Dara Conduit, The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Dara Conduit (DC): I wrote this book because I wanted to more fully understand the Brotherhood. When I started researching, I was struck by several things: First, the Brotherhood’s reputation was so polarised; inside and outside Syria, the group was seen as either really, really bad, or really, really good, but rarely something in between. Second, I was surprised by how little was known about the Brotherhood, even though it was the country’s most famous opposition movement. When I started the project in 2013, there had not been a full book published on the group in English since the early 1980s. Thankfully a few months after I started, Raphaël Lefèvre filled many of these gaps with his Ashes of Hama, but I still had questions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Brotherhood was seen as central to the Syrian political milieu in 2011. This was true in that the group was a strong performer in the early uprising, at least outside the country, but this early advantage failed to translate into a sustained lead, and by 2013 the group had been sidelined by the actors and events inside Syria.

Why did the Brotherhood fail to live up to expectations, and how much can its history tell us about its role in the 2011 Syrian uprising? These were the questions that drove the research and pushed me to write the book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

DC: The book uses the Brotherhood’s failure to thrive after 2011 as a starting point to understand what its history can tell us about the contemporary movement. The book sits at the intersection of the literatures on contentious politics, political violence, and political organizations. Although the group could reasonably be described at various junctures in its life as an opposition group under authoritarianism, a terrorist group, or a democratic political party, none fully describe the group. The book therefore uses the three literatures to understand the Brotherhood, building an account of an ordinary political organization that over its seventy-year history has been pulled in different directions by its context and other factors.

The book is split into two parts. The first examines the group’s past, including its political platforms, political track record, use of violence (which is something that the book does not gloss over), and international connections. The second half then applies this account of its history, much of which came from interviews and extensive primary source analysis, to understand how history helped and hindered the Brotherhood’s response to the 2011 uprising.

It was quite clear to me by the time I finished writing the book that the Brotherhood carried the substantial weight of history on its shoulders. This had proven both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that the Brotherhood had a ready-made political platform and history of political thought, an organizational tradition, international diplomatic networks, and resources far superior to any of Syria’s other opposition groups on the eve of the 2011 uprising. But history also proved an encumbrance; by 2011 the Brotherhood carried significant political baggage from its failed militarization in the 1980s (particularly related to what happened, who was to blame, and how the group had diverted so far from its original path) and its decades of opposing authoritarian regimes. These factors combined to stunt its decision-making skills and ability to build ties across the opposition. In this regard, while the Brotherhood’s history does not define who it is today, it does continue to strongly shape the group’s decision making.

J: What is your favorite chapter?

DC: The chapter I enjoyed researching the most was the chapter on the Brotherhood’s use of violence, because it is one of the most contested parts of its history. This is partially because the Brotherhood has never fully acknowledged its role in the violence, nor has it taken responsibility for the events that took place, which many senior members still dismiss as “self defense” or as having been forced upon them. Much of what happened also took place in the context of the relatively closed and repressive authoritarian Syria of the 1970s and 1980s that quashed most opportunities for independent accounts to emerge, while the regime too has maintained a no-fault narrative. For this chapter, I located old Brotherhood documents, memoirs, and archival material, and spoke to members who were involved in the Brotherhood during that period, to piece together an account of the events. Although the chapter finds that the Brotherhood was indeed involved in the violence and bears some responsibility for the enormous death and destruction inflicted on the country (particularly the Syrian civilians who bore the brunt of the regime’s violent response to the Brotherhood for decades to come), its actions were the extreme end of the popular political, socioeconomic, and geographic unrest that was taking place across the country during that period. The decision to use violence therefore did not take place in a vacuum, but was deeply rooted in the Syrian political context of the time, however foolhardy and destructive it proved to be.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

DC: The book argues that the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria must be understood in its political context, that is as a group who has spent most of its life as an opposition to authoritarian regimes. Of course, it is a complex political actor with its own agency that has made its own choices (and mistakes) over the years, but its character and actions are strongly influenced by its historical experiences and political contexts, particularly authoritarianism. In this regard, the book relates closely to my work on other opposition groups, because there are oppositions across the world challenging authoritarian regimes every day.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DC: I hope that many people will read this book. This includes academics working on Syria or authoritarianism, general readers and members of the policy community, and perhaps most importantly, Syrians, although it is only published in English so far. I hope this will change soon.

I had general readers in mind when I was writing the book, so I avoided academic jargon or theory that might obscure the importance of the Brotherhood’s wider story. As the Syrian conflict became more internecine, following the conflict as a casual reader became really difficult because of its many twists and turns. I hope this book provides an easier way to understand parts of the conflict by following one organization on its journey through the unrest.

