In Secular Syria, an Islamic Revival ; A State with a History of Quashing Rebellious Islamic Groups Is Seeing an Upswing in Religious Faith

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Turmoil in the Middle East and the sluggish pace of domestic political reform is fuelling an Islamic resurgence here.

Although the regime is deeply hostile to extremist Islam, analysts and diplomats believe that Islamic groups could play an increasingly influential role if the state's hold on the country weakens.

Young Syrians are filling mosques, many women have taken to wearing the head scarf known as the hijab, and underground women's religious discussion groups are increasingly popular despite being banned. The austere Wahhabi brand of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden is preached in some small towns in northern Syria. Even longtime Baath partisans are embracing religion.

"The Islamic awakening dominates conservative neighborhoods in cities and small Sunni towns," says Samir al-Taqi, a Syrian political analyst. "In Damascus, through a network of mosques, they dominate between 60 to 65 percent of pious Muslims.... I see many secular people, including Communists, turning to religion."

Analysts say the Islamic resurgence is a reaction to the American- led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the faltering domestic reform program. The Syrian authorities are closely monitoring the Islamic resurgence, buying off some clerics as a means of controlling them, analysts say.

But diplomats and analysts believe that the regime's control over Islamism could slip in the face of mounting frustration with rampant corruption and the failure to implement promised reforms.

"A constituency is being created for Islamic leaders who might emerge if there is instability or the regime falls," says a diplomat in Damascus.

The Islamic resurgence in Syria also resonates with thousands of foreign Muslims who study Islam and Arabic in Damascus.

Islamic educational institutions are closely watched, not only by the Syrian authorities but also by Western intelligence agencies concerned that they may become recruiting grounds for militant Islamic groups. Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, studied urban planning during the 1990s in this conservative Sunni Muslim city in northern Syria.

In April, Asif Mohammed Hanif, a British Muslim suicide bomber blew himself up in a Tel Aviv pub. He had studied Arabic at Damascus University in 2000 where it is speculated - although unproven - that he was recruited by Hamas. Captain James Yee, a Muslim military chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay detention center who was arrested two weeks ago after being caught with classified documents, studied Islam and Arabic in Damascus for four years in the mid-1990s.

Diplomats say there are no indications that radical Islam is being preached in the schools, as they are closely supervised by the Syrian authorities. Indeed, one diplomatic source believed that the number of foreign students visiting Damascus had probably not increased significantly. "It's just that we are paying much closer attention to who is here now," the source says.

Sheikh Saleh Kuftaro, the son of Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, said that only moderate Islam was taught in Damascus.

"We are ensuring that the Islamic awakening among our youth is kept clear of extremism," he says. …