Cleric’s Slaying a Rallying Cry for Kurds in Syria

Times Staff Writer

The cleric had been missing for nearly a month when his family had a taste of relief: A man who identified himself as a government official approached the missing man’s sons on the street and said, “You will hear happy news of your father.”

A few days later, state security agents took the sons to see the cleric. His thick beard, a badge of his religious devotion, had been hacked off. His body bore marks of torture -- broken teeth, badly burned skin. The cleric was dead.

The security agents told the sons that criminals had confessed to killing Sheik Mohammed Mashuq Khaznawi and burying him in a shallow grave. But his family didn’t believe them.

“The Syrian authorities fabricated an ugly play and gave us the corpse,” said Sheik Morshed Khaznawi, the slain cleric’s 30-year-old son. “In the end, the Syrian authorities have complete and total responsibility for what happened and for assassinating the sheik.”


In early June, the sons brought his body home to Qamishli and laid the remains to rest wrapped in the Kurdish flag, a defiant symbol of a people without a country. Since then, Khaznawi’s torture and death have become a rallying cry for an increasingly restive Kurdish people.

The death of the mild-mannered sheik robbed Syria’s Kurds of a charismatic, grass-roots champion for their demand for equal rights in the predominantly Arab country. But with many Syrian Arabs fearing that the Kurds would manage to cleave Syria and found a Kurdish homeland, the government saw Khaznawi as the figurehead of a volatile separatist threat.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arab rule over the majority Shiites and Kurds in the heart of the Arab world also came to an end. The U.S.-led invasion has inadvertently upended traditional notions of minority rights throughout the region.

Excitement was particularly keen in the Kurdish heartland, the swath of desert, lush mountains and ancient riverbeds straddling Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. After years of harsh poverty, crippling discrimination and second-class status, Syrian Kurds were galvanized by the liberation of their Iraqi brethren. Riots and demonstrations erupted last year in Qamishli and spread throughout the country. Hundreds of Kurds have been held incommunicado and reportedly tortured.


The sheik was at the center of the struggle in the tumult last year. He called for rights; he spoke out against the imprisonment and torture of Kurds. And then he disappeared.


Long before he vanished from the streets of Damascus, the capital, Khaznawi was considered a dangerous man.

Just 47 when he died, he’d already gained a reputation as one of the country’s most respected, and subversive, religious minds.

Khaznawi, a sober-faced father of 16 who wore flowing tunics, a tidy turban and unruly beard, was from the small Kurdish village of Khazna, an outpost in the deprived eastern desert where Syria fades into Iraq.

In a country of pervasive want, these borderlands are one of the bleakest corners. It is a landscape of almost unbroken brown, a deadly stretch of desert animated by dust devils and listless, bleating flocks, where farmers in mud huts struggle to scrape a living from the inhospitable earth.

Khaznawi grew up here against a backdrop of rising tensions between Arabs and Kurds. He’d clashed with the Syrian regime for decades. His book on Islamism was banned. He was forbidden to travel for most of the 1990s and barred from delivering sermons at Friday prayers.

“Security agents used to say that a traditional religious man keeps the people ignorant, and one security agent is enough to control everyone,” said Morshed, Khaznawi’s son. But he “enlightened people, so they needed a lot of agents to keep an eye on everyone.”


Khaznawi was hungry for change, both religious and political. He advocated passionately for women’s rights, scorning Islamic tradition that valued a man’s testimony on par with that of two women.

“He crossed a lot of red lines which the others couldn’t cross,” Morshed said.

Khaznawi made weekly trips to Damascus, working as deputy to Mohammed Habash, a moderate Islamist member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Center. Both men preached an Islam so tolerant that they were branded kafir, or nonbeliever, by fundamentalist preachers.

“My friend, my brother,” Habash said of Khaznawi in a recent interview. “We were in the same struggle against the darkness and corruption of religion.”

Both received death threats, Habash said. On a single day this year, Habash got seven menacing calls on his cellphone.

But relations between Habash and the Khaznawi clan have soured badly since the body was found. Habash didn’t go to Khaznawi’s funeral, and he did not send condolences, Khaznawi’s family said.

