Syria, between civil tyranny and a religious state

There have been plenty of questions in recent years regarding the possible social, political and cultural futures of the Syrian state. Here, writer Hassiba Abdel Rahman charts the history of secularization in Syria, and what may be to come.

28 November 2019

This article is published as part of the “Prospects of Secularism in Syria” series in collaboration with Salon Syria and Jadaliyya. The full series in Arabic can also be found here.

There have been plenty of questions in recent years regarding the possible social, political and cultural futures of the Syrian state. But here, we will focus the discussion on a subject that is inextricably tied up with these questions: the structure and nature of that future Syrian state. Will it be secular? Religious? Or will it remain in its current form, a hybrid state?

To properly explore these questions, one has to extensively review the early roots of secularization in Syria, its connections to the Levant, and the reasons behind its failed implementation.

Why did Syria's secularization fail?

The secular nationalist mentality started to emerge in the Levant in the mid-19th century, during the Ottoman occupation. At the time, intellectual and cultural associations were formed on the ground. And the main hub for these activities was Beirut (Syria and Lebanon were still united at the time).

The first Syrian association to revive this secular nationalism was the Syrian Scientific Association (formed in 1857), which was influenced by the values and ideas of the French Revolution as a result of study, interaction and missionary visits. Ibrahim al-Yazji, Mohammed Arslan, Boutros al-Boustani, and Francis al-Morash—these intellectuals, among others, constituted the most important pillars of nationalist and secular thought. They were (later) joined by officers who'd served in the Turkish army, and were influenced by the French Revolution and German nationalist thought, as a result of the compulsory “Turkification” policy after the 1909 revolution and the rise of Turanism. All of this fuelled the nationalist renaissance by joining up with the 1916 Great Syrian Revolution when Levantine countries—including Syria—gained their independence, However, after just two years of independence between 1918 and 1920, Syria became a French mandate. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the French had dealt successive blows against local industry and the accumulation of capital, the negative impact of which manifested itself in the rise of a liberal bourgeoisie. At the same time, there were some manifestations of political modernity: elections, for one, along with rather more humble additions—roads and such.

With the era of independence came the falsely named “liberal” elite, which went on to rule Syria while failing to accomplish any real national or modernist missions (including secularization). This was due to a combination of historical, social, economic and religious factors, the most important of which being a structural incompetence emanating from the fact that the elite were closely affiliated to the global market and, therefore, dependent on it; in addition to the weak commercial structure of the cities and their alliance with clerics (many of whom were themselves traders and property owners); as well as a feudalist system that dominated both the urban and rural economy. This trio would become rooted in Syria's economic and political make-up for decades.

In turn, this produced industrialists and businessmen who were conservative, by their nature and their relationships. This weak alliance controlled the joints of the state as well as the authorities in Syria—with its multitude of religions, sects, doctrines and nationalities. The resultant state was disorganized in terms of economy, politics, geography and modernity. It was a tangle of contradictions, caught between modern and medieval structures. All these elements became a major reason for the sluggish materialization of a social class or group that adopted the concepts of secularization, modernity, freedom and plurality.

The structural incompetence of Syrian liberalism—the offspring of feudalism—and its failed economic policies paved the way for the countryside to overtake the prominent joints of the modern state. This led to the partial isolation of the city itself from secular ideas and political democratic movements. It also led to the marginalization of the countryside, whose sons found a safe haven in secular parties that promised them equality and equal citizenship. They also found the army to be a motor for social progress. All these factors worked jointly to bring the army to power, in parallel with the Palestine war and the establishment of Israel, which in turn exposed the incompetence of the ruling elite. This elite was then overthrown by Hosni a-Zaim, who adopted a constitution that was closer in nature to secularism—for example, it did not mention the religion of the state or the president. This constitution was subject to amendments during the rule of Adib a-Shishakli after a long battle over the articles concerning the state’s religion and the religion of the president. Those involved agreed to mention the state abstractly, whereas the religion of the president was specified as Islam.

