Secularists, Secularism and the Syrian Uprising (Part 2/2)

Syrian secularists are under attack online and on the ground. Joseph Daher takes a critical look at recent efforts to discredit the contribution of Syrian secularists to the 2011 revolution and offers historic perspective on the meaning of secularism and how the concept been used and misused in the battle to shape the future of Syria.  The second part of this article looks at the strategies of survivals deployed by secular actors in the Syrian opposition as Islamic fundamentalist forces gained momentum in the military and political arena. It also analyses the merits and dangers of embracing a “civilian state” in the bid to find a compromise between these conflicting ideologies.

21 August 2018

( © SyriaUntold)
Joseph Daher

Joseph Daher completed a Doctorate in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London (2015), and a Doctorate in Political Science at Lausanne University (2018), Switzerland. He currently teaches at Lausanne University and is a part time affiliate professor at the European University Institute, Florence (Italy), in which he participated in the “Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria project” (WPCS) and co-coordinates now the “Syrian Trajectories: Challenges and opportunities for peacebuilding" project . He is the author of Hezbollah: Political Economy of the Party of God (Pluto Press, 2016) and Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience (Pluto Press 2019). He created the blog Syria Freedom Forever.

Syria’s liberal secularists and their strategies

Some secularist groups and individuals initially defended and justified the presence of Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist movements in the Syrian political and military opposition on the ground.  This was the case for multiple dissidents from liberal currents, represented in various opposition bodies such as the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (Coalition, etilaf), [1] to the detriment of democratic demands such as secularism and women’s rights. These liberal secularist figures remained mostly silent on the violations of human rights committed by salafist groups or their sectarian diatribes, and even included controversial groups such as Jaysh al-Islam in  opposition political bodies. Muhammad Alloush, the former head of Jaysh al-Islam, was appointed as the chief opposition negotiator during the third round of United Nations-sponsored talks with the regime in Geneva and remained an important personality in the High Negotiation Committee.

It is not a surprising therefore to see Hilal Abd al-Aziz al-Fa’ouri, the author of numerous articles on al-Zaman opposition website, positively cite George Sabra, the former president of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and member of the liberal Democratic People’s Party (formerly the Communist Party Political Bureau led by Riad al-Turk) in an article characterizing Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as “part of the revolutionary movement”. Similarly, Michel Kilo initially refuted all accusations that were made against Jabhat al-Nusra and that characterized it as a fundamentalist organization.[2] He also rejected any comparison made between the Islamic State group and Jabhat al-Nusra, arguing that the latter was a movement that was willing to have “an Islamic electoral system" and wanted to form an Islamic state by national consensus, while the former wanted to reach this through despotism.[3] Many other liberal secularists personalities have also mitigated the reactionary nature of Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist organizations.

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Both sides had an interest in this collaboration with the perspective of reaching power or at least having a role in the various negotiation processes. First, the liberal secular personalities and groups in the Coalition saw the cooperation with Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist groups as a military necessity in the war against the regime; even if they were hostile towards democracy and ruled in an authoritarian way in the areas they controlled, including attacking and kidnapping democratic activists. On their side, the Islamic fundamentalist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhoods and salafist movements like Jaysh al-Islam, collaborated with the exiled opposition body to demonstrate their “moderation” and reassure regional and western states. Islamic fundamentalist movements, however, were the main beneficiaries of this collaboration. The partnership was unequal as  Islamic fundamentalist movements had an organized political and military presence within Syria and received massive funding and / or support from sympathetic states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) and / or private networks from the Gulf monarchies. Democratic and secular groups, which were already initially weak in terms of organized actors, were severely repressed at the beginning of the uprising by regime’s forces and unable to organize later on.

