The rebel mosque: A psychological and conceptual/linguistic perspective

Bombed Out Syrian Mosque
Teaser Image Caption
Bombed Out Syrian Mosque
Syria’s renascence is underway, an uprising that has captured the imagination of the whole world, and with it the mind has been reborn, too, been shaken, elevated, expanded, and concepts have come in its wake. The concepts, which come into sharper and sharper focus with each new incident that erupts from the body of the revolution and from its free and ringing language.

Each time people would leave the mosques to protest (at the start of the revolution) something would be added to what had gone before: a new understanding of what a mosque was would take deeper root and the old concept of mosque would crumble further. The fact that the old conception of the mosque was so entrenched in in minds of certain “secularists” (some of whom obviously suffer from a quite exaggerated and extremist animosity towards their religious fellow citizens and indeed, all outward manifestations of religiosity) prevented them from absorbing the new. These individuals would criticize demonstrations that began in mosques, which were associated in their minds with slavish worship and blind obedience, with extremism, takfeeri beliefs and backwardness. But was it perhaps the duty of demonstrators to take on the uphill struggle of persuading them that nowadays the mosque was a wellspring of spiritual and physical emancipation, a place that prepared a man to go out to protest and voice his defiance, instead of leaving head-bowed and humble? To argue that the mosque gave people a place to gather and prepare and so facilitated the protests reaching the streets? To point out that secularists, leftists, Druse and Christians, citizens of every cultural, sectarian, religious and nationalist stripe, were attending mosque in order to demonstrate because in the “Kingdom of Terror” it was impossible for even three or four young men to gather in a street or a square, not even in an alleyway or dark corner? To state, quite simply, that they were Muslims? It seems there was no time to waste in persuasion, nor would anyone risking a backward step have really been able to halt the surging flow of the revolution.

Gloomier, even that this unhappy secularist, were the authorities themselves who saw that the mosque of today was no longer an institution controlled by their security network, but was now liberated from their discourses, from the sermons of their state-appointed sheikhs. Now that the mosque had become, as we said above, a wellspring of spiritual and physical emancipation, the body kneeling in prayer was imbibing a draught of self-confidence that enabled him to exit the place a free man, straight-backed with head held high. It is in fact more accurate to talk of those who left the mosques as “revolutionary groups” rather than “crowds”. The authorities rushed to break these newly upright bodies by airing images of people bowing to a picture of the president: their master, their all-powerful father, their god. These images provide the background to the revolutionary slogan (We won’t kneel to anyone but God; We won’t kneel): a political and moral response to a regime that wanted to force people to their knees and abort a revolution that was, in its terms, heretical and blasphemous.

The authorities deliberately chose to deal with the mosques with the same military-security strategy they used to “discipline” peaceful demonstrators. In other words they treated the mosque, an inanimate object made of bricks and mortar, like a living creature that could think and feel and threaten their existence. This is the origin of the phrase “the rebel mosque”, a linguistic innovation that mirrors the regime’s treatment of the mosque as a revolutionary. To be exact: a Sunni/fundamentalist/terrorist the killing of whom is a national duty. No Syrian will easily forget the sight of mosques, and particularly their minarets, being bombed. In Hama, for instance, the minaret of Hama’s Al Serjawi Mosque was bombed on August 1, 2011, followed by those of the Al Rahma Mosque and the Al Hassaniyat Mosque on August 7… along with many other such minaret bombings recorded by activists on their mobile phones and uploaded onto the Internet. These bombings followed the assault by Syrian army tanks on Hama in Ramadan of that year, in response to months-long peaceful demonstrations in the city. These demonstrations, which were estimated to be hundreds of thousands strong, formed epic scenes in the city’s al Aasy Square, the square where Ibrahim Al Qashoush sung (Go on, leave, Bashar), the song that shook the very throne and for which his throat was slit and his lifeless corpse slung into the al Aasy River.

The minaret bombings raises a critical question: Just why did the regime target the minarets? What is the psychological significance of their choice? The strong, pillar-like shape of the minaret is reminiscent of an erect penis; it provokes thoughts of penetration, a penis penetrating the body of the country. In plainer terms, the shape of the minaret made the regime think of a penis penetrating its sacred, inviolable body, and on a psychological level the bombing of these minarets signals the bomber’s desire to castrate this target. The target is the minaret, and the minaret is the symbol of the revolutionary: rising up, erect, standing tall, refusing to kneel, determined—in the mind of the authorities—to rape them. Returning to the unconscious defense mechanisms described by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and in particular the “projection” mechanism, we find that the authorities are loading the revolutionary with all their own shortcomings and interpreting his behavior in terms of their own motivations and obsessions. The one who rapes and betrays the country will inevitably accuse others of being traitors, will charge them with being rapists, fifth columnists and conspirators. One of the strongest pieces of evidence in support of this analysis is the torture by security and intelligence operatives of detainees accused of demonstrating by applying electric current to their genitals [1]. This could be taken as proof of the authorities’ fear of the revolutionary’s power and manliness and its hidden desire to avert this power and destroy it. As a consequence they wish to prevent the revolutionary thinking about raping them by removing the “erection” that might “penetrate” their inviolate and eternal centres of power.

