Syrian National Anthem: Muslim Brotherhood is the Nation’s Enemy!
Category: Politics & Current Affairs
By Dr. Halla Diyab for LIBERTY Blog
To be Syrian many people assume it means to be born there or carry a Syrian national identity. However in the late nineties being Syrian was about belonging to one person, one family and one sect. It was about being part of the vast Assad family. Anyone who felt otherwise was not welcome.
Every morning at my military high school I was reminded about what it means to be a loyal Syrian. First we sang the national anthem, and afterwards, the head girl, who was also the tallest and strongest girl at school, would say in a firm and strong voice, our motto: “Wahdah, Hurrīyah, Ishtirākīyah” (Unity, Liberty, Socialism).
The girls in the square would then respond with one steady voice. The head girl, Farida was a Druze. For some girls at the school, especially the hijabi ones, Farida and her two other sisters were not considered Muslim. Hijabi girls would say the Druze holy book was eaten by a goat. Back then, I did not know what to believe, because at the end of the nineties, Internet was not available to the Syrian public and it was easy to accept rumor as fact.
“Unity, liberty, socialism”, were three concepts which I accepted, as they were part and parcel of being a Syrian nationalist. Arabs raise their children with a strong sense of citizenship or wataniyah. As a teenager, it was difficult to define what this meant to me, but it was a feeling comparable to the love one has for God and his Prophet. Nationalism is strongly linked to an Arab identity. Since we moved to Syria at the end of the eighties, I had to adapt to this strange new concept. When the girls at school would say in one voice “unity, liberty, socialism”, goose bumps would run all over my body. The words would march through my veins and I would remain frozen for a few moments, and it would take me longer to respond.
In those days, the Syrian national anthem was more sacred than the holy Quran, yet at the age of fifteen, I began to question the nature of Syrian society, with its inequalities and oppressive elements. It was not acceptable to think independently, as doing so would place you at the margins of society. Nevertheless, I first started to question the contents of the Syrian national anthem, and from then on, everything was subject for scrutiny.
“Our oath to the nation”, Farida waited for the girls in the square to respond: “To fight Zionism, imperialism and the Muslim brotherhood, who are traitors and the nation’s enemy”
The girls’ response brought to my mind a simple question: Why is the Muslim brotherhood our enemy? While I pondered this question, the military instructor, Mrs. Makhlouf, marched towards me: “Diyab! Why are you standing outside the line?”, she said in a deep voice.
I raised my eyes towards her: “Why is the Muslim brotherhood our nation’s enemy?”. Before I finished the question, she slapped me in the face. I remember it shook every vein and nerve in my body. Girls were giggling, while Mrs. Makhlouf dragged me to the front of the line. She pushed me towards the ground while holding the collar of my uniform and shouted: “crawl, crawl now!” I resisted the urge to cry, as I looked into her eyes and the eyes of the headmistress that pushed her microphone towards my ears: “Wlee (you there), Diyab! crawl! Crawl to learn how not to ask questions next time. You are supposed to be an obedient girl who repeats what your colleagues say”. Suddenly the headmistress gripped my chin and screamed: “You also have a chewing gum in your mouth!!!”
I had forgotten about the gum lodged in the back of my mouth. I tried to swallow it when Mrs. Makhlouf once again pushed me to the ground and ordered me to crawl. I had no choice but to obey.
The headmistress, whose name I forget, had a small head for a woman with such a deep voice. Her voice was like a thunderclap in my ears. Once I rose from my punishment, the headmistress pushed her microphone next to my ear: “Diyab, if this is repeated, you will be subject to disciplinary action, and I will kick you out of school”. I realized that all her threats and insults were said on a loud speaker, and the whole school witnessed me being scolded and humiliated. I had to go back to my place in the line and swallow my fear at the thought of being expelled.
After this incident, the school’s headmistress would monitor me more closely. She looked at me as a threat. Her attitude made me realize how easy it is in Syria to become someone’s enemy. It made me think about the definition of nationhood and the man who owns the nation. “Is your father not a Muslim brother?” I once asked Aliya, who was a hijabi. She answered hysterically: “Are you mad? Have you not learnt anything from your humiliation? Do you want them to kick you out of the school?”