Apparently pressed by the Interior Ministry, Habash signed a declaration absolving the government of guilt. The cleric’s sons say Habash is protecting the regime and dismiss him as a government mouthpiece. But Habash says his conscience is clear. He believes Khaznawi was killed by “fundamentalists.”

Khaznawi’s sons agree that their father was threatened. But they don’t blame shadowy Islamists; they blame the regime’s security services, even though it is extremely dangerous for them to point the finger at the government.


“He always said, ‘If something ever happens to me, it will be from the authorities,’ ” said Sheik Murad Khaznawi, the cleric’s eldest son.

Khaznawi apparently had angered Syrian intelligence in February by meeting in Belgium with Ali Sadreddin Bayanouni, the exiled leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting was a brazen act; the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed by the Syrian regime, and membership is punishable by death. Many analysts believe this meeting was Khaznawi’s fatal mistake.


Descended from the mountain warriors and nomads of ancient Assyria, the Kurds are a colorful fixture in northeastern Syria, working the vegetable fields, spilling from overcrowded pickups in brilliant dress, calling out in their rolling tongue.

But the history of Syria’s 1.7 million Kurds -- and those in the rest of the region -- is darkened by ethnic suspicions and an ongoing struggle to find a place in often hostile countries.

Their troubles date to the 1960s, when Arab nationalism swept the region and caught ablaze in Syria. In a rush to “Arabize” the oil-rich tail of land near Turkey and Iraq, the Syrian regime settled Arabs between traditional Kurdish villages. The next blow was a controversial census in 1962 that stripped 120,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship.

Culture, too, came under fire. The Kurdish language was banned, and Kurdish villages lost their names in favor of new Arabic designations. Many of the restrictions have since been lifted by a regime eager to ease tensions, but the memory of oppression sticks.

“It was a lot of mistakes, one after the next, over and over,” said Kurdish writer Dildal Filmez. “And in the end, the mistakes blew up like bombs.”

In light of the decades of hurt and grudges, the effect of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was predictable: It destabilized northern Syria. In a part of the world where tribes and clans are much older than the nations they inhabit, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq have always lived an intertwined existence. And for decades, both lived under Arab nationalist Baathist regimes that considered their ethnicity a threat.

But as the months passed after the fall of Baghdad, excitement boiled into impatience. The riots that erupted in March 2004 left at least 24 people dead and were the bloodiest unrest this rigidly controlled land had seen in decades.

Even amid hundreds of arrests, there were signs of conciliation from a rattled regime after the riots. Diplomats, analysts and even some Syrian officials say that the government understands that it can’t afford the dissent and dissatisfaction roiling the Kurdish hinterlands.

But after a year of promises, the hopes of the Kurds have hardened into skepticism.

“After 30 years, their promises have no credibility,” said Mishal Tammo, a leader of the outlawed Future Party. “We can’t believe in anything unless we see it. Their talk is just to win time.”


Amid rising tensions over the last year, an ever-more-outspoken Khaznawi tried to use his popularity to win some ground for his people.

“The real problem [for] the government,” said his son Murad, was “that he demanded rights for the Kurds and he demanded equality for the Kurds.”

Khaznawi vanished on a clear morning in May. He got a telephone call, an invitation for breakfast. “I’ll be back in two hours,” he told his colleagues at the Islamic Studies Center. That was the last time they saw him alive.

In late May, Khaznawi’s sons staged a demonstration in Damascus to demand news of their father.

A man drew near, identified himself as a senior government official with the rank of general, and spoke of the forthcoming “happy news.”

A few days later, they were taken to see their father’s body.

Security officials arrested a band of men they called “the criminals” and aired a tape of the leader’s confession on state television. The confession did nothing to convince Khaznawi’s followers, thousands of whom surged into the dust-caked streets of Qamishli shouting slogans in Kurdish and demanding an investigation of the cleric’s death.

Khaznawi’s slaying has driven another wedge between the Kurds and the Syrian regime, renewing the anger of generations and deepening the sense of despair.

“We now have a recipe for disaster in Qamishli,” said Abdel Hamid, director of the minority rights program. “Emotions are being radicalized. They see this [Syrian] Baath as a continuation of Saddam Hussein, and they see this as a continuation of the struggle for independence.”