DAMASCUS—A new openness in Syrian society seems to have resulted in a backlash from many Syrians who are turning to fundamental Islam. The fact that President Bashar al-Assad has allowed that openness in areas such as telecommunications is strengthening Islamists because the modernization of some young Syrians now glued to satellite TV and the Internet is making traditional segments of society nervous.

Traveling extensively through this country last week, I noticed streets filled with veiled women and mosques overflowing. Religious leaders are being consulted on political issues, and a few months ago, the regime encouraged Muslim clerks to organize a protest against the Danish caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. The demonstration got out of hand and the Chilean embassy was set on fire by mistake.

I got a sense of the rebirth of Islamism when I met Mahdi, a furniture manufacturer, and his family in Aleppo, a milestone along the ancient Silk Road. A few years ago he threatened to disinherit his son, who was living with a former prostitute in Europe, and forced him to marry a Syrian girl. Her family, who observes strict Islamic law, converted Mahdi’s son into a quasi-fundamentalist. When I met them, the young man’s wife, covered from head to toe, kept her bewitchingly beautiful eyes away from us all evening while he looked taciturn himself, in contrast to his father, our jovial host. “I feel remorse about my son,” Mahdi confided to an Arab friend from our party. “I have lost him; God knows where he will end up.”

Ever since it crushed a Sunni Muslim revolt in Hama in the early 1980s, killing 25,000 people, the Baath Party regime, controlled by the Alawite minority, has effectively repressed Islamic activism, especially the Muslim Brotherhood (incidents happen from time to time—a week ago, three activists carrying weapons were arrested). The Baath Party took over all layers of power in 1970 under Hafez al-Assad, plundering the country’s wealth. Assad’s son, Bashar, has preserved the regime while replacing some of his father’s acolytes and engaging in very mild reform.

In Syria, as one European diplomat puts it, “one in every five or six people might be an informant.” Corruption is the way to get by. Karim, an olive farmer in western Syria, says, “You have to pay the ministry, the local government, and the customs office if you want to do anything.” Critics are sent to jail. A few days ago, dozens of intellectuals who signed a document asking the authorities to open an embassy in Lebanon, a country Damascus considers part of Greater Syria, ended up in prison accused of being surrogates of the United States. (In fact, they are critical of Washington.)

The government plays various cards in the interest of self-preservation. It has built bridges to Iraqi Shiites and to Tehran. In Lebanon, Syria is allied with President Emile Lahoud, who controls the security apparatus, against legislative leader Saad Hariri, a foe of the Damascus regime. And Syria supports the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine even though the half-million Palestinian refugees living in the country have not been given Syrian citizenship. These are all bargaining chips Damascus will use in future negotiations in the region to preserve the regime’s survival.

Fundamentalist Islam has provided an ominous outlet for some in this environment. But there are also some signs of a civil society waiting to emerge. I saw them in the female human rights activist who stood up at a cultural event attended by the minister of information and called the government “dictatorial.” And in the souks of al-Hamidiyya, where merchants trade frantically. And in the young Syrians who marched down the meandering Recta Via carrying Brazilian flags and yelling “we won” after a victory by the Brazilian team in the World Cup—even though they would most likely have trouble pointing to that the country on a map. And in the Bedouin I met in the al-Sham desert in central Syria who saw no contradiction between the satellite dish he has placed outside of his tent and his devotion to the tribe. And in the immigrants from Lebanon, Mauritania and Jordan who translate and create literature because they believe in the power of imagination over censorship.

In my first day in Syria someone told my sister that Vargas is an Arab name because it comes from Barhas. “It is possible,” I commented, “since the Arabs dominated southern Spain for eight centuries before Spain conquered the New World.” And then I thought to myself, “If so, my family has inadvertently made peace between Israel and the Arabs.” I had not mentioned to him that standing next to my sister was my brother-in-law, a Jew.