The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood;Between Democracy and Violent Rebellion (by Filor Nighogosian)

21 Aug

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

Between Democracy and Violent Rebellion

Filor Nigoghosian


The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is one of the few Islamist parties that historically had the opportunity to participate in democratic processes successfully and largely peacefully during Syria’s first decades of independence from the French. However in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics and behavior quickly shifted and descended into radicalism, violence, sectarianism and anti-system attacks. What caused this transformation in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood? How can the organizations use of violence and radical rhetoric be reconciled with their earlier behavior and their ideology?  What combination of conditions that the organization was operating under, as well as the decision-making procedures, led to this type of violent and sectarian behavior by the Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the largest and most influential Islamist movements in the Middle East, holding an important place historically in the study of Islamic movements relative to regimes and systems in Muslim countries, and playing a large role in recent uprisings in Arab states and the formation of new governments that include the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist movements. An appropriate understanding of the shifts in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood adds to our larger understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its interactions with regimes that it has perceived as rogue. This research also contributes to a better understanding of contemporary political issues in Syria, in particular the uprising that began in 2011. Thus it is important for communities of scholars and policy makers alike.

symbol of Syrian branch of Muslim Brotherhood

symbol of Syrian branch of Muslim Brotherhood

Much of the literature on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood focuses on the period of violent rebellion without bridging the gap between the phase where the Brotherhood participated peacefully within the system and the phase of violent rebellion against the system. By employing recent scholarship on Islamic movements that build on social movement theory and applying it to the conflict between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the state, I argue that a combination of political exclusion and repression, intensification of grievances, ideological framing, and decision-making are ultimately what led to the transformation in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Literature Review

Recent studies of Islamic movements using social movement theory explain the impact authoritarian states have on Islamist groups’ behavior. Building on this scholarship, I analyze the impact that the authoritarian system in Syria in the 1970’s-1980’s had on the behavior of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Hafez (2003) establishes the connection between state authoritarianism and violent rebellion by Islamist groups. Wickham (2002) establishes that in certain authoritarian settings, Islamist groups may focus on civil society activism; and Schwedler (2006) explains how some authoritarian states leave room for Islamist groups to work with the system.

Mohammad Hafez outlines his theory for explaining violent Islamist rebellions in authoritarian conditions. Hafez (2003) holds that there are two conditions that must be present for Islamist rebellions. The first and key condition is political or institutional exclusion. A political environment with lack of access to institutions encourages Islamist rebellion (Hafez, 2003, p. 27). However this first condition is not sufficient on its own to explain Islamist rebellion, as there are instances where there is political exclusion without Islamist rebellion. Thus Hafez (2003) proposes a second condition that should be present-indiscriminate and reactive repression by the state. Indiscriminate repression refers to a state targeting members, supporters, and suspected sympathizers of the movement. This is opposed to the idea of selective repression, where states target leaders and key activists. Indiscriminate repression, according to Hafez (2003), provokes far more outrage and is perceived by opposition groups as a justification for violent rebellion as a response (Hafez, 2003, p. 75). Reactive repression refers to state repression of already organized and active groups, as opposed to those who have not yet had the opportunity to mobilize (Hafez, 2003, p. 72). Hafez (2003) also takes into consideration the political environment and examines the opportunities that Islamist groups have as well as the constraints they are working under (Hafez, 2003, p. 110).

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham shows us how Islamist groups could choose a different path-civil society activism- under authoritarian political structures. Wickham’s analysis of Islamic activism in Egypt from 1981-1993 is a direct response to studies that see Islamic mobilization as grievance-based activism or as a result of rational-actor calculations, which she considers as useful but insufficient (Wickham, 2002, p. 6, p. 14). Islamic activism is a result of mobilization efforts of opposition leaders. A key element to the success of this mobilization is ideological outreach, which creates new frames that motivate action (Wickham, 2002, p. 147-48). Wickham (2002) also addresses the element of agency as a key factor in behavior and action, which many scholars on Islamic activism have neglected (Wickham, 2002, p. 8). Her overall argument is that Islamic activism in authoritarian settings is motivated by a combination of mobilization techniques, strategies, and ideological framing by the leaders of the Islamic movement.

