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Ashes of Hama: The Perilous History of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood

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When the convulsions of the Arab Spring first became manifest in Syria in March 2011, the Ba'athist regime was quick to blame the protests on the 'Syrian Muslim Brotherhood' and its 'al-Qaeda affiliates.' But who are these Islamists so determined to rule a post-Assad Syria? Little has been published on militant Islam in Syria since Hafez Assad's regime destroyed the Islami When the convulsions of the Arab Spring first became manifest in Syria in March 2011, the Ba'athist regime was quick to blame the protests on the 'Syrian Muslim Brotherhood' and its 'al-Qaeda affiliates.' But who are these Islamists so determined to rule a post-Assad Syria? Little has been published on militant Islam in Syria since Hafez Assad's regime destroyed the Islamist movement in its stronghold of Hama in February 1982. This book bridges that gap by providing readers with the first comprehensive account of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's history to date. In this ground-breaking account of Syria's most prominent, yet highly secretive, Islamist organisation, the author draws on previously untapped sources: the memoirs of former Syrian jihadists; British and American archives; and also a series of wide-ranging interviews with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's historical leaders as well as those who battled against themmany speaking on the record for the first time. Ashes of Hama uncovers the major aspects of the Islamist struggle: from the Brotherhood's radicalisation and its 'jihad' against the Ba'athist regime and subsequent exile, to a spectacular comeback at the forefront of the Syrian revolution in 2011a remarkable turnaround for an Islamist movement which all analysts had pronounced dead amid the ruins of Hama in 1982.


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When the convulsions of the Arab Spring first became manifest in Syria in March 2011, the Ba'athist regime was quick to blame the protests on the 'Syrian Muslim Brotherhood' and its 'al-Qaeda affiliates.' But who are these Islamists so determined to rule a post-Assad Syria? Little has been published on militant Islam in Syria since Hafez Assad's regime destroyed the Islami When the convulsions of the Arab Spring first became manifest in Syria in March 2011, the Ba'athist regime was quick to blame the protests on the 'Syrian Muslim Brotherhood' and its 'al-Qaeda affiliates.' But who are these Islamists so determined to rule a post-Assad Syria? Little has been published on militant Islam in Syria since Hafez Assad's regime destroyed the Islamist movement in its stronghold of Hama in February 1982. This book bridges that gap by providing readers with the first comprehensive account of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's history to date. In this ground-breaking account of Syria's most prominent, yet highly secretive, Islamist organisation, the author draws on previously untapped sources: the memoirs of former Syrian jihadists; British and American archives; and also a series of wide-ranging interviews with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's historical leaders as well as those who battled against themmany speaking on the record for the first time. Ashes of Hama uncovers the major aspects of the Islamist struggle: from the Brotherhood's radicalisation and its 'jihad' against the Ba'athist regime and subsequent exile, to a spectacular comeback at the forefront of the Syrian revolution in 2011a remarkable turnaround for an Islamist movement which all analysts had pronounced dead amid the ruins of Hama in 1982.

30 review for Ashes of Hama: The Perilous History of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tim Pendry