The personalities and groups within the SNC and the Coalition believed the end justified the means, but the end is determined by the means used. These circumstances resulted in the absence of an organized democratic or progressive pole on a national level within or outside the country during these years, while letting Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist groups occupy the political and military space. This led to the situation that the rhetorical commitments of the opposition bodies in exile to a civil and inclusive democracy were not credible enough to persuade large sections of the population to abandon the Assad regime and join the uprising. Similarly, they were unable to develop any solid and inclusive alternative institutions to the regime.

As argued by Syria researcher Tareq Aziza, “This shameful atmosphere (within the opposition of the Syrian Coalition characterized by corruption and submission to foreign states and interests) that has prevailed for years among opposition institutions (if indeed they are institutions) has made it easier for the West to believe and for regime supporters to advance lies such as "the absence of alternative;" or even "fear of the alternative"; and "Assad is bad but there is no mature alternative!", etc.[4]

Conservative and religious fundamentalists, as well as sectarian groups and figures dominated the SNC and Coalition. These two bodies tried to sell a message to the media that they were inclusive by appointing secular and democratic personalities in visible positions to reassure Western backers who feared the rise of extremist forces that could challenge their interests in the region. The Coalition has not condemned any humans rights violations or sectarian discourses by Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, and very rarely of Jabhat al-Nusra in recent  years.[5]

What about a civil-state? A viable solution or a misused concept?

Given the attacks and undermining of the concept of secularism, coupled with the weakening of secular progressive forces in the region–especially because of repression by authoritarian regimes, the term « civil state » has been increasingly used by both secular (mostly liberals and former leftists) and Islamic fundamentalist groups. The concept has been gaining traction since the early 2000s. Its adoption by the two main Syrian opposition bodies could be traced back to the Damascus declaration of 2005, and later with the beginning of the uprisings in 2011.

Many conservatives, liberals and democratic secularists argue that this concept of civil statehood based on citizenship is less controversial for members of the society, while also incorporating the same principles of a secular state with no discrimination based on sect or gender. They however shy away of detailing their thoughts around the concept regarding the place of Sharia or of personal status laws. On the other side, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has published several documents since 2001 promoting the establishment of a modern civil state and concepts such as citizenship, rule of law, democracy, pluralism, equality, etc… So in theory, there is a complete agreement.

Islamic fundamentalist movements completely reject secularism, contrary to what some scholars have argued

But the notion of civil state for the MB in Syria and elsewhere, and more generally of Islamic fundamentalist groups, should be analyzed deeply rather than taken for granted. Islamic fundamentalist movements completely reject secularism, contrary to what some scholars have argued.[6] One of the former leaders of the MB, and who is still very close to the movement, Zouheir Salim, said in 2011 that separating the state from religion means “depriving the state from its morals”.[7] The ideology of the MB remains deeply rooted in religious fundamentalism, where there is no separation of religion and the state and the laws work within the framework of Sharia The various iterations of the MB across the region do not have the same understanding of a ‘civil state’, which is considered a first step towards an Islamic state, or a state based on Sharia. They generally talk about a  dawla madaniyya bi-marji‘iyya Islamiyya, that is, a “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference”.[8][9]

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In a document published by the movement in 2004 entitled "The Political Project for the Future Syria", Islam is actually upheld as "a code of conduct for the devout Muslim," a "civilizational identity" for all Syrians, the official religion of the country, and the highest source of legal authority.[10] The project actually stipulates that the group would seek to “Islamize the laws in a gradual manner, due to our belief that Sharia revealed by Allah is a source of mercy for all mankind and that it consists of the most humane, wise and prudent measures that are in the best interest of all people”.[11] The text is also ambiguous about religious minorities, considering them equal citizens who would not be discriminated against, while saying that Islam should be the basis of the state and of Syrian identity.

