On December 10, Jabhat an-Nusra executed two young Palestinian men in Yarmook, Zakariya Mar'ei and Ahmed Seyam, on accusations of being kuffar (infidels). The day before this heinous crime marked the first anniversary of the abduction of four well-known political and human rights activists - Samira al Khalil, Razan Zeitouneh, Wae'l Hamada and Nazem Hammadi - by Jaish al Islam (the Islam Army) in Douma. Daesh, or ISIS, is even more (in)famous for its terrible crimes, of which the killing of 700 people in Deir Ezzor last July was the ugliest. Revolutionary activists Abdullah al Khalil, Feras al Haj Saleh, Ibrahim al Ghazi, Polo Daloglio, and Dr. Ismail al Hamed were abducted by Daesh in Raqqa in 2013, and there has been no information about any of them to date.
These facts draw a clear picture of the dismal situation of the Syrians, while dozens are also falling at the hands of the Assad regime every day. On November 25, a raid by the regime's fighter jets killed 220 civilians in Raqqa, ruled by Daesh and also bombed from time to time by the advanced war technology of the US.
Salafi organizations, which emerged within the context of the people's struggle against a fascist regime, suppress the people just as the regime does. What is specific about these organizations - which appeared many months after peaceful protests, even months after the appearance of the Free Syrian Army - is that they brutalize local communities under the pretext of confronting the regime. This justification mirrors that of the regime itself, which has always justified its brutalities against the population by means of its so-called confrontation with Israel.
The draconian brutalities experienced by the population incited a restructuring process of the Islamist scene, one that benefitted the salafis at the cost of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The former have a "natural affinity" for environments of massacre, whereas the MB developed a more political inclination. The relation between the salafis and violence is a structural and systematic one, to the extent that their organizations flourish under conditions of brutality and the collapse of states. They even have a theory about this desired condition, which they call "management of savagery" - savagery being the condition of lawlessness and state collapse. For both the Assad regime and the salafis, violence is not just a possible tool of politics or a forced course of action: it is politics itself, by choice. For jihadi salafis, peaceful protests are not simply an ineffectual method of struggle: they are a mistake in the creed, a sin.
These two currents of Islamism, MB and salafis, capitalized on a strong predisposition toward Islamic protest in the Arab world over the last 40 years. Since the 1970s, the Arab world has fallen under malignant tyrannies and political immobility, which are of a piece with the rise of oil revenues and the ascendance of the Gulf rentier state, as well as the supremacy of Israel and the Arab failure to support the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and statehood. In these decades, the political and ideological currents that rose up in the post-independence days following World War II were eroding, either because they were instrumentalized by tyrannical regimes (Ba'ath in Syria and Iraq, Liberation Front in Algeria, Constitutional Party in Tunisia), or because they were crushed through suppression and imprisonment (leftist and democratic organizations in Syria).
As a deeper stratum of Middle Eastern societies' existence, 'Islam' became a vehicle for protest and mass mobilization. For decades, 'Islam' provided an independent discourse—-rooted in religious texts—-that the regimes could not control; it also created spaces for independent, voluntary gatherings – believers praying in mosques - that could not be disbanded by regimes. This made "Islam" a political baseline for the majority of Syrians, a situation that applies to other religions and faiths as well.
Since the beginning of the revolutions, Islamic faith has emerged as a strong force of protest, independent from the regime and even from Islamists, though the latter were better positioned to benefit from it. Popular Islam lent its language to the Syrian protest movement, alongside democratic and emancipatory slogans. Democratic and leftist groups also have languages of protest with the capacity to mobilize, but on a narrower scale and less adapted to conditions of violence.
Islamists are better prepared for violent conditions. The cost of this preparedness is the emancipatory content of the protests. When they are in power or have the upper hand in a region, Islamists display powerful authoritarian tendencies; salafis, even fascist ones. This is so simply because Islamists have no positive bases for building social, political, and economic life within heterogeneous societies. They say Islam has all the right answers, but the statement is arbitrary and cannot be defended.
