Syria’s Islamists have grown in influence as the war against President Bashar Assad’s government grinds on. They have proved to be effective fighters, well armed and funded.
But as Islamists have grown stronger on the battlefield, more Syrians are asking about their political ideas and what that will mean for the future of the country.
A recent confrontation between liberal protesters and Islamists in the northwestern Syrian city of Saraqeb, which was caught on video, set off a heated online debate.
These weekly demonstrations have become a battle of symbols. Most demonstrators carry the green, red, black and white flag that was adopted by the secular opposition in the early days of the revolt.
But these days, a black banner also flutters at Friday demonstrations. It represents Salafists who embrace an ultraconservative brand of Islam that is new in Syria.
The chants and counterchants are telling: The secular liberals shout for unity, freedom and a civil state. Democracy is what they say they want.
The Islamists turn up the volume with calls for religious rule. An Islamic state is what they demand.
The Rise Of The Salafists
More than 40,000 viewers downloaded this street debate. Secular activists, especially in the capital, Damascus, raised this question on Facebook: Are the Salafists hijacking the revolt?
In some parts of Syria, they are, says Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The role of Salafists in general, publicly, has skyrocketed,” he says. “They have a donor base, they are organized, and they’ve been able to carve out a niche in parts of Syria.”
Their funding comes from private sources in the Arabian Peninsula. Moderate rebel groups, who hoped the West would back them, haven’t gotten nearly the same support, says Tabler.
“The Salafists stepped in to fill the gap, they did, and they are simply making advances and capturing weapons stocks,” he adds. “People like what those groups are doing. They are pushing Assad back. And nothing sells like success.”
A Secular, Salafi Debate
That success has prompted other Syrian groups to debate Salafists directly, which included a recent meeting in a hotel in southern Turkey.
On one side of the table was a Salafi leader who came from inside Syria. On the other side was a group of Syrian Christians that included a female activist, a respected political writer and a priest.
Father Spiridon Tanous, the Orthodox priest, explained he wanted a dialogue between Muslims who say they want an Islamic state, and Christians who insist that democracy is the only system that guarantees the rights of minorities in Syria.
“It’s not an easy discussion,” Tanous acknowledged. “Personally, I don’t accept … my country as an Islamic country, because it’s not like that. But we have to discuss. You cannot say no and just leave. No, because they are Syrian also.”
Getting to know each other was positive, said Michel Kilo, a veteran dissident and a Syrian Christian. The age differences were striking. Kilo is part of an older generation that has long opposed the Assad regime. The young Salafists have been empowered by the war, he said, and insist on an Islamic state.
“They did not put beautiful words or package things for us,” he said. “They said their opinions with clarity and honesty. Even though they know their opinions will not please us, they spoke with honesty.”
Kilo spoke honestly, too. The majority of Syrians, he told them, want democracy and elections to decide what Syria will become.