Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is using the specter of radical Islamism to scare the world into supporting his regime. (AFP photo)
Those involved in the Syrian uprising, whether on the ground or in cyberspace, might have noticed that, contrary to the Assad regime's propaganda and the international community’s fears, there are few traces of radical Islamism in Syria. While such an absence could be tactical, evidence indicates that should Bashar al-Assad fall, the chances of Syria turning into an Islamic state are almost nil.
Drawing parallels between Arab unrest and the Iranian Revolution was done in Egypt, where the regime, Western analysts and many Israeli writers warned of the consequences of President Hosni Mubarak's fall. The Muslim Brotherhood would turn Egypt into an Islamic state that facilitates terrorism, they argued.
The same argument is now being used in Syria, and this scare tactic is proving to be the lifeline for Assad and his regime.
When anti-Shah Iranians took to the streets in 1977, Ruhollah Khomeini had already been an opposition star. In fact, Iran's early protests took place partially as a memorial for the death of Khomieni's son Mustafa. Khomeini wielded immense influence through the religious establishment: a network of mosques, religious study rings and scores of moqallideen (followers of Shia marjaas).
Secular Marxists, socialists and nationalists were also part of Iran's revolutionary mix, and it took Khomeini until 1982 to consolidate his power and monopolize leadership.
If Egypt is like Iran, then where is its Khomeini? Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has a small share in the state's corrupt machine and wields little influence outside the clientele network built around its lawmakers and senior civil servants. Egypt's Islamists in 2011 are nowhere close to Iran's Islamist revolutionaries of 1979. Syria's Islamic movement is even further away.
There are only a handful of Syrian Al-Qaeda members. These include Abu-Mosaab al-Souri (aka Mustafa Sit-Maryam), an Osama Bin Laden lieutenant believed to be behind the Madrid and London bombings. Souri has been detained since 2005 in an unknown location.
Born in Aleppo in 1958, Souri joined the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's militant wing, the Fighting Vanguard, under Marwan Hadidi, and was forced to flee Syria in 1980. He was not radicalized until he joined the fight in Afghanistan, after which he moved to Spain and later back to Afghanistan.
Abu-Basira al-Tartousi (aka Abdul-Monim Halimeh) of Tartous was born in 1959. The fact that he had to flee Syria in 1980 suggests that he was another Muslim Brotherhood militant. Despite his popularity with Al-Qaeda on the internet, the man lives in London and argues against suicide bombing.
Tartousi's internet sermons reveal a man with little knowledge of today's Syria. His Facebook page, The Islamic Opposition to the Syrian Regime, has attracted around 400 members, compared to the Syrian Revolution page's more than 110,000 members. Tartousi is opposed to democracy and believes that after deposing Assad, the Syrians should create an Islamic state.
Like Tartousi, the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Facebook page has barely reached 400 members. But unlike Tartousi, the group's leader, Mohamed Riyad Shaqfeh, told Reuters that his party "strives to build a civil state where all citizens enjoy freedom and full citizenship rights" and that it believes in "a multiparty system, with peaceful succession of power.”
The ongoing Syrian revolution is all but Islamic. Like Lebanon, Syria's Islamists are few in number, perhaps due to societal factors that set the Levant apart from the Gulf or North Africa.
The Islamists of the 1980s were radicalized across the board, whether Syria's Muslim Brotherhood or Iraq's Islamic Daawa Party, whose former militants are now members of Iraq's multiparty democracy. Like the Iraqi Daawa, Syria's Muslim Brotherhood has evolved from believers in change through violence to supporters of democracy.
For his part, Assad, like Mubarak, has used radical Islam as a scarecrow, especially with the West. Assad went as far as fostering controlled Islamist violence and using it against his rivals, while later seemingly putting an end to it and winning favor with the world.
The world should not fear Syria after Assad, for the country will not become a monstrous Islamic state. The world should rather endorse and encourage change in Syria.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Rai newspaper