|Grand Mufti Hassoun has been the target of much anger from opposition activists in Syria due to his moderately pro-regime stance [EPA]
As the Syrian uprising turns more violent, the latest victim in a spate of assassinations is Saria Hassoun, the 22-year-old son of Syria's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun. The shooting occurred outside Ibla University on the Idlib-Aleppo highway. Also killed with Saria Hassoun was Mohammad al-Omar, a professor of History at Aleppo University. Assassinations have become a near-daily occurrence, especially in the central province of Homs, where academics and officials are targeted in a tactic reminiscent those used by the Muslim Brotherhood in their armed uprising between 1976 and 1982.
According to Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh and author of a forthcoming book on the Baath party and Islam in Syria, the first cleric killed in that uprising was the son of then Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaru: "He was killed in 1979 in obscure circumstances, reportedly during an incident with tenants of one of his family's land properties. Nobody ever accused the Islamists of carrying out the assassination, and the Islamists themselves didn't claim responsibility for it (although they did it for other assassinated clerics). There is no doubt, however, that the Islamists killed Muhammad al-Shami, a prominent pro-regime cleric of Aleppo, in 1980. His son Suhayb (Hassoun's deadly foe) was appointed as director of the city's Religious Endowment in 1982, a position he occupied until 2005. Islamists also killed Rashid al-Khatib, the preacher of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, in 1981. And they seriously injured Salah 'Uqla, another Damascene pro-regime sheikh."
The Muslim clergy in Aleppo have a reputation for being the most corrupt in Syria, enriching themselves through embezzlement and the theft of public funds. Suhayb al-Shami was even more notorious for his corruption than Hassoun. Opposition activists in Aleppo frequently mention the expensive cars driven by the Mufti's sons and complain that the Mufti is very wealthy while his father was from a modest village.
Mufti Hassoun, who is based in the northern city of Aleppo, is widely reviled by the Syrian opposition for his open support of the regime and hostility to the protesters. This is in contrast to many other Sunni clerics throughout the country, who have expressed opposition to the regime, including the Mufti of Daraa, Sheikh Ahmad Abdulaziz Abazid, who was arrested during the uprising and whose house in Daraa's Karak neighbourhood is riddled with bullet-holes. In the daily demonstrations held in Syria, Mufti Hassoun is frequently mentioned in ire, as in one demonstration in Homs' Waer district, where hundreds of protesters chanted: "Listen, listen, Hassoun, take off your turban and put on horns!"
It is his moderate pro-regime position that has led to protesters in Syria mocking Mufti Hassoun in nearly every demonstration.
Meeting the Mufti
In August I met with Mufti Hassoun in Aleppo's Rawda mosque in the presence of three of his sons and his brother. Despite being majority Sunni, Aleppo, Syria's largest city, had not risen up like other parts of the country. I asked the Mufti why this was so. Aleppo was more educated and foreign influence was weaker in Aleppo, he said, echoing the regime's narrative that blamed a foreign conspiracy for the then six-month-old uprising. What was happening in other cities in Syria was foreign to Aleppo, he said, a result of ideas coming in from outside of Syria.
In addition to the foreign conspiracy, the Mufti also blamed "internal shortcomings in services and political pluralism" for the "foreign inflammation" of Syria. He admitted that Syria had not had political pluralism in Syria for 40 years. But he warned against the pluralism of Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq. "Iraq has more than 100 parties," his son interrupted. The Mufti added that he was opposed to religious or ethnic parties.
I asked him about the role of Islam in the demonstrations, reminding him that demonstrations emerged from mosques. He denied this, claiming that demonstrators came from elsewhere to meet in front of mosques.
"The words 'Sunni' or 'Christian' should be smaller than the word 'citizen'."
- Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun
I reminded him that takbeer, or the call to shout "God is great", was one of the main slogans of the uprising. He blamed outside influences for this, specifically "Wahhabi satellite channels". It was a reference to Wesal, a Saudi channel that aired sermons by the exiled Syrian firebrand Sheikh Adnan al-Arur, who urged the opposition to shout the takbeer. The Mufti said takbeer should be limited for the call to prayer that echoed from mosques five times a day. It was not to be shouted at midnight, he said. "I warn America," he said, "If there is a religious state here, it will move to Europe and the US. This happened in the former Yugoslavia."
I told him that I had seen many clerics playing a role in the uprising. "There are sheikhs inciting the demonstrations," he said. "But they are not conscious to what is happening in the Arab region. There is destruction in the name of democratic change but democratic change cannot be achieved by violence against the government or opposition.
"The words 'Sunni' or 'Christian' should be smaller than the word 'citizen'," he said. I told him that the opposition accused the Syrian government of being an Alawite regime. "In Iraq, they said it was a Sunni government," he told me, "Now Shia say we miss Saddam because they lost their security. There is a Baath party here and it is 80 or 90 percent Sunni."
I asked him what he thought of the first dead demonstrator from Aleppo, Muhammad al-Iqta, who the opposition claims was killed by an electrical stun gun during a demonstration. The Mufti claimed al-Iqta died from a heart attack. "Demonstrators cursed and insulted those who did not come out to join them," he said. "Is that peaceful? No it is not. Two sides opened fire, some from the demonstrators and some from the state. In the first month more soldiers died than [members of the] opposition. Many groups are armed, some want an Islamic state and some want a secular state and they are together like in Tahrir Square in Egypt."
After we parted, his son, who had occasionally whispered advice to his father on answers, rushed after me. His father had not meant that takbeer was just for Wahhabis, he said. "It's for all Muslims," he said. "It is the word of truth, but it has its appropriate time."
You can follow Nir Rosen on Twitter @nirrosen.