The death of Munira al-Qubaysi, the founder of Al-Qubaysiat Organization, has sparked a lot of discussions about the organization, its origins and its role. Al-Qubaysiat is an Islamic women’s organization that was founded in Syria and spread to other Arab countries and beyond. This reading discusses the group’s complex relationship with the Syrian regime.

It is a well-established fact that no group can organize and operate in Syria without the express or tacit consent of the security services there. Therefore, it is impossible for an organization like Al-Qubaysiat, whose activities have permeated every Syrian city in full view of everyone and whose members in Syria alone are estimated at more than 75,000 individuals, to continue to grow without the blessings of the regime and the support of its apparatuses. Another well-established fact is that the Syrian regime has, over the years and with an iron fist, crushed and obliterated numerous organizations exceedingly smaller than Al-Qubaysiat, and examples abound.

A Coherent Hierarchical Organization

Al-Qubaysiat exhibits all the typical features of a secretive political organization. For one thing, its objectives, its organizational structure and its regulations are undisclosed. Furthermore, it relies on the blind obedience of its members and imposes uniform dress on them, and the rank of a Qubaysiah, an individual member of the organization, is defined by the color of her headdress. The group has adopted a carefully thought-out approach to propaganda, mobilization, and recruitment. It aims to recruit wives with the idea that they can influence the children and the husbands. They target wives of merchants, officials, the prominent, the wealthy and wives of religious leaders, i.e., sheikhs. They are very active in arranging marriages of their adherents to businessmen, officials, influential people and men from prominent families. Sheikh Muhammad Habash, a researcher closely associated with Al-Qubaysiat, has said, “Most, if not all, of the wives or daughters of the elders are Qubaysiat preachers,” confirming that the organization targets the daughters and wives of influential groups.

The organization also focuses on the education sector by establishing schools, institutes and kindergartens as indoctrination centers. It oversees the teaching of tens of thousands of students from an early age in conservative ideologies and follows up on its students in later stages through religious lessons in study circles held at the homes of the rich or in mosques. It also uses charitable aid to gain the loyalty of its members. For example, it provides free medical services through hospitals it owns and manages and disseminates books that promote its ideology through its own libraries. The group networks with other religious institutions establishing good relations with religious scholars, as well as with sheikhs and their congregations.

In short, it appears that Al-Qubaysiat has a coherent hierarchy and a solid ideology. It has its own goals, mechanisms, rituals, working tools, even uniform dress. It has its own sources of funding and a wide base made up of the elite. Regardless of what it calls itself, Al-Qubaysiat can only be characterized as a political organization.

Controversy Over the Establishment of the Organization

Munira al-Qubaisi was a student of Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro who belonged to the Naqshbandi Sufi order and was the Grand Mufti of Syria from 1964 until his death in 2004. He was fully supported by the Baath-Assad regime.

Opinions on Al-Qubaysiat are divided between those who accuse it of being an intelligence organization founded by Assad’s apparatus and those who argue that it is merely a conservative apolitical Sufi community involved in religious activities preaching and calling for obedience to the sultan or the ruler. In fact, Al-Qubaysiat members are often subjected to security harassment and summonses.

Although nothing is far from politics in the Assad regime, I am convinced that Al-Qubaysiat is not an intelligence organization created by the security services. In essence, it came into existence out of the social momentum created by the Damascene Sunni community. As Muhammad Habash has said, “Al-Qubaysiat are an accurate picture of the conservative Syrian society, especially Damascene, and their principles and ideas represent nothing but the continuous discourse of traditional sheikhs in submission to the sultan.” Subsequently, the organization spread to other cities through the wealthy circles and from there to other Arab countries.

