Debate on Future Syrian State as ISIS Leaves Kfar Nabel

Residents discuss merits of Islamic state versus a secular system for a future Syria.

Mohammad al-Salim, a French literature student from Kfar Nabel attending the University of Aleppo, is critical of much of what the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has been doing in the various areas it has captured from the Baath regime.

Salim supports the idea of creating an Islamic state in Syria, but he sees ISIS as an extremist intelligence-gathering organisation that is bent on “pursuing heathens and blasphemers across the world”. “How long are we going to chase after blasphemers? How long before we start actually building a state?” he asks

ISIS took control of Kfar Nabel, a town of close to 30,000 people in northwestern Syria, in late December 2013. The takeover happened without open combat, and with no activism or advocacy carried out in advance. Few ISIS members were Kfar Nabel residents.

In less than a week, however, ISIS left the city, also without much bloodshed, after pressure from the Free Syrian Army and the intervention of some intermediaries.

The whole episode has stoked a fierce debate among residents of the town about what kind of state and government they envision.

There is a lot of Salafist preaching activity in the town, driven by at least five sheikhs who conduct lessons and lectures in the mosques and sometimes distribute pamphlets.

These activities can be traced to the Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front militant alliance, and are supported by organisations from Gulf states. Other Islamic movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have a somewhat weaker presence.

Before the revolution, Sufism was the most prominent trend here, but in general, Sufis tend to support the government, which means they cannot operate in areas under opposition control. That includes Kfar Nabel.

Salim dreams of building “a civil state with an Islamic flavour”. He believes the people must choose their leaders – from the head of state and the parliament down to local councils – through free and fair elections. Voters need not be Muslim, but Islamic sharia law must remain the essential source of all legislation. Salim regards sharia law as just, flexible and appropriate to all eras, and believes it guarantees the rights of all citizens, Muslim or not. It also guarantees freedom of religion – Salim cites as evidence a verse from the Kuran which reads, “There shall be no compulsion in [accepting] the religion.”

Rasha, 22, a student at the faculty of law at Aleppo University, sees ISIS as a jihadist organisation with ties to al-Qaeda. She does not regard it as a state, as its name claims, since it is a state with no real nationality or borders.

“The age of rule by the sword is over… the age of conquest is over,” she said. Rasha dreams of a civic Islamic state, but not one ruled by clerics.

Abdullah, 23, a student at the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Aleppo, dreams of the same thing – a civic Islamic state that protects civil liberties, respects the law, strives for independence of the judiciary and abides by international conventions.

In Kfar Nabel there is no organised secular political activity within the city, with the exception of some articles published in local magazines.

Ahmad, 20, a mechanical engineering student, is an advocate of secularism. He says that sharia law cannot be applied in Syria, given the presence of Christians, Alawites, Druze and other minorities. By secular, Ahmad means the separation of state and religion, rather than an anti-religious or expressly atheist state, which is what many Islamists infer when they hear this word.

“I’m a secular Muslim,” he said.

Ahmad sees secularism as the solution to religiously motivated conflict.

Ali al-Amin, 45, an English teacher, agrees with Ahmad. He argues that secularism does not conflict with Islam, but rather protects it. Amin believes that separating state and religion will protect the right of believers and non-believers alike, either to practice their faith or to choose to practice nothing at all. He believes in a state that does not concern itself with personal matters. He wants a state that upholds freedom for its citizens and allows them to wear what they like and pray however they choose.

Amin points out that what some Islamists described as pressure on Muslims in certain Western countries is “racism, not secularism”.

According to Amin, “the secular agenda does not conflict with the Koranic one, as Islam is founded on free choice and mutual respect”.

Despite disagreeing with Mohammad al-Salim about the nature of a future Syrian state, Amin cites the same Koranic text to support his view, “There shall be no compulsion in [accepting] the religion.”

Amin believes that “the Prophet, peace be upon him, was one of the first exemplars of a civil constitution when he wrote the Charter of Medina, which arranged relationships between Muslims, polytheists, non-believers, Jews and Christians”.

But Iman, who holds a law degree, sees secularism as something that is far removed from religion, that contradicts Islamic law and thought, and that is therefore not compatible with “our Muslim society”.

“Islam is a religion, a creed and a way of life,” she said. “It is for all time, because it comes from the creator of all people, and God knew what would be for the benefit of all.”

The imam at Al-Tawbah Mosque in Kfar Nabel, Sheikh Mohammad al-Sweid, agrees.

“Christianity is a spiritual religion that isn’t concerned with law, either in jurisprudence or in practice,” he said. “That is why secularism suits Europe. Islam is not confined to spirituality; it exists also to ensure God’s law, which we have been tasked with applying. God is our Lord. He knows what is good for us in every place and time.”

This opinion is shared by Sadeq, 27, a student at the Faculty of Islamic Law in Aleppo. But Sadeq emphasises the importance of liberating Islam from the historical influence of clerics, since interpretation and analysis of the Koran stopped with the four Sunni schools in the fourth century after the Hijra (in the tenth century AD). Sadeq believes “we must encourage the growth of a modern Islamic school of thought, keeping pace with modernity but not deviating from the texts of the Koran and the Prophet’s teachings.”

Medical technician Rami Ali al-Sheikh, 37, believes that ISIS is an Islamic state, and that it is desired by the majority of Muslims. He describes it as “the nucleus of an Islamic caliphate built upon the Prophet’s own platform”.

“This state doesn’t subscribe to the borders drawn up by Sykes-Picot,” he said. (The Sykes-Picot Agreement was concluded between Britain and France in 1916 to demarcate their respective spheres of influence in the region.)

Sheikh thinks the only choice that Muslims have at this point in time is to impose this state by force, because “the West and its cronies don’t want such a state to exist”.

“Look at Egypt!” he said. “Didn’t the Islamists come to power democratically? So why did the army turn against them? Look at Palestine! Didn’t Hamas come to power democratically? So why did the whole world stand against them?” 

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.