In addition to this, women’s rights also remain a point of ambiguity in the MB’s ideology. The MB calls for women’s freedom of choice and the provision of equal rights, while at the same time stating that “appropriate values must be put in place to ensure that men and women continue to fulfill the mutually complementary roles God has assigned to them.” This leaves the reader free to interpret what such “appropriate values” may be.[12] On several occasions, MB officials have argued that the identity of the Syrian nation is based on Islamic values, and therefore any government that comes about must also embody those same values. MB members have also made numerous sectarian comments and statements against the Shi’a and Alawi communities, while at the same time considering Jabhat al-Nusra as a revolutionary force and their “brothers in faith”.[13]

By adopting the idea of a ‘civil state’, democratic and secularists individuals and groups conceded key demands of creating a future secular state and upholding women’s rights.

We have seen these ideas expressed by the two main opposition bodies, which reflects the domination of the MB and other conservative forces within them. In July 2012, in the opposition conference held in Cairo under the sponsorship of the Arab League for instance, the National Covenant document on women’s rights stated that:

“The Constitution guarantees the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and seeks to create the required legislative and legal environment that enables her political, economic and social empowerment, in accordance with all relevant international conventions, as well as in harmony with the societal culture.” [14]

The last sentence, in harmony with the society culture,  was added at the express demand of Islamic conservative groups and individuals, which was widely denounced by feminists as a way to curtail their rights. Many feminist activists have criticized the fact that secularists in the SNC and subsequently the Syrian coalition and Higher Negotiatons Committee (HNC) would inevitably yield to Islamic fundamentalist forces, sacrificing women’s rights in the process through different means. Feminist voices complained of the lack or absence of female representation in these opposition bodies, often limited to symbolic representation without any real responsibilities. Similarly these opposition bodies have not opposed the sectarian and Arab chauvinist diatribes or practices of their members.

Similarly, the General Principle of the transition plan submitted by the opposition’s HNC in September 2016 exclusively listed for example the Arab Islamic culture as source “for intellectual production and social relations amongst all Syrians” (High Negotiation Commission: 2016: 9). This is why I believe that, by adopting the idea of a ‘civil state’, democratic and secularists individuals and groups conceded key demands of creating a future secular state and upholding women’s rights. They failed to challenging sectarianism and yielded to the politics of reactionary groups for opportunistic reasons. This has had dramatic consequences on the Syrian opposition and hurt its capacity to present itself as an inclusive alternative to the regime.  Of course, a difference needs to be drawn between political groups that adopted the ‘civil state’ rhetoric to justify and seek an alliance with reactionary groups such as the Brotherhood, and those popular youth groups that emerged during the uprising, using this notion, while not abandoning their opposition to sectarianism and / or discriminations against women.

Secularism cannot exist without democracy and vice versa.


The “secularism” that progressive and democratic secularists should defend is not separate from the broader collective struggle for democracy, social justice and equality in Syria and beyond. This form of secularism does not differentiate between different sects and ethnicities, between believers and non-believers, men and women. Indeed, a secular state is key to challenging sectarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia. All people should be equal before the law, and there should be no laws drawn based on religions that discriminate against women in terms of their personal status, or against people on the basis of their sexual orientations, ethnicities and so on. At the same time, as mentioned above, it’s a guarantee against state oppression or imposition of one understanding of religion on all believers. In his Critique of the Gotha Program of the German Workers Party (1875), Karl Marx defended people’s right to practice their religion by stating "everyone must be able to satisfy their religious and bodily needs, without the police tipping its nose".

Secularism is a first step towards challenging these various discriminations and therefore a major democratic demand. Of course, secularism cannot exist without democracy and vice versa. In this framework, the struggle for secularism, alongside the other component mentioned above, is not only about creating a more tolerant society, but also a struggle against the dominant ideas of the authoritarian regimes and religious fundamentalist movements, and therefore a struggle for the oppressed against the oppressors. The ideological hegemony of these groups must be challenged by progressive alternatives part of much wider struggle to change society, which included issues of social justice and democracy.

Defending an inclusive conception of secularism also challenges the political alliances of some liberal secular members in the Syrian opposition with the MB and Islamic fundamentalist groups that refused to defend basic democratic demands, and with foreign autocratic powers. Similar problems among some liberal and democratic groups allying with fundamentalist forces have been experienced elsewhere in the region.[15] Indeed the moto (or slogan) “the ends justify the means” ignores how the means used will influence the outcome... and we have seen the impact this had on the Syrian opposition, which lost the appeal and inclusiveness of the initial popular movement in Syria.

