New Syrian Islamic Council repeats the patterns of old

Unlike previous Islamic councils in the country, the SIC has combined three otherwise irreconcilable Islamic currents under one canopy: Sufis, Muslim Brotherhood and Sururis. This latter component deserves a closer look.

Last week, 128 clerics and Islamists formed the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC) in Istanbul with a stated mission to serve as a religious authority for all Sunnis in Syria. Unlike previous Islamic councils in the country, the SIC has combined three otherwise irreconcilable Islamic currents under one canopy: Sufis, Muslim Brotherhood and Sururis. This latter component deserves a closer look.

They are a hybrid movement that blends Salafism with Muslim Brotherhood ideology, while not agreeing with either. The movement incorporates Wahhabi teachings, mainly those of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyya, with the Brotherhood’s teachings, including those of Sayyid Qutb, the “father of modern fundamentalism”. Sheikh Mohammed Surur Zain Al Abedine, a former member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, founded the movement in the 1970s in Saudi Arabia.

It was part of a broad trend in Saudi Arabia at the time – better known as the Awakening – when several groups and individuals were influenced by political Islam. Many of those who were part of that trend joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Sururis who were part of that wider trend, however, were less inclined to join the mujahideen, because the Wahhabi influence led them to be less active than those more specifically motivated by political Islam.

Since the Arab Spring uprisings began, the Sururi teachings have gained renewed and broader relevance.

According to Sheikh Surur, the Sururi movement has single-handedly turned Salafism upside down. In a recent interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, he said that his teachings turned Salafism from one worldview to another.

He explained that the tendency of traditional Salafism to be inward looking, rather than being actively involved in politics, no longer holds sway.

He added that Salafis do not believe in a religious obligation to obey the ruler regardless of his performance.

Taken at face value, Sheikh Surur’s notion about the blind obedience of a leader has its merits. But it is the influence of his movement on Salafism from within that is more insidious. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Sururis believe in the illegitimacy of the current Muslim rulers and the need for an Islamist movement that takes over and establish a new order before reinstating the caliphate.

And like Wahhabi Islam, they believe in the notion of tawhid, the absolute oneness of God and the former’s puritanical creed.

Sururis seek to bring their extremist ideas, which have historically been limited to the social sphere, to the political level.

The make-up of the SIC highlights this. At least five of the 21 members of the council’s board of trustees are Sururis, including the founder of Sururiyya himself. The rest are overwhelmingly Brotherhood members or sympathisers. But the council has a few highly influential Sufi clerics.

Osama Al Rifaai, a well-established preacher from Damascus, heads the council. Al Rifaai is part of a moderate Sufi order in Damascus known as Jamaat Zaid, a school that has been socially active in the Syrian capital since 1901.

In 2002, unusually for a Syrian official, Bashar Al Assad visited Sheikh Al Rifaai, an indication of the cleric’s popularity.

In announcing the council’s formation, Sheikh Al Rifaai singled out the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for criticism but he downplayed extremism among the rebels.

He said that outsiders exaggerate rebels’ extremism. Speakers at the conference all echoed the same sentiment.

The appointment of Sheikh Al Rifaai as the council’s leader is likely to help it gain legitimacy and popularity. But the predominance of members subscribing to groups such as the Sururiyya makes him a mere figurehead – a fact that can be discerned from the council’s pronouncements. One member of the council’s board of trustees, Mohammed Yassir Al Misdi, who is often featured on Brotherhood-affiliated websites, has published guidelines for jihadists in Syria.

What makes the Sururiyya movement more perilous is that it is one of many such groups that are gradually grinding down traditional Salafism, which is not to be confused with Wahhabism.

Salafism influences all modern jihadi movements in one way or another, but its influence becomes dangerous only when it coalesces with the influence of ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb and movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The likelihood of a member of those groups to join violent jihadi organisations will hinge on the extent of influence these ideologues have on him.

The Arab Spring has given these groups space to exercise their leverage and to influence moderate groups by associating with them.

Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst based in Abu Dhabi who focuses on Islamic groups and regional politics

On Twitter: @hhassan140