    The first half of this book is a superb introduction to the current crisis in Syria. It would be hard not to recommend it to anyone with limited knowledge of how this monstrous civil war came to be and who feels that they may need to understand it better before coming to a view. Unfortunately, about half way through, the book seems to change tone and become something else: half history and, then increasingly as the book proceeds, half an implicit attempt to rehabilitate the Muslim Brotherhood in The first half of this book is a superb introduction to the current crisis in Syria. It would be hard not to recommend it to anyone with limited knowledge of how this monstrous civil war came to be and who feels that they may need to understand it better before coming to a view. Unfortunately, about half way through, the book seems to change tone and become something else: half history and, then increasingly as the book proceeds, half an implicit attempt to rehabilitate the Muslim Brotherhood in a way that simply does not quite stand up to scrutiny. It would seem that no book in English on the Syrian situation can now detach itself from a position on one side or the other, at least by strong implication. This mimics the intellectual world surrounding the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s where statements about the combatants were always absolute and placed in terms of good and evil. George Orwell's critical stance on the communist/anarchist conflict was the exception. We badly need Orwell today because, in a parody of the Leftist position on Spain, there is a neo-Arabist perspective on the Middle East that, in justifiably seeking democracy, human rights and the reform of sclerotic governments, has abandoned support for some fundamental enlightenment values. Lefevre is very definitely not a propagandist but he is also not an Orwell. He describes in an evidence-based way but sometimes, perhaps, he just cannot bring himself to ask the right questions as if that would betray his interviewees. Critical questioning of beliefs and of such matters as the treatment of women are not to be found in this book and the result is a skewed and over-sympathetic portrayal of the Brotherhood as well as one that rightfully ends much negative stereotyping. One of Lefevre's achievements is to demonstrate the breadth and complexity of 'Political Islam' but, then, this should be common sense - socialism and liberalism are similarly complex. However. it is hard to claim plausibly that the late discovery of reform and democracy within the movement is anything more than tactical at this stage. We cannot rely on conservative democratic claims to mastery over the movement while these elements are busy competing for Western patronage and Gulf geld. The thought that kindness and encouragement are enough to split Political Islam in general from the jihadi loons in Syria and turn it into another pale blue AKP misses a fundamental point - the model, the AKP, is censorious and partially obscurantist with a very troubling view of sexuality and women. Some Western liberal internationalist policy wonks, analysts and security advisers (many of whom are still half-looking over their shoulder at the 'Russian Empire') seem to be aiming at a liberal-faith based alliance of democratic interests. This is sometimes explicit on both the neo-conservative Republican Right and in the Blairite model of the universe which 'does not do God' overtly but clearly has an orientation towards inclusion of faith-based perspectives in public policy in a way fraught with danger for the Western tradition. We see here a repeat of an old Cold War strategy (that of linking right-wing Italian and German democrats to the obscurantism of the Vatican and the order of the Lutheran Church in order to defeat communism) but, in this case, the policy is in danger of selling large numbers of Arabs for whom 'traditional values' are oppressive down the river. The condition of the Northern Levant in the 21st century and of the Southern Mediterranean in the mid-twentieth century are very different. The Allies were able to impose a liberal order everywhere except Spain, one that permitted individual freedom to co-exist with Vatican power, but these conditions do not apply in 'Greater Syria'. Yes, it is possible certainly that moderate Islamism could become a partner within an essentially liberal democratic Syria but there is no reliable 'deal' to be struck here because there is no reliable deal maker on the faith-based side. At the end of the day, the corrupt old Christian Democrats of Italy and the earnest Christian Democrats of West Germany acted as firebreaks against further secularisation and not as agencies for the assertion of canon or church law on revived democracies. The AKP in Turkey and the MB in Egypt (and Hamas in Palestine) suggest that the ambitions of Political Islam are not defensive. We seem to be allowing faith-based perspectives to slip in behind the door of our liberal cultures in a way that may have blow-back on hard-won Western freedoms. The book thus has a perverse effect. The Baathist government ('regime' is already a loaded word you use for people you do not like) has undoubtedly been thuggish and cruel. Its behaviour has been appalling. But the actual conduct of traditionalists has tended to provide some justification for the belief that, given what was inherited from successive empires, only authoritarian order could hold up civility. This reviewer tended not to take that view and to hold to a reform view (and we must reveal some direct involvement in Anglo-Syrian relations between 2002 and 2005) but events since 2011 and the evidence of this book has shifted my perspective somewhat. The question becomes whether that sufficient and temporary authoritarian order is better to be secular republican or shar'ia, whether the thugs are better Alawite peasant bootboys or fanatics who treat women as essentialist objects. It is Hobson's Choice but a choice seems to have been made inevitable and the question is really about whether we can hope for it to be temporary if it cannot be sufficient. The threat of a revived political islam is precisely that it may become permanent as in Iran. Any serious Syria watcher who has actually been in active politics as opposed to reading from texts knew two things from the start of the conflict. The first was that the Assad Government would not fall on a puff of liberal rhetoric from those intellectuals who confuse what 'should be' with 'what is'. Only a matching of force with force could ever defeat this Government because it was ruthless enough to commit force itself. If you wanted to impose democracy, then you needed an Iraq or at least a Libyan solution which means, bluntly, the manufacturing of a war where the aggressors would have to commit lives and reconstruction funds - and we all know how badly those other cases were handled. The second was that, as the struggle continued, the complexity and inherent contradictions of post-colonial Syrian culture would tend to extremism, repeating the brutalities of the late 1970s on both sides. The Assads, in fact, had compromised with non-political Islam in order to avoid democracy after the massacre at Hama so that a democracy movement that did not understand its own objective conditions would necessarily have created a