Iskenderun, Turkey–As opponents of the Assad regime scramble from one foreign capital to another, trying to secure funding for weapons and aid to help Syrians in need, some prominent religious leaders are sitting on the sidelines, quietly organizing themselves to provide spiritual guidance after the bloodshed ends.
Mahmoud Abul Huda Al Husseini, a physician, cleric and former head of Aleppo’s Islamic religious endowment, the wealthiest in Syria, left his post in August 2011 after he became convinced that President Bashar Al Assad wasn’t interested in reform. A Sunni Muslim steeped in Sufi teachings, Al Husseini took his family to Istanbul and hoped to bring a moderate voice to the nascent opposition formations there.
“I didn’t join any groups because it became obvious that they would be burned and that they didn’t have a nationalistic Syrian agenda,” he said. So he packed up and moved to Iskenderun, the Turkish port city 90 miles west of Aleppo.
Al Husseini was viewed an honest broker in Aleppo, credited with cleaning up some of the rampant graft associated with the Islamic trust in Syria’s biggest city. Much of Aleppo’s central and historic real estate is held by the endowment and was rented out for token sums to connected middlemen, who then made fortunes subletting the property in the open market. Al Husseini put an end to these arrangements and established transparent auctions that cut out some of the corruption.
But Al Husseini wasn’t able to run a completely clean operation. The Officer’s Club in Aleppo, which was located on a prime tract in downtown Aleppo before being destroyed in a Jabhat Al Nusra bombing in October, was rented to the government for less than $200 per year, Al Husseini said, and he wasn’t able to alter that agreement. It resulted in lost revenue of millions of dollars over the years, an effective transfer to the regime’s coffers. Al Husseini also had to scrap plans to develop a million square meter lot after it became clear that corrupt officials and businessmen wanted a large piece of the project, he said.
Al Husseini hopes to leverage his good reputation, religious credentials and independence into a political organization that would take root during Syria’s transition, hoping to attenuate calls for vengeance and help bring to fruition a civil and modern government. He has teamed up with roughly 100 civil and religious leaders to establish the Building Civilization Movement. The only name he would mention among them is a famous Sufi scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Al Yaqoubi.
Preaching a tolerant brand of Islam that has deep roots in Syria is both the natural and only way for the country to heal after the war ends, Al Husseini said. Salafism, a conservative branch of Sunni Islam which is gaining in prominence due to support from Arab Gulf countries, will subside “when the fighting ends and the money runs out, and people will return to their true nature,” he said.
“We have people, not tanks. We don’t have money to buy loyalty. We are clean in our intentions and ideas, and that will attract followers,” he said, explaining that the movement has shunned foreign donors. “Those chasing after political money will see their popularity wane after the cash dries up.”
And this is when Al Husseini’s message will sweep in, reminding Syrian Sunnis that the regime included criminals from all sects, and that the Quran talks about pious men aligned with the Pharaohs and wicked men who followed Moses, indicating that good and evil should be judged on individual actions rather than religious affiliation.
Al Husseini admits that these lessons tend to fall on deaf ears during the heat of the battle, which is one of the reasons why he is keeping a low profile as the war in Syria rages. But his faith in Syria’s people and heritage is what gives him hope that cooler heads will prevail after the Assad regime falls.
“We are not less civilized than the West,” he said. “I’ve taught at universities in the U.S., including a course on Rumi. If we were less civilized or advanced, then no one would invite us to teach their children, no one would want to hear what we have to say.”