Syria—and the rest of the region—is not ‘exceptional’, as some orientalists and orientalists in reverse proclaim. Nothing prevents the country from struggling for the same demands that people in other parts of the world have struggled for, such as democracy, social justice, equality, secularism.  The hope in the future resides in the fact that the Syrian revolutionary process that started in 2011 is one of the most documented. This memory will remain and will not only be there to look at the past including its mistakes, but also as an opportunity to seize on this past to build future resistance. The political experiences and insights that have been accumulated since the beginning of the uprising will not disappear.

[1] A trend that we can find since the 1980s in some Syrian opposition circles and was repeated by similar groups following the Damascus Declaration in 2005 seeking alliance with the MB or at least strong relations.

[2] Syrian4all (2013), “Mîshîl Kîlû: îltiqayt jabhat al-nusra wa âstaqbalet ka-al-âbtâl”, Youtube, (online). Available at:, (accessed 20 December 2014)

[3] Radio Rozana (2014), “Kîlû: lâ taqâranû “jabhat al-nusra” bi-“dâ’esh””, An-Nahar, (online). Available at:كيلو-لا-تقارنوا-جبهة-النصرة, (accessed 20 March 2015)


[5] see

[6] See for example French academic François Burgat saying the Muslim Brotherhoods have accepted the idea of a secular state.

[7] Diaz, Naomi Ramirez (2018), 'Unblurring ambiguities', in Hinnebush R. and Imady O. (eds.), The Syrian Uprising, Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory, London and New York, Routledge, p. 10

[8] For example, the former deputy Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Khairat al-Shater declared in March 2011, following the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak:

The Ikhwan [the Brotherhood] are working to restore Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people, and they believe that this will only come about through the strong society. Thus the mission is clear: restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God; the Islamization of life, empowering of God’s religion; establishing the Nahda [Renaissance] of the ‘Ummah[religious community] on the basis of Islam (…) Thus we’ve learned to start with building the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, the Muslim society, the Islamic government, the global Islamic state.

[9] We can find similar statements among Shi’a Islamic fundamentalist forces, for example the Lebanese Hezbollah declared on numerous occasions its opposition to any kind of possible personal status civil law alongside Islamic Status law, and declared such propositions as being anti-Islamic, and professed until today that an Islamic state is its preferred political system, although not able to implement it in Lebanon because of the religious sectarian diversity of the country.



[12] Lefèvre, Raphael (2013a), 'The Ashes of Hama, the Muslim Brotherhoods in Syria', London: Hurst, p. 174

[13] We should not forget as well that while the MB initially supported the Damascus Declaration in 2005, in 2006 they joined forces with fifteen other opposition groups along with the former vice-president of Syria Abdul Halim Khaddam, who had just defected from the regime (see further in the chapter), in the establishment of the National Salvation Front (NSF), which was backed by Saudi Arabia. In April 2009, the MB announced an end to the Brotherhood’s participation in the NSF, as they were seeking a form of understanding and reconciliation with the regime. The beginning of the uprising in Syria in March of 2011 ended this process with the MB that called in April to support the uprising.


[15] In the latest elections in Iraq for example, the Sairun coalition, gathering the movement of Shi’a Islamic cleric Moqtada Sadr and the Iraqi Communist Party, mentioned their willingness to build a “civil state” for all citizens. At the same time however, issues such as women’s rights and secularism were not tackled by both parties, because according to Iraqi Communist Party secretary-general Raid Jahid Fahmi they were source of conflicts between his movement and the Sadrists. Sadr is today seeking to form a unity national government with other Shi’a Islamic fundamentalist forces and individuals and other sectarian personalities that he used to criticize previously. For more see:

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