Doha, Qatar - When it comes to mixing religion and politics, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the newly minted leader of Syria's main opposition group, has a saying: “It is better for faith to reach someone in a position, than for [one of the] faithful to reach a position.”
On Sunday, Khatib, an Imam, author and activist, was selected to the head the opposition Syrian National Coalition, a newly formed unity group aiming to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
A former engineer who spent decades working as an Imam at mosques across Damascus, including the prestigious Umayyad Mosque, Khatib has called for the international community to support the anti-Assad revolution.
While other religious figures backed Assad's government, Khatib was one of the first to announce his support for the revolution.
“It’s like a dose of optimism was injected into Syrians after he was announced as the head of the Syrian National Coalition,” says Maha, an opposition activist in Homs who didn't give her last name for fear of reprisal. “We finally have someone who truly represents us and represents the spirit of the revolution.”
'Speak for freedom'
Just 20 days into the eruption of anti-regime protests across the country on March 15, 2011, Khatib was seen in the Damascus suburb of Douma at the funeral of an anti-government protester killed by security forces.
“We speak up for the freedom of every human in this country; for every Sunni, Alawite, Ismaili, Christian, for every Arab and every Kurd,” he said that day as he stood on a high platform.
Protesters at the funeral responded by cheering: “The Syrian people are one.”
Two days later, Khatib was at another funeral for a slain protester in the Damascus suburb of Madimiyyah.
“The free person feels for other people’s pain, lives their feelings, cries with them and calls for their rights,” he told mourners in Madimiyyah.
Khatib was arrested several times for his involvement in the movement, including his most recent incarceration in April 2012.
In an interview with Al Jazeera in August, Khatib said that a member of Assad’s inner circle had contacted him in February to ask him to come up with an initiative to end the bloodshed in the country because the "ship was drowning with all of us in it".
Khatib said officials gave him guarantees and a "space of freedom" to contact opposition figures and propose a draft initiative. But just after he submitted the proposal, which called for a smooth transition of power, Khatib was arrested for 11 days. He fled to Cairo, Egypt, upon his release from prison.
Ibrahim al-Assil, a 28-year old Syrian researcher, who used to attend the mosque where Khatib would preach, said: “At the mosque platform, Khatib always criticised the faults of the regime, he refused to be hypocritical and compliment the president and refused to read the speeches prepared for him by the officials.”
Khatib was transferred from one mosque to another in Damascus, until regime officials banned him from preaching in 1994.
In 2003, authorities banned his brother from preaching, reportedly because he was a vocal critic of the parliamentary elections and of the US invasion of Iraq.
“I saw Sheikh Moaz Khatib protesting alone in al-Huda Mosque. He had a paper stuck on his chest and another one stuck on his back that read ‘why was my brother banned, minister of endowments?’,” Assil said.
“This was the first time in my life to see any form of protest in Syria.”
His struggle for freedom along with what many consider his moderate Islamic discourse made him a popular figure among many Syrians. He has written dozens of books and articles on religion and society, advocating for equality between men and women, for minority rights and political plurality.
“I knew him personally for twenty years…I used to attend his Friday speeches at the mosque with my friends at Damascus University, we all were liberal but proud Muslims, and we found in him the right figure. He was always very open-minded and ready to talk to us about anything," Rim Turkmani, a Syrian-born astrophysicist at Imperial College London, said. "His attitude towards women is very admirable as well.”
As an individual Khatib is a modest person, Assil said. “When we used to visit him in his house he made sure he served us."
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“I do not like the of sanctification individuals, but this man is really special.”
Khatib could be a consensus building figure among the opposition. But some Syrians see his political inexperience as problematic. Others believe that the selection of a religious figure to lead the Syrian National Coalition was inappropriate.
“While Sheikh Moaz is an incredible person, I do not think a religious preacher should be involved in politics. We want to maintain the secular nature of Syria and build a civil state, where politics and religion are separate,” Randa, a Syrian activist from Damascus, said.
But Fadi Salem, a Syrian researcher based in Dubai, sees Khatib as a "moderate Islamist" who has a lot of support among conservative urban Sunnis. He could be the right man to tackle the rise of extremism, the researcher said.
“Syrians now have charismatic and credible leader talking to the revolutionaries, including the opposition fighters, as opposed to the current demagogues inciting for blood,” Salem said.
The new leader's skills will be put to the test immediately, as he tries to navigate competing foreign and domestic interests all clamouring to shape Syria's future, Salem said.
Many Syrians are afraid that Khatib may lose his legitimacy among the Syrian people if the military stalemate continues and international assistance doesn't arrive.
“Moaz Khatib is a flower. I am scared that it is being planted in salty soil,” Ahmad Bakdash, a Syrian blogger, said on Twitter.
But Khatib bluntly told Syrians on Friday: "If you find any good in me then help me, and if you find evil then remove me."
Follow Basma Atassi on twitter: @Basma_