Blame the regime for killing a cleric who backed Assad

The Syrian cleric Sheikh Mohammed Saeed Ramadan Al Bouti will be remembered as a distinguished scholar who fought for Islam's values of tolerance but who betrayed the ones involving justice and human dignity.

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Sheikh Mohammed Saeed Ramadan Al Bouti, a top Syrian cleric who died after a bomb attack on a mosque in Damascus, has been buried next to Salaheddine's mausoleum in the grand Umayyad Mosque. His burial place is symbolic: Salaheddine, who fought against the crusaders to win back Jerusalem, was also Kurdish; and Al Bouti has defended the Baathist regime that claims to defend the Palestinian cause.

People in the region have been ambivalent about his death. He unequivocally defended the regime's killing of tens of thousands of Syrians. But his legacy as a Sunni theologian will live on.

His scholastic work focused on defending Islam from trends that betray the essential Islamic values of moderation and tolerance. He saved particular ire for Wahhabi and Brotherhood ideologies.

His unbridled support for the regime's crackdown, which is sweeping away everything including Al Bouti's own legacy of religious moderation, is unforgivable. By all accounts, he was not directly forced to endorse the military campaign. Other clerics have defended the mass killing but usually only by mean of occasional television appearances.

But Al Bouti went out of his way to denounce the uprising and called for its end by all means necessary. He recently called for jihad alongside the regime, saying that the Prophet ordered the faithful to unconditionally obey their rulers and fight with them. He praised pro-regime forces as close in piety to the Prophet's companions.

His stance is consistent with his decades of support of the Assad regime. He endorsed the campaign by Hafez Al Assad against the Islamist uprising in Hama in the 1970s and 1980s, in which tens of thousands were slaughtered and whole neighbourhoods were destroyed. He also denounced the anti-Baathist Kurdish uprisings in Iraq and Syria in 2003 and 2004. In 2003, he denounced the uprising that demanded dignity and rights for the Kurdish people in Syria, and he supported the regime's brutal response, saying: "I put my Kurdishness under my feet."

The regime blamed the "dark forces" of the opposition for his killing. But several factors make it extremely unlikely the rebels were the perpetrators. The operation does not fit extremists' patterns. Extremists often resort to suicide bombing when it is difficult or risky to reach the target otherwise. As The National's correspondent Phil Sands reported yesterday, Al Bouti regularly walked down from his modest home in the hilly Ruken El Deen neighbourhood to the Iman mosque. This mosque is located in a heavily-guarded neighbourhood, Al Mazraa, where it stands next to the Baath party headquarters, which was targeted in a car explosion in February; since then, security in the area has been tightened. It would have been much easier for the rebels to target the cleric, who refused to have bodyguards, in his own neighbourhood.

"Everyone knew where Al Bouti was, if we had wanted to kill him it would have been very simple … the Free Syrian Army is strong in Ruken El Deem," an FSA leader in Damascus told The National.

Why would the rebels resort to suicide bombing to kill a cleric inside a mosque when they could kill him elsewhere? The bombing was designed to create a larger effect than just killing a cleric.

It is also important to note that Sunni jihadists do not have the habit of targeting Sunni mosques. "It is rare that jihadists assassinate clerics," Murad Batal Shishani, an analyst of Islamist groups, told me. If the rebels had wanted to target a cleric, they would have been more likely to target Syria's Grand Mufti, Ahmed Badreddine Hassoun, who is considered more an official than a religious cleric.

The caveat is that extremists from outside the country, who are not familiar with his daily routine and the area, may have pushed for a suicide bombing in the mosque where he preached. But the involvement of the regime in his killing remains more plausible.

Many have assumed that the regime would not order his killing because he has preached in its favour. But such assumptions ignore recent developments inside Damascus. The regime will benefit from his death because it will serve to mobilise those who are still in the fence.

Many Syrians did not join the uprising, because of Al Bouti's stance; they consider him an authority and accept his guidance. A friend told me that one of his relatives regularly attended Al Bouti's religious seminars in the Iman mosque. His relative "was a big Al Bouti fan and was even pro-regime just because Al Bouti said so".

It is in the interest of the regime to push young sympathisers to join the army, which recent reports suggest has manpower problems. In any case, after two years of violence, Al Bouti was no longer an effective mobilising force for the regime - nor is this about legitimacy any longer; now it is an open war against detractors.

Regardless of who is behind his murder, the death of this moderate Islamic scholar comes as sectarian and extremist trends are growing in the region.

He will be remembered by future generations as a distinguished scholar who fought for Islam's values of tolerance but who betrayed the ones involving justice and human dignity.

On Twitter: @hhassan140