It was with a proverbial stroke of a pen that Syrian tyrant Bashar al Assad issued a decree abolishing the position of Grand Mufti, the highest Sunni religious authority, in Syria last week.
The purported reason for the abolition of the post were comments made by the notorious incumbent Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun at the funeral of the famous Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri.
Hassoun, known for his deranged ultra-zealous blend of fascistic pro-Assad nationalism and Islam, used this occasion to rant on about how God had created humankind in Syria and that a map of the country could be found in Surah at-Tin. He then claimed that every single person who had left Syria, as in the millions of refugees cleansed by Assad, would be damned to hell.
Though these dangerously absurd comments from Hassoun are not surprising, it seems that Assad capitalised on the backlash and embarrassment they caused to dismiss Hassoun and abolish the position of Grand Mufti entirely.
However, there ought to be no doubt that this move was in the works regardless of Hassoun and his debased exegesis.
In truth, in the years prior to this decree, the position of Grand Mufti in Syria had been weakened and reduced to all but a ceremonial post.
In 2018, Assad introduced Law 31, reducing the term time of the position from life to a mere three years and, more significantly, surrendered the nominal powers of jurisprudence held by the Mufti directly to the Assad regime, with the powers being absorbed by Assad’s Minister for Religious Endowments and Mufti of Tartus Mohamed Abdel Sattar and the then newly set up Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi (Council of Jurisprudence Scholars - CJS).
Though the post of Grand Mufti under the Assad dynasty was independent in name only, this ought not to take away from the particularly vicious function of Hassoun during his 17 year tenure.
Assad, like his father, used the Grand Mufti role to give his regime a veneer of Sunni religious authority – Hassoun, in this sense, was perfect for the role. During the genocidal war unleashed by Assad against those who revolted against his dynastic power, he deputised the all-too-willing Hassoun to approve the execution of at least 13,000 political prisoners in Saydnaya prison, as well as his constant blood-baiting sermonising on behalf of the regime.
There has been some speculation among the opposition and Syria observers that Assad’s abolition of the Grand Mufti post was sectarian in intent and reflective of the hegemony of Iran and its proxy militias over the Baathist rump state.
While Syrians have every right to be concerned about Iran’s grasp over Syria and its sectarian machinations, given that almost all of the 7 million Syrians cleansed from the country have been Sunni, Hassoun himself was never opposed to Iranian hegemony.
In fact, not only has he fervently supported Iranian intervention, but there is considerable evidence that he has financially profited from Iranian intervention in Syria. Though one might think that Assad getting rid of the highest Sunni religious authority in the country might be sectarian by definition, the reality is that by giving the powers of the Grand Mufti to Sattar and the CJS, Assad is actually attempting to gain mastery over the weakened Sunni establishment in Syria.
Sattar, a long-time critic of Hassoun, represents a constituency of elite conservative Sunni members of the ulema who hold almost quietest views regarding the regime – they support Assad, but many do so only due to a cultural-religious belief that they ought not to challenge authority.
By Assad essentially replacing the Grand Mufti with the CJS, which contains members of the ulema and brings them into the regime for the first time, he is essentially guaranteeing their complete loyalty to him in exchange for them holding powers of jurisprudence.
Far from this being a move that emboldens Iranian power and ideology over Syria, Sattar, and the constituency he represents, tend to be wary of Iranian influence and favour Russia in Syria’s dynamic of sub-colonial patronage.
While there has of course never been religious freedom under the Assad dynasty, anti-state movements and revolts, including the revolution of 2011, have tended to emerge from the Sunni religious demographic.
Assad’s abolition of the Mufti position is an attempt to better control this already weakened demographic on a more granular level, by bringing the ulema into the regime and attempting to forge a pragmatic but loyal Sunnism.
This is what Sattar called “ending the era of anarchy” that has fostered “religious extremism” in Syria. This move is thus Assad’s insurance policy against potential unrest within what’s left of the Syrian Sunni religious demographic.
One can glimpse these contradictions in the opposition response to the decree.
The Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council have elected a senior Muslim cleric as their own ‘Mufti of the Republic’. They have done so not because of fondness for the viciously pro-Assad Hassoun or the post of Grand Mufti as it existed under the Assad dynasty, but rather due to their belief in the religious legitimacy of an independent Grand Mufti and the role as it existed prior to the Baathist coup in 1963.
There is also the matter of the growing reality of Assad being reintegrated into the region via a normalisation initiative headed up by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. As Assad courts and is courted by these powerful Sunni forces, Hassoun’s previous denunciations of Saudi Arabia as the main orchestrator of a conspiracy against Syria, as well as his closeness to Iran, might have made him persona non grata as Assad’s rump state faces up to these new regional realities.
But as with Sisi in Egypt, who made himself the de facto highest religious authority in Egypt, Assad’s main motive is, as ever, to preserve his own power.
Assad’s counterrevolutionary war has mostly been successful – the next step is to build a rump state where no form of revolution is possible.
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