by Issam Eido for Syria Comment
Clouds of ambivalence and uncertainty have obscured Syria’s religious landscape from the beginning of the revolution. In the particular way that the conflict developed across space and time, every individual affiliated with a religious group became compelled—sooner or later—to take sides. Needless to say, any declaration of alignment in the conflict carries serious consequences, especially for religious shaykhs who are looked to for guidance. If even tacitly supportive of the revolution, the position taken by shaykhs can lead to killings, arrests, or torture by the regime’s officers. On the other hand, a shaykh might lose his followers or be accused of being a spy or in-league with regime intelligence if he exhibits even nominal support for the opposition. Hence, the first stage of suffering was the dreadful obligation to choose a side, something that weighed on ulema everywhere and exacerbated whenever a shaykh’s popularity was on the rise or when there was specific danger in the area where he lived. Accordingly, the way that the conflict developed can help us understand the reason for the declarations of each shaykh at particular points in time, as well as explain (in some cases) why the focus was on one shaykh more than others.
The Syrian revolution has two trajectories: geographic and temporal:
The geographic trajectory of the revolution conferred upon the ulema—the Arabic word for Muslim religious and legal authorities—the responsibility to tell the truth about what was happening in the area where they resided. Accordingly, we understand that the first religious defection to occur was that of the mufti of Dara‘a, and that the first shaykhs who were exposed to killings, imprisonment, and other dangers were the shaykhs of Dara‘a. These were followed by those of the city of Homs whose shaykhs rebelled in their entirety, supporting the revolution from the oldest to the youngest. They subsequently suffered displacement, prison, or evacuation, including such shaykhs as Anas Swaid, Mamdouh Junaid, Adnan al-Saqqa. This city, therefore, didn’t experience the contravention of public expectations by any shaykh who had gained the trust of the people before the revolution. Moreover, some shaykhs of the city were leading demonstrations and giving speeches in public places, such as Shaykh Junaid. The city of Hama was the third city to engage strongly in the revolution, but it lacked prominent religious leaders because most of its significant figures were killed, arrested, or evacuated during the events of the 1980s. Since then, fear of persecution has led most of its shaykhs and students to follow ulema from Damascus and Aleppo.