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Sylvain Mercadier

Syrian Sufis fear extremists fighting alongside Turkish army

Sufis around the world have been targeted for their beliefs [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 November, 2019

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With the ongoing Turkish offensive in Syria, the Sufi community in Amudeh city, northern Syria, fear they may be one of their many victims.
It's passed eight o'clock in the evening in Amudeh, northeastern Syria. As darkness looms over the town, the streets empty themselves and get swathed with silence.

Despite the apparent tranquility, noise can be heard in the town centre twice every week by whoever approaches the Taqya, or Sufi mosque, belonging to the Qadiriyeh order, a Sufi brotherhood present throughout all of Middle East.

A Spiritual trance

From the entrance of the mosque, a buzzing sound emerges, rising from the basement. Passed the door, the sound becomes louder at every step. Down the stairs, an audience of about two dozen men is seated on some mattresses in a large basement hall and engage in a traditional Dhikr ritual, a Sufi method to gain spiritual enlightenment.

In this process, phrases are repeatedly recited aloud, the goal of which is to obtain a feeling of peace. Although the leading figure of the Taqya, Sheikh Abd el Wahab, is absent and visiting Damascus, other skilled religious leaders have no problem leading the Dhikr and carrying the followers into a spiritual trance for several hours.

Islamic frescos have been painted on the walls by members of the Qadiriyeh brotherhood. These include the many names of Allah, quotes from the Quran and representation of other Islamic symbols.

Accompanied by musicians handling daf tambourines, a few men chant while seated as other get absorbed in their prayers and swing their heads back and forth. The ritual lasts for more than an hour through which praises to God and his prophet are made and repeated extensively. On another side, portraits of three prominent sheikh fill the blank wall: Sheikh Ahmed al Qadiri, surrounded by two of his sons, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Ubaid Ullah, all regarded as saints holding superpowers by the members of the brotherhood.

After this exercise, the Sheikh of the Taqya offers a meal to the members of the congregation and to all the visitors who were present during the Dhikr exercise.

Following dinner, a cup of tea is offered before the Sufi brotherhood embark on a new Dhikr exercise with different chants.

Little by little, the Taqya starts emptying itself, only to be left with a few members passed ten o'clock at night.

Members still present get a bit closer and leave the spiritual matters aside for a while in order to discuss more down-to-earth issues. And there are many issues of concerns these days for Amudeh's Sufis.

Accompanied by musicians handling daf tambourines, a few men chant while seated [Mercadier Sylvain]

A brotherhood under threat

Earlier in October, Turkey launched an air and ground offensive on Kurdish positions in northern Syria.

Turkey has long considered the YPG, the Kurdish main component of this force of being an extension of PKK, an organisation it has long designated as a terrorist group.

However, the United States still backed the YPG and helped them fight the Islamic State group, strengthening the local administration. But regardless of this international backer, the autonomous region failed to strengthen its institutions and ensure permanent protection from regional rivals such as Turkey. Despite this lack of legitimacy, a large part of the local population has accepted the institutions of the self-proclaimed autonomous region, which guarantees basic rights to all ethnic and religious groups.

Turkey's passing into action against the local administration and its armed force earlier this month has already caused hundreds of thousands of displacements as well as hundreds of casualties, including many civilians.

The possibility of a Turkish invasion in Amudeh has since then been a daily concern, a genuine existential threat according to most Kurdish people met in the town, including for those mixed Arab and Kurd practicing Sufi rituals.

Islamic frescos have been painted on the walls by members of the Qadiriyeh brotherhood [Mercadier Sylvain]

The Qadiriyeh order in Amudeh already has a bitter history in relation to Turkish nationalism.

"The bulk of the congregation migrated from Amed, or Diyarbakir about a century ago, facing discrimination by zealous Turkish Islamists. It's as if history is repeating itself," explains Sheikh Ammar, who takes part in the Dhikr on a weekly basis. 