Personal status laws remained subject to Islamic shari’a, and so the hybrid state persisted (as it has until the present day), despite the rise of actively secular parties during that time. However, their action was limited to the political domain and governance, having postponed all enlightenment and modernization projects until they came to power. Perhaps the most prominent of these elites is the Syrian Nationalist Party, which struggled to achieve modernity and secularization, and the Communist Party.

The Ba'ath Party, meanwhile, was not secular as it was a combination of nationalist thoughts, with a secular dimension, connected to Arab Islamic history.

Under Ba'athist rule

When the Ba'ath Party came to power in Syria after the 1963 military coup, it tried to undermine the social and economic positions of urban capitalism through nationalization, and feudalism through agricultural reform laws along with their clerical allies. It maintained the old structures that were able to reproduce traditional concepts along with their social and cultural pillars.

When the Ba’ath Party enacted its (three) provisional constitutions, it did not dare separate religion from the state. It did not invoke a revolution or reform on the legislative level with regards to personal status (religious) laws. It did not fight the battle of modernity and secularization—as Bourguiba did in Tunisia—but rather it entered in a struggle for power, influence and resources in order to weaken any potential opposition.

This was done in stages.

Even when the Ba'athist extremists were in power (between 1966 and 1970), their radical actions were limited to nationalization and other political positions. They did not wage the battle of secularization due to the weakness of their social base and the fragile pillars of modernity and secularization. They also feared that opposing forces might rebel against them and accuse them of blasphemy.

And so, the “state” maintained its hybrid form.

Hafez al-Assad: A strong relationship between state and clergy

When Hafez al-Assad (who himself came from a minority) reached power, he needed to consolidate the foundations of his authoritarian regime within a changing political context—which is why he made changes in the already limited secular environment.

The regime worked on fostering a close relationship between the state and the clerics, especially the Institution for Fatwa and Endowments, and formed a close alliance with them for what they represented. This formula constituted the basis of his rule. Assad maintained a secular touch to sustain political harmony under his rule. That remains in force today.

This contract of alliances produced the constitution of 1973, which redrafted the 1950 constitution in the wake of protests in the city of Hama, and the refusal of clerics there of the version that did not mention the religion of the president of the country. During this stage, the building of mosques flourished and religious discourse thrived with it. This was to satisfy the new allies of the regime and its popular base, and also to confront the radical left.

The essence of the 1973 constitution continued, and so it was the case for the 2012 constitution as well. There were no modernizing amendments with regards to secularization, let alone the personal status affairs and legislation based on Islamic shari’a.

As for the political parties, the regime established an alliance as a formality with five parties that made up the National Front. The parties were secular and civil in nature. Despite this, the Syrian government issued a law that regulated the work of political parties in 2011. The law did not mention secularism in its articles, but referred to the conditions of establishing a party, which included that the party should not be based on a religious, tribal, regional, group or professional basis, or on the basis of discrimination against one's gender or race.

The mistake of characterizing the Syrian state as secular

The above history makes it clear why it would be a mistake to characterize the Syrian state as one secular in nature. The same can be said of Syrian society, as well, which coexisted innately until religion entered politics.

One should also remember that mosques and churches still have the upper hand. The personal affairs law is still within the context and frame of religious shari’a. Educational institutions have been unable to scrap religious education and replace it with subjects on citizenship. Any neutral observer will also notice that religious elements have recently become more prevalent within both state and society: the number of Quran Memorization Institutes, Islamic groups (such as al-Qobaisiyat) and charities has increased; while the powers of the Endowments Ministry have been extended.

It is as if we are seeing a renewal of the regime’s alliance with the clergy, after the major changes in Syria that began with the 2011 Syrian revolution.

Did the uprising hinder secularization?

The popular explosion that took place in 2011 carried with it great prospects for radical projects that could be democratic and secular in nature. Unfortunately, traditional political Islam became one of the uprising's most active driving forces, on both a political and popular level, whereas the Marxist and nationalist left had lost its legitimacy and (neo-)liberal forces were weak.

So, no developmental projects were put forward. The struggle was limited to a struggle for power (and the importance of the ballot box).