Aliya was one of those “loyal Syrian citizens” who follows the rules without question or doubt. “Is your father not a Muslim brother?” I asked her again. “Do not mention the word, Muslim brother; anyone could hear us!”. The biggest preoccupation for Syrians in those days was coping with fear. We always feared that someone from Syrian intelligence was able to hear what we were saying, especially if it was something political or controversial. In other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, sex was considered taboo, but for us Syrians, it was Islam and politics.
Given the fact that anyone in Syria could be recruited by the intelligence service, it is no wonder that we spent our days encased in paranoia. The culture of “policing” was dominant during Hafez al-Assad’s regime as a tactic to control citizens. I was told that the government planted spies in schools who are recruited to give information about those who have anti-government or pro-religious views. These spies, either teachers or students, were trained to engage with girls or boys in conversation and thus learn what they really think of the Assad regime. If any student held opposing views, their father would be arrested and would often never be seen again. They never thought a young student could have their own opinions or points of view; it was always assumed they learnt it from their parents. It was all done to maintain fear, anxiety and submission.
After I was humiliated for asking about the Muslim Brotherhood, I walked back home alone, as usual I was always amazed at the beauty of West Damascus, which was full of green fields, some locals used to wear traditional wide black trousers called shirwal. Men wear black shirwals, with a white top, while women wear a white hijab and a black shirwal. Men and women would be working in the fields, as I walked home. I would see the women digging the fields with oxen, while holding their hijabs with their lips and front teeth, to prevent it from uncovering their hair. They would follow me with strange looks and often whisper: “She must be an Alawite. That’s why she’s not wearing a hijab”. New urban buildings started to appear as some of the locals sold their land to contractors who wanted to turn West Damascus into a modern suburb. However, I didn’t want these beautiful fields to disappear. I would miss them terribly. Sunlight here penetrates the grass, giving it a yellowish-green colour, which I have never seen anywhere else in the Middle East. When I passed through the fields, I would smell Damascene jasmine that made me believe that everything would be ok. But on that day, I wondered, how everything would be ok. I still did not know why the Muslim brotherhood was our enemy. It is easy to Google “Syrian Muslim brotherhood”, but without the Internet in those days, I had no way of knowing. Our schoolbooks didn’t say. We were instead taught to cultivate love for the leader.
Growing up, I learnt that Hafez al-Assad liberated Syria, his photo was everywhere. It was nailed on every wall of our school. Our headmistress had it expensively framed in her office, positioned above her head. Hafez’ image was painted on the four walls of our school square, and on the top of the school gate. Wherever you turned your face in those days, you found a photo of our dear President. It was a psychological tactic to warn every Syrian citizen to be aware and remember that someone is always watching.
The school’s toilet was the only place without his photo. It was the place where the girls would smoke in the cubicles, and share jokes about sex. They would talk about virginity, the wedding day and honeymoon. They will never talk about their sect, but it was easy to define the Sunni girls and the Alawites. Sunnis form the majority of Syria’s population, followed by Alawites who live in towns in the mountains such as Lattakia and Tartous. There are also Druze; Shia Muslims, Christians and Kurds who live in the North on the border with Turkey. Sunnis are divided according to their class, education and hometown. Traditional working class Damascene Sunnis come from alleys called: Midan, Shagour and Qanawat. While rich Sunnis live on the White Bridge and Mayysat areas. Traditional Damascene Sunnis are called Chwam. Most of them are merchants working in the fabric trade. In the street, you can spot their distinctive style of dress. Women wear the Niqab, with a long black gown and gloves, while the men wear gowns, jellabiyas. They tend to wear white jellabiyas on Fridays and coloured ones during the week. Walking in the crowded alleys of Midan, Shagour, and Qanawat, a typical scene that greets you is of women donning Niqabs walking behind their husbands. Despite their strict appearance, traditional Damascene Sunnis are not placed in the same category as the Muslim brotherhood or ikhwan.
