Abolishing Syria's Mufti post, Assad usurps all power

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Last week Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad issued a decree not simply forcing Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun into retirement after 17 years, but also entirely abolishing the half-a-century old position of the grand mufti of the so-called Syrian Arab Republic.

Though the decision has led to much speculation regarding the reasons for and implications of Assad taking such drastic action, the ostensible motive for axing Hassoun seems to have been due tocomments he made during the funeral of the famous Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri.

Hassoun, known for exploiting such occasions to deliver Islam-infused pro-regime sermons, decided to ramble on about how God created humankind in Syria and that a map of the country was found in Surah at-Tin; thus, those who left the country, namely the millions of refugees cleansed by the regime, would face divine damnation. Despite regime propaganda about Assad defending Syria from Salafi-jihadis and 'takfiri' extremists, Hassoun effectively used the funeral of Fakhri to takfir every single Syrian refugee.

"While certain elements of the Syrian opposition consider Assad's move to be motivated by sectarianism, the reality is that the ostracization of Hassoun in favour of the CJS led by Sattar is a calculated attempt to master the more conservative elements of Syria's Sunni elite"

While Assad has often utilised and espoused this fusion of fascistic Baathist ultra-nationalism and Islam, it seems this was a step too far, with his comments provoking widespread ridicule and being seized upon by his enemies within Syria's religious bureaucracy.

It would be ironic if Hassoun had been dumped by the regime solely due to his deranged regime-worship. But it could very well be that his darkly absurd comments simply provided Assad with a convenient catalyst to abolish the post of grand mufti, a decision that would have been planned for a long time regardless of Hassoun.

Thedecree issued by Assad last Monday transfers the associated powers and remit previously held by the grand mufti – such as passing religious edicts on behalf of the state – entirely to the regime. This removes the veneer of independence of religious authorities and brings them under Assad’s power via the Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi (Council of Jurisprudence Scholars - CJS), headed by Mohamed Abdel Sattar, Mufti of Tartus and Minister of Religious Endowments. The CJS had issued a vehement rebuttal of Hassoun's interpretation of Surah at-Tin, which perhaps tells us something of the internal machinations that led to Assad issuing the decree.

While certain elements of the Syrian opposition consider Assad's move to be motivated by sectarianism, the reality is that the ostracization of Hassoun in favour of the CJS led by Sattar is a calculated attempt to master the more conservative elements of Syria's Sunni elite. This is the constituency of Sattar: conservative, quasi-quietist pro-Assad Sunnis that are critical of Hassoun.

However, that is not to say the opposition do not have every right to be wary of this decree within the context of the demographic changes that have occurred due to the war. Almost all the seven million Syrians cleansed since the beginning of the war in 2011 have been Sunni, while Iran and its Shia proxies havemassively increased military and ideological power over Syria.

But Hassoun was no voice of opposition to this; instead, he maintained aclose and bountiful relationship with the Iranian regime and its allied sectarian proxies, while espousing, as previously mentioned, a non-sectarian pro-regime form of Islam.

Sattar is as unconditionally loyal to Assad as Hassoun, but much more tempered by the conservatism of the Damascene Sunni religious elites. Within Syria's dynamic of bifurcation between Russian and Iranian hegemony, Sattar is more inclined towards Russia, while wary of the alleged encroachment of Shia Iran.

It could also be the case thatUAE-led normalisation of Assad has had some influence on the decision, especially given the perception of Hassoun's closeness to Iran and his previously thunderous denunciations of Saudi Arabia and its alleged role in orchestrating a conspiracy against the Assad regime. Given this newfound potential understanding between the Sunni Gulf states – and their unfathomably massive resources – and Assad, it could be that this move is meant to buttress the 'Sunni element' of Assad's rump state to better navigate his rapprochement with Sunni regional powers.

These dynamics will perhaps become clear with the passage of time, but it seems most obvious that this move is simply a power grab by the victorious Assad. Though religious freedom in Syria barely existed under the Assad dynasty, anti-state movements have frequently arisen from among the Sunni demographic, including the 2011 revolution.

As Thomas Pierret, a senior researcher at Aix Marseille Université focussing on religion and politics in modern Syria, put it during a conversation I had with him, the decree is an 'insurance policy' for Assad if ever there were to be 'challenges' among the Sunni demographic again.

Indeed, this move is precisely an attempt to further impose the regime’s power on a greatly weakened Sunni 'establishment'. Hassoun was only a roadblock to this given he was bereft of credibility among almost all Syrian Sunnis – Sattar has convinced Assad that it’s better to bring the Sunni ulama under the official umbrella of the regime, giving them limited powers via the CJS, in exchange for absolute fealty to him and his regime.

"If the regime controls the Sunni ulama on a granular level, the easier it will be for the Assad regime to ideologically surveille and shape Syrian Sunnism within the rump state"

If the regime controls the Sunni ulama on a granular level, the easier it will be for the Assad regime to ideologically surveille and shape Syrian Sunnism within the rump state.

This is something understood by the religious elements of the Syrian opposition. In reaction to the abolishment of the position of grand mufti, the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council haveelected a senior Sunni cleric to the position of 'Mufti of the Republic'. The opposition is obviously not doing this out of some fondness for the position of grand mufti as it existed under the Assad dynasty, but precisely because they support the position of grand mufti as a legitimate religious authority as it existed in Syria's pre-Baathist past. They understand Assad's abolishment of the position is another tyrannical, counterrevolutionary blow against the pursuit of liberty in Syria.

Assad's counterrevolutionary war has been successful in terms of keeping him in power, but the next stage of counterrevolution is to reshape the state to ensure that revolution can never occur again.

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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