In al-Nusra Front’s Syria, no room for religious minorities
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In al-Nusra Front’s Syria, no room for religious minorities

A rare interview with Islamist group leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani reveals the danger awaiting Syria’s non-Muslim groups after Assad falls

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo Boutros Marayati, center, the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Syrians Ignatius Joseph III Yonan, right, and Bishop Matteo Zuppi stand during a vigil to call for peace in Ukraine, Syria and all countries tormented by persecutions and war, at the Santa Maria ai Monti church in Rome, Wednesday, April 15, 2015 (AP/Gregorio Borgia)
Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo Boutros Marayati, center, the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Syrians Ignatius Joseph III Yonan, right, and Bishop Matteo Zuppi stand during a vigil to call for peace in Ukraine, Syria and all countries tormented by persecutions and war, at the Santa Maria ai Monti church in Rome, Wednesday, April 15, 2015 (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

Ahead of his rare interview on al-Jazeera Wednesday evening, Arab newspapers were speculating that Abu Mohammed al-Golani, head of al-Nusra Front, would publicly annul his allegiance to al-Qaeda and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

That did not happen. In fact, the 50-minute interview — aired on a program ironically named “Without Borders” — revealed just how ideologically close Golani and Zawahiri are. The Al-Nusra jihadist group continues to receive its strategic directives from Zawahiri, Golani acknowledged, specifically in the organization’s focus on toppling Assad rather than launching attacks against Western targets.

Created in January 2012, Al-Nusra refused to be co-opted by the more radical Islamic State, composed primarily of foreign fighters. In April 2013, Golani defiantly pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda and Zawahiri, rebuffing the merger declared by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Al-Nusra’s treatment of Syria’s religious minorities took center stage in the interview Wednesday. In order to receive protection in the future Islamic regime, Assad’s Alawite brethren — who adhere to a syncretistic offshoot of Shia Islam and comprise some 10% of the country’s population — will not only have to disavow the president and drop their arms, Golani said, but also to “correct their doctrinal mistakes and embrace Islam.”

“By doing so they will become our brothers and we shall protect them as we protect ourselves,” asserted soft-spoken Golani, filmed from behind with a thick black cloth covering his head and a Nusra Front flag adorning the coffee table before him. “We believe they are mistaken.”

Al-Nusra Front leader Abu-Mohammed al-Golani speaks to al-JAzeera, May 27, 2015 (Youtube screen capture)
Al-Nusra Front leader Abu-Mohammed al-Golani speaks to al-Jazeera, May 27, 2015 (Youtube screen capture)

But it is not only the Alawites — whom Golani referred to using the Islamist pejorative Nusayris — who are being religiously targeted by al-Nusra operatives. Muslim proselytizers have been sent by the group to Druze villages to “inform them of the doctrinal pitfalls they have fallen into.” Visiting saints’ graves is considered polytheism by Islam, and the Druze were accordingly prohibited from doing so, Golani added.

“They have shown us their retraction of these mistakes,” Golani said of the Druze.

Christians, as “people of the book,” occupy a different place in Golani’s theology. Even though most Christians in Syria still support the Assad regime, they are to be protected under religious law. Islam orders Christians living under Islamic sovereignty to pay the jizya per capita tax, he said, which is currently not imposed on Christians living in areas controlled by al-Nusra.

“Jizya is paid by those able to pay it. Those who aren’t, don’t,” he said.

Muslim proselytizers have been sent to Druze villages, he said, to ‘inform them of the doctrinal pitfalls they have fallen into.’

Syrian Christians will not be held accountable for the actions of their coreligionists elsewhere in the world, such as the United State or Egypt, he promised. The prophet Muhammad, whose city of Medina was surrounded by 12 Jewish tribes, did not harm one tribe for the treacherous actions of another, but rather treated each on its own merit.

Theological reassurances, however, are unlikely to assuage the fears of Syrian Christians. In December 2013, Nusra Front fighters abducted 13 nuns and three maids in the Christian town of Maaloula amid fighting with regime forces. The nuns were freed over three months later, when Qatar agreed to pay the kidnappers $16 million.

“We all know that if they come, they will slit our throats for no reason,” a Lebanese Christian from the border town of Qaa told the Associated Press last September, explaining why he had decided to arm in self-defense from Syria’s Islamist groups.

Two Alawite women mourn as they look from a window during the funeral procession of those who were killed in an overnight suicide bombing perpetrated by Al-Nusra Front at a coffee shop in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015 (AP/Hussein Malla)
Two Alawite women mourn as they look from a window during the funeral procession of those who were killed in an overnight suicide bombing perpetrated by Al-Nusra Front at a coffee shop in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015 (AP/Hussein Malla)

But it is Shia Muslims, and primarily Hezbollah fighters, who now preoccupy Golani most.

“The defeat of Hezbollah is only a matter of time,” he said. “Once Bashar Assad falls, [Hezbollah] will move south. Even its position in the Dhahiyeh [Beirut’s southern suburb and a Hezbollah stronghold] will become tenuous. This will happen without us even intervening in Lebanon.”

Tellingly, the word ‘Israel’ was not uttered by Golani even once during the entire interview. Clearly, the Jewish state does not top the priority list of Syria’s Islamists

Golani then proceeded to call on “all parties in Lebanon” to participate in Hezbollah’s ouster.

In the best al-Qaeda tradition, Golani expressed his disdain for the West and its values. “We don’t care what the West says,” he scoffed, rebuffing fears of a looming massacre of Syria’s minorities. “Islamic Shariah doesn’t need the West to explain human rights or animal rights.”

Tellingly, the word “Israel” was not uttered by Golani even once during the entire interview. Clearly, the Jewish state does not top the priority list of Syria’s Islamists, at least not for the time being.

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