Furthermore, the minaret soaring towards the heavens could be seen as an expression of longing, a desire to rise up, and this is something a tyrannical and repressive regime cannot permit. It is busy trying to cut down anything that aspires to rise in man. Thus, the bombing of the minarets could signify a desire to obliterate the revolutionary’s ambition and desire to rise. The mosque’s minaret is also the location of its loudspeakers, the source of raised voices, of opinions that can be heard by all. This is intolerable to a regime accustomed to gagging mouths and stifling opinion by training its “children” to talk in whispers and only speak openly about the things the regime approves of and allows. The minaret’s voice used to belong to the regime. Today it speaks with another voice: that of the revolutionary who wants freedom from the unvarying and undivided voice of the regime. Not only this, but to answer the question raised above, the revolutionary might place the entire mechanism of language at the disposal of the movement, entrenching the new concept of the mosque, which becomes a reality that in turn helps shape a new language designed to reshape the mind and the traditional concepts and impressions that it carries: (A word can be a dawn and even a sure shelter) as the poet Edmond Vandercammen puts it.

The new concept of the mosque is as closely linked to the body as it is to the soul and maybe, is no longer a place of worship where a man may absent himself from the cares of his daily existence, his political, economic and social woes, and turn to heaven. This leads us to talk of the dialectic between “inner and outer”: by entering the mosque, one is liberated from institutionalism after breaking free from the dictatorial/security presence that stains every aspect of existence in Syria, including the religious. The man becomes open to the spiritual and can look down on himself and the rest of the world. Here the mosque’s mission is an ontological one, in which the individual worshipper, formerly an empty shell suffering from spiritual crisis, is filled with a true and heartfelt faith. The culture of dictatorship is a culture of “frameworks”, of empty slogans, of politicized religion and a politicized faith that imprisons the soul. Inside the rebel mosque, the entrant reclaims the inner peace which restores his contact with God: love drives out fear, as it drives out all the special interests and greed that distort the untainted spiritual relationship with God. The slogan that the demonstrators repeated over and over—(For God, for God, not for power or glory)—is an example of spirituality liberated from worldly concerns and an eloquent expression of that part of the demonstrators’ souls filled with a mystic religiosity. Through this slogan they become closer to the Sufis described by Zhu Al Nun Al Misri: “They are a people who prefer God over all things, and so God prefers them over all things.”

The dialectic begins when the people leave the rebelling mosque. The state of pure faith that pertained within its walls is transformed into action and struggle for a free and dignified life after passing outside. People start demonstrating, chanting for social justice, freedom and dignity, and attacking injustice, corruption, tyranny and subjection. The dialectic between the interior and exterior of the mosque is thus a fruitful dialogue between the soul and the physical body, between the emotions and the rational mind, between faith and proof. The rebelling mosque stirs people’s awareness in such a way as to make them convert the spiritual ease they feel within the mosque into physical intensity outside its walls. This may go some way to clarifying our earlier comment that the new concept of the mosque is closely linked to the body as it is to the soul. The gulf between the two is reduced and bridged. The rebelling mosque opens the path to a manifest humanity, gathering together as it does the body and the soul, the purely introspective spiritual life and quotidian existence. The Arabic term for mosque jami’, which means “gathering place”, thus seems more suited to its role in the revolution than its synonym masjid, which means “place of kneeling”.


This link is to a report by Human Rights watch, an independent international organization concerned with the defense of human rights with its headquarters in New York. This report documents a number of sexual violations revealed during the course of meetings interviews conducted with individuals who were subjected to sexual abuse during their detention or in the course of raids on homes conducted against the background of the popular revolution against Al Assad and his regime. Below is an excerpt from one such interview quoted in the report.

Salim (all names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees), a soldier who was detained in June 2011 while on leave at the Air Force Intelligence branch in Latakia, was questioned about his brother’s and father’s roles in demonstrations. He told Human Rights Watch:
They started torturing me here (gesturing toward his genitalia) [with the electricity]. They were also beating me and there was a guard behind me turning the electricity on. I passed out. They were beating me and shocking me. The interrogator was beating me with a cable over my whole body. I still didn’t have any clothes on … they asked me every thirty minutes if I would confess. 


This article was published first on Alef Today on August 18, 2012
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger


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About the Author

Oula Shaib Al Din is a Syrian Writer with many contributions with well established media.