Salafis in Syria: half the story

Regime supporters miss no opportunity to accuse the revolutionaries of being extremists or Salafis – conveniently forgetting the role of the regime in bringing the Salafist trend to Syria in the first instance.

Aleppo, the industrial engine of Syria, is not only the scene of the most violent clashes between regime forces and the Free Syrian Army, but it is also the home of a unique musical style - al-qodoud al-halabieh-. This music based on traditional poetry and rhythms of the region – is a pillar of Syrian and Middle Eastern cultural heritage.

Aleppo is one of the most conservative cities in Syria. However, its qodouds  express something rather different. For example, the wine of love, a famous qodoud, has a strong erotic message. A frustrated lover declares: In tajoudi fasilini – if you want to be generous, give yourself to me. Suggesting such a thing to locals might elicit disapproving tuts and glares. Nonetheless, this song is widely listened to and sung by many of them. So, for someone who has been introduced to the qodouds as the music of Aleppo, the city's conservative image will scarcely ring true.  

In fact, I would never have noticed these contradictions in my society, but eighteen months ago the eruptions of popular protest against the regime started posing a lot of serious questions. A pressing concern currently on the minds of academics, journalists and any other person with an opinion to express is the emergence of the Salafi trend in Syria. Like most people, I had my own preconceptions about Salafi Muslims. I was jolted out of one of those prejudices when Abu Dia'a, the Salafi commander of an FSA battalion in the city of Jibata Al-Khashab, shook my hand when we met – a supposed big no -no for Salafis when greeting members of the opposite sex.

With his shaved moustache and short beard, Abu Dia'a welcomed me into the battalion stronghold, and even invited me to share an Argeeleh with him! Meanwhile, at demonstrations held in the town centre, Abu Dia'a, held aloft on the shoulders of other protesters, would shout slogans demanding an Islamic caliphate.

"I like to show myself as an extremist Salafi especially when I see people getting scared for no reason." Laughing, he adds: " I am no killer. We [Salafis] are not barbarians. We're always misunderstood. Our prayers, traditions and even our appearance is enough to make the whole world point at us as extremists and get scared”.

A commander in another battalion of the FSA – who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity – told me that his battalion adheres to the Salafi way. The reason for this is not their belief in a Salafi interpretation of Islam, but based on more prosaic concerns: to get funding from Gulf countries and some Salafi clerics based in Tripoli. He added that some clerics insist that the batallions declare themselves as Salafi as a pre-condition for funding. As they are the only source of funding available at the moment, the battalions feel compelled to accept their clerical demands.

I want to mention here that the al-Nosra front – which represents Al-Qaida in Syria – is not a part of the FSA. Only few Syrians contact and meet with them. Mohammad is a member of the FSA who met four Jihadi fighters from Al-Qaida in Damascus last month: "They had the typical appearance of Jihadi fighters and I wondered how they were able to hang around in Damascus City given the tight security conditions that operate there."

When I asked him about their nationalities he answered: "All of them were Syrians and had fought in Iraq. They left Iraq to go to Afghanistan where they received special training before returning to Syria. Panic overwhelmed me when they showed me their dynamite belts under their clothes. They were ready to pull the fuse and blow themselves up to avoid detention!" Mohammad asked them about the possible danger of wasting civilian lives by using these deadly weapons. One of them answered: "We try not to harm civilians, but if something went wrong and they got hurt, they will have the honour of martyrdom". The four Jihadists went off to prayers wearing their deadly weapons.

Al-Qaida has a more open presence in Aleppo. Their black flags can be seen everywhere in this city. Malik is a French Jihadi fighter of Algerian origin. He came to Syria for what he calls "a sacred duty ", and hopes to go back to his family and fiancé on fulfilling his duty. The porous border with Turkey has activated smuggling networks and has given foreign Jihadi fighters a gateway to entering Syria.

A few years ago, a general in the secret police was very proud to state to some close friends of his that he had been training some Jihadi fighters and preparing them to fight in Iraq. Leaked security information from Syrian security branches – particularly the air forces security branch – exposed their relationship with Al-Qaida. They confirm that security forces have played a major role in the training and funding of Jihadi fighters and sending them to other countries.

The Salafist presence in Syria is often  attributed to an agenda set by foreign parties, notably from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But this only tells one half of the story: a Machiavellian foreign policy pursued by Al-Assad regime also nurtured and embraced jihadi elements following the American invasion of Iraq. Faced with this uncomfortable truth, some within the ranks of the opposition in Syria continue to bury their heads in the sand and deny that Al-Qaida is present in Syria. Meanwhile, regime supporters miss no opportunity to accuse the revolutionaries of being extremists or Salafis – conveniently forgetting the role of the regime in bringing the Salafist trend to Syria in the first instance.

While the world's media hones in on Salafis as emerging players in this ever-evolving Syrian revolution, it consistently ignores the reasons behind this. We should keep in mind that just as the popular qodoud al-halabieh does not necessarily reflect the conservatism of the people of Aleppo, statements and slogans on the internet about Syrian Salafis do not necessarily tell the whole story.

Thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article

About the author

Rita is a Syrian opposition activist, she lives in Damascus and studies at Damascus University.

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