"We're facing a radical enemy that has already expressed a strong desire to eradicate all form of ethnic and religious diversity," he adds. 

The Turkish offensive in northern Syria is relying on Arab proxy members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose many members have been proven to have strong ties to the Islamic State group. Since 2016, Islamic State militants have targeted Sufis, as they consider them heretics.

These proxy forces have also been accused of deliberately releasing detainees affiliated with the Islamic State group from unguarded prisons, two US officials confirmed to Foreign Policy in October. 
 
"Sufis around the world have been targeted for their beliefs by Taqfiri Islamists because these terrorists hate diversity of thought such as the one Sufism advocates," explains Sheikh Maaruf, another Sufi leader who led the Dhikr earlier.

"On top of that, most of us here in Amudeh are Kurds. We know what will happen if the gangs from Idlib make their way here," he adds, sliding his nail on his throat in a gesture simulating a beheading.

The bulk of the congregation migrated from Amed, or Diyarbakir about a century ago, facing discrimination by zealous Turkish Islamists. It's as if history is repeating itself

Nowhere to go anymore

Amudeh's Taqya has already welcomed Qadiri members from other parts of Syria who fled violence. Naimi, a talented Dhikr singer is from Deir-az-Zour area and got displaced when the Islamic State group started taking over his region.

Another member, Hashem, arrived more recently. "I came from Serekaniyeh; I fled my hometown because Turkey and its jihadist proxies invaded the area. It was unsafe during the battle, but I also chose to move out because I don't trust it will be safe under a joint Turkish-FSA control," he slams.

Although Naimi and Hashem were lucky enough to find a safe haven away from danger in the past, this time, they seem to be running out of options. This feeling is also shared by other members of the congregation.

Most see the Turkish operation, dubbed 'Operation Peace Spring' as an ethnic cleansing campaign that aims to remove all Kurds from the Turkish border and prevent the rise of an autonomous region where Kurds might have their rights protected and recognised.

It's the only reason Turkey is invading us: Because they want to crush all Kurdish movements and avoid facing their own internal issues regarding Kurdish rights

"It's the only reason Turkey is invading us: Because they want to crush all Kurdish movements and avoid facing their own internal issues regarding Kurdish rights. [Our Sufi] brotherhood is a collateral damage of this policy, as well as all the other minorities in the area such as the Christians and Yazidis," Sheikh Amar adds.

As the end of a second ceasefire in two weeks is nearing its end, most of the members of the Qadiriyeh order have decided to stay in their town no matter what happens.

"The Turkish army will probably resume its operation, who never really stopped," explains Hashem.

"The jihadists are still attacking villages around Tell Tamer and Ras-al-Ayn; what kind of ceasefire is that? But tomorrow, Turkey might start a full scale offensive in which Amudeh and many other areas that had been spared by the violence till now will be targeted," he concludes.

Meet the Kasnazani, the Sufi order that practices life-endangering rituals
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that practices life-endangering rituals

The many exactions committed by Turkey's proxy fighters, including the murder of civilians and local political figure Hevrin Khalaf, has sparked strong criticism from the international community and human rights organisations.

"It's as if the Islamic State group is coming back to avenge itself, but with Turkish military support and equipment," complains a member of the Qadiriyeh order that requested anonymity.

As the last members of the brotherhood head for the door, Sheikh Ammar and a couple of friends hold us a bit longer and ask us for a favour.

"Please inform the world of what is taking place here, in Syria. We need the world to stop this war and allow us to live a free and independent life," he requests, before adding, "Islam is a religion of love and brotherhood. Politics and greed have corrupted many Muslims, leading them to commit terrible crimes, but the international community should not remain idle while more crimes are committed. We need some support."

If nothing is done to prevent it, a full scale offensive could indeed put an end to the autonomous region's experience in which different groups, people and religious minority managed to co-exist and the Qadiriyeh order of Amudeh could be one of the many victims of the ongoing Turkish offensive.


Sylvain Mercadier is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @Sylv_Mercadier

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