Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Family Affairs!

I never knew my father-in-law, for he disappeared long before I even met Khawla. This happened way back in the 1981, less than a year after his arrest on March 31, 1980. That was the second time that my father-in-law, one Abdulwadood Yusuf, was arrested.

The first time was back in 1964, shortly after the arrival of the Baath party to power in Syria and the onset of its troubles with the Islamists, represented mostly by the Muslims Brotherhood and its outer circles of sympathizers, and it is indeed to one of these circles that Abdulwadood belonged. For he was never at peace, so to speak, with the ideology of the Brotherhood.

Although this first arrest lasted for a few months only, it was still enough time for much torture to take place. But he was released at the end, with a broken rib. He was not so lucky the second time around, as news from him ceased to reach his family soon after his transfer to the Citadel Prison in Old Damascus (which has since been returned to being just another local tourist attraction and is occasionally used to host cultural events). Ever since, Abdulwadood was reported to have died under torture on numerous occasions, but, and in the absence of any official confirmation, his immediate family members still have doubts, hopes and even fears in this regard to this very day.

Indeed, his brother, who left Syria aroud the same time, continues to raise awareness with regard to Abdulwadood's fate every so often, as he does in the following recent article. For Abdulwadood was also a mentor to many young people at the time, including his brothers and sisters, being an Islamist scholar and activist who wrote many important books and novels in which he tried to flesh out his own particular brand of Islamism.

From my own particular point of view, and having read some of Abdulwadood’s works, his Islamism was not the kind that I would feel comfortable with or consider enlightened. Still, and despite his commitment to the concept of Jihad as an incumbent duty on every young male Muslims, he did, nonetheless, oppose the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of violent rebellion at the time.

As such, his arrest, despite his efforts to dissuade the local leadership of the Brotherhood in Damascus, Homs and elsewhere to come out and take a firm stand against the breakaway Talee’ah faction that espoused violence, made absolutely no sense at the time, and justified the belief that many activists, Islamists, Nasserists and communists, had at the time that the Assad regime was intentionally targeting the moderates in an orchestrated effort to bring about the kind of showdown that we eventually witnessed in Hama, knowing fully well that, at the end of the day, it can win it, seeing that the number of the radicals was limited to a mere few hundreds.

Well, the strategy, which many believes to have been the brainchild of Hafiz al-Assad himself, worked well, but at what price? The wounds of it all are still bleeding. And the Islamists are coming back with a vengeance onto the Syrian scene, and here it is the very regime that had, at one point, tried to stamp them out, now trying to strike a Faustian deal with the worst of them, for the sole reason that they don’t seem to be politically ambitious at this stage.

What the Assads don’t know, however, what they don’t want to know perhaps, or, what they think they can control again when the time comes, is that these groups of politically quietist Islamists are a very calculating bunch, and have far more political ambitions that any would give them credit.

How can I be sure of that? Well, in my heydays as a fundamentalist preacher, I happened to come very close to some of these groups, and I knew what sort of Machiavellianism lies at the heart of their religious ethos.

People like Abdulwadood were much more straightforward and honest, as they told the entire world who they were and what they wanted to achieve. But they were willing, nonetheless, to commit to an approach that relied mostly on preaching rather than violence. Their commitment to jihadism was of that traditional variety aimed at imperialist occupiers, not at their neighbors and countrymen. For this reason, some kind of a modus operandi can indeed be struck with them, or their remnants, unless, of course, one wants them on board for mere decorative purposes, without any real commitment to power sharing, transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

Striking workable partnerships with these Islamists will not be easy by any means, but it is not all together impossible, as we all need to temper down our expectations. Moreover, these partnerships may just serve to counterbalance the rising influence of the more Machiavellian and radical varieties out there.

In the final analysis, we really have to ask ourselves: do we really think that we can just go on living and progressing while avoiding this issue? Personally, I doubt it, because, for most of us, Islamists are family, and often they are right there in our face, not rotting away in some jail, or buried in some anonymous mass grave. Indeed, my father-in-law may no longer be with us, but my cousins are.

But then, for me the whole issue of ideological, national and religious diversity is a family affair. After all, the immediate family includes:

  1. Ideologically: liberals, Nasserists, Baathists, Communists and Islamists.
  2. Religiously: Sunnis, Shia, Druzes, Alawites, Maronites, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and, surprise, Jews, and,
  3. Nationally: Arabs, Kurds, Cherkessians and Berber.

Now that’s the quintessence of being Syrian, don’t you think?