The new leader of Syria's opposition has a history of statements that are anti-Semitic, outrageous, and sometimes downright bizarre.
- By Mohanad Hage AliMohanad Hage Ali is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Even as opponents of President Bashar al-Assad have gained ground inside Syria, the political opposition in exile has remained famously divided. The Syrian National Council, a body formed more than a year ago with the goal of uniting all opposition groups, was the poster child for these failures: Many of its most prominent members resigned in anger over the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of its top ranks and the council’s detachment from groups inside the country.
However, recent developments have prompted a burst of optimism about the state of Syria’s opposition. On Nov. 11, anti-Assad groups met in Doha, Qatar, where they hashed out an agreement, under U.S. and Qatari auspices, to form the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The new rebel coalition was hailed as the first truly representative opposition body — and its new leader, Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, was widely praised as the perfect figure to represent the opposition to the world.
Syria’s opposition received an immediate diplomatic boost after the formation of the new coalition. France recognized it as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and pledged to reexamine the possibility of shipping arms to the rebels. The Arab League also recognized the body, with Secretary General Nabil al-Araby hailing it as a "glimmer of hope." By dispelling Western fears of growing jihadist influence within the Free Syrian Army, the rebels hope, the new coalition can open the door to increased financial and military assistance from the international community.
The election of the Cairo-based Khatib, a former imam of Damascus’s historic Umayyad Mosque who was imprisoned under Assad, is a crucial part of this strategy. Western media outlets such as the BBC were quick to declare him "a respected figure within Syria" who holds "moderate" political views, citing his trips to Britain and the United States, as well as his teaching experience at the Dutch Institute in Damascus, as evidence. However, public statements posted on the clergyman’s website, darbuna.net, paint a different picture.
Khatib’s website features numerous instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric. In one of his own articles, he writes that one of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s positive legacies was "terrifying the Jews." He has also published others’ anti-Semitic observations on his site: In one article, written by Abdul Salam Basiouni, Jews are described as "gold worshipers." Finally, in an obituary of a Gaza sheikh copied from IslamSyria, Jews are dubbed "the enemies of God."
While Khatib used his post-election speech to call for equal rights for "all parts of the harmonious Syrian people," his previous rhetoric toward his country’s minorities has been nothing short of virulent. One of his articles describes Shiite using the slur rawafid, or "rejectionists"; he even goes further, criticizing Shiites’ ability to "establish lies and follow them." Such language, needless to say, will hardly reassure the country’s Alawite community, a Shiite offshoot to which Assad belongs.
Khatib’s animosity toward the West is similarly evident in his writing. In one article, written in 2011, the new coalition leader speaks of "stupid American, cunning British, and malignant French diplomacy." He also accuses Western powers of propping up the old Egyptian regime and working to weaken the country for their own ends. "The collapse of the Egyptian regime is the beginning of the international regional system’s descent," he writes. "The collapse of Egypt itself is an enormous Israeli desire [emanating] from its frightening project to split the region into repugnant sectarian entities."
The new Syrian opposition leader doesn’t hesitate to stoke Muslims’ fears of persecution at the hands of the West. He posted on his website a flamboyant Dutch Radio report on the imminent ethnic cleansing of Europe’s Muslim minorities, based on statements by right-wing European figures and Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisia’s Islamist Al-Nahda party, which is now a major partner in the country’s coalition government.
Khatib is also a fan of Qatar-based Egyptian televangelist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. His website places Qaradawi on equal footing with Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation set off the Arab revolutions, and praised the Egyptian preacher as "our great Imam." Qaradawi is a controversial figure who has been denied entry to France and Britain for his support of suicide bombings — he has described such attacks, when used against Israel civilians, as "evidence of God’s justice." Given Qaradawi’s Qatari connections, Khatib’s praise of the cleric may be an indication of where his loyalties lie.
In certain instances, Khatib’s conspiratorial language even mimics the regime’s own rhetoric. In an article titled "Facebook, is it an American-Israeli intelligence website?" he claims that users of the social networking website involuntarily become Israeli or American spies through information-sharing. Khatib warns against the potential use of exchanges of a sexual nature on Facebook, which he says could be "weak spots" used to recruit spies. The Assad regime previously used the same logic when it banned Facebook, arguing that the site allowed Israel to make contact with Syrian youth.
Taken as a whole, these statements raise disturbing questions about whether Syria’s new opposition leader is truly as "moderate" as he has been described in the press. His religious and political views appear divisive and at odds with the reassuring image Syria’s opposition is trying to present — both domestically and on the international front. Rather than a positive step forward, Khatib’s leadership suggests that Syria’s opposition is poised to repeat the same mistakes that have bedeviled it since the beginning of the revolt.