militant Political Islam. If Assad had adopted Islam as state religion and taken a relationship with compliant islam any further than his father had done, he would have had a coup on his hands. This is the Syrian trap - all sides want what can't be given without blood. Order (because of sectarian, class, tribal and corrupt family needs), democracy and true religion is a game where two out of three is good going and a 'true religion democracy' was always going to be a threat and a fear to too many special interests to be viable. If the Western strategy is to tame and neutralise sufficient of political islam to permit democracy, then it may be making the same mistake as the German General Staff in popping Lenin over to Petrograd to try and end the war in their favour. Where Lefevre is valuable is in his fundamental honesty in telling his tale in terms of the evidence even if my instinct is that he has been bamboozled to some degree by contemporary interviews with Muslim Brotherhood activists. The problem for anyone following the Turco-Qatari line of support for the Botherhood is that history shows the MB and Political Islam to have been provocative and brutal long before the massacre in Hama. They may try to rewrite this history but it is there in the eyes of the local public even if we do not recognise it in the West. The experience of Islamist terrorism can be encapsulated in the story of the murder of 83 young Aleppo military graduates in a gratuitous escalation of the then-crisis in 1979. In other words, the horror of Hama did not emerge suddenly like some evil Venus from the waves. Yes, this was the deed of the so-called Fighting Vanguard but the MB appears to have wobbled around this without condemning or seeking to calm matters and certainly not as we have seen the Muslim community do in London this month. We have a case study now, in the UK, of what happens to a political culture when just one soldier is killed by a fanatic in the streets. We all wobble - almost ridiculously so. Syrian culture thirty four years ago was in no condition to respond mildly. Bear in mind that at this time in history, even the advanced British were behaving like thugs in Northern Ireland because their opponents were fanatical killers and that the US was just coming out of phase of mass civilian murder in South East Asia intended to defeat a very different ideological enemy. It was also an age of state terror of horrendous proportions in South and Central America which were condoned and supported by the US administration. We forget our own histories too easily. This justifies nothing. Let me repeat that - this justifies nothing. Exiled Uncle Rif'at is culpable here but so are a lot of Pentagon officials. The question is what is to be done now. The 'history' certainly does not justify the sustained torture of inmates, the arbitrary justice and the mass murder in Hama in which civilians were massacred alongside islamisty rebels but it does contextualise it better. Although this may seem strange to us in our Western safe havens and with our simple view of good and evil, a secularist in a Syrian city, especially a woman or a member of a minority group, might come to fear some rebels more than the Baathists. This is why this book strikes me as naive while being useful. Part of that use lies in Lefevre's scholarly honesty because he lays out, in the interstices of his narrative, all the reasons why we should be nervous of taking sides with Islamism, even of the moderate behaviour. Why? Because, like socialism or all universalist ideologies, Islamism (as opposed to Islam) is intrinsically anti-universal and inhumane. Its core model of the universe requires that at least half humanity, the non-believers, let alone people who will believe in other things, be bent to its transcendental and traditionalist will. The given argument is that the Arab world (or at least Greater Syria) is inherently Islamic but this is about as valid as the right-wing assertion that the West is inherently Christian. It just is not so. It has merely been made to be so by circumstance ... and circumstances change. People change and they can choose to go backwards or forwards. The fact that liberals may be helping whole cultures go backwards is truly disturbing because it suggests that we may decide to follow them. In complex multi-community societies, the best guarantor of safety and freedom remains secular order first and then democracy and not the other way around. We are lucky in the West because democracy arose out of dynastic order. The Syrians are unlucky in that order has ossified into a set of corrupt special interests but it is still the order that has to be reformed first or else democracy will be a brutal chaos much as we have seen. Even Turkish Islamic democracy follows this model with the AKP ruling on the back of a transition from secular militarism after years of creative struggle within a structure of order created by Ataturk. But, of course, we must be fair. The Muslim Brotherhood is complex and could become much like the AKP (though the AKP remains conservative and obscurantist at heart). They are not to be confused with the jihadis. The question is really what are Western liberals doing 'in bed' with the AKP! Some of the best material in the book comes from the interviews conducted by Lefevre but I urge you to take time to read the Appendices which are very revealing. In the tales of Marwan Hadid, we have little more than a local version of the bandit narratives that were brought to life by Eric Hobsbawm. This is the legend of Mesrine moved from France to the Syria. Meanwhile, we have the Brotherhood's 'liberal programmes' from this century which are models of democratic sophistication and may be persuasive to those armchair policy wonks who live by the text. But neither sets of narrative are to be trusted as 'true' and not merely situationally useful. The radical jihadi narratives are there to create legends. Underlying them is the sheer monstrosity of an essentialist ideology that can permits almost any crime if it can be justified by a text. The text again! Always the text! And not life lived in the world. On the hand, all ideologues will shift the superficialities of their language in any necessary way in order to gain power. Saudi dissidents were notorious in the 1990s at having two versions of their programme - one for the West and one (often brutally anti-semitic) for the rest. But these people are not to be classed as opportunists. They do believe not only in the divine but in the Koran as sacred text. This is very much their privilege but the political islamist (as opposed to the muslim) would be inclined to impose what they could on the wider population at the first opportunity. What Western policymakers are doing by even contemplating being politically associated with these interests merely indicates how imperial opportunism and the triumph of tactics over stategy are perhaps one of the few constants in our international affairs. All in all, if you retain a critical mentality as you read this book, you will emerge far better informed after than before. You may kick yourself for your naivete in ever thinking that there was a simple solution to the Syrian horror but the book is still highly recommended despite all our caveats.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Murtaza

