By James M. Dorsey
A celebrated national soccer team goalkeeper, singer of revolutionary folk songs and cheerleader of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the besieged city of Homs, in a sign of the protesters becoming more religious, is increasingly couching his public remarks in Islamic terms while at the same time seeking to keep the door open to minorities such as the Christians.
In a video dated April 13, Abdelbasset Saroot, who has been targeted by the regime on several occasions, called on Syrian mothers to prepare their sons for martyrdom in confronting the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on the 15-month popular revolt that has brought Syria to the brink of civil war.
“The clothes of the heroes are the shrouds of burial, the shrouds of the martyrs that every hero is searching for. I want to send a message to our mothers at home making Du’a (a Muslim religious invocation) for us: O mother, my shrouds are new, prepare a funeral procession for me for I have come to you as a martyr in my celebratory clothes, my new home is Jannah (paradise),” he chants to a packed square in Homs applauding him.
“O mother, prepare a funeral for me and be happy on my behalf and forgive me, O mother. O mother, my shrouds are new, O mother to a martyr. O mother, collect your tears, make me happy by smiling. My testament isn’t money or gold, my testament is that you are satisfied with me. Kiss my brother and sister goodbye… O mother, call my people and my children to walk the path of the martyrs,” Mr. Saroot continues.
The curly, black haired soccer player prefaces his call with an invocation of Allah designed to appeal to both Muslims and Christians. Calling on the crowd to raise their hands, he says: “I bear witness that there is no God worth worshipping but Allah and I bear witness that Mohammed is His servant and messenger and I bear witness that Jesus was a messenger of Allah. There is no God but Allah.” His words are repeated by the cheering crowd.
By referring to Jesus, Mr. Saroot, was despite his Muslim terminology reaching out to Syria’s Christian minority that alongside the Kurds and the Druze have remained on the side line of the revolt for fear that forcing Mr. Assad out of office would pave the way for an Islamic regime that would be less tolerant toward minorities – a fear the Assad regime has sought to cultivate.
Mr. Saroot asserted in a You Tube video last summer that the Assad regime had accused him of being a Salafi fundamentalist who seeks to turn Syria into a state that emulates life as it was in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
“This accusation was made when we took to the streets, demanding freedom for the Syrian people. I am now wanted by the security agencies, which are trying to arrest me. I declare, in sound mind and of my own volition, that we, the free Syrian people, will not back down until our one and only demand is met: the toppling of the regime. We are not Salafis, and there is no truth to the regime's claims about armed groups or a Salafi emirate,” Mr. Saroot said at the time before the protests developed an armed wing.
In August of last year, Mr. Saroot reported on YouTube that Syrian security forces had arrested national soccer goalkeeper Mosab Balhous on charges of sheltering armed gangs and possessing suspicious amounts of money. Mr. Balhous has been missing since. He said Mr. Balhous too had been accused of participating in anti-government protests and wanting to establish an Islamic emirate in Homs, Syria’s third largest city that has become a focal point of anti-Assad protests.
Unconfirmed videos from Homs circulated this week purport to show heavy Syrian military bombardment of the city in recent days. The bombardment, coupled with massacres allegedly carried out by pro-Assad forces, and stepped up armed Syrian opposition attacks prompted United Nations ceasefire monitors in Syria to this weekend suspend their operations.
A 21-year old player for Syria's national Under-23 team, Mr. Saroot stands out in a region in revolt, in which soccer players feted by autocratic leaders and managers appointed by their regimes have remained largely on the side lines of mass anti-government protests. At the heart of their reluctance to join popular revolts is what Palestinian-American historian Hisham Sharabi called neo-patriarchy in a controversial 1992 book that is still banned in many Arab countries.
Mr. Sharabi argued that Arab society was built around the dominance of the Father (patriarch), the center around which the national as well as the natural family are organized. Between ruler and ruled, between father and child, there exist only vertical relations: in both settings the paternal will is absolute will, mediated in both the society and the family by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion.
In other words, according to Mr. Sharabi's thesis, Arab regimes franchised repression so that in a cultural patrimonial society, the oppressed participated in their repression and denial of rights. The regime is in effect the father of all fathers at the top of the pyramid. As a result, the patriarchal values that dominate soccer in addition to its popularity made it the perfect game for neo-patriarchs. Their values were soccer's values: assertion of male superiority in most aspects of life, control or harnessing of female lust and a belief in a masculine God.
The identification of the deposed leaders Egypt, Yemen and Libya – Hosni Mubarak, Abdullah Ali Saleh and Moammar Qaddafi – as well as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with their country’s national teams turned their successes and failures into barometers of how their regimes were faring. They also turned celebrated soccer players and managers into regime supporters who saw the autocrat as their father figure.
Syrian soccer is no exception to the rule and has as a result been increasingly polarized since last year’s eruption of anti-government protests. United Nations observers in Syria suspended their mission this week. They warned that the confrontation between Mr. Assad’s forces and armed segments of the opposition had produced a state of civil war in Syria and undermined efforts to establish a ceasefire.
Louay Chanko, a player for the Swedish national team, who was able to stop playing for it because he also played for Swedish Assyrian team Syrianska FC, said in an interview last month that many of the Syrian national squad’s players continued to play against their will. “Everything is corrupt. The SFF (Syrian Football Federation) just took players from the clubs. Many players didn’t want to play for the national team any more. Players are so afraid,” Mr. Chanko said.
The Assad regime was so desperate for a Syrian soccer success in a bid to shore up its wrecked image and demonstrate that the country was functioning normally that it went in the past year to great lengths to ensure that its national team would compete in international tournaments, including the fielding of illegal players. That prompted world soccer body FIFA to bar Syria last August from competing for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after the team fielded an unnamed ineligible player in in a qualifying match against Tajikistan. Lebanon subsequently accused Syria of fielding six players in an Under-19 Asian Football Championship qualifier whose ages had been falsified to qualify them for the team.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a consultant to geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat.