The Arab Spring has been a decisive factor that made many religious ideologies explode, as many Arab countries have been witnessing a rapid growth of dynamic Islamic mainstreams. Some of them are newly emerging, such as ISIS, and others have been revitalized, such as the MB movement, which was founded in Egypt and spread to and settled in many Arab countries to represent a serious puzzle in evaluating the spring revolutions, whether they are revolutions of oppressed peoples and dream of democracy and justice, or revolutions motivated by religious political beliefs. It gets more catastrophic when considering the religious diversity of peoples like in Syria, in which Muslims constitute a numerical majority that allows them to impose their political authority and their religious legitimacy to restore the illusion of power, even if it was at the expense of the Muslims themselves.
This research discusses all this through the following key themes:
- The expansion of MB in Syria
- Brotherhood in Syria and the return to takeover
- The Islamic Council as the religious reference for the revolution
- The council’s fatwas and the fall of delusion
The expansion of MB in Syria
After the relative silence the MB in Arab countries had lived in, the Arab Spring was a decisive factor in its return as a single organized force that could reap the fruits of the popular protests. The organization became a real dilemma for the peoples in the countries in which they extended and settled, to be added to corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
The MB was founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928, which was the most densely populated country in the Arab world. On account of al-Banna’s ideas, his dependence on educating young people according to the Islamic tradition and his establishment of an elaborate organization in the detailed structure of the cell at the level of both leadership and the base, the organization was able to spread political Sunni Islam in many Arab countries and across the world.
Some objective circumstances have contributed to transiting the organization to many Arab countries to take them as settlements, even if it did not bear the same name, such as in Tunisia, but it carried the same vision of an ideal state that should govern the Islamic nation. The spread of the MB in Arab countries varied in regard to the structure of societies and the ruling political regimes in them. In Jordan, for example, this organization has been welcomed since its establishment in 1946 as it was supported for strategic reasons by King Abdullah and his son King Hussein..() However, in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the MB confronted various challenges imposed by the diverse social reality, sectarian and religious, but this did not discourage them from forming their political and religious bases within their religious framework and establishing their organizational presence by starting from popularly agreed visions that distanced them from societal sensitivities. In Syria, the MB entered in 1945, and the MB’s spiritual leadership was taken over by Mustafa al-Siba’i, who gained his experience from Hassan al-Banna and succeeded in recruiting the Islamic masses opposed to the French presence, as well as to the large Syrian agricultural property owners during that period, with his call to implement the principles of Islamic justice. ()
After the independence of Syria, the MB party had its religious political activity with many parties that were formed for different goals and objectives “Arab nationalism, national socialism, and communism.” Their societal and political bases were made on opposing ideological grounds, such as the MB versus the Communist Party. Thanks to Saba’I, MB’s leader, and his flexibility, the organization was able to enter the Syrian parliament, but the role it had played ended with Baath Party coming to power, and later with Hafez al-Assad taking over the presidency. The Brotherhood did not accept that Syria, the old fortress of the Umayyads, to be led by a president from a sectarian minority, let alone from a Baathist background. Nevertheless, during nearly ten years from 1971 to 1982, its leadership was shattered by arrests, killings, and exile, and communication between the numerous MB cells and the leaders who established their activities outside Syria were cut off. () The Brotherhood still returned with the Syrian movement in 2011 to revive its activity.
Brotherhood in Syria and the return to takeover
Following its entry into the Syrian uprising, the MB worked to redefine itself by engaging in the conflict as part of a broader coalition, which was paved by the MB’s ability to organize and their usual pragmatism, in contrast to the weakness of the Syrian liberal secular currents. The coalition included many of the Syrian opposition blocs that sought to assemble themselves at the Syrian National Council, whose formation was announced in Istanbul, on October 2, 2011. However, after a short time, defections from the council began to rise, as well as many criticisms of the Islamic bloc controlling the Council started to appear. The Council had a large Islamic component, including the Syrian MB and a second Islamic bloc consisting of the “Group of 74”, most of whom were former members of MB, and many businessmen. With nearly a quarter of the 310 seats in the Syrian National Council, the Brotherhood was the largest and most cohesive faction in the council.()
Not much changed in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces that was formed in Doha, Qatar on 2 November 2012. It received recognition and support from Turkey, the United States of America, Britain and France, in addition to the League of Arab States. It was recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition forces. Turkish and Qatari support particularly contributed to gaining the Brotherhood a leading role in the opposition and provided them with access to financial and media resources.
