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memri
December 31, 2005 No.
1061

Conversations Between Human Rights Activists and Islamists in a Syrian Prison

After several months in prison, Syrian author and human rights activist Ali Al-Abdallah was pardoned and released by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Id Al-Fitr, in early November 2005.

Ali Al-Abdallah was arrested in May 2005 following a conference of the Jamal Al-Atasi Forum for National Dialogue, a Syrian NGO that works to advance political reforms in Syria. Ten days later, the other members of the organization's executive board were also arrested.

During his incarceration, Al-Abdallah met several "Damascus Spring" activists who had been arrested in 2001 for promoting political and civil reforms and human rights in Syria, and had been sentenced to five years' imprisonment. [1]

In an article in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Abdallah described conversations in prison between Syrian reform and human rights activists and Islamic fundamentalists. In the article, he attempts to warn against Salafi (Islamist) thought, which permits murder and violence for reasons of belief and politics. [2]

The following are excerpts from his article:

Salafi Prisoner: "By Agreeing to a Dialogue With the Regime and to Peaceful Political Activity, [the Muslim Brotherhood] Borders on Polytheism"

"During the period in which I was detained, circumstances brought me to a face-off with a number of individuals belonging to the Salafiyya Jihadiyya movement. We were in two adjacent cells (four Salafis were gathered together in a cell that was two meters by two and a half meters), and this permitted intermittent and pointed conversation. They noticed that I was next to them because I discussed the Koran with my friend Riyadh Hamoud Al-Durar, who was incarcerated in a nearby cell...

"One of them asked me if I was a Muslim. I answered, 'Of some sort.' He asked me whether I belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. When I answered no, and added that I saw Arabism and Islam as foundations of the Arab identity within a democratic regime and a proper government, he stopped the conversation, saying, 'We'll talk in the future.' But this 'future' never came.

"A long time passed until I again heard the voice of the young man who had spoken to me, and that was when a new [prisoner], who had been deported from Britain, came to a nearby cell. After we talked with the new prisoner and learned that his father had belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, the young man said something to him about 'his father's friends,' referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. According to him, 'in agreeing to conduct a dialogue with the regime and to adopt political activity in peaceful ways, your father's friends are bordering on polytheism [shirk].' As far as he was concerned, the criterion for faith is outright jihad and fighting the infidels and polytheists."

Human Rights Activist: "The Koran Does Not Call for Boycotting Others or Self-Isolation From Society"

"Afterwards, he warned the new prisoner not to talk to us or to participate in the discussions conducted at night among the residents of the nearby cells (Walid Al-Bunni, Habib 'Issa, and Fawaz Tilo, who were among the Damascus Spring detainees thrown into a cell several years ago, after being sentenced by the State High Security Court that was acting in accordance with the emergency laws that have been in force [in Syria] for over 40 years)...

"He based the ban on talking with us on the Koran verse [4:140] '...When you people disbelieving and mocking Allah's signs, do not sit with them'... But he did not complete the verse, which ends with the words: 'until they change the subject of their conversation.' In other words, the Koran does not call for boycotting people or for isolating oneself from society, as is claimed in the calls of takfir [accusations of apostasy].

"To prove his view, [the prisoner] referred to the relations mentioned in the Koran between the Prophet Abraham and his people, as proof that the regime, and those with differing opinions, should be boycotted. In the Koran [60:4] it says: 'Indeed, there is for you a good example in Abraham and those who were with him, when they said to their people: Surely we are not committed to you and to [the idols] you worship besides Allah; we want nothing to do with you, and enmity and hatred will separate us and you forever, unless you believe in Allah alone.'

"[The prisoner] did not take into account the clear difference between the two instances: Abraham's people were polytheists, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood members are believers [in one God]. Likewise, he did not take into account that the disagreements between Abraham, his father and his people were about monotheism, whereas the disagreements between the Salafiyya and Muslim Brotherhood movement are political, and do not stem from issues of faith.

"At the beginning of the month of Ramadan, I congratulated friends and prisoners in the nearby cells on the occasion of the blessed month [of fasting]. I [also] wanted to congratulate the Salafis and therefore turned to them and spoke, but they did not respond to my congratulations, and acted as if they weren't there. But their leader (Omar) listened to my conversations with my friend Riyadh Hamoud Al-Durar, which took place nearly every day after the pre-fast meal and dealt with Koranic verses and their meaning. [He] saw fit to talk with us, perhaps because he thought that [our ways] could be mended. He turned to Riyadh and said: 'I did not talk with you [two] in the past, but when I heard you discussing the Koran, I thought it necessary to do so.'"

Salafi Prisoner: Human Rights Activists are "Unbelievers Because They Believe in Democracy and Reject the Koranic Punishments"

"He began to talk with us about monotheism... and then said to Riyadh: 'I see that you have fallen into a trap in your conversations with the people in adjacent cells.' He described these people as infidels, because of their belief in democracy and their rejection of Allah's punishments as mentioned in the Koran (amputating the hand of a thief and stoning the adulterer). As proof, he quoted the Koran [5:44]: 'Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed are infidels.'

"Riyadh responded that he was confusing the judicial with the political sphere, since the Koran [uses verbs of different roots] for issues in the personal and social sphere... and for political issues...

"The Salafi was silent, but that did not mean that he accepted Riyadh's words or was convinced by them... [because] his reaction to news of Salafiyya Jihadiyya operations in Iraq against the American and Iraqi forces and against Shi'ites and Kurds was a reaction of joy. He would burst into Salafi songs in praise of Jihad and martyrdom.

"When we protested against the barbaric murders [in Iraq] that do not distinguish between occupier and civilian or between military personnel and civilian, and [we] protested against accusing the Shi'ites of unbelief and murdering them... he [tried but] failed to defend these barbaric deeds and could not prove that they were unbelievers. He did not condemn the [murders], and he linked them to the political behavior of the victims, [claiming that] they were traitors. [He also claimed] that the Salafis discuss every case seriously before carrying out any 'martyrdom' [istishhad] operation, and that they kill only those whose unbelief, polytheism, or treachery has been proven - which justifies their killing.

"When we tried to point out to them that [the Salafis] kill people to whom these jurisprudent opinions do not refer, he solved the problem by referring to these victims as having fallen by accident, and called them 'shahids'..."


[1] "Damascus Spring" is a term for the political awakening that took place in Syria with Bashar Al-Assad's nomination as president, in June 2000. In the course of one year, many public bodies promoting democracy and civil society were established across Syria, including the Jamal Al-Atasi Forum, which in January 2001 declared itself an NGO for democratic discourse. In September 2000, a communiqué by 99 Syrian intellectuals called for the abolition of the state of emergency in Syria, the release of political prisoners, and the advancement of political and civil reforms. In July 2001, the establishment of the Syrian Human Rights Association was declared, and attorney Haithem Al-Maleh was elected chairman. Expectations for reform, however, began to fade when in August 2001 the Syrian authorities launched a series of arrests of reformist activists, and sentenced them to years in prison.

[2] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 20, 2005. The article also appeared on the Kuwaiti reformist website Tanweer, at http://www.kwtanweer.com/articles/readarticle.php?articleID=580.