David E. Miller
Four months, 1,400 deaths and thousand of arrests after mass protests erupted in Syria, the rebellion against the rule of Bashar Al-Assad has finally received an Islamic seal of approval.
At a two-day conference held in Istanbul, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Support of the Syrian People issued a religious opinion (fatwa) on Wednesday declaring support for the Syrian revolution to be a religious obligation. The conference's closing statement also condemned the Iranian regime and Lebanon's Shiite Hizbullah movement for their support of the Assad regime.
The conference hosted some 200 Sunni clerics from European Islamic organizations, as well as individual Kurdish and Turkish religious scholars, the London-based daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat reported. The Syrian opposition National Salvation Congress is set to hold deliberations in Istanbul this Saturday on the future of Syria's insurrection.
"Islam is a comprehensive religion pertaining to all walks of life, not just ritual," Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, former mufti of Jerusalem, told The Media Line. "Therefore, it is the right of religious scholars to discuss and rule on political matters."
The fatwa, which is religiously non-binding but carries sway among devout Muslims, comes as Muslims debate the role of religion in the Arab Spring. Islamic groups were largely caught flatfooted as unrest broke out months ago, but have worked hard to ride the wave of popular protests. In Syria, some are concerned that toppling the secularist Al-Assad regime risks driving the country into the hands of Islamists.
Shakib Bin-Makhlouf, president of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, said the Istanbul conference was held only now in order to give the Al-Assad regime time to change its ways.
"Clerics usually take their time," Bin Makhluf told The Media Line. "They wanted to give the regime an opportunity to correct itself, and issued statements calling on it to do so. When that failed, they decided to issue a religious ruling."
The clerics assembled in Istanbul were not the first to voice religious opinions against the Syrian revolution. Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood had spoken up against Al-Assad as early as the end of March, two weeks after protests began in Syria. It even organized a demonstration across from he Syrian embassy in Amman in June, with hundreds of participants.
"What is happening in Syria is an appalling crime," Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood declared in a press statement in June. "Any leader ordering to open fire on his unarmed people … has lost his legitimacy."
Classical Islam frowns upon rebellion against a Muslim leader. A well-known hadith, or oral Islamic tradition attributed to the prophet Muhammad, states that Muslims must obey their leaders even if they are unjust. But Bin Makhluf said Islam opposed tyranny and a Muslim ruler's primary obligation was to uphold social justice.
"The Al-Assad regime has crossed all red lines in its treatment of civilians," he said. "So the clerics must stand with the people. They are the most worthy of doing so."
He said the Istanbul clerics are all independent of political constraints, allowing them to rule freely according to the true spirit of Islam. A minority of scholars, however, still believe that the ruler must be obeyed even if he is at fault, he said.
But even semi-official clerics such as Egypt's highest religious authority, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, have spoken out in support of the opposition in Yemen, Libya and Syria.
"All the thrones of power are not worth one single drop of Muslim blood," Al-Tayyeb, who heads Cairo's Al-Azhar religious academy, told a group of Libyan opposition leaders in a meeting in mid-June. He promised the rebels to establish a committee of clerics to pressure the Libyan regime into "stopping the bloodbath in Libya."
During the Egyptian revolution in February, clerics were circumspect about calling on President Husni Mubarak to step down. But in an emphatic message aired on Al-Jazeera Jan. 28, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric living in Qatar, called the Egyptian leader "blind, deaf and dumb," demanding that he leave Egypt.
"There's no more room for you anymore, Mubarak. I advise you to learn lessons from Ben Ali. Leave Egypt on your feet now," Al-Qaradawi said in a statement filled with Islamic references.
Some regimes, however, use religious argumentation in order to dissuade citizens from rebelling. In March, Saudi clerics associated with the regime issued a fatwa banning demonstrations in the kingdom as un-Islamic.
But Bin Makhluf said Islam preferred a just non-Muslim leader to an unjust Muslim one, stressing the importance of justice and equality under the law.
The closing statement of the Istanbul conference included a threat to Syrian pro-regime clerics to stand up to Al-Assad, or "face the consequences in this world and the afterlife."
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