In the first period of leading the Syrian political opposition, the MB tried to show their distinction from the armed Islamic groups, which emerged after nearly a year of the protests on account of the injection of money and weapons to overthrow the Syrian regime, by maintaining a moderate Islamic trend that reassures their participants in the coalition, and reassures the Western countries that began to see the activity of armed groups as a qualitative shift towards jihad and terrorism, especially when the vocabulary of “revolution and liberation from political tyranny” were replaced with the “jihad” and “implementation of Sharia.” Gaining confidence from a non-Islamic audience at home and abroad requires getting rod of the narratives of the regime’s persecution of organization in the 1980s and using methods of reassurance and flexibility, not for the opposition that lined up with them, but for the Syrians, especially minorities. This can be done by accepting the proposals of democracy and the civil state. This does not necessarily mean retreating from trying to gain power and achieve their own interests.()
Still, these assurances did not cancel out the failures of the MB and the Syrian opposition. The general view remained that they serve a foreign agenda, and that they support the Syrian jihad represented by Al-Nusra Front, one of al-Qaeda’s branches, officially established in April 2013, then turned into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
With increasing violence by the factions that had different orientations, the Brotherhood’s support for al-Nusra Front marked the very beginning of their shift from a moderate pragmatism that they wanted to preserve. This support also labeled the beginning of MB arranging their cards in the new directions of the Islamic discourse and its differences, between the inflammatory sectarian discourse that is based on the illegitimacy of the regime as being a regime of minority and the jihadist Salafi discourse that defined its goal of establishing an Islamic state. Hence, the attempt to reconcile and control the divergence of Islamic mainstreams, and to leave the vocabulary of jihad and implementing Sharia and its Syrian and international problems, resulted in being based on the Shami Sufism known for its moderation, especially the Sufi “Zayd Group”, which was influenced by the Brotherhood’s proposals during the sixties and seventies. Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai, son of Abdul Karim Al-Rifai, the founder of the group (1901-1973), was forced to leave to Saudi Arabia in 1981, then in 1993, Sheikh Osama and his brother Sariya returned to Damascus, and there, they resumed their activities until 2011. ()
In Damascus, they left their positions as supporters of the regime and turned to support its opponents, reviving their old alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. MB relied on Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai to control the divergence of Islamic mainstreams and to reassemble the religious discourse, by blaspheming the extremists. “They do not fear Allah, the Blessed and Exalted, and they allow the blood of Muslims to be shed,” Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai stated in mid-November 2013 describing the princes of ISIS. Al-Rifai clarified that shedding the blood of Muslims make them unbelievers.” ()He, however, did not mention the blood of non-Muslims whose blood was shed by ISIS and other factions.
The Islamic Council as the religious reference for the revolution
The apparent absence of the cultural and secular elites in the protests led to considering the revolution as only religious Sunni’s revolution. With having the religious discourse emerging and being utilized in the revolution to tickle and polarize the popular Islamic community, a comprehensive national discourse that transcends the sectarian attitude has been avoided. The regime’s media has always been accusing the revolutionaries of having this exact sectarian nature. Afterwards, the revolution discourse got far from being consistent with achieving Syrians’ interests in citizenship, democracy and social justice.
