually invited Syrians and the media to go see it; to contemplate Hama's silence and to reflect on its meaning. American journalist Thomas L. Friedman wrote:
"The whole town looked as though a tornado had swept back and forth over it for a week - but this was not the work of mother nature."
The brutal action became known as 'Hama Rules' - the real rules-of-engagement in Middle East politics. The essence of Hama Rules is that are no rules at all.
Friedman told the story of what he had witnessed "because it's important that we [all] understand that Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia have all faced Islamist threats and crushed them without mercy."
Since then Syria has not had a problem with Muslim uprisings; not, that is, until now.
The Arab Spring
Almost thirty years later, and following the genesis in Tunisia of what has since become known as 'the Arab Spring', the present uprisings spread to Algeria, Libya and Yemen; and there have been since, similar ructions right across the Arab world. In Egypt, secularists and Islamists combined in an ideologically-disparate mix to topple the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Of these things the author, historian and activist Tariq Ali wrote:
"The events .... mark the first real revival of the Arab world since the defeat of 1967 [ in the 6-day war with Israel ].
In terms of the sudden and unexpected speed and ferocity of the uprisings he observed:
"All the weathercocks - ever-alert so as never to be on the wrong side of history, thus always avoiding any experience of defeat - were caught unawares by these uprisings. They forget that revolts and revolutions, shaped by existing circumstances, happen when the masses, the crowd, the citizenry - call it what you will - decide that life is so unbearable and they will be stifled no longer.
For them a poor childhood and injustice are as natural as a kick in the head on the street or a brutal interrogation in prison. They have experienced this, but when the same conditions are still present and they are now adults, then the fear of death recedes. When this stage is reached a single spark can light a prairie fire. In this case literally, as the tragedy of the stallholder in Tunis who set himself on fire demonstrates.
It was the fear of death which had kept the Muslim population in Syria in a quiescent state following the Hama massacre. However in Egypt also there has been a history of institutional brutality: different, but no less violent in nature. And so it was in Egypt - back in the first half of the 20th century - that the Muslim Brotherhood came into being."
The Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb
In the 1950s and '60s a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood was an Egyptian intellectual called Sayyid Qutb. During a spell of study in the United States he formed a highly-critical view of what he saw as a dissolute society - focussed on materialism, wealth and promiscuous hedonism. He was also dis-enamoured by the Christian churches which he judged to have compromised their moral principles in order to increase levels of church membership and attendance.
However his main concern was for his own Arab/Muslim world which he felt was being drawn into the American socio-political model and succumbing to Western values and lifestyles. On returning home, Qutb judged the Egpytian political elite, headed by President Hosni Mubarak, to be in the pocket of the US (as part of the latter's Cold War super-power policies) and allowing the country to become Westernised in its politics, thinking and behaviour. (Jahiliyya being the term used to describe the drift from obedience to Sharia laws into paganism.)
In this context Qutb, who through his writings had a very substantial following, was soon to be regarded as an enemy of the state.
(The Muslim Brotherhood's credo was and is, "Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations." Its most famous slogan, used worldwide, is "Islam is the solution.") In fact one of Qutb's brother's students went on to become a mentor to Osama Bin Laden.
In order to suppress the Brotherhood's activities, President Mubarak enlisted the help of the American secret service and resorted to extremely brutal methods of control. Following torture and imprisonment, Qutb eventually became a 'martyr' for his cause: he was hanged in 1966 following a plot to assassinate the President along with other Egyptian officials and personalities.
Warning: the video below contains some very violent images (from 5.20 on the timeline)
In present day Syria, the battles – a de facto civil war – which are currently raging, are fuelled by the memories of the violence employed by essentially-secular dictators in their warrings against the religiously-Muslim segments of their respective civilian populations. In these revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring, the Islamists have initially been joined by secularist fellow-citizens; the latter aspiring to a secular democratic system of government.
From a Muslim/Arab perspective Tariq Ali has further written:
"What we are witnessing is a wave of national-democratic uprisings, reminiscent more of the 1848 upheavals - against Tsar and Emperor, and those who collaborated with them - that swept Europe; and were the harbingers of subsequent turbulence."
According to Ali:
"This is the Arab 1848. The Tsar-Emperor today is the President in the White House. The Arab masses want to break from the ugly embrace. The US-EU has supported the dictators they're getting rid of. These are revolts against the universe of permanent misery: an elite blinded by its own wealth, corruption, mass unemployment, torture and subjugation by the West. "The rediscovery of Arab solidarity against the repellent dictatorships and those who sustain them is a new turning point in the Middle East. It is renewing the historical memory of the Arab nation that was brutally destroyed soon after the 1967 war.
[ In that war which Egypt, Syria and Jordan launched against Israel, the Arab armies were roundly defeated. The humiliation was profound: The Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar offered to resign. Following his death in 1970 his successor Anwar Sadat developed a peace treaty with Israel and Egypt lost its leading status in the Arab world. - Ed.]
Without condoning the actions of the heads of state in Egypt (formerly) and Syria and Jordan (presently), the longer-term battles will commence - indeed in Egypt they already have - between the secular and the Islamic sections of these populations as each vies for political control and their respective ideologies. The stakes couldn't be higher. Islam – worldwide – is on its '3rd Jihad'; one which Islamist would see as the lead up to the coming of the Imam Mahdi who, they believe, will finally conquer the world for Islam. And of course within the world of Islam the Shia and Sunni camps have been at war over the centuries and are still in deadly conflict over the Caliphate and who should be the rightful successor to Muhammad.
Meanwhile, in the global village and the anarchic blogosphere, secular modernists everywhere are emboldened within and by an international community, and will fight – some perhaps to the death – to prevent deposed dictators being replaced by other totalitarian regimes which are wedded to Sharia law and the politico-spiritual ideology of the universal Ummah
: a world ruled and dominated by Islam.
If the modern history of, for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan tells us anything at all, we could be standing on the rim of an erupting volcano.
The Muslim Brotherhood's English language website describes the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood as including firstly the introduction of the Islamic Shari`ah
as "the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society" and secondly, work to unify "Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberating them from foreign imperialism"