It was rare in those days, to see a man growing a beard, since he could easily be mistaken as a Muslim brother. However, it was normal for some young Alawite men to grow their beards in the style of Basel al-Assad (Hafez Assad’s oldest son who died in a car crash). Some of these bearded Alawites were considered thugs called Shabiha. Growing up, it was always best to avoid getting into fights with the Shabiha, who were usually armed. Since the start of Syria’s uprising, the Shabiha has become the term used to describe the armed militia working on behalf of the regime.
Many Muslims do not consider Alawites as their co-religionists, since they do not pray, fast or perform the hajj. Some Alawites call themselves Shia’ because they believe in Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. Yet, they are called “Alawite” because when they came to Syria, they chose to live in the mountains. In Arabic the word Alawites was originated from the reference ‘residents of the top of mountains’ (Alawi al jibal).
Alawites are often considered more liberal compared to other Syrians. Gender disparities are almost absent within Alawite households, and this is mainly due to the lack of Islamic restrictions, which typically dominate Sunni families. The secularism of the Assad regime helped improve gender equality in the country. In 1973 al-Assad amended Syria’s Constitution in order to guarantee equal status for women and allow a non-Muslim to be elected president; however this was later rescinded due to pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood who were keen to undermine the role of women and Islamize Syria’s character. Unlike Sunni women, the majority of Alawite women contribute to the workforce.
Alawite women normally do not wear headscarves, and are comfortable wearing clothes or shoes that could attract male attention. Syrian imams once ordered women to wear dark-colored flat shoes, since any woman who wore high-heeled or coloured shoes was considered cursed. Anything to arouse sexual desire was deemed sinful. However due to the secular nature of the regime, fatwas were never publicly announced. Our school military instructor, Mrs. Makhlouf, would come to school in short skirts or sleeveless figure-hugging tops.
Growing up in Syria, Alawites seemed enormously privileged, and Mrs. Makhlouf never displayed any fear or insecurity. A Sunni woman would not dare wear a short skirt without the protection of a man with her, while no man would follow an Alawite woman out of fear that her family could be connected to the regime.
Sunni Islam was monitored by the intelligence services to make sure that nothing was said in mosques against the regime. Some imams from a nearby mosque had gone missing one night, after they had allegedly criticized Assad during Friday prayers. It was easy back then without the presence of social media and international media interest, to accuse anyone of anything and throw him or her in prison.
Before Bashar Assad came to power, Syrians were brought up on Al Baath ideology of “unity, Freedom and socialism”, there was a rise of Arabism, and nationalism. Hafez Assad wanted to sustain a self-sufficient independent nation that has very strict rules towards “Islamism”. When Bashar came to power in 2000 – I was not in Syria to judge the gradual change in Syrian social politics. But post 9/11, and the American war on terror, there was an ascending rise of “Muslim iconic leaders” (i.e. television preachers, and sheikhs who represent different Islamic schools (Sufism, Salfism..etc ), who all find a platform to address the Arab youths through Islamic channels. With the rise of unemployment, the absence of equal opportunities, and the political suppression, those sheikhs found a great support among the youths who identify with these scholars, and consequently adopt their Islamic schools of thought. The conservative sheikhs strive to feed their audience with their anti-west views towards Britain and USA foreign policy, paving the way for the Islamic renaissance which was emerging post 2002.
Syria was no exception, instead of maintaining his father’s rigid attitude towards Islam, Bashar Assad undermined the ideology of Muslim brotherhood by fostering a form of moderate government-sanctioned Islam. This led to the creation of more government-run mosques and religious schools. This “moderate Islam” was akin to Sufi Islam that preaches both spirituality and submission to God. While Bashar was bragging that Syria was a secular state, he was empowering Sheikh Al Bouti, the main advocate of Sufism who encouraged the Islamic revival in Syria. Bashar allied with Shia Hezbollah and Iran, while categorically denying that Syria started to become religious and its national identity was being weakened. Gradually Islamic identity replaced Syrian national identity, leading to a sectarian war that might last for decades, eroding the diverse unity of a nation of mosaic sects ruled by a religious minority.