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HTS: Toning Down the Jihadist Rhetoric – Part 2

For a long time, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has refrained from publishing periodicals and leaflets that speak of jihad and its virtues, nor distributing booklets in mosques and institutes on the strength of its approach and intellectual certainty.

There are multiple reasons for this toning down of its rhetoric, including the organization’s desire to detach itself from its jihadist legacy and its reputation of being associated with Al-Qaeda. It therefore has begun to alter its rhetoric and adopt revolutionary vocabulary such as ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’, instead of ‘fulfilling the law of God’ and ‘enforcing its limits’.

After eliminating or weakening major competing factions, HTS also no longer has the need to mobilize against them, strengthen its own ideology in fighting them or pit society against them through religious rhetoric. Instead, it wishes to prove to society that it represents a project for an institutional state and not a group based on the logic of a religious discourse.

The religious rhetoric of HTS has become limited to railing against the regime and state apparatus, albeit with the use of revolutionary terminology or rhetorical expressions similar to those employed by Hamas against Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

HTS has also left the proselytization of Muslims outside Syria to its al-Nafeer group, to avoid clashing with foreign governments, and it has not been actively recruiting foreign fighters. It currently focuses its propaganda on attracting Syrians, intensifying its publications encouraging them to mobilize to fight the regime and its militias, only without mentioning ‘sharia rule’. It also avoids the slogans of traditional jihadist groups.

Although HTS formed the Salvation Government with a ministry in charge of mosques, it has for now not seized control of all mosques. Consequently, there are mosques whose sheikhs and jurists speak out against HTS, though this now happens less than it in the past. HTS is, however, monitoring some mosques which it is concerned are spreading ideas promoting ISIS or strongly criticizing HTS, neither of which it is willing to countenance.

On the other hand, general criticisms of HTS and its factions are still tolerated. HTS seizes control of certain mosques which may pose a threat due to their association with or adherence to jihadist entities such as the Guardians of Religion Organization or revolutionary ones like Hizb ut-Tahrir. Nonetheless, many jihadist and revolutionary groups still maintain mosques which they use for propaganda without interference from Tahrir al-Sham, except in some strategic areas or mosques.