A Sheikh Speaks

August 9, 2006

When Sheikh Abdullah Algharib Alhamad Altamimee, a Syrian Sufi scholar who has been teaching Islam for 13 years, decided to speak against the Assad regime, he broke with a thousand years of Sufi tradition. When he decided to travel to Washington last month and officially join the ranks of opposition, he told his wife that his life was no longer in his hands. His call for change could not have come at a more difficult time, in the midst of another bloody chapter in the Middle East. Yet perhaps now is when his words are needed most.

Sufism, or tasawwuf in Arabic, is the name by which Islamic mysticism came to be known in the eighth or ninth century. Sufi Islam is less rigid in its approach to Islamic law (Shariah), stressing the devotion to God and the pursuit of peace, equality and tolerance. These moderate teachings were often at odds with both Sunni and Shiite Islam, which saw Sufism as a deviation from the true teachings of the Quran. As a result, early Sufi mystics were charged with witchcraft and were persecuted for preaching the Sufi way. Their leaders learned to stay away from politics.

But Sheikh Abdullah now chooses to speak. And when I asked him about this last week, he told me that he is aware of the possible consequences. “If I will sacrifice my life for my people, God will reward me,” he told me with sadness. But unlike others who may consider sacrificing their lives, Mr. Abdullah seeks neither his own death nor that of his enemies. It is a different future for his land that he seeks.

Although Syria is tightly controlled by the Assad family, who are Alawites (an offshoot Shiite branch of Islam representing about 5% of Syria’s population), 70% of the Syrians are Sunnis, many of whom are relatively secular. The moderate Sufi teachings speak to the hearts of many Syrians — but Sufism, Mr. Abdullah tells me, is not the issue at hand. “There are two million eligible young women who are not married mainly due to the fact that their potential husbands, two million eligible men, are too poor to support a future family.” Syria’s huge unemployment and poverty “create pessimism that hurts the country’s future….We are fighting for our lives,” he said.

Sheikh Abdullah allied himself with the Syrian Democratic Coalition, a group of nine organizations led by Washington- based Farid Ghadry, the most vocal opposition leader outside Syria. The coalition calls for regime change and proposes a constitution for a democratic and transparent government based on equality, human rights and universal suffrage. It is strictly forbidden in Syria. Last year, President Bashir Assad declared its founders enemies of the state and arrested a number of affiliated Syrian democracy activists.

The escalating conflict in Lebanon provided the regime with an excellent opportunity to further crack down on any voices of dissent. Authorities have arrested a number of signatories to the Damascus-Beirut declaration, which in June called on Syria to establish normal ties with a sovereign Lebanon. They arrested people like Michel Kilo, a longtime political activist, and Anwar al-Bunni, a leading human rights lawyer, and put them in solitary confinement. Charges for these arrests have yet to be brought. Riad Seif, a former member of parliament, arrested for whistle-blowing about the corruption practiced by the Makhlouf family (cousins of President Assad), was beaten last month as he left a government building after being called for questioning by the security apparatus. Those most recently denied the right to leave Syria include: Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies; Suheir Atassi, head of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum for Democratic Dialogue, which Syrian authorities shut down last year; Walid al-Bunni, a physician who helped found the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society; and Samar al-Labwani, the wife of jailed human-rights activist Dr. Kamal al-Labwani.

Sheikh Abdullah is the latest public figure to join the growing ranks of the Syrian opposition. He is trying to enroll the name of God in the struggle for a better Syrian future. His courage and rare call for change should echo in the corridors of the U.S. Congress and Europe’s parliaments. They all can do more to pressure Damascus. Such pressure will also be crucial to weakening both Hezbollah and Hamas.

Sheikh Abdullah is not just praying. He is asking for the West’s help, hoping it will come before it’s too late.

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