    An academic look at the origins and evolution of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood that cuts off around 2013. Many interesting analyses of characters like Marwan Hadid and Adnan Uqlah, as well as firsthand accounts of historical events like the Battle of Hama. What comes across very strongly is the long war that is going on between Syrian Islamists and the Baath. The revolution is just the latest and largest chapter in a conflict that has been simmering for decades. The Baathists liquidated all opposing An academic look at the origins and evolution of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood that cuts off around 2013. Many interesting analyses of characters like Marwan Hadid and Adnan Uqlah, as well as firsthand accounts of historical events like the Battle of Hama. What comes across very strongly is the long war that is going on between Syrian Islamists and the Baath. The revolution is just the latest and largest chapter in a conflict that has been simmering for decades. The Baathists liquidated all opposing centers of power in the country, including the Ikhwan, only to have them reemerge again in great force post-2011. This book charts the origins of this long and deadly rivalry. The Syrian Brotherhood generally comes across quite moderate and even the Hama debacle is blamed more on Fighting Vanguard cadres whom the Ikhwan was more in conflict with than complementary to. The incredible brutality of the regime crackdowns on them is both stunning and unsurprising. It was interesting to read more generally how the Baathists pushed aside traditional economic centers of power in the country that were mostly urban and Sunni. In its early years the party was a vehicle for upward mobility, particularly but not exclusively for minority groups, before acquiring a post-ideological character later and beginning to offer favoritism to the Alawite community. In many ways the Ikhwan/Baathist rivalry was borne out of economics too, as those traditional classes also tended to identify with the Brotherhood's liberal economic stance. In a melancholy sort of ending it reflects on the Brotherhood's future in Syria's political landscape, but, three years after publication, it's unclear whether such a landscape is even going to exist.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ina Cawl

