In Syria, Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups have gradually emerged as one of the main threats to the survival of the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Ironically, however, the presence of thousands of jihadists—always talked up by the pro-Assad media—has also provided the struggling Syrian government with a card to play. The willingness of Western governments to become more actively involved in the Syrian conflict in support of the rebels, particularly through the supply of lethal weapons, suffered a setback due to the mere possibility of those weapons falling into the hands of jihadist groups.
The spectrum of violent Islamism has long offered the Ba’ath Party a narrative through which Syria’s governing party has justified its legitimacy. Among other Islamist groups based in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood has historically been the focus of the regime’s oppression. “We’ve been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s, and we are still fighting with them,” said the current president of Syria after the initial protests in Deraa. Most notably, a six-year-long uprising against the government of Hafez Al-Assad, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, was brutally crushed in 1982 in the western city of Hama.
Despite the brutality of the Syrian civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood has again become one of the main players on the ground, after years operating underground. The Majalla spoke with Ali Sadreddine Al-Bayanouni, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood from 1996 to 2010. Born into a pedigreed family of religious scholars in Aleppo, he became interested in the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood at the age of sixteen. He was encouraged to take part in the group by his father, Sheikh Ahmed Izzedin Al-Bayanouni. While his father preferred Sufism and the duties of running a mosque, the young Bayanouni soon began his political activities in earnest.
In 1979—during the Islamist insurgency in Syria—Bayanouni’s family were targeted by the government and then sent into exile. Nevertheless, he is a tenacious man who has secretly entered Syria several times. From 1980 onwards he lived in exile in Jordan, pursuing his political activities. But the Hashemite Kingdom’s relationship with Syria gradually improved, and in 2000 Bayanouni was informed during a visit to the UK that he could not return to Jordan. Consequently, he sought refuge in the UK and now resides in London.
What is your analysis of the current situation in Syria?
I am optimistic. It is natural that after fifty years of this oppressive regime, it’s not going to be easy. The regime’s violence and the Hama massacre have left a scar on the minds of many. No one could have imagined that there would be a revolution in Syria, but it happened. Syria, in many ways, has more of a right to revolt than Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. That it is taking so long is also natural. What is unnatural is that the international community has been so patient with the Assad regime, when it was not with Gaddafi or Ben Ali. Why?
Q: Don’t you think that the reason the West doesn’t want to get involved is because it is scared that Syria will turn into another Iraq?
The situation in Syria is different from Iraq. Rather, the international community does not want the revolution to succeed. They want to exhaust the people of Syria and the regime until the two are forced to come to a political solution; this political solution will be based on the regime being in place, but it has different faces.
Q: What do you think of the position of the US and Britain?
They are not with the Syrian people. It has become a case of self-interest, and when the [Assad] regime handed over their chemicals they abandoned the Syrian people because this regime serves the security of Israel. No one cares about the Syrian people.
Q: What is your position on the Islamist brigades and the Free Syrian Army brigades?
Our position is to help the people of Syria and all the brigades against the regime, irrespective of creed or ideology. But we do not accept Takfirists [those who deem other Muslims apostates], nor do we accept foreigners coming and enforcing their vision on the Syrian people.
Q: So do you agree with Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who called on Sunnis with military experience to go and fight?
We don’t object to that, but it is not for them to interfere in Syria’s destiny. The Syrian people know best what is needed for their future. Syrians do not need foreign fighters, but if they come to help they are welcome as long as they don’t come to decide Syria’s future.
Q: Should we be scared of brigades like Ahrar Al-Sham or the Al-Nusra Front and others?
The truth is that this is not about religious hardliners, but about the Islamic character of the revolution. That scares a lot of people. Many do not want Islam’s ascendancy in Syria, and this is why they want to exhaust all sides: so there can be a political solution. I believe there is no fear of extremism, because Syrians are moderate by nature and if there is extremism they are a small minority.
Q: If the regime falls, will the Syrian Brotherhood not find itself in a similar situation to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood?
Certainly, there are attempts at counter-revolution in Egypt and Tunisia and other places. But I believe that Syrians are capable of realizing their aspirations democratically.
Q: You don’t envisage Syria turning into a scenario similar to Libya, with a multitude of brigades claiming to be the protectors of the revolution?
It is possible. There will be many threats because the regime killed any form of political life in Syria over the last fifty years. The presence of extremists has also created this situation; however, the Syrian people are able to overcome these challenges and realize their democratic ambitions.
Q: Many Islamist brigades do not recognize a democratic Syria. How is the Syrian Brotherhood, who claim to believe in democracy, going to convince them?
We have the political experience to deal with this vacuum. Most moderate Syrians will accept democracy because it is a tool to choose, remove or appoint a leader. This does not contradict Islamic governance and exists within Islamic tradition [since] the time of the Prophet.
Q: You have established a new party, the Syrian Waad Party. What is the thinking behind it?
