Among the most frustrating things I have faced since I came to Islam in the 1990s are, what seems to me, the chronic tendency in our community to exaggerate, and our unwillingness to be objective. I mean, a good recent example of this was when I saw an interview with Fatema, the mother of 7 year old Twitter celebrity Bana Abed, after the family’s arrival in Turkey. She complained about the conditions on the evacuation bus, and likened it to being a hostage. Except, this bus was delivering her and her family to safety and freedom. The bus was not bombed, was not set on fire, the men on board were not executed, and the women were not raped; as we had been told to expect. No. They passed safely into Turkey. But instead of “Al-Hamdulillah” we get a tirade against the bus ride that rescued the family from war. As if it was disappointing that there was no atrocity.
Early in my interactions with Arabs I was given the impression that it wasn’t safe to pray Fajr in the masjid in any Arab country, and that growing a beard would get you arrested. It took me a while to realize that this was simply not true. I prayed Fajr in masjids in many of those countries, and knew many brothers with beards, and had one myself. I remember my brother-in-law in Gaza who had a beard the first time I met him, but had shaved it off when I visited Gaza again a little over a year later. He explained that under Arafat, it was not safe to grow a beard. Sitting next to him as he said this was my other brother-in-law, who still had his beard. So let’s be honest. The masjids are not full at Fajr time in the Arab world for the same reason they are not full in the West, or anywhere else: very few people want to go. “The Intelligence services will identify me as an extremist” is just an excuse.
It is worth noting that the demands of the original protesters in Syria in 2011 did not include the right to pray Fajr in the masjid. No. The Jihadi narrative of pre-war Syria is revisionist.
I have known Syrians all my life as a Muslim; religious brothers, anti-regime, Ikhwan and Salafi and unaffiliated. None of them complained about overt sectarian repression of religious practices. They complained about public sector corruption, censorship, income inequality, monopolization of power, and so on; the same things the demonstrators were protesting. And these are all the same kinds of complaints anyone has about authoritarian governments anywhere in the world. But most people were relatively free to say and do as they liked, as long as it was not critical of the government. Again, that is the same in any Arab country (it is also the same with anyone living under Da’esh, by the way, except that under Da’esh, overt sectarian repression is prominent).
No one is saying that the regime in Syria was benevolent and good; but it was not by any means, uniquely bad; and by most accounts prior to 2011, things were getting better. There was considerable economic development, rehabilitation of infrastructure, and so on. This is all true, and none of it invalidates the demands of the protesters. Acknowledging this reality does not undermine the legitimacy of what they were asking for. But the demands of the protesters were immediately drowned by the armed conflict, and the nature of the struggle radically changed. Again, the demands of the protesters were not religious in nature; they were political and socioeconomic; just as were the demands of demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt, and everywhere else. It is simply dishonest to rewrite the history of these events to make it appear as though they were rising up against religious repression. That just was not the case.
I don’t doubt that the Jihadis believe what they are saying, but when they talk about religious repression, they mean “living under any system other than Khilafah”, but this definition is not shared by most people. Perhaps they had personal experiences of people being arrested for praying Fajr in the masjid, I really don’t know; but if so, it is likely that the arrest related to matters beyond the prayer, and this experience does not reflect the general situation for most people. And, frankly, I have heard that line too many times, and seen it debunked too many times, and known too many Syrians before the war, to fall for it.
If we consider this tendency to exaggerate and revise history, it is predictable that we could see in Sudan, for example, a nonviolent opposition movement against Omar Bashir’s regime on the basis of socioeconomic demands turn into a violent secular uprising against “Islamism”, with religion used to obscure the real issues. We may be told 3 or 4 years from now by Sudanese rebels that Bashir’s government forced people to pray Fajr in the masjids and punished men who didn’t grow beards. The religious people will back the government, and the West will back the rebels, and nothing that the protesters are demanding will even be remembered.
So you see, it is of the utmost importance that we are honest and objective about reality, because this has an impact on the shaping of reality.