Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat talks to Syria’s Muslim brotherhood leader Mohammad Riad Al-Shaqfa | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat- Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood movement is exerting all efforts to do away with the “extremism” tag currently attributed to it. The group says that the regime is framing it and using this charge as a “scarecrow” to frighten others and hinder the movement. Head of Syria’s Muslim brotherhood, Mohammad Riad Al-Shaqfa asserts that the movement “renounces violence”, calls for a civic state in Syria, and will abide by the results of the democratic process. Al-Shaqfa added that: “Even the West has begun to discover that frightening others from the brothers is a fabrication. The West now wants to hear about the Muslim Brothers from the Muslim Brothers themselves after hearing about them from others”. Nevertheless, Al-Shaqfa denied that they are engaged in a dialogue with the United States but referred to an indirect dialogue with the European Union.

The text of the interview is as follows:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view the course of events in Syria?

[Al-Shaqfa] I am very optimistic that the Syrian uprising will achieve its objectives; my confidence stems from the persistence of the Syrian people. The youths will not go back home until they achieve their aspirations. Despite all the killing and oppression, the people insist on not retreating because that would be catastrophic. Retreat will only produce more killing, more persecution, and more terrorism by this regime. We hope to proceed with our peaceful demonstrations and I emphasize the word peaceful.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It’s been seven months since the start of the revolution, but you have yet to achieve your aspirations. What are your current plans to overthrow the regime?

[Al-Shaqfa] We can see certain indications, such as the splits within the army. There are many honourable people in the army. The more the oppression increases the more they will emerge. I expect these splits to grow with the continuation of the oppression. We are not the ones that ignited this revolution; it was ignited by the people. God willing, their resolve will overthrow the regime.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The regime held you, the Muslim Brothers, primarily responsible for the agitation.

[Al-Shaqfa] We do not have a presence on the ground as an organization; we are only supporters. Our followers may be participating with the people; we are part of this agitation but we do not have a presence on the ground on the organizational level. All that we are doing is providing political, moral, media support, and prayers. We sometimes provide some logistic support. The people rebelling against the regime need support and backing. There are tho9usands of martyrs, prisoners, and people who have been expelled by force. Their families need support to live so that their morale will rise. That is all we are doing. We do not have money, an organization inside the country to organize, and so on.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Those close to the regime are warning against your reaching power. Are they right in thinking so?

[Al-Shaqfa] This is a fabrication by the regime and all dictatorial regimes that try to appease the West by frightening it against the Islamists. Such fabrications are over; they no longer deceive anyone. In 2004, we released a political program on governance in Syria and any other country. We support a civic state where every citizen is part of society regardless of his religious beliefs with all the rights and the duties as well as the freedom to practice his religious rites. Even if we gain the majority in the future and gain the right to govern alone, we will not do so. We will be partners with everyone so that everyone will feel that he is sharing in the governance. This has been agreed upon. Even the West has begun to discover that alarming others against the Muslim Brothers was a fabrication. The West now wants to hear the opinion about the Muslim Brothers from the Muslim Brothers themselves. It used to hear the opinions of others and now the West wants to hear directly from the Muslim Brothers.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are saying that the subject of governance has been agreed upon. With whom has it been agreed upon?

[Al-Shaqfa] This has been agreed upon within the Muslim Brotherhood movement. We are depicted as a scarecrow and this scarecrow believes in not excluding anyone and to deal equally with all the citizens. This is the opinion of the Muslim Brothers against whom others are being scared.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] has there been any talks with the United States or other western countries?

[Al-Shaqfa] There are no contacts or dialogue with the United States. A dialogue is being held with the West through a Swiss society for human dialogue that is working on a dialogue between the Muslim Brothers and the West. It has asked each branch of the Muslim Brotherhood around the world to send a delegate and we did. This society is holding panel; discussions on the ideology of the West and of the Muslim Brotherhood but we have no direct contacts with the West.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What has changed in the Muslim Brotherhood movement since the events of the 1980s?

