Muslim Brotherhood in Syria: From Politics to Violence

The experience of Al-Taliaa the Combatant emerging from the womb of the Syrian Brotherhood movement (MB) has formed a pivotal and decisive point in modern Syrian history on more than one level. To start with, it was the first experience of Syrian jihadist Islam in the modern era. In addition, it shaped a sharp divergence in multiple paths at once: the path of power and society, the path of power and opposition, the path of opposition among themselves, the path of democracy and dictatorship as well as the path of political Islam, particularly between politics and jihad.

If a little part of the ambiguity surrounding the Brotherhood’s transition to violence is due to the lack of researches in this field and the scarcity of reliable sources, the largest part is because of the movement’s cadre secrecy and the difficult reality the movement had after its defeat in Hama in 1982, in addition to its turbulent relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Syria. The MB in Syria had contributed a lot and played a prominent role in obscuring the reality of Al-Taliaa and thus that station in the history of Syria. This was at a time the cadres of Al-Taliaa were not able to announce themselves and talk about their experience, given the secretive nature of this experience and its hard existence.

Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, the first Arab government to have secular character in Damascus had been formed, the French mandate had come and the caliphate position had been abolished. As a result, the conservative Islamic mainstream, which constituted a large majority in Syrian society at the time, found itself in a position of defense against the currents of modernity that began to flow into the Syrian interior due to the Ottoman reforms and the Enlightenment pioneers that had studied in the West. Some of them revolted against the Ottomans on the one hand, and the environment of religious scholars on the other hand. It was clear that this would change the economic interests map of the religious scholars, whose source of income was assoiciated with religious institutions they were directly running (endowments, mosques…), let alone the symbolic authority they wield and later formed capital that indirectly helped them in the economy as well. Afterwards, this religious circle came to find itself in a threatening position from the ones carrying the banner of enlightenment. Some of them even came from the religious scholars themselves. However, the religious associations and institutions that began to form in that period were an expression of the scholar’s resistance against what was being done in order to restore their positions.

This clash has shown itself in several stages in modern Syrian history through what we call “the battles of secularism and the Syrian constitution.” History tells us that every writing or alteration of the constitution has always been accompanied by a battle that moved from the corridors of parliament and the concerned elites to the street. This battle has always been centered around a specific point entirely, and that is the relationship of Islam with the state. The Islamist mainstream has always insisted that the “religion of the state must be Islam,” around which a lot of political battles have raised in the street. It has always ended with agreements of the type “the religion of the state president of t is Islam, and “Islamic jurisprudence is the main source of legislation.”

Direct Ba’athist power violence

There is no doubt that we cannot understand the transition to jihadism without reading it in light of the escalating tyranny by the authority and the rulers in the country. A tyranny that has begun to release its weight since Husni al-Za’im’s first coup and so on until the Syrian-Egyptian unity and the advent of Ba’ath Party. Since its arrival in power, Ba’ath Party has entered into an open battle with the Islamic mainstream. Its first was the battle of Mosque of Sultan in Hama when the mosque was stormed and the instigators of the protest were arrested, led by Marwan Hadid (the founder of the fighting Al-Taliaa or Jundallah – as it was first named).

In the beginning, Hadid was sentenced to death, but later, this dicision was retracted under pressure from the city’s elders, led by Sheikh Muḥammad Ḥāmid, who was influenced by his friend Hassan Al-Banna to be the first to establish an association in the name of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The clash between Ba’ath Party, on the one hand, and the Brotherhood and the Islamic mainstream on the other was renewed in 1973 with the emergence of the constitution that Hafez al-Assad tried to impose. Marwan Hadid and Saʽid Ḥawwa from Hama, both of the Brotherhood, and Hassan Habanka Al-Maidani from Damascus, one of Damascus scholars close to the Brotherhood, played a prominent role in escalating the protests against the constitution. As a result, al-Assad gave up a little under their pressure and had the phrase “the religion of the president of the republic is Islam,” rewritten. However, Al-Assad refused the phrase “the religion of the state is Islam,” to be in the constitution. Thereafter, a new battle broke out under the title of “What is the extent of the president’s Islam belonging to the Alawite sect?” This made us move from a path to a path completely different from the climate established by Mustafa al-Siba’i when he found a pragmatic solution in the constitution, especially after Saʽid Ḥawwa was arrested and Marwan Hadid fled to Damascus, convinced that the confrontation was not an option. Two years later, Hadid got arrested and died in prison. Ever since, the bone-breaking battle between the two currents has begun. The tyranny of the authorities has played a prominent role in preparing the ground for violence, especially after the regime sought to make the state fully Ba’athist, normalize security service and generalize repression and violence. All of these actions are added to the spread of corruption, the decline in the economy and the decreasing standard of living.