With the war getting more severe and the feuding factions increasing, the problems resulting from Islamization began to come one after the other. These problems affected not only the opposition but also the Brotherhood in their inability to form a unified army to fight the regime, or to re-attract the popular Islamic incubator that began to become restless from the factions’ action. This led to weaken the Brotherhood’s image as being the only organized force in the street, and to destabilize its future ambition to rule. The salvation from all these premonitions was manifested in unifying the religious discourse as a basis for unifying the factions and efforts to combat the regime and the search for a unified Islamic religious reference. For them, the case was not to search for a national elite of diverse affiliations and effective at the societal level because this diverse reference, if any, would not provide continuous loyalty to the MB and serve their future purposes.
Accordingly, the establishment of the Syrian Islamic Council was announced in Istanbul in April 2014, and it included nearly 40 scientific and legal associations of the largest Islamic factions.
Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai, the head of the Council, stated that the formation of the Council came to establish an Islamic reference for the Syrian people, to advance their march, consider their public issues, find legitimate solutions to their problems and issues and preserve their identity and the path of their revolution. The participants pledged to build the legal reference on the Book and the Sunnah. The Islamic Council formulated its message and vision to prompt the Islamic project and activate the religious institution’s role in Syrian society, in addition to enabling the Islamic reference of the Syrian people to play a leading role in society.()
Therefore, this statement would be an acknowledgment that this revolution is Islamic as it denied the first reason that the revolution raised as against political tyranny and the ruling dictatorship that was practiced on all Syrians at similar levels. With this statement, Al-Rifai expressed the past vision of the MB and all its generations up to ISIS, where they practice the same vision in reducing social, political and economic life to a religious life in which the boundaries between the religious and the worldly are blended. This vision sees that working with the requirements of Sharia, as a legitimate force and divine law is the way to get rid of the many problems that the Syrian people experienced.
The council’s fatwas and the fall of delusion
Just after its formation, the council became the legal and jurisprudential body for the Brotherhood, which established its ideological project by deriving from the pioneers of fundamentalism, starting with Abi Abul A’la Maududi in India, moving to Hassan Al-Banna in Egypt. Their ideology is based on reducing social and political life to a religious life in which the boundaries between religious acts and the worldly ones, and between the Muslim individual and the religious group are blurred. This project took its religious role in issuing fatwas and delegating politicians in leading the revolution.
The first of these fatwas was issued by the two sheikhs, Rateb al-Nabulsi and Osama Al-Rifai, at the end of the year 2014. They forbade residency in non-Muslim countries, “the countries of the infidels”, when the migration of Syrians to Europe began! This fatwa provoked many reactions that one of their peers, Abdel Fattah El-Said, wrote a detailed response to it. His response came at a time close to the issuance of a fatwa by Tahrir al-Sham within what it called “the fatwas of the Syrian revolution”, in which it decided that the original ban on traveling to non-Islamic countries is only for those who are forced. Considering Tahrir al-Sham’s fatwa, the ban is firmly decided in the case of Syrian refugees. “Voluntarily leaving the abode of Islam for the abode of unbelief is a major sin, because it is a path that leads to infidelity,” ISIS spoke in its magazine Dabiq. ()
The council tried to cover up the fatwas of the two sheikhs, Ratib al-Nabulsi and Osama al-Rifai, by issuing a political statement on September 7, 2015. It explained that resorting to floating the legal (juristic) position had been for reasons related to not arousing the ire of Muslims who sought refuge in the West. However, the first fatwa clarified the reasons for prohibiting the refuge in the West in a similar way to what was given by ISIS and Tahrir al-Sham. These two groups considered that the migration to the land of the infidels would mean infatuation with infidels, falling in love with them or getting satisfied with their religion or their evil, to even getting allied with them due to the direct contact and communication with them. ،() The statement carried similar indications to ISIS and Tahrir al-Sham’s concerns, knowing that the issuers of these two fatwas reside in Turkey, which is relatively similar to Europe in terms of the secular system and society.