    What a great book to read for any westerners interested in amuslim brotherhood especially in the syrian example where they were Assad regime buthchered them in Hama Massacre how have they survived that Holocaust and returned toninfluence the syrian revolution is truly remarkable thus i think thus book bridges the gap between what happened from 1980 to what is happening to syria

  4. 4 out of 5

    Joey

    Ashes of Hama bursts with fascinating information and simultaneously sags under the weight of awkward writing. Lefevre does a great job disentangling the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's unique story from the confusing web of modern Islamist history. We learn the historical trends of late-Ottoman Syria that bequeathed to the group its initial moderate temprament and willingness to view Islam as perfectly compatible with liberal democracy. We watch as the Syrian Ba'ath Party gradually helps radicalize Ashes of Hama bursts with fascinating information and simultaneously sags under the weight of awkward writing. Lefevre does a great job disentangling the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's unique story from the confusing web of modern Islamist history. We learn the historical trends of late-Ottoman Syria that bequeathed to the group its initial moderate temprament and willingness to view Islam as perfectly compatible with liberal democracy. We watch as the Syrian Ba'ath Party gradually helps radicalize the county's Islamists through poor governance and policies that alienated the urban merchant classes, which were, somewhat surprisingly, the classes of Syria's Islamists. Then Hama happens in 1982, the Syrian Brothers fade into exile, and Lefevre ends with the Brotherhood striving to make inroads in the chaos of revolutionary Syria. Lefevre's strongest period is 1945-1982, and a good deal of Ashes of Hama deals with this era. I was disappointed with how little the book actually dealt with the current situation in Syria, as I felt that Ashes of Hama sort of purports to help explain the crisis. It doesn't. It's a history of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and a good history at that. But don't expect to learn a great deal about the ongoing war, or even the actors engaged in it. The Brotherhood is only a marginal component, so Lefevre has little to say. Finally, Ashes of Hama, despite being informationally rich, reads like an undergraduate wrote it. The sentences are long, awkward, overwrought, and make abundant use of passive voice. I often had to go back to reread paragraphs, trying to peer through the tangled verbiage, to reposition strangely located clauses, to divine why it look Lefevre 54 words to say what he could've said in 15 or 20. Ashes of Hama could benefit from a good editor, but it would then be only 150 pages. In sum, though I wanted to like Ashes of Hama less than I did, due to the unforgivable writing, Lefevre did too good a job researching and telling the critical story of the Syrian Brothers. It's a solid effort, though it sheds only minimal light on current events in Syria.

  5. 4 out of 5

    lkh0ja

    A very important read for anyone wishing to understand the structures and schisms in Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and its affects on things like 'transnational jihad'. Lefevre is a very thorough scholar, and it honestly shows. The language was not nearly as dense as I thought it would be, and it was a very readable text. History sometimes tends to repeat itself, in the most heartbreaking of ways and this book outlines how what happened in 1982 and the years following set the tone for how 2011 unti A very important read for anyone wishing to understand the structures and schisms in Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and its affects on things like 'transnational jihad'. Lefevre is a very thorough scholar, and it honestly shows. The language was not nearly as dense as I thought it would be, and it was a very readable text. History sometimes tends to repeat itself, in the most heartbreaking of ways and this book outlines how what happened in 1982 and the years following set the tone for how 2011 until now would play out. That is not to say that there was a Syrian uprising because of Muslim Brotherhood, or that they played a massive role in the initial years of protest. Rather, it is to say that the processes that shaped the outcomes of 1982 onwards, that dominated the political and socio-religious spheres in Syria and the Levant, had a direct effect on how the uprising in 2011 was transformed into what it is today.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Danny

    Excellent book on history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. I think the author exaggerates the Muslim Brotherhood's current influence in Syria, but nevertheless he gives an insightful history into the organization's evolution and its war with the Syrian government in the 1970s-80s

  7. 5 out of 5

    Chrystal

    Outstanding. Thoroughly researched. Excellent writing and well organized. I learned so much from this book!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    322.42095 L4934 2013

  9. 4 out of 5

    Maria GR

    Very interesting read on the history of modern Syria through an account of the evolution of the local Muslim Brotherhood. I find the first half, regarding the establishment of the group, superb but a little bit disappointed by the part dedicated to exile and return against the background of the Syrian revolution. I guess that it has to do with the fact that the conflict was in its inicial steps when the book was written and events were hardly predictable.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mahmoud Hamoud

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

  13. 5 out of 5

    Deniz

  14. 5 out of 5

    Graham

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sebouh Akharjalian

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  17. 5 out of 5

    Salim Saroueh

  18. 5 out of 5

    Majd Mohamed

  19. 4 out of 5

    Luke

  20. 4 out of 5

    Maureen

  21. 5 out of 5

    Saba Imtiaz

  22. 5 out of 5

    Nadia

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anand Gopal

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kasia

  25. 5 out of 5

    Deniz Citak

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kristine Gift

  27. 4 out of 5

    Gerard Perry

  28. 5 out of 5

    Trent

  29. 4 out of 5

    Maximillian Clarke

  30. 5 out of 5

    Nisreen

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