Such a move was made possible by the rise in the seventies of religious currents, after the decline of nationalist and leftist movements following the June 1967 defeat and the rise of the role of the petrodollar. The organization’s spread beyond Syria can be seen as a remarkable success, credited to Munira al-Qubaysi and her closest aids. However, Assad’s security services would not have let such an organization survive unless its existence was necessary for the regime and useful to it. Ultimately, Al-Qubaysiat could not have advanced to the degree it has without the contribution of the Assad regime, in one way or another. Although Munira al-Qubaysi started her activities before 1970, the organization did not begin to emerge and grow until the first half of the seventies and Hafez al-Assad’s gripping of power following his coup in November 1970.  

The relationship of interest between the Assad regime and Al-Qubaysiat is the relationship of two opposites who were forced to coexist. In as much as Al-Qubaysiat arose out of an urban society that was disenfranchised by the Baath Party ⁠— between the years 1963 and 1965 ⁠— and was stripped of its political power, economic wealth and societal status. It was for the most part a middle and upper-class society, Sunni, Damascene, and urban. It had enjoyed power, wealth and social status before 1963 and would not forget how the Baath party robbed it of all of that. The party confiscated the properties of big landlords and distributed them among a large number of peasants, as a usufruct right without ownership, and then nationalized industrial and commercial companies and banks. This deprived urban families, mostly Sunnis by virtue of the composition of Syrian society, of their wealth, after stripping them of political power and consequently their social status. Those who took these measures were officers belonging to minority groups, especially the Alawites, following the coup of February 23, 1966, and the coup of Hafez al-Assad in November 1970. Power was monopolized by a non-Sunni Muslim minority, who “until yesterday” was very marginal, and the concept of the oppressed Sunni came into being.

Clearly, Hafez al-Assad realized that this “Oppression of the Sunnis” was expressing itself in different forms and believed that his rule could be threatened by two elements: the army, which he nationalized and made most of its officers, especially the commanding officers, Alawites; and the danger posed by the fact that the Sunnis constituted most of Syrian society and had a large Arab and regional reach.

After taking power, Hafez al-Assad was keen to market himself internationally, regionally and domestically as a centrist and to stand in contrast with the radical approach of Salah Jadid, a prominent leader of the Baath Party and the regime. Therefore, he had to ‘tame’ the Sunnis by using the carrot and stick policy and saw it as necessary to get closer to the urban society and the urban middle and upper classes, because of their role and influence. To secure the stability of his power, he allowed the return of the private sector and gave apolitical religious activities some space and a few privileges, provided that this was done in a measured and deliberate manner. He did not want to allow them to turn into a force that could aspire to or threaten power.

It was within this climate that Al-Qubaysiat emerged, and Assad tolerated it. It grew under his control as an Islamic women’s organization parallel to the government’s own women’s union. The Sunni community had to accept this with the goal of using the space to control society. They decided to leave the fate of the state to the regime in exchange for controlling society, until further notice.

However, this came about only after the Sunni community had failed in resisting the new military power of the March 1963 coup. This resistance had begun with the events of Hama in April 1964 and the Damascus strikes in 1965. In 1972, the Sunnis rejected the first version of the constitution, which did not stipulate Islam as the religion of the head of state, and they forced Assad to respond to their demands among other mobilizations. These were followed by yet another unsuccessful attempt to resist the Baath, a series of violent uprisings of the Fighting Vanguard between 1977 and 1982 characterized by the deep wounds that they left in society and the state. As a result, the Sunnis became convinced that it was not possible to remove the ruling party from power through violence and decided to play the long game instead.

At this time, an unspoken understanding was formed between the forces of society: the Sunni forces and their religious institutions at the heart — due to the absence of parties — on one hand and Assad’s rule on the other. Because Hafez al-Assad needed to give room to Islamic currents, especially after his clash with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Fighting Vanguard, he allowed the social activities of Sunni religious institutions to flourish. Institutes for memorizing the Qur’an named after Hafez al-Assad came into being and waves of mosque building and hijab wearing were sweeping the country in a paradoxical expression of the ruling party’s identity.