The necessity of the Council identifying itself within the Syrian revolution has resulted in the first declaration of its political commitment. On September 18 in 2015, the Syrian Islamic Council announced the “Five Principles of the Revolution” document that defined the course of the Council and won the unanimity of the majority of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and 17 armed factions. () Then on May 14, 2017, the religious constraint was added by forming a fatwa council that includes scholars from the council and from outside, aimed at strengthening fatwas related to matters of public affairs and calamities that require jurisprudential interpretations that meet the era necessities and its needs. ()
In addition, the Council issued many fatwas related to the fighting among the factions, and also called for supporting Ahrar al-Sham to respond to the oppression of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. It also issued a fatwa expressing the council’s support for the Turkish military operations in Syria and considering them as “the greatest of righteousness and piety.” The council urged the factions to participate in the Turkish operations, confirming that fighting ISIS and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a legitimate fight. This fatwa, which formed a legal basis for the factions participating in the Operation Euphrates Shield, was the first of its kind in direct military cooperation with another country on Syrian soil.
In their fatwas, they clarified the legal rulings for dealing with material spoils, dealing with prisoners and smiting their necks. As for their captives, the Mujahideen have the choice, as the Almighty said: When you encounter those who disbelieve, strike at their necks. Then, when you have routed them, bind them firmly. Then, either release them by grace, or by ransom, until war lays down its burdens. ()
Fatwas and statements continued and expressed the absence of moderation, the crisis of behavior, methods of controlling society, and methods of applying Sharia with its dark side regarding women. The Friday sermon presented by Sheikh Al-Rifai in Azaz on August 6, 2021 carried clear incitement against women working in Feminist organizations. He attacked their negative role on society and the family, describing Syrian women working in organizations that deal with the United Nations, as “Women who are charged with spreading corruption among Muslim women under the guidance of their infidel organizations.” He called for caution against the discourse and goals of humanitarian organizations and projects operating in areas outside the regime’s control in northern Syria, describing them as centers of infidelity, misguidance, spreading atheism, and supporting colonialism.
This vision looking at women’s rights as a problematic issue is adopted by part of Muslims and is a major pillar in the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision and statements. On March 15, 2013, the Brotherhood in Egypt, the source of the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement and posted it on their website calling to reject and even condemn the Declaration of Women’s Rights. They considered that the issue of women’s equality raised by the United Nations represents a threat to the family and the position of women established by Islam. ()
Their most downfall was when the Council issued a statement in August 2021 congratulating the extremist Islamic Taliban movement for taking control of Kabul, the Afghan capital. The Council looked at what happened as a victory for the Afghan people, represented by Taliban movement that defeated the colonizers and their aides who had controlled the country and the people with force and fire.()
Despite the paradox of being represented by a religious party in this time, it represents a Brotherhood vision that cannot be ignored. This vision, founded by the advocates of fundamentalism from Abul A’la Maududi to Hassan Al-Banna to Sayyid Qutb and others, continues to tamper with the security of the Arab peoples and their demands. This vision still claims that it supports democracy and civil states, and keeps covering its repeated failures from its founding reaching the experience of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the state that they sought to build.
Furthermore, the tyranny experiences of religious states have always existed throughout history. Having proposed some strategic changes and turned towards a civil state in order to reposition and get out of the narrowness of the organization, the Brotherhood believes that these changes would give them an important role in shaping the future of Syria. However, all of that do not cancel out that the Brotherhood’s crisis goes beyond politics to behavior and vision. These changes being marketed in recent years will not erase their desire to build a religious state, and will not provide them with anything that would acquit them in the future.
The MB returned to Syrian political history by the revolution lever, after having been out since the eighties of the last century. It is still seeking to adapt to reality and to establish the features of its project, and this is not only limited to Syria, but also affects the world. Their project is based on denying reason and considering the Islamic religion as a comprehensive social, political and economic system that states working under the Sharia and requires religious references and fatwa councils. Sharia as it is a legitimate force and a divine law, it has become a catastrophic project for everyone. Still, the important thing for them is to gain power at any cost.
 – د. مصطفى السباعي. اشتراكية الإسلام. مؤسسة المطبوعات العربية. دمشق، 1960. ص: 364
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