The conflict within the Muslim Brotherhood after al-Siba’i death!

Since the death of Mustafa al-Siba’i, a kind of competition for leadership has begun to rise to the surface in the MB between the cities of Hama, Aleppo and Damascus. A competition that was prompted by the postures on various issues, the most important regarding the violence later. The defection in 1969 was between Issam al-Attar al-Dimashqi and Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda al-Halabi, so that the MB split into two fractions. The posture of the Hama mainstream was on neutrality, as Saeed Hawwa indicates in his diaries. These defections led to an MB that had three mainstreams. The first one was affiliated with al-Attar, and the second with Abu Ghudda to have only one current demanded of unified leadership.

Particularly at this point, the gap within the MB was formed by having elements that were from the MB core but had no political reference to depend on it. At this moment, Saʽid Ḥawwa begun writing a series of his books under the title “Jundallah”, which Marwan Hadid would be directly affected by and would turn it into an armed organization. Here we get to know that the first name of the “Al-Taliaa the Combatant” was “Combatant Al-Taliaa of Jundallah”, as we see that the name “Al-Taliaa” is derived from Sayyid Qutb’s book “Milestones”, and the phrase “Jundallah” is derived from the books of Saʽid Ḥawwa, which we will talk about later in detail in the intellectual and ideological influences of the Al-Taliaa the Combatant.

The birth of violence within the MB in Syria and Al-Taliaa the Combatant role in that!

From our point of view, there are two important points that contributed to facilitating the birth of the violent mainstream in the MB:

First: The Syrian arena has never been free of weapons and armed factions, as every political party in that period had its armed faction that was being trained to use weapons. Differently, it can be said that each party had a small militia under its command. The National Bloc had the “iron shirts,” and the MB had “Al Foutoua”, moreover, Ba’ath Party had “As-Sa’iqa.” Also, some of these cadres participated in the Arab Liberation Army, which was founded by al-Qawuqji, and in the Palestinian resistance operations and camps after the establishment of Fatah.

Second: Since Husni al-Za’im’s coup, the revolutionary ideology has gradually begun to enter to replace the democratic ideology, meaning that all political currents that believe in democratic legitimacy have begun to retreat in favor of the emerging revolutionary radical parties. Some of them began to shift from constitutional to revolutionary legitimacy, believing in a military coup as a way to reach power. When we say coup, it means a weapon, a military and an army, which is confirmed by Nabil Choueiri in the book “Syria and the Scattered Shipwrecks”, when he says that Michel Aflaq began to be convinced of the coup idea after he was rejecting it. This idea moved to the MB, whose military organization turned out to have been preparing for a coup within the army at the end and beginning of the eighties.

The culture of revenge and its role in delinquency towards violence

The Brotherhood’s lackluster reaction to the authority repression, which began to affect, arrest and torture their cadres, especially after killing Marwan Hadid, was one of the factors that prompted these cadres to take revenge and think of weapons, rebelling against the opinion of their leaders. Rather, Al-Taliaa became after having been formed a refuge for the MB fleeing and wanted by al-Assad’s regime. It also began to attract rebellious cadres from within the MB. They did attempt to avoid it by trying to absorb the members and engage in armed action. However, they sabotaged more than they built, and this is something that Ayman al-Sharbaji, commander-in-chief of Al-Taliaa from 1982 to 1988, clearly mentions in his book “On Damascus’s soil.”

In our study of the intellectual roots of violence within the MB, it is necessary to stop at an important issue. It is known that the two founding men of Al-Taliaa the Combatant are Marwan Hadid and Saʽid Ḥawwa. It is noted here that the two men studied in Egypt and approached the Brotherhood there, and that the two were very close to Sheikh Muḥammad Ḥāmid, who was also a friend of Hassan al-Banna – the founder of the first group that had the name of the MB in Syria and was one of the groups from which the MB was founded under the leadership of Mustafa al-Siba’i. This practically means that the intellectual roots of Al-Taliaa the Combatant go back to the Brotherhood’s ideology in general. These roots are specifically associated with the thought of Sayyid Qutb, who was not a theorist of the fighting jihadist groups as much as he was an entry or a necessary link that encouraged interpreting the sacred and making it adoptable to confront the tyrannical authorities. It is the entry that articulated with Mawdudi’s ideas in his slogan, known as Al-Hakimiyya. In addition, the term “Al-Taliaa” appeared in Sayyid Qutb’s book “Milestones.”

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