The conclusions I draw from my book lead me to take issue with widespread narratives about the current rise of Sunni Islamism, and in particular of Salafism in Syria. This phenomenon is usually perceived in a negative way, that is, as an expression of sectarian radicalization against religious communities. There is undeniably some truth in that, but it is a partial view of the problem. There is also a “positive” dimension to it: the expression of an identity that has been suppressed for decades, notably, as I show in the book, by imposing severe restrictions on religious practices and symbols that are considered as perfectly harmless in most other Muslim countries.
In my view, this is one of the reasons that explains why several of the first insurgent battalions established by defector officers in 2011 were given Islamic names, despite the fact that they were not displaying any specifically Islamist agenda. The army is probably the most aggressively anti-religious institution in the Syrian regime, which means that for defectors, choosing religious names for their battalions was part of a paradigmatic, revolutionary break with the past. Later on, in liberated areas, growing a beard, adopting a Salafi style, and raising the black and white banner of the Prophet have been part of a process of self-assertion that does not necessarily amount to declaring war against those who do not share that religious identity, although of course this can be the case.
The rise of Salafism is also part of what I would call the “religious empowerment” of the Syrian peripheries (suburbs, small towns, and villages). Until 2011, the religious center— that is, the scholarly elite I study in the book—was very much rooted in traditional-Sufi Islam, and this was the case for both pro-regime and independent ulama. As for Salafi Islam, including its dominant quietist wing, it suffered genuine persecution at the hands of the regime and only survived in a kind of semi-underground fashion, often in the peripheries mentioned above. Seen from that point of view, the current rise of Salafism is not only a revenge against the regime and/or Alawite domination, but also a revenge of the social and geographical margins against the center. To a large extent, this is what this uprising is about.