Sheikh Adnan Arour's meteoric rise from obscurity to notoriety

Syrian cleric has forced his way into the country's leadership vacuum with his fiery rhetoric – but in the haze of revolt, his true message and reach are difficult to determine.

A sign at a checkpoint in Douma city near Damascus reads: "The beard of Arour is a brush for a soldier's boots", a reference to Sheikh Adnan Arour.
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DAMASCUS // In some neighbourhoods his name has been scrawled with contempt on rubbish bins, while in others he is hailed as a hero.

Sheikh Adnan Arour's merits are bitterly contested but there is no denying the fame - or infamy - of the exiled Sunni cleric now as well known in Syria as any film star, footballer or president.

His rise has been meteoric, from almost total obscurity back when Syria's uprising began 16 months ago to national prominence as an opponent of president Bashar Al Assad's regime.

That ascent has been helped by increasing sectarianism, the sidelining of more moderate clerics, the failures of Syria's fractured opposition and Mr Arour's unabashedly populist style of preaching, combined with his keen sense of the theatrical and what makes for compelling television. In satellite channel broadcasts from Saudi Arabia and video clips uploaded onto YouTube, he hurls insults at Mr Al Assad, castigates exiled opposition leaders for failing to do enough for the Syrian people and praises the rebel Free Syrian Army as heroes, urging foreign military action to help their struggle.

"I don't like Arour and lots of the opposition don't like him but we can't deny that he speaks to the ordinary people in a way they can connect with, he expresses some of the things they are feeling, the anger and despair and things they hope for," said an activist in Damascus.

Infamously, Mr Arour once said Alawites who had helped the regime would be put in a meat grinder and their flesh then fed to the dogs, a threat delivered with typical panache, the bearded, elegantly robed cleric rising to his feet, jabbing his finger and looking viewers straight in the eye.

Many Alawites - the Shiite sect that comprises much of Syria's ruling elite - and members of Syria's other minority groups, including the Christians and Druze, took that as clear evidence of Mr Arour's violent extremism and that the uprising was, as the regime has long insisted, not a peaceful struggle for basic civil rights but an insurgency waged by Islamist extremists hell bent on wiping out non-Sunnis.

In a rambling preface to the meat-grinder statement, Mr Arour had said he had was no quarrel with Syria's minorities, and that those who had not actively sided with the regime in shedding Syrian blood would be embraced as equal citizens in a post-Assad era.

That dispensation was drowned out by the brutal rhetoric that followed.

"Arour is always accused of being very sectarian and while I don't agree with the things he says, I think that side has been greatly exaggerated," said a Damascus-based political analyst. "It played into the regime's hands and spread fear among the minorities that, if Assad falls, Arour or the likes of Arour will be what replaces him. None of us wants that."

In the early days of the uprising, when it was dominated by peaceful protests and before sectarian violence had broken out, having Mr Arour as a symbolic figure to fear and hate was extremely useful for the regime, analysts and opposition figures said.

Pro-regime media and public figures would frequently refer to protesters as 'Ararer' - followers of Arour - while defamatory rumours were often spread that members of minority groups backing the revolt were taking large sums of money from the cleric.

While still held up by Mr Al Assad's supporters as a reminder of the terrible fate that will befall Syria if the revolution succeeds, in recent months the focus on him by pro-regime media has eased off.

"Arour used to be bad on sectarian issues but now he refers to 'our gentle brothers the Druze' and 'honourable Alawites' and so on," said the analyst in Damascus. "It seems people inside the opposition have put pressure on him to change his rhetoric and the regime no longer needs a phantom to scare the minorities because they are scared enough of the reality."

Few people outside of Hama, Mr Arour's hometown, seem to have heard of him before the uprising began in March 2011. The cleric fled from Syria to Saudi Arabia following the notorious crushing of a militant Islamist revolt in Hama in 1982. At least one of Mr Arour's relatives was among the 7,000 to 40,000 estimated to have been killed by the Syrian army at the time.

"I knew Arour's family, I was at school with one of his brothers and I don't consider them particularly sectarian," said a Christian from Hama. "They lived side by side with the Christians and always seemed very respectable people from what I can tell. He wants revenge for what happened in the '80s."

An opposition Sunni cleric in Damascus said Mr Arour's credentials as an Islamic scholar were less impressive than his on-screen persona, but admitted he had successfully connected with the masses, increasingly alienated from the Syrian religious establishment over its support for Mr Al Assad.

Moderate Islamist figures, such as Karim Rajeh and Sariya Rifai, supporting the uprising who might otherwise have competed with Mr Arour for mass appeal have been sidelined or silenced by the authorities.

"Arour is very popular in Idlib, Hama, Deir Ezzor, rural Damascus and to some extent Homs. In Hama they take the things he says almost as if it came from the Prophet Mohammed himself," said the Syrian cleric, who has been banned from public preaching for his support of the uprising.

"It's often the uneducated who like his style but the problem is he makes mistakes with his comments and he doesn't understand the politics of what's happening here," the cleric said.

The real extent of Mr Arour's following is hard to gauge. In Deraa, the southern province where the revolt began, many protesters and rebels accuse him of fuelling sectarianism, thereby aiding the regime and undermining their fight for a democratic Syria based on rule of law.

In Homs, activists say his name has frequently been invoked ironically or as a way of teasing regime forces.

"Arour isn't someone we take seriously, but the regime has made him out to be this giant devil so let them have him as their enemy, we know he is not important in this revolution," said an activist from the besieged neighbourhood of Khalidiyeh.

However some activists identifying themselves as Sunni - rather than secular opposition figures or those from minority groups - do pay heed to Mr Arour's proclamations.

"I didn't like Arour but I'm starting to now - he knows our daily problems and understands the troubles we have, while the [opposition] politicians seem to be concerned about themselves," said a Sunni protester in his early 20s, from Latakia province.

Another activist from Latakia said Mr Arour's success reflected the opposition's failures.

"This is a great revolution but we have suffered from poor leadership and the people out risking their lives on the streets have not been able to look to the [opposition] political leadership for direction or inspiration," the activist said.

"For that reason, a man like Arour gets influence, he's not just another politician and he knows what things have resonance among people who are suffering a great deal."