Jillian Schwedler analyzes the relationship between inclusion and moderation of Islamist groups. Schwedler (2006) tackles the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, which holds that opposition actors that participate in relatively pluralistic processes in authoritarian states become moderate through their inclusion in these processes (Schwedler, 2006, p. 11). Schwedler (2006) conducts a case study of Islamist groups in Jordan and Yemen that had an opportunity for a limited political opening. In both these cases, the states restructured the political space and new opportunities were created to accommodate Islamist groups (Schwedler, 2002, p. 3). In the case of Jordan, the Islamist group became more moderate, while in the case of Yemen, the Islamist group did not moderate (Schwedler, 2002, p. 192). There were certain elements that caused one group to moderate while the other did not. This includes the structure of the government relative to the political space, the internal organization of the Islamist groups and their respective decision-making procedures, and different types of ideological justifications (Schwedler, 2002, p. 195).

Which of these three theories sufficiently explains the conflict between the Syrian regime and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970’s and 1980’s? The only theory that directly addresses a key element of the problem, violent rebellion, is that of Hafez (2003). The empirical evidence points to all the conditions in which Hafez (2003) has outlined in his theory. The other two theories however, which explore non-violent reactions, also contain elements that are important to examine in the case of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The elements of agency by way of internal decision-making procedures, and ideological framing that Schwedler (2006) and Wickham (2002) discuss are essential to understanding the violent conflict between the Syrian government and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. My contention is that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood violently rebelled due to a combination of political exclusion and repression, intense grievances due to loss of status and power, ideological framing and justification, and decisions made by the organization.


The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was officially created in 1945, encompassing many Islamic associations that had existed for decades before it. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was founded independently of the larger Muslim Brotherhood movement, though it was influenced by the same ideology (Weismann, 2010, p. 2-3). From the shaky republican period after Syrian independence from the French in 1946 until the Ba’ath coup in 1963, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood fully participated in democratic and parliamentary processes (Teitelbaum, 2011, p. 1-4).

The Brotherhood in Syria was a “small, elitist organization” (Teitelbaum, 2011, p. 213) that did not enjoy the same level of support in its respective society as the Brotherhood in Egypt did. In the Syrian parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood and its’ allies held 2.6% of seats in 1949, 3.5% in 1954, and 5.8% in 1961. Support was higher in urban Damascus, where they held 23% of Damascus seats in 1949, 18.7% in 1954, and 17.6% in 1961 (Batatu, 1982, p. 17). Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to widen its appeal by associating itself with popular ideological currents, such as socialism, in order to compete with the Ba’ath Party and the Communist Party (Teitelbaum, 2011, p. 220). They also took a nuanced approach towards Islamism as not to offend the sensitivities and fears of minorities, and supported candidates from minority groups in elections and ministries, such as the Catholic Georges Shalhub (Teitelbaum, 2007, p. 141-142).

However this period was not entirely positive for the Muslim Brotherhood either, as coup d’états by Husni Zaim in 1949 and by Colonel Adib Shishakli the same year outlawed and disbanded the Muslim Brotherhood for a number of years (Weismann, 2010, p. 4).  The Muslim Brotherhood did not respond to this initial exclusion and repression with violence. It was ultimately the Ba’ath coup in 1963, the Neo-Ba’ath consolidation of power in 1966, and the strengthening of the minority-Alawi Assad family in 1970 that shaped the violent and sectarian behavior and discourse of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that dominated the 1970’s and early 1980’s (Zisser, 2005, p. 44-45) (Talhamy, 2009, p. 565).

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s descent into violence and terror began with individual killings and assassinations of Alawi officers, professionals, and political figures and by 1976 became a full scale Islamic revolt against the Alawi dominated government. The Brotherhood attacked government institutions such as police stations and Ba’ath party buildings. One of the worst attacks was the 1979 Aleppo massacre, where 83 Alawi cadets were killed at the Aleppo Artillery Academy (Batatu, 1982, p. 20). In 1981 the Brotherhood managed to bomb the prime minister’s office as well as the air force headquarters (Van Dam, 2011, p. 108). The bloody confrontation between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Alawi-dominated government culminated in the battle of Hama in February of 1982. The Syrian military and security nearly leveled the city and an estimated thousands to tens of thousands were killed, including part of the civilian population. The Hama Massacre crushed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as thousands of members, activists, and leaders were killed, imprisoned or exiled, and it marked the end to an active and organized Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria (Zisser, 2009, p. 47).