I hope that the book will build on the work undertaken by others on the importance of context in understanding Islamist movements. Islamist groups are useful bogeymen for autocrats and the international community, and are often depicted as dogmatic, irrational actors. In contrast, this book highlights the importance of using a lens of circumstance rather than ideology to fully understand the actions of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist organizations more broadly. Although the Brotherhood proved to not be the violent or dogmatic actor that many feared would rise again in the Syrian conflict, its conduct after 2011 nonetheless won it few friends, leaving it perhaps more isolated than ever.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DC: I am currently working on a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation that examines the role played by foreign states in the Syrian war, and I will shortly be starting a new postdoc on authoritarianism and the Syrian opposition.

 

Excerpt from the book (pp. 1-7)

As the Arab Uprisings spread across the Middle East in January 2011, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders gathered in a town a few hundred kilometres from Istanbul for their monthly meeting. The group had been in exile for the nearly three decades since their failed previous uprising, and its leaders and members were now scattered across the world. For the first time in many years however, the Brothers had reason to be hopeful. The swift overthrow of Tunisia’s long-reigning dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the growing protests against the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, had raised the question of revolt in Syria. The Brotherhood’s Strategic Planning chief, Molham Aldrobi, later recalled that up until that moment: ‘none of us … had imagined or dreamed or had that nightmare—however you want to describe it—that a revolution might happen in Syria because for the 30-plus years since 1980, nothing had happened’.

A new item was quickly added to the Syrian Brothers’ January meeting agenda: the leaders would discuss what to do if the wider Arab unrest spread to Syria. This was important because should the country’s nearly 50-year-old Baʿthist regime be destabilised, the group’s leaders and members might finally be able to return home. The group would need to be ready.

Molham Aldrobi was assigned to prepare a document overnight on what could happen. He presented the brief to the leadership the following day and later explained:

I drafted a Project Charter called the ‘Bashar Leave!’ project, and in that document I discussed the special situation of Syria compared to Tunisia and Egypt, and what we as the Muslim Brotherhood needed to do in case revolution erupted in Syria …We were hopeful that something might happen in Syria that would change the situation in Syria to become a democratic country. We wanted these changes to happen peacefully.

But when the unrest finally reached Syria in March 2011, Brotherhood flags or slogans were few and far between in the burgeoning protest movement. Protesters in the town of Zabadani went so far as to formally distinguish themselves from the Brotherhood, holding a placard that declared: ‘Neither Salafi nor Brotherhood, my religion is freedom’. Indeed, while the Muslim Brotherhood remained Syria’s best-known opposition group, it would face an uphill battle to rebuild a popular base in Syria.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun fi Suriya) has played a role in every iteration of Syrian politics since the country gained independence in 1946, including in Syria’s parliament from 1947 to 1963. Syria’s democratic era came to a close after the Arab Socialist Baʿth Party took power by coup in 1963, marking the beginning of the Brotherhood’s long struggle to return to the corridors of Syrian political power. Initially the Syrian Brothers mounted their discontent peacefully through youth groups, study circles and popular protests inside Syria. However, as repression hardened and avenues for political opportunity narrowed over the subsequent decade and a half, the Brotherhood made the fateful decision to take up arms against the Syrian government. In the violent years that followed, membership of the group would become a capital offense. The Brotherhood–government bloodletting eventually culminated in the bloody 1982 Hama uprising.…In just three weeks, up to 25,000 people were killed, and large sections of the city’s old quarters were flattened. 1,000 Syrian soldiers died in the battle. As the dust settled in Hama however, it became clear that a significant further price would be exacted from the Brotherhood and its supporters for their defiance: thousands were imprisoned or disappeared, the group’s support base was destroyed, and large numbers of the group’s followers were forced to join their leaders in a seemingly permanent exile. Exile then created a new challenge for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood: the struggle for relevance.

Nonetheless, the Syrian state’s intolerance of almost all opposition meant that on the eve of the 2011 uprising the Brotherhood still remained one of Syria’s most resilient and best-resourced opposition political actors. As one of the few groups with salaried staff, an institutional structure and funds, it was able to use its organisational strength and resources to guarantee itself a seat at the political table. Brotherhood members went on to participate in all of the opposition conferences in the first year of the uprising, and it became a ‘king maker’ on the new opposition political bodies the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SOC – Syrian Opposition Coalition). Although the influence of these exiled political bodies diminished as the uprising militarised, the Brotherhood’s organisational skills nonetheless had endowed it with a significant advantage in early days of the revolt. The disconnect between this early advantage and the Brotherhood’s subsequent limited success in the uprising as a whole would later become quite stark.

