After the Pigeons Departed
Last month, the Marwan Hadid Brigades declared responsibility for the firing of six rockets into Lebanon (Hermel region) in retaliation for Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria. Marwan Hadid, who died in 1976, is a figure most Syrians have forgotten and only a few historians of modern Syria are aware of. He belongs to what might be termed the prelude to the Muslim Brotherhood revolt of the 1980s. Born in Hama in 1934, Hadid grew up in a politically active family. His older brother was a prominent member of al-Hizb al-‘Arabi al-Ishtiraki (the Arab Socialist Party), which would subsequently merge with the Ba’th Party. After graduating from high school, he moved to Egypt where he studied agriculture at the University of ‘Ayn Shams in Cairo. It was during these years that he was introduced to the Muslim Brotherhood and was fully converted to their ideology. In 1963, Hadid returned to Syria, shortly after Ba’th supporters in the Syrian army had seized power. In April 1964, Hadid took part in the first major stand against the new Ba’thist government when he organised a sit-in at the Sultan Mosque in Hama. Prime Minister Amin al-Hafiz and General Salah Jadid ordered an armed force to shell the mosque, to the dismay of Hama residents. Hadid, along with others, was arrested. When he was subsequently released he made a decision, not fully sanctioned by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, to organize violent attacks against the government. Hadid continued his underground activity until June 1975 when he was arrested. A year later, he died in prison due to health complications allegedly resulting from the torture he had previously suffered.
In the 1960s, few Syrians sympathized with Hadid’s cause and even less were willing to adopt his path. Today, Syria is home to thousands who believe, as Hadid once did, in armed resistance as the only possible means to bring down the Syrian government. The story of Hadid is one of the many fascinating, yet invariably tragic connections between figures and events in Syria’s modern history and the Syrian Uprising. The relevance of Hadid’s legacy cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of a very different religious legacy that dominated Syria until 2011: the legacy of Ahmad Kaftaru, the Grand Mufti of Syria. Kaftaru constituted the antithesis of Hadid’s approach to Ba’th rule. Hadid wanted the government overthrown, whereas Kaftaru wanted society reformed.
The green belt encircling Damascus, known as the Ghuta, is one of the principle strongholds of the rebels fighting to topple the Syrian government. The Ghuta that I came to know after I completed my studies in the US and returned to Damascus in late 1993 was not only where Kafaru’s lived, but also where the majority of his followers originated. Ahmad Kaftaru came up with the idea of opening the Asad Institutes for the Memorization of the Qur’an. Under the cover of these institutes, almost every mosque in Damascus, and subsequently in other Syrian cities could suddenly host various forms of religious instruction. Kaftaru’s primary focus, however, was on Damascus, and, more specifically, on the towns and villages of the Ghuta.
Each Friday morning, Kaftaru would give a lesson at the Abu al-Nur Mosque which was attended by a large number of the inhabitants of Ghuta towns and villages. Kaftaru appealed to these rural Damascenes, and made sure that he often attended their weddings and funerals. Due to his very busy schedule he would at times ask Bashir al-Bani, a Damascene scholar and the Orator of the Grand Mosque of Damascus, to attend these events on his behalf. Al-Bani was a close relative of mine whom I highly admired on account of his spiritual and ecumenical views. Because he knew that I enjoyed listening to him, he would often invite me to drive him to these events. With time, I fell in love with the Ghuta and decided to buy a piece of land a few kilometres from where Kaftaru lived, mid-way between the villages of Shab‘a and Deir al-Asafir.
After Kaftaru’s death in 2004, Ghuta residents continued to visit the Abu al-Nur mosque on Fridays. The morning lessons were now given by Bashir al-Bani and this continued until his death in 2008. Buses carrying his followers from ‘Irbin, Saqba, Hamuriyah, Mlayhah, and other towns in the Ghuta would arrive early and block the narrow streets around the mosque. They would come as families, often carrying along sandwiches and tea flasks as though heading to their weekly picnic.
By the eve of the Syrian uprising, numerous families in the Ghuta had deeply absorbed Kaftaru’s approach to Islam and reform. The Uprising however, would quickly change everything. The brutal repression of protesters in Dar‘a, which became overwhelmingly clear in April 2011, coincided with the first peaceful demonstrations to be held in the Ghuta. But by January 2012, most of the towns and villages I had once visited with al-Bani were under the control of armed rebels. In late January, the government hit back with a large offensive. Over 2000 soldiers and fifty tanks stormed into the walnut orchards of the Ghuta. The rebels withdrew from the towns, but the army failed to retake the area completely. The way in which the Syrian regime opted to interact with the Syrian Uprising had succeeded in undermining the logic of Kaftaru’s reformist approach. Suddenly, Marwan Hadid was being cloned all over the Ghuta, and the path of reform became the path of cowards and traitors.
Kaftaru’s home in the Ghuta was once a place where the representatives of various sects and denominations, from both Syria and other countries, would meet and have warm and friendly conversations in the presence of the Grand Mufti. At times, al-Bani would bring me along to attend some of the fascinating events that would take place at Kaftaru’s home, from lunch with Cardinal Martini, to a dinner with Robert Schuller, and spiritual meditation at dawn with Muhammad Ali. It was quite natural to see Alawite religious figures visit Kaftaru, often with their children, as one would visit an old friend. Attracted by the serenity of the place, pigeons, in surprising numbers, sat on the terrace and the grass outside of the house. It all seemed as though it would never change. Nine years after his death, and not too far from where his home once stood, chemical weapons were used against innocent civilians. Children died during their sleep, but the pigeons had long departed.
*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.