What conditions and elements discussed in scholarship of Islamic movements can explain the transformation the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood undertook? How can we reconcile the adoption violent behavior, sectarianism, and anti-system ideologies with the earlier experience of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Exclusion and Repression

            Hafez (2003) holds that institutional exclusion, or a lack of access to governmental institutions, is a key factor in Islamist rebellion. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood faced institutional exclusion as they were banned along with other parties after the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963. They no longer had the access to parliamentary elections and ministries as they did in the earlier period. At one point, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood became a crime punishable by death, as per Syrian law no. 49 (Zisser, 2005, p. 44).

Hafez correctly asserts that a closed political system is an important factor however it is not enough to explain mass violent rebellion (Hafez, 2003, p. 65). Indiscriminate and reactive repression is also necessary to induce a violent rebellion. In the case of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, reactive repression was present as the Brotherhood had already been established and active in Syria for decades. The repression by the regime against the Brotherhood had constituted a serious threat to the organization and its resources. This prompted the movement and its committed activists towards rebellion to fight back against repression (Hafez, 2003, p. 74).

Indiscriminate repression was also present in Syria, with several massacres and collective punishments of Muslim Brotherhood members and activists by the Syrian military and security forces. Following the 1979 Muslim Brotherhood attack on the Alawi cadets at the Aleppo Artillery Academy, large numbers of Islamists across Syria were rounded up, imprisoned, or executed (Talhamy, 2009, p. 567). In 1980, after a failed assassination attempt on the Alawi President Hafez Assad by the Brotherhood, the government ordered retaliation in the form of collective punishment and about 550 defenseless Muslim Brotherhood prisoners were gunned down in the Tadmor Prison Massacre. The brutality of the regime was unprecedented and its opponents were indiscriminately targeted and killed off (Van Dam, 2011, p. 105-6).

Hama massacre 1982

Hama massacre 1982

Hafez (2003) contends that these conditions, political exclusion and indiscriminate and reactive repression, are what ultimately leads to violent rebellion. Indeed these conditions were present in Syria in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the outcome was violent rebellion, however I argue that this theory explains a large part of the conflict in Syria, but it is insufficient. During the earlier period in Syria after Colonel Adib Shishakli assumed power, he banned the Muslim Brotherhood in 1951. Not only was the Brotherhood excluded from the political process, but the regime at that time ordered that all branches of the Brotherhood in the country be dissolved, the Youth movement of the Brotherhood dismantled, Brotherhood publications were banned, and leaders of the movement were arrested (Teitelbaum, 2004, p. 150). Political exclusion and reactive repression were present under Shishakli yet mass violence did not occur. Perhaps the repression was more selective than indiscriminate in comparison to the repression under the Ba’ath regime. Regardless, the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria merits the consideration of other factors that may have also contributed to the adoption of violence.

Discrimination and Grievances

            As Wickham (2002) correctly points out, grievance-based explanations of Islamic activism are not wrong, but they are insufficient. Grievances are a part of the equation that require mobilization and other elements to translate it into collective action (Wickham, 2002, p. 6-8). I argue that along with other elements, it is essential to take into account the grievances of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, as the essence of these grievances helped shape the organization’s framing and justification of the adoption of violence.

Following the first Ba’ath coup in 1963, a disproportionate number of Sunni Muslims were purged from the armed forces by the increasingly Alawi-dominated government. These purges increased after the second coup in 1966, which disposed of the Sunni President Amin al-Hafiz and further consolidated the power of the Alawis. Sunnis were discriminated against in admission to the Military Academy, while minorities, especially Alawis, were given preferential treatment (Van Dam, 2011, p. 35). There became an obvious sectarian polarization within the armed forces. In the government, Alawis dominated the highest positions of power, and these positions were secured by sectarian loyalties and favoritism (Teitelbaum, 2011, p. 232). The rise of Alawis and their consolidation of power came at the expense of not only the Brotherhood, but the Sunnis in general. The loss of status and power of the Brotherhood and the Sunnis became an intense grievance against the Alawis, and this grievance would shape the lens through which the Brotherhood later framed its conflict with the state.

Antisystem and Sectarian Framing

            Framing is “conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understanding of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action” (Wickham, 2002, p. 120). Wickham (2002) studies framing as a tool used by Islamist groups to motivate activism by presenting it as a religious obligation. Hafez (2003) also touches upon antisystem ideological frames, which are all-encompassing in the sense that all of the grievances are rooted in the system itself, and are polarizing in that they define the conflict as one between “two antithetical opposites-us versus them, just versus unjust, faithful versus impious” (Hafez, 2003, p. 157).

