Pro-Democracy Islamists Suffer in Crackdown

Pro-Democracy Islamists Suffer in Crackdown
The Syrian government’s recent crackdown on Islamist figures known for their pro-democracy activities has highlighted the difficulty faced by political Islam in growing as a popular movement in Syria.

Syrian analysts say the authorities continue to repress the emergence of any moderate Islamist movement that attempts to step into public or political life.

On November 15, Yousef Dheeb al-Hmoud, an Islamist political activist, was arrested at his home in Deir al-Zawr in eastern Syria, according to Amnesty International.

Dheeb has been held incommunicado since then, and it remains unclear why he was arrested or whether he will be charged. Last month, he was interrogated by political security officials, the international human rights watchdog said in a recent appeal for his immediate release.

Dheeb belongs to the Islamic Democratic Current, a political group that openly calls for democratic reform in Syria and opposes the use of violence.

Supporters of the pro-democracy Islamic movement say they believe in western-type democratic systems.

"[Moderate Islam] accepts western-type democracy with minor reservations,” said a Muslim activist belonging to the movement on condition of anonymity.

He said that moderate Islamists, for example, place social and religious norms above individual freedoms.

“Our goal is to move towards a multi-party parliamentary democratic system,” he said.

"The majority of Syrian people are conservative and religious, so a high percentage of them respond [positively] to what we say, but they can’t declare that in public because of the repression.”

During the last few years, dozens of individuals close to this movement have been arrested by the Syrian authorities, Syrian civil rights advocates say.

In January, the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee reported that Muhammad Ameen al-Shawa had died under torture in prison, months after his arrest along with 12 other individuals ostensibly for what the authorities describe as their “Islamic background”.

Another adherent of the Islamic Democratic Current, Riad Drar al-Hamood, has been serving a five-year sentence in prison since 2005 on vague charges of “inciting sectarian strife”, belonging to a “secret organisation” and “spreading false news”.

Drar was a member of the unauthorised Committees for the Revival of Civil Society in Syria.

Pro-democracy Islamists say they are prevented from giving religious lessons or from delivering sermons in mosques.

They say the government supports fundamentalist clerics who focus purely on religious matters, by facilitating the building of mosques and offering them platforms on state radio and television.

“The regime would never allow a political Islamic [movement] to be active in the country,” said a Damascus-based political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He added that with Islamist movements gaining popularity in other nations in the region, the Syrian regime fears that the phenomenon will spread.

“Political Islam is the [movement] most capable of attracting Syrians of different ages and classes,” he said.

Observers say that in Egypt and Jordan, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular political Islamic movement in the Arab world, are recognised by the authorities and can participate in political life albeit with restrictions on their freedoms.

In Syria, however, the movement is strictly prohibited. Cadres of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood currently live in exile mostly in European countries.

At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 80s, the Baath regime, which came into power following a military coup in 1963, violently crushed an Islamist uprising in the country.

As a result, tens of thousands of Islamists and other leftist dissidents were killed, jailed or went missing.

Since then, the authorities’ tolerance towards Islamists has been very low, particularly towards al-Qaeda-type activists who call for jihadism, armed struggle against the West. They are regularly jailed and tortured, Syrian and international human rights groups say.

Some in the West accuse Syria, however, of adopting a two-faced policy towards jihadist Islamists by contending they are a threat to the country that needs to be eradicated while at the same time encouraging them to carry out attacks in Iraq.

Some observers say that this tacit pact between these Islamists and the Syrian authorities has ensured that Damascus remains largely immune to terrorism.

Meanwhile, some moderate Islamists have joined the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, an outlawed umbrella opposition organisation of secular and minority rights groups.

Dr Yasser al-Iti, a poet and an academic, and Dr Ahmad Touma, a dentist, both close to the ideas of the Islamic Democratic Current, are serving two-and-a-half year prison sentences for being members of the Damascus Declaration organisation.

Some analysts remain sceptical of the current influence of pro-democracy Islamists since, they say, their association remains a loose, unstructured group of like-minded people.

"Syrian society is not aware of the activities of any religious groups other than those of the official institutions,” said Ihsan Taleb, a writer who specialises in political Islam.

The government sanctions a number of Islamic institutions but controls them to ensure that their pronouncements do not cross official red lines.

He added that potentially potent Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which believe that all Muslim countries should be united into one Islamic state, were unable to make any public impact because they were “severely repressed”.