WOMEN LEAD AN ISLAMIC REVIVAL IN SYRIA, TESTING ITS SECULARISM
Enas al-Kaldi stops in the hallway of her Islamic school for girls and coaxes her 6-year-old schoolmate through a short recitation from the Koran.
''It's true that they don't understand what they are memorizing at this age, but we believe that the understanding comes when the Koran becomes part of you,'' Ms. Kaldi, 16, said proudly.
In other corners of Damascus, women who identify one another by the distinctive way they tie their head scarves gather for meetings of an exclusive and secret Islamic women's society known as the Qubaisiate.
At those meetings, participants say, they are tutored further in the faith and are even taught how to influence some of their well-connected fathers and husbands to accept a greater presence of Islam in public life.
These are the two faces of an Islamic revival for women in Syria, one that could add up to a potent challenge to this determinedly secular state. Though government officials vociferously deny it, Syria is becoming increasingly religious and its national identity is weakening. If Islam replaces that identity, it may undermine the unity of a society that is ruled by a Muslim religious minority, the Alawites, and includes many religious groups.
Syrian officials, who had front-row seats as Hezbollah dragged Lebanon into war, are painfully aware of the myriad ways that state authority can be undermined by increasingly powerful, and appealing, religious groups. Though Syria's government supports Hezbollah, it has been taking steps to ensure that the phenomenon it helped to build in Lebanon does not come to haunt it at home.
In the past, said Muhammad al-Habash, a Syrian lawmaker who is also a Muslim cleric, ''we were told that we had to leave Islam behind to find our futures.''
''But these days,'' he said, ''if you ask most people in Syria about their history, they will tell you, 'My history is Islamic history.' The younger generation are all reading the Koran.''
Women are in the vanguard. Though men across the Islamic world usually interpret Scripture and lead prayers, Syria, virtually alone in the Arab world, is seeing the resurrection of a centuries-old tradition of sheikhas, or women who are religious scholars. The growth of girls' madrasas has outpaced those for boys, religious teachers here say. . .
The girls at the madrasa say that by plunging more deeply into their faith, they learn to understand their rights within Islam.
In upper-level courses at the Zahra school, the girls debate questions like whether a woman has the right to vote differently from her husband. The question is moot in Syria, one classmate joked, because President Assad inevitably wins elections by a miraculous 99 percent, just as his father did before him.
When the occasion arises, they say, they are able to reason from the Koran on an equal footing with men.
''People mistake tradition for religion,'' Ms. Kaldi said. ''Men are always saying, 'Women can't do that because of religion,' when in fact it is only tradition. It's important for us to study so that we will know the difference."