Hafez al-Assad was keen to gain the support of the urban Sunnis and to form a network of Sunni Islamic clerics that would help him gain social acceptance and legitimize his power. He granted material advantages and social status to Sunni groups and figures. Al-Qubaysiat was part of this scheme. It became an Islamic women’s movement that would side with the ruling authority in exchange for non-political community activity.

There is no doubt that there has been continuous coordination during these past decades between the regime and Al-Qubaysiat. It is rumored that the deputy vice president for security affairs, Muhammad Nassif, was the main liaison, granting the group licenses to establish institutes, schools, kindergartens, home study circles, and lessons in mosques. In return, Al-Qubaysiat would pray for President Assad. Meanwhile, the National Progressive Front (NPF), the ruling body under the constitution, was prevented from doing activities in schools and universities. On the other hand, the security apparatus remained watchful, and friction arose at times. For example, when some of the Qubaysiat joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the seventies, the regime showed no mercy and arrested them all.

Bashar al-Assad Era

After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2006, the security services were told to stop harassing the Qubaysiat and to give them more space for activism. This was mediated by sheikhs who were close to the regime at the time, such as Muhammad Saeed al-Bouti and Muhammad Habash, then a member of the People’s Assembly. Subsequently, Al-Qubaysiat study circles were held in Sharia institutes in mosques as they received a strong push to expand their organization.

The role of Al-Qubaysiat has grown since 2011, and the regime’s dependence on them has increased. Their activities have been given more space, and it seems that the relationship has taken a new turn. A statement issued by the Ministry of Awqaf in May 2018 revealed the regime’s policy towards Al-Qubaysiat. The statement denied the existence of an organization called Al-Qubaysiat and gave the Qubaysiat preachers official status instead under the title “Teachers of the Holy Quran.” In addition to this, it allowed them to publicly work in mosques and to hold their celebrations there, including holding their grand celebration in Masjid al-Umawi itself. Moreover, Qubaysiah preacher Salma Ayyash was appointed assistant to the Minister of Awqaf to supervisor its Women’s Department. The creation of this special department for women in the Ministry indirectly formalized the Al-Qubaysiat organization. The statement acknowledged that Al-Qubaysiat “played a prominent role during the war on Syria in confronting extremism and sectarian proposals and had a leading role in defending the state and the unity of the homeland.” There are now images showing Bashar al-Assad surrounded by a crowd of Al-Qubaysiat.

Despite all of this, Assad, like his father, is convinced that Al-Qubaysiat organization and the sheikhs who support him on the pulpits today, all wish him to go and hope that his regime would disappear. Therefore, Assad is suspicious of anyone outside his trusted circle and is prepared to confront them with violence if need be. He and his regime also believe that “most Sunnis, loyalists and opponents alike, except for those who benefit financially from it, welcome the regime’s demise; that Islamic institutions and organizations, whether in opposition or not, have much in common; that reconciliation among them is possible, if a favorable circumstance arises, such as the regime vanishing and them becoming the ruling power; and that they would be able to reach an understanding if allowed, for in the eyes of the regime they are all but Ikhwat al-Manhaj (Brethren of the Right Path), i.e, violent Islamic groups.

In 2011-2012, there was great hope that the regime would fall soon, which encouraged many to express their anti-regime views. This was caused by the excessive violence with which the regime confronted the demonstrators at first, and then targeted the revolting Sunni neighborhoods with destructive ground and aerial bombardment. This killing and the widespread displacement affected more than half of the Syrian people. Although Al-Qubaysiat did not, as an organization, take a stand on the uprising, most of its members, particularly the leaders, who belonged to the middle and upper urban classes, sided with the regime, especially after it became clear that the regime was not going anywhere.

This division is also being seen today after the death of Munira al-Qubaysi. One group seized by its own religiosity has remained appreciative of the organization and its founder, while the other influenced by its political disposition continues to stand by the revolution and condemns al-Qubaysi and her organization’s behavior for their anti-revolutionary position and support of Bashar al-Assad. All things considered, the death of Munira al-Qubaysi could give way to cracks in the organization that might take some time to appear.