Who's who: Ahmad Muaz al-Khatib

Now President of the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution, Ahmad Muaz al-Khatib is a former petroleum engineer and an Islamic preacher and well-respected freedom activist.

In Brief

 

Now president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib is a former petroleum engineer and an Islamic preacher and well-respected activist for freedom. Born in 1960, Khatib comes from a well-known Sunni Muslim Damascene family. His father, Sheikh Mohammed Abu al-Faraj al-Khatib, was a prominent Islamic scholar and preacher.

 

Now president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib is a former petroleum engineer and an Islamic preacher and well-respected activist for freedom. Born in 1960, Khatib comes from a well-known Sunni Muslim Damascene family. His father, Sheikh Mohammed Abu al-Faraj al-Khatib, was a prominent Islamic scholar and preacher.

 

Khatib does not belong to any political party, which helped him be a consensual candidate for the leadership of the opposition.

His background is in Sufi Islam. A religious dignitary, he has studied international relations and diplomacy, and is not linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist organization in the opposition.

 

Khatib is a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, and was one of the youngest preachers in the mosque. He was sacked later for having different views than the religious and political authorities in the country.

 

Education and early career

 

Khatib originally studied applied geophysics and worked as an engineer for six years. He is a member of the Syrian Geological Society and the Syrian Society for Psychological Science. He was previously president and remains honorary president of the Islamic Society of Urbanization.

 

Preaching

 

Khatib later became prominent as an Islamic preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in the early 1990s. After he was banned from preaching during the rule of the late President Hafez al-Assad, he began to teach Islam secretly.

 

Khatib also established Jamiyat al-Tamadun al Islami (the Islamic Civilization Society) and was its president until he was forced to choose between preaching and his post, and he had to resign.

 

His friends know him as a smart, moderate Islamic preacher, who has good relations with seculars and civil society leaders in Syria. He was close to a campaign against honor crime in Syria, led by a group of secular civil society groups in 2009. His status as the former imam makes him a key figure in Syria's religious establishment.

 

The current revolution

 

Khatib has been involved in the Syrian revolution since its early days. His speech in Douma, north of Damascus, became a classic piece of the revolution literature. In this speech he assured the non-Sunni groups saying, “My brothers, we lived all our lives, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druze, as a one-hearted community. And with us lived our dear brothers [Christians] who follow Jesus, peace be upon him. We should adhere to this bond between us and protect it at all times.”

 

He was imprisoned several times for his criticism of the government during the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad before he fled the country and settled in Cairo. Khatib is not allied with any political party and is known as a moderate who has called for political pluralism and strongly opposes sectarian divisions among Syrians.

 

In October 2012, he was critical of the role Islamist militants had played as the civil war violence escalated, saying their prominence had allowed Western countries to portray the uprising as "extremist". Khatib is an active proponent of political plurality, including equality for women.

 

Potentials

 

The Christian Science Monitor compared Khatib to Aung San SuuKyi in Myanmar (Burma) and the late Corazon Aquino in the Philippines. He carries the credibility of being a victim of repression, having been jailed many times for his pro-democracy views and injured by a bomb. Yet he carries few grudges as he clings to a higher view of humanity as redeemable and reconcilable.

 

Khatib’s background and oratory may not only help heal a fragmented opposition, but also convince Syria’s Alawite religious minority that it can safely withdraw its support from an Alawite-dominated regime.

 

“I say to you that Alawites are closer to me than many other people I know,” he said, after being elected president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. “When we talk about freedom, we mean freedom for every single person in this country.”

 

In a speech in September, Khatib set out his own inclusive vision of a tolerant Syria in which the country's various confessions and ethnicities – Christian, Alawite and Kurd among them – would be respected.

 

The Christians had added a "distinctly civilized touch", he said, while Syrians also "felt the pains of the great Kurdish people". He reportedly added: "It is paramount to appreciate the characteristics of the Syrian people: Syrians are tolerant, devout and open to everyone. By nature, they reject extremism and injustice."

 

According to Khatib, the uprising against Assad began in 2011 when the "arrogant" regime used brutal force to suppress anti-government demonstrators calling for peaceful change. This is the dominant view among opposition Syrians. "Syrians were compelled to take up arms in order to defend their religion, families and properties," he said. "The Syrian revolution is not a violent one. Syrian revolutionaries are peaceful."

 

Khatib was also outspoken about the "media smearing" of the Syrian rebel movement, both by the Syrian government and by some in the West. It was inaccurate to portray the opposition as a "hotbed of Islamic extremism, terrorism and fundamentalism", he argued.

 

His position vis-à-vis the regime

 

Khatib also said he was not averse to negotiating with Assad. He added that political dialogue didn't mean "surrendering to the regime's cruelty" but was the pragmatic "lesser of two evils". He’s also a convenient compromise between the West’s desire for democracy in Syria and the interests of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two nondemocratic Arab states that simply want an end to a regime that serves as a terrorist and Shiite proxy for rival Iran.

 

But critics believe that the choice of Sheikh Ahmad Moaz Al-Khatib responds to a clear necessity – in order for the president to be recognized by the combatants, he has to be a religious figure, but in order to be accepted by Westerners, he has to appear moderate. And especially, in this period of intense negotiations, the new president has to have a solid understanding of the subject in order to discuss the future of Syrian gas – but this is not a subject to be introduced in public.

 

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Sources: The Syrian Observer, The Carnegie Institute, the Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor

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