Interview with Syrian Grand Mufti 'Assad Could Step Down After Free Elections'
Part 2: Armed Struggle 'Wouldn't Stand a Chance'
SPIEGEL: In your view, under what circumstances would Assad be willing to step down -- a condition that many insurgents have made and that is shared by US President Barack Obama and European politicians?
Hassoun: I am convinced that he will gradually introduce reforms, allow free and fair elections with independent parties, and then, after a peaceful transition, he might be willing to step down. He's no president for life. Bashar Assad, a former eye doctor, wants to return to his old profession. I can easily imagine it. In fact, he has told me several times about his dream of running an eye clinic.
SPIEGEL: At the moment, however, he has been very hesitant in agreeing to reforms. Under massive pressure from the Arab League, he agreed to end the violence within the next two weeks. Did Assad underestimate the scope of revolutionary change in the Middle East? Did you, too, fail to anticipate that the region's authoritarian rulers could be swept away?
Hassoun: Oh, the Arab League and the so-called Arab Spring. In my opinion, the League is deeply divided, into a wing that sees itself primarily in opposition to Israel, and another one that positions itself against supposed Iranian dominance. Since the League is so concerned about Syria, where is its outcry over Yemen and Bahrain, where the conditions are much worse? And what has really improved in Egypt? Should we welcome the rise of Islamist parties? I believe in the strict separation of church and state.
SPIEGEL: Not all Islamists are enemies of democracy. The winners of the election in Tunis have committed themselves to pluralism, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara largely practices this pluralism.
Hassoun: I was in Turkey nine months ago and met with almost all the top politicians. And I have to admit that I was very impressed.
SPIEGEL: Your northern neighbor has sided with Assad's opponents. Turkey is allowing the so-called Free Syrian Army to organize attacks against northern Syria from its territory. It is also harboring the Syrian National Council, the joint opposition group, which announced its formation in Istanbul a few months ago.
Hassoun: Yes, I was very surprised and outraged about that. This so-called national council doesn't even have a political program. I say to them: Show us something, negotiate with the Assad regime over a realistic timetable, and then let the people decide who has the more convincing ideas.
SPIEGEL: At least a portion of the Assad opponents now seem to favor a Libyan scenario, an armed struggle ...
Hassoun: ... which doesn't stand a chance. Assad isn't Gadhafi, and Syria isn't comparable with Libya. We are a great cultural nation, and bloody revolutions aren't our style. Besides, we have a functioning, tradition-conscious and loyal army.
SPIEGEL: That's what you say, but many soldiers have joined the resistance movement.
Hassoun: How many, 50 or 55? We're talking about an army of tens of thousands of men. But some of the radical Sunni imams from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region are stirring people up, and unfortunately they are finding a few Sunni imams in my country who sympathize with them. For instance, they have pronounced a fatwa against me, because in their view I am betraying religion and am too moderate. But I'm not the only one on their hit list.
SPIEGEL: Who else?
Hassoun: They set their sights on my innocent son Saria, a 22-year-old student who was always friendly to everyone, who was studying International Relations and did not want to make religion his profession. So much for the kin liability you've criticized elsewhere! Oh, if only the four killers had killed me instead!
During the late afternoon, the grand mufti has other appointments: condolence visits with a Christian and a Muslim family. In the evening, he will have to comfort his wife once again, who is completely distraught over the death of Saria. He was the youngest of the couple's five sons, and the only one still living at home. Saria's fellow students are holding a vigil at his stone sarcophagus, even now, four weeks after the murder. The young man's last resting place can be found in the courtyard of a modest mosque. Sheikh Hassoun visits this sad place every day: a despairing father, an impassioned preacher, a man who with his words can set fires and can put out fires. He continues the interview the next day.
SPIEGEL: Why did you threaten to send suicide bombers to Europe and the United States in your speech at the gravesite?
Hassoun: I didn't threaten to send suicide bombers. I merely described a scenario in which it could easily emerge from the situation, and I warned against what could happen. Sentences were taken out of context and given a different coloring. Besides, the context to which my remark applied was a self-defense situation: a possible NATO attack on Syria ...
SPIEGEL: ... which former American presidential candidate John McCain as well as some of the members of the Syrian opposition operating abroad have already talked about.
Hassoun: If it comes to that, the world will explode. There will be an enormous bloodbath, and it will also affect you in the West. That's why Europe, in particular, should be more involved in the region. The Europeans would be better peace brokers than the Arab League.
SPIEGEL: Back to your eulogy ...
Hassoun: ... the character of which is being distorted by the sentences you cited. I wasn't interested in inciting people to go to war, but in reconciliation -- even with the murderers of my son Saria. "For those who killed him, I ask God that they not be forced to drink from the same cup as I do, this cup of suffering," I said. "I ask God to forgive you." And I called upon all parents whose sons carry weapons: "Make sure that they no longer use their guns."
SPIEGEL: But you also claimed that what the murderers were targeting was "not Saria, but Syria. They want Syria to bow down to Zionism and America." If you believe that the killers are Sunni extremists, why are you accusing Israel and the United States?
Hassoun: There are close ties between the Saudi royal family and the American White House. The Americans are often on the side of the oppressors. I am always on the side of the oppressed.
SPIEGEL: What does that mean for your role in Syria?
Hassoun: I see myself as the grand mufti of all 23 million Syrians, not just Muslims, but also Christians and even atheists. I am a man of dialogue. Who knows, maybe an agnostic will convince me with better arguments one day, and I'll become a non-believer. And if I'm enthusiastic about the opposition's political platform, I also might change sides.
SPIEGEL: What do you want your legacy as a religious scholar to be?
Hassoun: The bloodshed has to stop! If I could manage to bring about peace, I'd be happy to let my enemies kill me -- I'd be happy to give my life for that!
SPIEGEL: Sheikh Hassoun, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Erich Follath in Aleppo, Syria
- Part 1: 'Assad Could Step Down After Free Elections'
- Part 2: Armed Struggle 'Wouldn't Stand a Chance'