Does Syria’s armed opposition have room for non-Islamists?

*Editor’s Note: Syrian government military forces have recaptured the village referred to in this story. The interviewees requested that The Damascus Bureau not publish the name of the village. The Damascus Bureau has also changed Tariq’s name for his own safety.

Last winter, 34-year-old Tariq was a wanted man. The Syria’s feared security services sought his arrest for his active opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. So, the former computer technician fled the capital for the rural area of East Ghouta outside Damascus. After a few months of helping with relief efforts he gained the trust of the local people, and soon became the media coordinator for the local opposition military unit, called the Jallaq Battalion.

But as a member of Syria’s tiny Druze minority, a secretive religion adhered to by around 2 percent of Syria’s 20 million citizens, Tariq’s enthusiasm was met with distrust, discrimination and hostility by the majority of the unit’s Sunni Muslim militiamen. Tariq says some of the opposition fighters accused him of being an atheist for belonging to the Druze sect and holding a secular worldview.

Opposition Bani Maarouf Battalion announcing their establishment; most of the division's members belong to the Druze sect —YouTube
Opposition Bani Maarouf Battalion announcing their establishment; most of the division’s members belong to the Druze sect —YouTube

At one point one of the Brigade’s fighters, nicknamed Abu Al-Fatih, brandished a pistol—a move that Tariq interpreted as an implicit threat.

“We have not tried this pistol yet,” he said.

Tariq’s story reveals the divisions that are beginning to appear inside the armed opposition as Sunni Islamists dominate more and more of the fighting units. As a result, non-Islamist fighters and activists, like Tariq, are having a hard time finding a place in the fight against the Assad government.

Tariq’s experience prompted him to leave the Jallaq Battalion and to push for the establishment of a mostly-Druze fighting unit named the Bani Maarouf Battalion. The battalion was established in January 2013, and refers to a pseudonym for the Druze, “The children of the good deeds.” The unit includes Syrians from other minorities and fights under the command of the Military Council of Suweida Province, an area with a Druze majority.

Abu Mohammad is a judge in one of the Sharia Courts in East Ghouta and knows the Jallaq Battalion well. He justifies the caution shown by Sunni Muslims toward non-Sunni activists by explaining that a large number of these activists used to secretly work for the regime.

“Various Free Syrian Army units were compromised, which caused huge losses in information and souls, and this happened because these units immediately trusted any defector or volunteer without running a background check on him,” Abu Mohammad said. “Most breaches were by people coming from a minority [religious sect], which has made us suspicious of any newcomer who did not belong to the majority [Sunni population].”

Even secular Sunni fighters and activists are feeling sidelined by the Islamists. Ahmad, a 28- year-old English literature university graduate, and Youssef, a 27 year-old who worked as a dentist before the uprising, are both secular and belong, on paper only, to the Sunni sect. They used to fight in an opposition military unit called the Ababeel Horan Brigade, which is active in Damascus countryside and Deraa. Both of them took a different approach to dealing with the Islamists that they say have come to dominate the opposition’s fighting units. Both men declined to give their full names.

Youssef took an amicable approach to the unit’s Islamists. He said he prayed with the fighters although he normally does not pray. He also attended religious classes. He said he did these things in order to avoid provoking the group, and to gain the fighters’ trust so they would, eventually, be willing to listen to his point view.

“It does me no harm to wake up early for the morning prayer, nor does attending the religion class every week,” he said. On the contrary, it gives me room to honestly say my opinions,” says Youssef, who sees no contradiction between these acts and being an atheist.”

Ahmad, on the other hand, was not so polite. He says he left the opposition unit because he could not cope with the daily harassment by the Islamists, which was brought on by his being non-religious.

“I could not stand the daily arguments and accusations,” he said. “I do not want jihad for the sake of Allah; I want to defend my family and honor.”

Syrian National Council member Faeq al-Meer is more inclined toward Youssef’s collegial approach. Meer says that now is not the time for disagreements between members of the opposition, and that secular people should not join the armed opposition to only show their secularism as this might provoke their would-be Islamist allies. Meer also believes that many of the opposition units are secular but acknowledges the existence of units dominated by rigid and militant Islamists.

“Some units would reject not only the secular people but even those [religious Muslims] who do not follow the unit’s religious approach,” he said. “There are also many more units that do not think of these issues, nor are they concerned by them. It is, therefore, wrong to generalize,” Meer said.

Shaikh Adnan, a cleric in his fifties who used to live in Ghouta and lead a mosque in Damascus, blames the Islamist hardliners in the opposition’s military units for closing the doors in the face of others seeking to join the revolution. Shaikh Adnan, who had to flee to Damascus and live in the mosque, adds, “Islamic Sharia is fit for all people anywhere and at any time, and those who get to know it will not reject it.”

Shaikh Adnan believes that the pious have an obligation to promote the virtues of Sharia to secular individuals by offering wisdom and good advice; he believes that rejection and militancy do not help to attract non-religious people to Islam.

Abu Mohammad, the Sharia court judge, believes that opposition groups don’t force Islam on fighters. He believes Al-Nusra Front and other militant groups that refuse to allow secular fighters and activists to serve in their ranks make up only a small proportion of opposition fighting units. These groups, according to Abu Mohammad, consider the Free Syrian Army to be a secular entity because it does not seek the establishment of a unified Islamic state. At the same time, military necessity sometimes takes precedence over ideology: Al-Nusra Front has been reported to occasionally cooperate with the FSA at the level of smaller units and brigades.

Media activist Amal, who declined to give her full name, had a positive experience with the Nusra Front. She is Druze, and, during her work in the Al Qalamun area outside Damascus, had an experience that made her believe that although the Al-Nusra Front and some FSA units are religious, they are not are not rigidly sectarian.

“I slept in a Nusra fighter’s house when I was in Al Qalamun; I did not meet him personally but stayed with his wife,” she said.

Tariq, however, believes that this is not accurate and that working with the Islamist groups is very difficult. His experience in East Ghouta stays with him. He is still not entirely satisfied with the unit’s name referencing the Druze, and therefore being sectarian, but says there is currently no room for secular groups in the uprising.

“I wish we chose a secular name with no religious connotations, but the existence of religiously-different units in the revolution is the only way for the militants to realize that the battlefield is not theirs only,” he said.