“The Fourth Hama Brigade was set up for the citizens of Hama and to hold the banner of Islam high. Indeed, your enlistment is a duty and a religious obligation (…) a must in order to defeat the enemies of the Islamic nation, the American infidels and the Zionists…”
A Baʿthist Gathering at the Mosque
The Syrian regime pretends to adopt a secular doctrine while exploiting religious discourse at mosques.
div>(Hama, Syria) “All praise is due to Allah… We praise Him and beseech Him for help and guidance… We believe in Him and rely on Him… Whoever Allah guides, none can misguide. Whoever He misguides, none can guide… I bear witness that there is no deity worthy of worship but Allah, and I bear witness that Mohammad is His servant and messenger.”
The passage above is a natural part of any Friday sermon that I, and any other prayer, hear at the mosque every week, and after which the preacher tackles a certain religious topic or occasion, or a specific social issue.
“The Fourth Hama Brigade was set up for the citizens of Hama and to hold the banner of Islam high. Indeed, your enlistment is a duty and a religious obligation…”
I raise my head and look at the minbar (the pulpit) then at the prayers. Yes, I am in Hama, in our neighbourhood’s mosque… No, no, it seems that YouTube has taken its toll on me.
“Enlisting in it is a must in order to defeat the enemies of the ummah (the Islamic nation), the American infidels and the Zionists…”
I turn my eyes to the minbar once more. “Now, I swear, this is our mosque, and this is our shaykh,” the words come out of my mouth and catch the eyes of the prayer next to me. Could it be that the Nusrah Front has entered Hama today without my knowledge?! The Fourth Brigade of Hama… This is the first time I am taken with a Friday sermon in over five years.
“Brothers, the ministry of Awqaf (Islamic religious endowments) issued a circular, upon the request of the governor, calling to defend our city. According to the circular, employees who enlist will be granted a 50% increase in their (original) monthly salaries, and non-employees will receive a monthly salary of 35,000 SYP (the equivalent of 95 USD in the black market). All volunteers will be granted licenses to carry weapons.”
This is when things became clearer: the voluntary Fourth Brigade in Hama is an actual brigade that is currently being formed, since all hope in the remainder of the Syrian Army on the ground seems to have been lost because of draft-dodging. Therefore, being a shabbihah (pro-government militia) member has become an official government position for those who fancy it.
However, the situation seems to be far more dangerous than I thought. In fact, the residents of Hama will become involved with the regime in case an armed opposition group enters the city, the youths will have to defend themselves first, and then their city, or otherwise flee Hama, just like what happened in Idlib. Then, I started thinking of how desperately the regime must need fighters on the ground to resort to such means.
Am I in a mosque or at a political party meeting? Are we not supposedly a secular State? What does the mosque have to do with mobilising people into the Fourth Brigade? Then, I smiled as I remembered that I was still living in the State of al-Baʿth, where every meeting is a party meeting, even at the mosque. “One Arab nation with an eternal message (the motto of the Baʿth party),” I muttered to myself before prayer.
When I left the mosque, I asked my friends and realised that, on Friday 11 December 2015, the sermons of most of the mosques in Hama revolved around the formation of the Fourth Hama Brigade, the defender of Muslims.
Hama has been entirely under the control of the regime since mid-2012 and is currently suffering from constant economic crises, especially in terms of combustibles and essential services. “10,000 SYP (25 USD) aren’t bad at all in these times. It’s only a fighting session, and then I can go back to work,” said Ahmad (1), an employee at the education directorate in Hama, while leaving the mosque. His opinion is possibly shared by many government employees.
In fact, most of the youths have left the city to opposition-held regions in the North or to Europe, evading mandatory military service. Therefore, the government is striving to gain the youths of the city using financial or even religious enticements. Another reason for that is the presence of the Islamist Jaysh al-Fath in the North, which may be tempting for the religious young men of Hama, since the city is considered conservative in general.
Pseudonyms were used to protect the identity of the sources.