For all the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s prominence as the uprising first unfolded however, questions were quickly raised about its ambitions and modus operandi. Prominent Middle East analyst Marina Ottaway queried in April 2011: ‘Has it gone underground, how quickly can it be revived, how much sympathy is there still for the Muslim Brotherhood? I have no idea and I don’t think anybody else has an idea on that’. This sense of uncertainty remained unresolved a year later, when The New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick conceded that while the Syrian Brotherhood’s violent history was well known, ‘not much more is known about the current internal dynamics of the group’. Such observations were remarkable given that the Syrian Brothers’ Egyptian counterpart is one of the most thoroughly studied Islamist groups in the Middle East.

It wasn’t as though good research didn’t exist on the Syrian Brothers: it did, although most of it had been written prior to 1982. It was that the Hama massacre remained one of the few reference points through which Syria and the Brotherhood were known and understood, with hundreds of articles published as the protests broke out reminding readers that the Brotherhood’s 1982 uprising was the last major instance of antigovernment revolt in Syria by members of the country’s Sunni Arab majority. This memory of the Hama massacre – in particular its imagery of violence, bloodshed, radicalism, Islamism, siege, destruction and tragedy – was difficult to reconcile with the group’s more moderate recent record. This led Hama to often be seen as the definitive example of the group’s character, more instructive than the nearly four decades of organisational history that preceded the event and the three decades that followed. Many observers therefore assumed that the example of the group’s violent behaviour in 1982 would be replicated in 2011, with an editorial in The Australian noting that were President al-Assad ‘to be deposed, it’s likely that Sunnis, possibly Muslim Brotherhood extremists, would take over’, while Cook declared that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ‘may be an implacable foe, but he is better than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’. Schanzer too affirmed that the al-Assad regime ‘is a very nasty regime. Of course, the idea of having the Muslim Brotherhood come in … is equally unpalatable.’ It was as though the Brotherhood’s true colours were revealed in Hama.

In some ways, this was to be expected. Hama was a watershed moment in Syria’s political history, with Leverett observing that, ‘How a contemporary Syrian feels about Hama reveals much about his political orientation; how an outside analyst interprets Hama says much about his view of Syrian political culture and of the Asad [sic] regime.’ To those who supported the government, the Hama massacre served as a grave warning about the destructive and revolutionary threat that Islamists pose to their way of life; a narrative that the Assad regime itself went to great lengths to foment. Ismail found that the Hama events played a ‘politically formative role’:

Memories of Hama are constitutive of a community of subjects of humiliation, whose lives were stifled or, in the words of Manhal al-Sarraj, “became still.” The memories, muted as they have been, feed into sentiments of grievance and a deep-rooted sense of discrimination – a sense that a historical wrong remains unrecognised and that no atonement or reparation has been attempted.

Indeed, for many, Hama represented a tragedy of history that demonstrated the brutality of their leaders and the lengths that they would go in the name of self-preservation, and also of the huge cost that the Brotherhood was willing to inflict upon the Syrian people. To the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the significance of 1982 went further, representing ‘the end point—not to the conflict with Islamists, but to any political rights for all Syrians’. The Hama massacre continued to resonate in the 2011 Syrian uprising, with opposition groups at times strategically deploying the imagery of the Hama massacre to discredit the al-Assad regime.

But the roots of the Hama memory extend beyond Syria’s polarized political arena, drawing too from the dominant discourses that guide the understanding of Islamist groups more broadly. Cobb noted that global narratives are often ‘downloaded’ into local settings, shaping the way in which sense is made of events. In such narratives, Islamist groups are viewed as predisposed to violence or undemocratic behaviour… In this regard, the Hama massacre, the infamy of which probably dwarfs the renown of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood itself, played into these expectations, becoming an Islamist event par excellence and confirming to some the group’s primordial propensity to violence and rebellion, which is supposed to be common to all Islamist groups. Very few commentators considered the contra; that the Hama massacre itself may have been an aberration for an otherwise mainstream group. Although the book does not seek to understate the Brotherhood’s responsibility for events, it underlines the importance of interrogating whether the Hama memory has distorted knowledge on the group.

So, as the 2011 uprising unfolded, expectations of the Brotherhood often fell into the well-worn binaries ascribed to other Islamist movements, as a group that was violent or democratic, secular or dogmatic, but rarely something in between. The Brotherhood was variously depicted as a threat to Syria’s future and its secular path, or a force for good in the fledgling opposition movement, while the Syrian uprising itself was often viewed through the lens of an existential battle between the secular Assad regime and the fanatical Brotherhood. This led to the understatement of the scale and diversity of the country’s existing and emerging opposition movement, the overstatement of the Brotherhood’s significance, and perhaps most significantly for this book’s line of enquiry: the oversimplification of the Brotherhood’s history and character, limiting the ability of observers to predict how the Brotherhood would fare as the 2011 uprising developed.

[This article was originally published by Jadaliyya on their NEWTON page on 3 June, 2020.]