In my previous article I examined the question of how jihadists in Syria conceive of their jihad against the Assad regime. But how does the regime portray jihad?
Earlier this month, many observers were surprised by a statement issued by the Supreme Iftaa Council, whose leader is Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, the most senior Sunni cleric in Syria as Grand Mufti, with strong ties to the regime. The council's fatwa was a call for jihad to defend Assad's government.
I provide my translation of the statement below, as quoted by the Syrian Arab News Agency and reproduced on a pro-regime site called Zanobia (named after the empress of the Palmyrene Empire that had seceded from Rome in the Crisis of the Third Century: an apt symbol for the regime's professed stance of 'resistance' to supposed Western imperialism). I highlight parts in bold for my own emphasis:
Notable is the opening invocation of a number of Qur'anic verses and hadith traditions. The implication of all of these quotations is the idea of defensive jihad for Syria against the rebellion. I highlighted Qur'an 22:39 in bold because jihadist groups who conceive of their fight against the Assad regime as defensive in nature also invoke this verse.
Before proceeding further, one should dispense of Ammar Abdulhamid's misleading term "Alawite Jihadism." While Abdulhamid does explain that "Alawite Jihadism" did not develop as a "strictly religious phenomenon," it implies that there is some kind of specific religious struggle behind the efforts of Alawites fighting for the Assad regime.
On the contrary, to the extent that pro-Assad Alawite fighters express any sentiment about religion, it is normally in the form of a non-religious bloodline identity, which often includes opposition to Islam, and not merely the Sunni form of it as Abdulhamid implies, though the anti-Sunni rhetoric is undeniable
In the most extreme manifestation, this can give rise to statements like 'F— you and your prophet [Mohammed].' A more subtle variation on the anti-Islamic hostility is to ask rhetorically, 'Who is your God? Isn't Bashar your God?' The latter, as I have argued before, does not so much reflect actual worship of Assad (as Abdulhamid seems to think) as simple mockery of the fact that the deity the detainees worship is not saving them from torture and death.
In any event, even if one were to suppose that the Syrian Alawite community at large is still attached to the traditional faith and its practices that remain very much alive in southern Turkey, the fact is that traditional Alawism does not teach jihad as a form of armed struggle.
Rather, as Yaron Friedman noted, jihad takes the form of taqiyya (i.e. not disclosing aspects of the faith to outsiders for fear of persecution) and mystical initiation, while the notion of 'martyrdom' (being a shaheed) takes on a metaphorical meaning.
If there were some kind of specific religious zealotry behind the support for Assad with calls for jihad, then it would have been apparent among at least some of Turkey's Alawites. Instead, what we find is that support for Assad among this community is rooted in perceptions that Turkey is backing extremist armed groups targeting Alawites- with feared potential of leading to spillover into Turkey with sectarian bloodletting.
Coming back to the fatwa for jihad, it actually fits in perfectly well with the Assad dynasty's approach of 'Sunnification': a policy that contributed much to the divorcing of the Alawite community in general from a real religious identity. For the Alawites, as Joshua Landis has noted previously, 'Sunnification' meant declaring Alawites to be orthodox Twelver Shi'a, while encouraging apparent religious practices along the lines of orthodox Sunni Islam.
Continuing his father's own example of public piety, Bashar has the state media make a big deal of his attendance of mosques for special Islamic occasions. Even the manner of prayer captured in photographs is shown to be in conformity with Sunni Islam, contrasting completely with the organization and practice of prayer among Alawites in Turkey (for more on the latter see this book).
While 'Sunnification' might seem like a very cynical ploy to disguise a minority-dominated despotism, it is a policy in keeping with Ba'athist ideology, which, as envisioned by Ba'ath party-founder Michel Aflaq (a Greek Orthodox Christian), equated Islam with Arabist identity. This equation is most clearly seen in his lecture "In Memory of the Arab Prophet," which argued:
One should compare Aflaq's remarks with Arab nationalist thinker George Habash's claim that "Islam…is one of the basic components of Arab nationalism. Similarly, one can say that the culture of a Christian Arab is Islam."
The ideal Ba'athist regime, just as it should defend Arab identity, should thus uphold the 'essence' of Islam, and try as far as possible to bring minorities- Muslim or non-Muslim- within that fold. This is exactly what the Assad dynasty has been upholding, and the question of jihad is no less relevant.
Among the regime-aligned clergy, consider the case of the recently assassinated Sheikh Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti. Buti was one of those behind the above fatwa. One thing to notice immediately is that the fatwa does not accept any identity for Syria beyond the Arab one, despite the fact that Buti was Kurdish by heritage: a perfect example of the fulfillment of Aflaq's Arabist ideology for a state. In his writings, Buti touched on the subject of jihad on more than one occasion.
In a work he wrote back in the 1990s, entitled 'Jihad in Islam: How to Understand and Practise It,' Buti tried to characterize jihad as something defensive in nature (for the relevant excerpts if buying the book is inconvenient, google for a free PDF copy of this book, which, whatever you think of its author and conclusions, nonetheless presents al-Buti's arguments fairly). Several years later, however, Buti wrote the following in commenting on Qur'an 9:5:
For the Assad regime, which in keeping with Ba'athist ideology claims to protect 'true' Islam, this kind of discourse posed no problem. Jihad as warfare- offensive or defensive- is not only acceptable but also desirable so long as it is directed at the right targets.
Thus there was no real ideological contradiction in sending jihadists into Iraq while playing a part as a torture destination for international terrorist suspects in the CIA's rendition program: it is just that the latter jihadists were regarded as practicing an illegitimate form of jihad in a posing a perceived threat to Syria itself.
And so it is with the present Syrian civil war: attacking the Assad regime - so the reasoning goes - is not really jihad at all. One should observe that in criticizing the rebels, Syrian state media never attack the concept of jihad per se; instead the jihadist rebels- seen as al-Qa'ida-aligned and working for foreign powers- are denounced as 'terrorists,' 'takfiris,' 'Wahhabis' or agents of 'Zionism' (on the last, cf. the fatwa itself).
Instead, those who wage true jihad fight for the regime. Those who wage true jihad will defend the unity of the Syrian Arab nation and thus also the Arab and Islamic nation from the sinister forces that seek to tear both apart.
Now one can understand how a band of Assad loyalists in Raqqah- where the regime as in the Aleppo area forged significant Sunni Arab loyalist ties- vowed to fight 'true jihad against the Free Army and Jabhat al-Nusra' in a video that emerged this month during the fall of that city to rebel forces (hat-tip: @Syrian_Scenes).
In conclusion, the Assad regime, like the jihadists, portrays jihad in the current civil war as a defensive enterprise. The fatwa for jihad issued by regime-aligned Sunni clerics may of course be used to play on any potential Sunni Arab disillusionment with treatment at the hands of rebel factions whose behavior may be deemed religiously extreme.
Yet it should not be thought that the fatwa is somehow out of keeping with the regime's ideology: rather, the very nature of that ideology makes a pretense to the guardianship of what constitutes 'true' Islam and therefore legitimate forms of jihad.
The appeal to jihad in keeping with said ideology in turn demonstrates that the regime still thinks it can fight for control over all of Syria and believes it has substantial support spanning all the country's ethnic and religious groups- including Sunni Arabs, and not merely a tight loyalist Alawite circle.