To resolve the contradiction between the emancipatory and public dynamics of protest and their authoritarian political model, Islamists try to legitimize their power by means of their resistance to corrupt junta-like regimes. But they are brutal with the people they rule. Shari'a (Islamic law) becomes a machine for suppressing people and for extreme forms of social and demographic engineering. The concept of Kufr (infidel) that was used to justify the killings of the two young Palestinians is a strategy for securing the absolute power they aspire to, in much the same way that the regime uses the concept of khiyana (national treason) to control political activism and social independence.
The repressive aspects of Daesh are becoming more apparent to wider sections of the people and are being met with stronger resistance. A few weeks ago, women demonstrated in the town of Rami in the northern part of the country in protest against Jabhat an-Nusra. Under Daesh's rule, the mosques of Raqqa are nearly empty now at Friday prayers, though they were always full of believers in the days of the Assad regime. In Douma, hunger demonstrations erupted against Jaish al Islam last summer, and starving people stormed into places where salafi-affiliated merchants had piled foodstuffs. A campaign that I helped to launch in solidarity with the four activists kidnapped in Douma received higher levels of support in the region, whereas Jaish al Islam and its leaders (military and religious alike) were subject to higher levels of contempt.
The population wants to reclaim politics. They want to talk and express themselves, gather together, and own public space. Religious talk is losing its efficacy because it is now a language of power, used to silence people or to deny them their ability to protest or say no. Prayer gatherings have progressively lost their aspect of protest in places dominated by Daesh. Staying home can be a political act in these circumstances, an act of resistance. Public spaces have become alien, avoided by people when possible because they are occupied by the sullen-faced Daesh. The word Daesh, an Arabic acronym for ISIS, has powerful derogatory connotations. The word itself - invented less than two years ago but now widespread - is also an act of resistance. As Petra Stenin recently remarked, its great merit is to deprive this fascist entity of its desired Islamic name.
At the same time people are developing new languages and forming new gatherings. In the above-mentioned women's demonstration in Rami against the Nusra Front, local women used religious discourse to protest against injustices: "There is no god but God/ those who do injustice are the enemies of God!" They restored slogans from the early days of the revolution: "We want the detainees/we want the detainees!" And this declaration of owning their town: "She is ours, she is ours/Rami will remain ours!" Then they chanted a slogan directly targeting the Nusra Front: "We don't want to see masked people/they stole the properties of the detainees!" Only a women's demonstration could escape armed suppression, unlike a protest comprised only of men or of both genders.
This is a link for the Rami women demonstration against the Nusra Front
Wall graffiti, protest sit-ins, leaked news and videos, writing articles: all are unstoppable activities of resistance, even though they have not yet formed a coherent current.
It seems the despotic Islamists have nothing but violence with which to confront these acts of resistance. Daesh, with its spectacular crimes, is not punishing its supposed enemies; rather, it is terrorizing the population under its forced rule. The Nusra Front kills people at Yarmook refugee camp to impose and reinforce its domination. Salafis in Douma assassinate political activists and abduct human rights activists to intimidate their opponents and terrorize the population. These entities make claims on Islam itself, defining it in a way that dispossesses people from their religion and places them in the naked category of infidels. Again, this is the same as the Assadist strategy of defining patriotism in a way the makes all Syrians traitors or put them under constant suspicion of being unpatriotic.
This is why the 40 year old Islamic awakening has reached its limits. An awakening from it is, in turn, the biggest challenge facing Syrians today in their hard struggle.
Critique of Islamists is not new in Syria and in the Arab world. But this critique has rarely developed an emancipatory content or sided with the masses. It was a mostly elitist or 'modernist' critique (anti-political and anti-struggle) that left out issues of justice, freedom, and human dignity, or one that opposed the Islamists' dogma with another full-fledged dogma: 'Stalinoid' communism in the past; "modernism" today. This must look very strange, but it is the stark reality. The role is still vacant for an emancipatory movement that confronts Islamists, that aligns itself with the common people and defends their right to possess politics and also their right to possess religion, one that struggles with and among them for freedom. This is yet another big challenge facing Syrians and other peoples in the region.
Kelly Grotke edited this blog to a lucid English