AMMAN (Reuters) - A month after pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria, Sheikh Mouaz Alkhatib gave an electrifying speech to a crowd in Damascus mourning Sunni demonstrators shot dead by President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite security forces.
Ordinary Alawites, said the man chosen on Sunday to unite the country’s fractured opposition, were not to blame for Syria’s ills -- a message Western leaders hope he can relay to what is now an increasingly radical Sunni-led armed revolt.
“We are raising our voice for freedom for every human being in this country, for every Sunni, for every Alawite and for every Ismaili and Christian from the Arab or from the great Kurdish nation,” he said, flanked by Aref Dalila, a veteran Alawite economist and leading Syrian writer Michel Kilo, a Christian.
The words hit home. “One hand! The Syrian people are one!” chanted the crowd in the staunchly Sunni northern suburb of Douma, where Alkhatib stood out among the other, traditionally-dressed clerics with his western-style suit.
A moderate Islamist preacher, Alkhatib was imprisoned several times after the speech, which set the tone for the mainly Sunni protests before Assad’s crackdown made sectarian tensions soar.
More than a year and a half later, more than 38,000 people have been killed in ground and aerial bombardments of mainly Sunni areas by government forces and Alkhatib is among many prominent Syrian opposition figures forced to flee.
Sunni Jihadists are now a formidable fighting force on the ground and Syria is close to all-out sectarian war that could destabilize Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
“Alkhatib is a dynamic progressive Islamist, popular in Damascus and the rest of Syria. He is not a trigger-happy Jihadist and he can play a role in containing the extremist groups,” said Mazen Adi, a prominent human rights defender and politician who worked with Alkhatib before the revolt.
Just before the opposition meeting in Qatar which elected him, Alkhatib circulated an open letter to the Syrian people in which he said the goals of the revolt must remain bringing down Assad’s “fascist system” while working to bring more minorities into the revolt and limit the bloodshed.
The Doha meeting, designed to help the opposition win international recognition and support, elected him unanimously but Alkhatib faces a much harder task rallying the rebels, who are wary of exiles and increasingly influenced by radical elements linked to the Sunni al Qaeda movement.
Firas Filfileh, a spokesman of the Ahbab al-Allah rebel division in Syria’s Idlib province, said Khatib’s election could help prevent rebels joining more radical groups such as the al Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front if it boosts support for the revolt.
“As rebels we care at the end of the day about what happens on the ground. Khatib is a respected moderate and we support any one who works for the interest of the revolt, but he has to careful not to change his positions like other opposition figures,” he said by phone from Idlib.
Alkhatib’s letter, a defacto manifesto, steered a careful path through the thorniest aspects of the revolt.
Referring to the rising use of force and reports of atrocities by rebels, Alkatib said they should not be equated with the barbarity of 42 years of rule by Assad and his father.
“We are required to act peacefully and justly. But ... we cannot employ Platonic idealism to judge those who risk their lives against a barbaric campaign.”
He criticized the polarization between Islamist and secular opposition figures, saying although he had misgivings about the increasingly influential Muslim Brotherhood, their long history of resisting Assad could not be forgotten.
He also praised the secular leftist Riad al-Turk, Syria’s top dissident, who spent 18 years as a political prisoner under Hafez al-Assad, spoke out against repression of the Brotherhood in the 1980s, and still operates underground in Syria, aged 82.
Alkhatib warned the opposition against using the same methods as the Baath Party, which has allowed the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, to dominate the political and security apparatus in majority Sunni Syria since it took power in a 1963 coup.
“Great Syrian people, I ask you to unite and avoid the call for blood that the regime is pushing us into... Avoid Baathist speech and the personality cult, otherwise it will devour the homeland,” he said.
Born in 1960, Alkhatib is scion of a Damascene religious family that has traditionally had major influence on the running of the Umayyad mosque, one of the holiest places in Islam in the cosmopolitan heart of Damascus.
“He is a unifying person. And an open mind. He does not think there a conspiracy behind everything. His father was the imam of the Umayyad Mosque, which is of big symbolic importance, and the regime failed to co-opt him,” Adi said.
He was banned from preaching under the rule of Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, but he operated underground, campaigning for democratic reform in a group called the Damascus Declaration and teaching at the Dutch Institute in Damascus, while establishing the Islamic Civilisation Society and building ties with Western thinkers.
Alkhatib was abducted and jailed several times after his Douma speech, but fled Syria only after his friends warned him he would be killed like scores of activists assassinated by the secret police or disappeared, according to people close to him.
He now lives modestly in Cairo, beset by back problems from a car bomb explosion which hit the secret police compound where he was a prisoner before he left Syria five months ago.
“The cell had a floodlight that was on 24 hours to prevent me from sleeping. The good thing was that the cell was destroyed and the electricity was cut and they were forced to move me to another cell without lights,” he told Reuters in Cairo.
Alkhatib, who advocated peaceful resistance to Assad’s rule before the revolt, saluted “the women of Syria” after his election in Doha, in a nod to women opposition campaigners who instrumental in organizing the first demonstrations in Damascus.
His vice president, Suhair al-Atassi, is leading woman campaigner who was also jailed in the revolt. His other vice-president is Riad Seif, an old comrade who played a key role in devising the new opposition structure.
Mouaz al-Shami, a grassroots opposition activist in Damascus, said Alkhatib’s election was popular in the capital.
“I am against clerics in politics. We’ve seen what happened in other countries as a result of this. But Alkhatib is a terrific human being, and the street is welcoming him,” Shami said.
“We cannot but bow to popular will.”
Editing by Philippa Fletcher