Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities need to work together with liberal Sunni Muslims to counter the influence of Islamists in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, a prominent Sunni Muslim opposition figure said.
Kamal al-Labwani said Islam was being used to galvanize street protests against Assad and the population had grown more devout, but most Syrians still want Islam to “remain a religion, not a political party.”
“The bloody repression has given the opportunity for clerics to pump Jihadist Islamist values into the street, so we have seen the emphasis on slogans such as 'God is great' and martyrdom,” Labwani said.
Syria’s Christian, Alawite, Ismaili and Kurdish communities, which form about 30 percent of the population, should join ranks with Sunnis opposed to mixing religion with politics, he said.
There are few accurate indicators of public opinion in Syria but many minority groups, including Assad's own Alawite sect, are reluctant to support the uprising, fearing an Islamist takeover if the president were to be toppled.
Islamists made strong gains in elections following the overthrow of entrenched leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and are also a growing influence in post-Gaddafi Libya. But Labwani said Syria’s broader religious mix made that unlikely in his country.
“If we allow Islamists to take over the revolution it will be a problem (but) if we ask the rebels to deny their identity and their religion it will (also) be a problem,” said Labwani, a 53-year-old physician from the town of Zabadani who left Syria after being released from a lengthy jail term in November.
“The solution is to form an all-encompassing current that respects civic and individual rights.”
The main Muslim Brotherhood movement and other Islamists in the opposition say they do not aim to turn Syria into an Islamic state and that they will honor democratic practices, although some secular Syrians are skeptical.
“If Syria becomes a religious dictatorship, the next day you will see a crisis and the day after civil war,” Labwani said. “There has been no Islamist democratic country in history, and we do not want to try to be the first.”
But he said Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam that has dominated the country for the last five decades, needed to take a stand against a crackdown that has killed at least 5,000 people, according to a United Nations count.
“The Alawite community still has to take a clear position against the killings by the regime,” he said, pointing to Syria’s 300,000 Shiite minority whom he said have distanced themselves from Assad and continue to co-exist with Sunnis, even though Shi'ite Iran is Assad’s biggest supporter.
Labwani met U.S. officials in the White House in 2005 to push for support for human rights in Syria. He was arrested upon return but was freed under an amnesty last year and fled to Jordan.
“It was impossible to stay in Syria and be publicly active in the opposition. If one appears on television one is either arrested or assassinated. I also wanted to help strengthen the Syrian National Council,” Labwani said.
He was referring to the main opposition group which formed in Istanbul last year and which is heavily influenced by Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, which played a major role in armed opposition to Assad's late father Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s, has said it no longer wants an Islamist state and supports a civic democratic system in future.
But Labwani said Islamist politics must change more.
“This region will not stabilize without a reformation in Islamic culture that creates an Islam compatible with liberal values and modernism and breaks the totalitarian dogmatic Islamist thinking,” he said.
“This project needs work,” he said. “It will start in a free Syria after the revolution triumphs.”