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In secular Syria, an Islamic revival

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In April, Asif Mohammed Hanif, a British Muslim suicide bomber blew himself up in a Tel Aviv pub. He had studied Arabic at Damascus University in 2000 where it is speculated - although unproven - that he was recruited by Hamas. Captain James Yee, a Muslim military chaplain at the Guantánamo Bay detention center who was arrested two weeks ago after being caught with classified documents, studied Islam and Arabic in Damascus for four years in the mid-1990s.

Diplomats say there are no indications that radical Islam is being preached in the schools, as they are closely supervised by the Syrian authorities. Indeed, one diplomatic source believed that the number of foreign students visiting Damascus had probably not increased significantly. "It's just that we are paying much closer attention to who is here now," the source says.

Sheikh Saleh Kuftaro, the son of Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, said that only moderate Islam was taught in Damascus.

"We are ensuring that the Islamic awakening among our youth is kept clear of extremism," he says. "We know that our mosques are full of young people. Thank God we do not have extremism here. But we are always afraid that it might prevail in countries around us."

Sheikh Kuftaro runs the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation, a Damascus-based group for religious education which caters to some 5,000 students, 20 percent of them foreigners. "As an Islamic thinker, I am for a moderate secular state working for the religious beliefs of all.... There is no room for political Islam on our agenda," he adds.

Such sentiments sit well with the views of the Baathist regime in Syria. Syria has a long and bloody history combating radical Islamist movements. A violent campaign against the regime by the Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s was ruthlessly suppressed with tens of thousands of people killed and imprisoned.

But a stronger brand of Islam than that espoused by Sheikh Kuftaro is beginning to emerge in some of the more conservative towns. Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa, who preaches at the As Sahour mosque in the outskirts of Aleppo, has gained a popular following through his fiery anti-American sermons.

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