For some he is a holy man, for others he is little more than a rabble-rouser. But no one can dispute that Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, 62, is one of the most important men in Syria, a man who, as the country's most senior religious scholar and a close political advisor to President Bashar Assad , plays a role in shaping war and peace in his country and in the entire Middle Eastern region.
Sheik Hassoun, a Sunni religious scholar at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and a member of parliament for eight years, has always found conciliatory words in the West. He sharply criticized the term "Holy War" in front of the European Parliament, saying: "Only peace is holy." At the Ecumenical Church Congress in Munich, he impressed fellow participants with his plea for interfaith dialogue and stunned German bishops with the proposal that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) should remove the letter C from its name, for reasons of secularism.
Now, in October, Hassoun has adopted a decidedly different tone in his homeland. The following passage was leaked from the eulogy he gave for his son Saria, who had been killed by militant regime opponents: "The moment the first (NATO) missile hits Syria , all the sons and daughters of Lebanon and Syria will set out to become martyrdom-seekers in Europe and on Palestinian soil. I say to all of Europe and to the US: We will prepare martyrdom-seekers who are already among you, if you bomb Syria or Lebanon. From now on, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
SPIEGEL was able to accompany the grand mufti through Aleppo last week, a rare opportunity to get a close-up look at the dramatic changes in the country that, as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, is the key to peace in the Middle East.
State of Emergency
Syria is in a state of emergency. An uprising has been raging for the last eight months, in which at least 3,000 people have already died, according to UN estimates. But now Syria is also disintegrating into surreal juxtapositions. There have been bloody clashes in cities like Homs, Hama and Latakia, while Amnesty International is reporting cases of torture, even in hospitals, as well as kidnapping and tribal conflicts. The 4,000-year-old city of Aleppo, a crossroads on the legendary Silk Road, feels like a city that is nervously in limbo, sniffing the air to see what comes next: peace on parole.
In the winding alleys beneath the citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, tradesman and merchants are putting on a defiant show of normalcy, while at the same time exchanging the local currency for US dollars on the black market. An eerie silence prevails in the painstakingly restored Ottoman-era mansions that have been converted into boutique hotels.
Church bells ring almost simultaneously with the call of the muezzin. Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches are sprinkled here and there among the many mosques. In the markets, women in full veils jostle next to others in miniskirts and high heels. The armed struggle seems endlessly far away at first, but then its presence is suddenly very close, as sirens pierce the air and ambulances bring the dead and wounded from a bloody battle only 15 kilometers from the center of Aleppo.
No Sign of Any Calm
Are the denominations also being played off against one another in this heated atmosphere? Could the Sunni majority, 71 percent of the population, be about to take its revenge on the Alawite minority (12 percent), to which the presidential family of authoritarian rulers for the last 40 years belongs?
Last Wednesday, the government agreed to a peace plan proposed by the Arab League. But there is no sign of the situation becoming any calmer; bloody battles erupted once again after Friday prayers.
The grand mufti meets with us in the office of his apartment near the university. He is sitting in front of a large set of bookshelves, interrupted only by calligraphy that reads, in Arabic: "God teaches us everything, including the best way to use language." The talks with the grand mufti span two afternoons. They are periodically interrupted when, for example, the conversation turns to the death of his son and the mufti is overcome with sadness, or more rarely, when a visitor arrives, delivers a letter and, according to tradition, kisses the religious leader's hand. A friend of the mufti who everyone calls George -- not a Muslim, but an Armenian Christian -- acts as an interpreter.
SPIEGEL: Sheikh Hassoun, at least 3,000 people have died in Syria since March. Can civil war still be averted?
Hassoun: It is possible, but then all sides must truly desire peace. The government has just agreed to take the first step: It will withdraw the army and all tanks from city centers. One has to be aware of how it all began to understand how long the path to reconciliation still is. Some forces, especially abroad, have an interest in further escalation.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Hassoun: In March, there was a completely justified, peaceful rally in Daraa against the governor of the region, who had thrown schoolchildren into prison. Daraa is a town near the Jordanian border known for smuggling. I went there right away and brought calm to the situation, and I promised the people an independent investigation. At my suggestion, the president removed the governor from office. But then imams who had come from abroad, especially Saudi Arabia, stirred things up with their inflammatory speeches. The news channels stationed in the Gulf states, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, helped them by falsely claiming that the clergy was on the side of the anti-Assad protesters.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that the uprising against Assad was not triggered by regime repression but is being controlled from abroad?
Hassoun: Look at the second center of unrest, next to Daraa: Homs. That city is also very close to the border, in this case with Lebanon. Unpleasant elements -- Iraqis, Afghans, Saudis and Yemenis -- have also come from there, all with a radical, fundamentalist agenda. The provocateurs even attacked police chiefs and military officers in their homes.
SPIEGEL: It sounds like a conspiracy theory, with which you are trying to gloss over the failure of the Assad regime.
Hassoun: The government is not as you describe it. But it has made political and economic mistakes and did not liberalize quickly and comprehensively enough. The president is taking responsibility for that.
SPIEGEL: You say this to him in your private conversations?
Hassoun: It is well known that I generally support the president's policies. But when I feel the need to criticize and correct, I do so. Take, for example, the need to improve the living conditions of poorer classes and the treatment of dissidents. There is an old guard in our government circles. These people are impediments and must be isolated.
SPIEGEL: And the president listens to you? We have the impression that he is resistant to advice from others.
Armed Struggle 'Wouldn't Stand a Chance'
Hassoun: I don't think he clings to his position that much.
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.