We did not establish it, we cooperated with other groups—Islamic and non-Islamic ones—the only condition being that all accept that Islam is the source.
Q: Why is your new party different? Some argue that these are just cosmetic changes to the same policy.
This is not like Freedom and Justice Party [which is considered the Egyptian political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood], rather, we are a part of a new party. We are cooperating with others. We have a third [of the membership], other Islamists have a third and the rest will have a third. The latter could be secularists, Alawites, Christians and so on. This is what the party consists of. We believe that our politics can be best expressed through this party, and if it doesn’t work for our members we can always leave. You cannot judge this new experiment with the past, because there is no precedent for it.
Q: With regards to the Syrian Brotherhood’s vision, many Christians fear that it will not be inclusive of Christian sensibilities. How do you counter that?
We have good relations with Christians and others. We have lived side by side in coexistence and understanding with our Christian brethren. Sheikh Mustafa Sibai [one of the Syrian Brotherhood’s founders] used to have excellent relations with Faris Al-Khoury [former Syrian-Christian Prime Minister] and supported his candidacy. In the past, we have worked with Christian candidates under one banner. The minorities have never been threatened [by us], it is the regime that has created sectarianism for its political ends. Christians and Muslims are citizens, and this is an Islamic principle. All citizens are equal in terms of their rights and duties.
Q: Is it possible for a Christian to be leader of this new party?
Yes, this is possible if they are elected. Currently we have a Christian vice-president.
Q: The fighters on the ground in Syria have dismissed many of the opposition groups outside the country as not really representing their interests. What are your thoughts on this?
It is absolutely right for those on the ground to say that the opposition outside do not represent them. We [the Syrian Brotherhood] don’t claim that. We support the revolution and cooperate with the opposition, but it is not possible to dismiss the opposition outside as it is not possible to belittle the revolutionaries who are sacrificing their blood and lives. Our role is to support the revolution with whatever they need.
Q: Do you have your own brigades?
There are no Muslim Brotherhood brigades. However, there are people who are fighting in brigades who share our ideas. We do support and prefer brigades that are moderate and share our views.
Q: Should the government eventually be overthrown, there is fear that there will be another civil war in Syria. What are your thoughts on this?
This is a real fear, and the longer the conflict continues the greater the risk becomes. But the majority of the revolutionaries are ready to surrender their weapons once the revolution is over. There will be a small minority who will resist this, but I believe their reluctance will not be hard to overcome.
Q: What is your opinion of Turkey’s role in Syria?
Turkey has been the most supportive, both materially and morally, in the revolution. They continue to support the revolution without an agenda. They have suffered difficulties inside their own borders as a result, but they continue to help Syria. They recognize the danger of this regime remaining, and have tried in the past to encourage Assad to join the democratization process, but to no avail.
Q: Could you comment on the Kurdish situation in Syria?
Kurds have a right to express their identity through their language and culture, and they should have complete rights, like other Syrians. However, we will not accept the demand of extremist Kurdish nationalists who wish to split Syria up. As for any other issues pertaining to Kurdish rights, we will address them, but always within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity.
Q: Has Hassan Rouhani’s ascendancy to the presidency of Iran affected things in Syria?
There is no change in the policy of Iran, [Iranian fighters] continue to fight with the Syrian regime [who support] them with weapons and wealth and brigades. [Iran] prefers its strategic needs over the Syrian people.
Q: Some analysts believe Hezbollah is compelled to fight because they are dependent on Iran. Can there ever be re-engagement between the Syrian Brotherhood and Hezbollah as fellow Islamists?
In the past there were no issues between us and them, when they directed their resistance against [Israel]. Syrians supported them in 2006 and opened up their doors and homes to Hezbollah, whether they were Shi’a or non-Shi’a. But when resistance turns within Lebanon and Syria into a sectarian weapon, [Hezbollah] becomes like an enemy.
Q: Some religious scholars say that you shouldn’t use Islam in politics, What do you say to that?
No-one has a monopoly on religious expression in Islam. There is no such thing as political Islam. Islam is Islam. In Islam there is politics, society, economics, inheritance and other things. Islam is a complete system. If you want politics without Islam, you will have something without ethics. We believe that Islam concerns itself with life—and that includes politics. This is why a separation of religion from state is impossible.
Q: What have you learned from failure of the Arab spring in Egypt?
The attempt to scupper the revolution [in Syria] has many reasons [behind it]. The rulers are scared of the people. They show the destruction of Syria to their people and say, ‘Woe to you if you revolt.’ The secularist rulers scare the people with fear of terrorism. They don’t want Islam to establish itself, and that is why they are fear-mongering and trying to make this revolution fail. But Islam is coming to Syria.
Q: Do you understand why the West is not keen on the Islamic movement?
The West has begun to realize that moderate Islam can actually prevent extremism. It is impossible to ignore the power of Islam in the Syrian revolution. It is a reality. I believe that in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the strength of the revolutionaries was Islam. The West will work with reality
This article was first published in the Majalla