[Al-Shaqfa] The Muslim Brotherhood movement has not changed; the events of the 1980s were an exceptional case. Since its establishment by Dr Mustafa al-Sibai, may God rest his soul in peace; the Muslim Brotherhood has been an open-minded movement toward society. During the democratic eras, it participated in the elections and gained seats in the parliamentary councils. The issue of democracy is deep-rooted among us. In fact, I recall that in Hamah the Muslim Brotherhood list included a Christian called Elie Nusur. He was always on our list. What happened in the 1980s was an attack against us by the regime. We did not start the violence; it was an exceptional case during which we were attacked and what happened has happened. Just as the founder of our movement, we are open-minded and believe in a civic state. We are also committed to the democratic process. In other words, we accept the results of the elections and we renounce violence.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you saying that the document released in 2004 does not represent a turning point in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood?

[Al-Shaqfa] It was not a turning point; it was a confirmation. Perhaps there are no recent studies on this subject but the founder of the movement published many books on this subject.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that the minorities in Syria will be in danger if the Islamists reach power.

[Al-Shaqfa] The other religious faiths are our partners in the homeland, just as I said about parliament member Elie Nusur who was elected in Hamah. Hamah has always been a devout town. It has even been said that the members of the Baath Party in it are Muslim Brothers. In other words, religion has been predominant in Hamah. However, during the democratic eras, I did not feel that my neighbour was a Christian. My father was the sheikh of the Al-Shafiyah sect in Hamah and I became acquainted with the bishop of Hamah in our home. He visited us during our feast days and we visited him on his feast days. It is the regime that ignited this rift. I think that if the Islamists govern, the spirit of tolerance will return to society. We recently held a panel in Cairo that was attended by Christians and Alawites. We issued a joint statement in which we stressed co-existence among the various sects and that we all belong to one homeland without any discrimination.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But fears have been expressed by the Christians, especially by Maronite Patriarch Bisharah al-Rai and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim.

[Al-Shaqfa] I ask Patriarch Al-Rai to read history. He will discover that Muslims are tolerant with other sects. It is this regime that entrenched sectarianism.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not feel that the fears of the other religious denominations are justified?

[Al-Shaqfa] No, they are not justified. The regime wants to frighten the others and hinder the Muslim Brothers.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, why are the Christians taking this position?

[Al-Shaqfa] I do not know; they should be asked about that. If we hold a dialogue we would tell them that these fears are not justified. I wish we could engage in a dialogue. Faris al-Khuri [a Christian] was one of the most prominent prime ministers in Syria; he was prime minister for three terms. Because he was qualified, the Muslim Brothers gave him precedence over their own candidates.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How accurate are the reports about rifts and differences within the Muslim Brotherhood movement?

[Al-Shaqfa] There are no rifts; a difference in opinions is normal in all parties and organizations. At the end of the day, however, the point of reference is the Shura council; we abide by its decisions.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the nature of the relationship between the Muslim Brothers in Syria and the rest of the Muslim Brotherhood organizations?

[Al-Shaqfa] It is a relationship of complementation, consultation, and exchange of ideas. However, we do not have ties on the organizational level.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about your relationship with Turkey? It is said that you are its dark horse.

[Al-Shaqfa] We are not anyone’s horse! Our decision-making process is independent from anyone. We cooperate with everyone and are open to them. We are holding dialogues with the Turks; they give us advice and we put them in the picture, no more. No one can force us to abide by a certain opinion; our only point of reference is the Shura Council and they have not tried to impose on us anything.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can Turkey do regarding the situation in Syria?

