Portrait Muhammad Habash

A Turkish Model for Syria

The parliamentarian Muhammad Habash is considered the most popular representative of moderate political Islam in Syria. Kristin Helberg met him at his private Islam institute

photo: www.parliament.gov.sy
When he first read an English version of the Koran, he was shocked by its outright radicalism, says Muhammad Habash

​​Muhammad Habash is a man of many trades. He is a member of the Syrian Parliament, he is the Imam of a Damascus mosque, he is director of the Islamic Study Center, and he serves as chairman of the Islamic Scholars in Syria. He is small man in his mid-forties with a short beard who likes to wander back and forth between different worlds.

Dressed in suit and tie, he hurries off to a Parliament session, hours later he is standing before a group in prayer wearing a floor-length galabia.

Meanwhile, in between these two events he has received European diplomats in his office and organized a seminar program for people interested in Islam. He seems to be driven by a combination of deep religious belief, personal ambition, and a will to political power. Habash says he has a message he would like to spread.

The unity of mankind

"For me, all people belong to a single family, the family of God," he explains. This belief has led him to appeal for brotherhood and understanding between Islam and other religions. If it sounds like he's trying to save the world, once you see him in action you begin to understand that behind these seemingly illusory ideals stands a man with sincere convictions.

At the Islamic Study Center, a small institute in a converted Damascus home, Habash and his staff receive visitors from the West on a daily basis in order to discuss Islam – American scientists, German Parliamentarians, Austrian travel agents, but also interested tourists are among his guests. A group from North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany, is sitting in the center's conference room, listening closely to their host's Koran recitation.

As Habash reads a sura in the original Arabic, his listeners can read along from a German translation projected on a screen. Then he offers an interpretation of the text and answers questions: about Syria's relationship with Christians, the position of women, or the treatment of "defectors," that is, Muslims who have converted to another religion or have become atheists.

The visitors are familiar with the controversial issues in Islam, they are educated travelers in their mid-fifties, interested, critical, well prepared. Habash, for his part, has a lot of experience with prejudiced Europeans, he knows how best to approach their skepticism: calmly, with honesty and self-critique.

The Koran in English – Lost in Translation

Yes, there are some passages in the Koran that allow for violence, but only in the case of self-defense. If Muslims are persecuted and oppressed, they may defend themselves, the Iman explains patiently.

Habash only loses his composure when we are one-on-one and the question arises as to the origin of an image of Islam as violent and missionary. "The first time I read an English version of the Koran, I was horrified," Habash says. The holy book of the Muslims is not only translated conservatively, it is downright radical.

"If I were American and I was given this to read, I too would resist Islam." His anger led him to address a letter of protest to Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis distribute brochures in which they describe Jihad as ‘a call to wage a holy war against unbelievers in order to forcefully convert them to Islam' – this is simply wrong! How can they write such a thing?" Habash's voice is shaking.

Jihad means working hard, working on oneself, to defend oneself and your family, this precludes every form of aggression, he emphasizes. And in addition, for both Muslims and non-Muslims the rule is that there can be "no coercion as regards beliefs."

For an Islamic democracy

The most important question is who interprets the Koran and how, says Habash. He calls for interpreting the Koran from within a given context, in a flexible way, yet without being ungrounded. For example, take his views on democracy: "I am a democrat by conviction," says Habash, "so I consider Islam subordinate to democracy, and not the other way around." For him, this means that if individual formulations in the Koran seem at first to contradict the principles of modern democracy, they must be reinterpreted.

It is only in this way that Islam has a political role to play. Habash has carefully thought through his statements. He knows that as an Islamic scholar in Syria he must first subscribe to democracy and then to Islam. Since the Muslim Brotherhood tried to oust the regime of ex-President Hafiz Al Assad and were brutally put down again, Syrian leaders fear nothing greater than another wave of Islamism.

Is this a legitimate fear? Habash thinks there is little danger of extremism, in particular given that religion plays such an important role in everyday life. Both the Muslim and Christian cultures are so firmly rooted and still very much alive, says Habash, and for this reason Christians and Muslims live peacefully together.

Not converted, but enlightened

Sixty percent of Syrians are Sunnis, and he reckons that about one percent of them can be categorized as having radical positions. The rest are about eighty percent conservatives and twenty percent reform, he estimates. "The conservatives represent Islamic morals and traditions, but they have no political ambitions," says Habash. The reformers, to which he himself belongs, promote Islamic democracy.

"We are against a religious state," he emphasizes. "We want a secular state that we as Muslims can influence—similar to the situation in Turkey."

In the coming years he intends to devote his work as a Parliamentarian to reaching this goal. In Syria, which has socialist and secular characteristics, Habash is already considered a leading representative of moderate Islam. This means that his political career has become a tricky balancing act: Even if a new law concerning parties is passed, religious parties will remain outlawed, so he must be careful not to wind up being branded an Islamist. That would endanger not only his position as a politician, but also his work at the Islamic Study Center.

And it is here that he sees his future. "After five to ten years in politics, I will return to concentrating on the relationship between Islam and the West," he announces. Then maybe even more people would leave the institute in the same frame of mind that the tourists from North-Rhine Westphalia have: not converted, but enlightened.

Kristin Helberg

© Qantara.de 2005

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