As far as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, both antisystem framing as well as sectarian framing were used during the period of violent rebellion. These frames overlapped each other as the Brotherhood increasingly equated the system with the Alawis and vice versa. Before examining the Brotherhood’s literature and propaganda in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it is useful to point to the earlier literature and tactics for purposes of contrasting. Through the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Muslim Brotherhood made a conscious effort to appeal to minorities and to mainstream ideological currents in Syrian society. It took as nuanced a position as possible towards Islamism, and even tried to coat its movement with socialism as an appeal tool (Teitelbaum, 2011, p. 223). The Brotherhood emphasized that their movement was a call to God and religion but was non-sectarian, stating “Religion is brotherhood; sectarianism is enmity” (Teitelbaum, 2011, p. 222).

In the earlier period, the Brotherhood made an effort to appear non-sectarian, and antisystem ideologies were not relevant because they largely participated in the system. It was after the 1963 Ba’ath coup that this began to change. There was increasingly anti-Alawi propaganda within Sunni circles. Through the 1960’s and the 1970’s, Sunni writings often associated the political conflict with the sectarian background of the Alawis. By the 1980’s, Sunni propagandists began to formulate anti-Alawi religious argument in order to “prepare the ground for a religiously motivated large-scale Sunni Muslim movement aiming at toppling the Alawi-dominated Ba’th regime by force” (Van Dam, 2011, p. 109). This framing of the conflict both motivated and legitimized the violent rebellion. Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood program of 1980 contained an appeal to the Alawis, stating “Nine or ten percent of the population cannot dominate the majority in Syria. This would be against the logic of things” (Batatu, 1982, p. 13) Here the Brotherhood clearly frames its conflict with the regime as one between Alawis and Sunnis. This type of sectarian and religious framing was a deliberate construction of the conflict in terms that motivated collective violent rebellion for grievances against the Alawis, while simultaneously legitimizing it on religious or ideological grounds.

Party Organization and Decision Making Procedures

            Largely absent from most discussions on Islamist violence, including the scholarship of Hafez (2003), is the element of agency. All other conditions may be present-political exclusion, repression, grievances, ideological framing-but what role does the ability to make decisions and choices have? Schwedler (2006) contends that a key factor explaining variations in Islamist movement’s behavior and moderation is “the internal organization and decision-making practices of each party” (Schwedler, 2006, p. 195).

It was the decision-making of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that stopped it from adopting violence during the period of exclusion and repression under Colonel Adib Shishakli from 1951 to 1954. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership held meetings to decide its next move considering the political situation, and they made a decision to avoid political activity while focusing on religious and social activity (Teitelbaum, 2004, p. 150). The decision to adopt violence in the 1970’s and 1980’s came from the internal workings of the Muslim Brotherhood as well. By this time, most veteran leaders had lost their influence over the younger rank and file activists, who advocated violent confrontation with the regime (Batatu, 1982, p. 20). Thus they decided their best strategy was joining the revolt when it broke out (Zisser, 2006, p. 47).


            The transformation in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood from a movement that participated in parliamentary politics and democratic processes into a movement that became notorious for its violence, terror, and sectarianism resulted from a combination of political exclusion and repression, the accumulation of grievances, antisystem and sectarian framing, and movement organization and decision-making. Building off the recent scholarship of Islamist movements that use social movement theory, I explained how a combination of conditions and elements under an authoritarian system led to a violent rebellion. The significant transformation that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood undertook is a reminder that Islamist movements are not static, they change and adapt based on the settings and conditions around them. The implications of this research are greater than a simple scholarly understanding of this understudied and under researched topic historically, but are also extremely relevant to the current situation in Syria and the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood towards it.


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Teitelbaum, J. (2004). The Muslim Brotherhood and the ‘Struggle for Syria’, 1947-1958

Between Accommodation and Ideology. Middle Eastern Studies, 40(3), 134-158.

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Ideology. Middle East Journal, 65(2), 213-233.

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Ba’th Party. London: I.B. Tauris.

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Wickham, C.R. (2002). Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt.

New York: Columbia University Press.

Zisser, E. (2005). Syria, the Ba’th Regime and the Islamic Movement: Stepping on a New Path?

Muslim World, 95(1), 43-65.

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