[Al-Shaqfa] We are hearing Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan state that the Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy and that the situation in Syria is an internal affair. However, we have not yet seen anything on the ground. We wish the Turks would undertake diplomatic action to ensure support for the Syrian people. We also hope Turkey would take action to isolate this regime. A regime that kills its own people cannot be represented in the international community like any other regime. The countries of the world should withdraw their ambassadors and ostracize this regime until it stops its acts of killing. It is no longer acceptable for countries to remain as spectators and make statements that are not translated on the ground.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the status of the Syrian opposition now after the formation of the national council?

[Al-Shaqfa] This council was an internal and nationalist demand; it was also an international demand. The Syrian people insisted on the opposition to unite its ranks. The national council is required to act strongly in the world in support of the revolution. The Syrian delegations that visited the countries of the world were met with one request, namely “agree and unite”. Now that we have done that, we will see how credible the countries are that called for the unity of the opposition.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is required of these countries?

[Al-Shaqfa] They are required to first recognize the national council. This would raise the people’s morale and lower the regime’s morale.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you want the council to be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the people?

[Al-Shaqfa] Yes, the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. These countries are saying that the regime has lost its legitimacy, so who represents the people? Let us take the example of Turkey since it is a neighbour and the closest to Syria. Erdogan has repeatedly said that the regime has lost its legitimacy and we are telling the Turks that we did what was requested of us by unifying the opposition. We are waiting for them to take positive steps, least of which is recognition.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean recognition as well as the withdrawal of the ambassadors?

[Al-Shaqfa] Yes, we request the opening of a legal office for the council and the closure of the Syrian embassies as well as anything that may demonstrate that the council represents the people and that the regime has lost legitimacy until the killing stops.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why were the “coordination committees” absent from the national council?

[Al-Shaqfa] The coordination committees were invited to the council but they did not attend. They are an opposition and we respect their opinion. The difference between us and them is that they believe there is a need for keeping the dialogue with the regime open. However, we in the Muslim Brotherhood and the national council believe that this regime is no longer fit for dialogue. It has lost legitimacy and lost morals and principles. Their hands are still stretched for dialogue with the regime although the regime rejects them. The regime is holding a dialogue only with itself.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people in the national council accuse you of receiving funding from the United States.

[Al-Shaqfa] We have become accustomed to such charges and fabrications by the trumpets of the regime. However, it is attention grabbing that some of the oppositionists are now using it. We are not bought or sold; we finance ourselves and obtain financial assistance from businessmen that support us. We do not care about such accusations. We hope that the opposition members that are making such charges to be honest with themselves and stop accusing others without any evidence.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have raised the slogan of “international protection”. How can this demand be translated on the ground while you say that you reject foreign military intervention?

[Al-Shaqfa] This issue needs specialists. It should be referred to specialized legal committees to debate how the international community should deal with a regime that kills its own people.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In light of the Russian and Chinese stands it seems that external assistance is unlikely.

[Al-Shaqfa] We are still at the beginning of the road. We expect other countries to demonstrate their credibility by recognizing this council because that would be a fatal blow to the regime. We will form delegations to tour the whole world to raise the issue of the Syrian people and demand recognition.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the level of the Arab response?

[Al-Shaqfa] So far, there is no response. We appreciate some statements such as King Abdullah’s statement and Qatari statements. So far, however, the Syrian people have not received any support from anyone.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You talk about the peacefulness of the revolution but there are some people in the opposition who are asking for an armed revolution as the only path to overthrow the regime.

[Al-Shaqfa] We insist on the peacefulness of the revolution. A peaceful revolution is more useful. Arming the revolution may lead to civil war and more victims. It may also lead to foreign intervention that we do not wish to happen. We believe that if the world was sincere, in harmony with its principles, and exercised genuine pressure on the regime, this regime will fall, God willing.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the role of the “Free Army of Syria”?

[Al-Shaqfa] The soldiers who defected from the regular army are defending themselves against this army. The self-defence of the dissidents is a legitimate right, but it is unacceptable for the people to join. Several groups of demonstrating youths asked us whether they should join the dissidents and we told them no. We caution the people against becoming involved in military action.