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