This coincided with some of the secular elite theorizing in favor of a “civil state” rather than secularization, a step backwards from what had been proposed in past decades. In this context, there followed Borhan Ghaliyoun’s abandonment of the secular state in an interview with the television channel LBC, in which he favored the idea of a civil state after a deal with the Islamists. This retreat was meant to circulate the concept of a civil state in order to pave the way for Islamic rule, as in the Turkish model.

The Arab uprisings failed to achieve what was expected of them—democracy, modernity and social justice—in most countries, including Syria. Instead, they paved the way for civil wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria, which are continuing until now.

This war led Syria to extremism, sectarianism and, perhaps, division. Syria, and other countries in the region, missed a historical opportunity to form a project of modern democratic enlightenment, or to present a serious project of reform—as happened in the 19th and 20th centuries through individuals like Rafaa al-Tahtawi, Mohammed Abdo, Qasem Amin, Taha Hussein, Ali Abdul Razzaq, Abdul Rahman Kawakibi and many others.

The reason (as mentioned earlier) goes back to the nature of the political and social actors that made up the movement, as well as their traditional and religious structures. They were forces without a project or program. All they aspired for was political power, wealth and the introduction of capital with an Islamic tone (as capitalists from political Islam). There is an evident similarity between Islamist parties and authoritarian ruling powers (that are civil only at the surface) in terms of capitalist structure, a central objective of taking power, and their lack of a project. This all in addition to the fact that both are undemocratic.

Recent conflicts led us to retreat further from the project of development. In this context, one cannot forget the role of foreign interventions and their project of “moderate” political Islam—the Muslim Brotherhood—although they backed down from the alliance with Brotherhood after their overthrow in Egypt in 2013.

What prospects are there for a solution?

After years of destructive civil war, and the bloody struggle for power and wealth that took on the form of a multi-faceted sectarian conflict, we should dare to say (in order to be precise) that the conflict had a sectarian form and dimension. It was not the first conflict of its kind—there had been armed conflict between the regime and Islamic fundamentalists in 1979 and 1982. Rather, it was a result of the nature of opposing, warring powers in terms of their demographic, sectarian and intellectual compositions.

The Syrian regime, authoritarian as it is, has sectarian and doctrinal features. These were bolstered by some of the regime's alliances in the region (such as the one with Iran), which only appeared to back up the position of popular and Islamic opposition groups that related toward the regime on a sectarian basis.

After that came the 2011 uprising, which was met with brutal force by the regime. The conflict was characterized by forces that were working to break up with the regime and fight against it under sectarian slogans pushed to the forefront of the fighting. These slogans mobilized supporters and formed the tools for violent militias on both sides. The regime used all violent tools at its disposal, transforming the conflict from a horizontal one to a vertical conflict (in terms of society and politics) and paving the way to grave sectarian divisions. Both sides of the conflict lacked a program or a vision; their only project was power. The regime defended its existence by any means necessary—bloody or otherwise—and took advantage of claims that it was defending minorities and the ideals of resistance.

Armed opposition forces active on the ground, mostly Islamic in nature, demanded their (supposed) rights to rule Syria, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Other opposition forces, on the other hand—be they leftist, secular or liberal—turned out to be the weaker link.

The uprising could have opened the door for a developmental, modernist project in Syria, but that same door was quickly slammed shut by the nature of the regime's response. It used all types of violence to confront demonstrators, whereas those subject to that violence increasingly turned to Islamization (in addition to the fact that political Islam was already something found in Syrian society). These internal factors, combined with regional interventions pumping money and weapons into the opposition with the aim of overthrowing the regime and challenging the so-called "Shia Crescent,” turned the Syrian conflict into one pitted between two tyrannical, extremist sides.

Syria lost its opportunity for a national, democratic and secular state because of the absence of popular groups with their own tools to see it through. Traditional Islamic forces were able to control the movement and lead it where they wanted, helped by support from regional and international powers.

After nine long years of blood, destruction and displacement, during which time people's priorities shifted from the dream of enlightenment to a dream that the status quo persist and the war end, there's a need for a national reconciliation based on a political solution and power-sharing agreement between the regime and the opposition (who have failed to overthrow the regime).

Of course, questions remain. Which political opposition are we even referring to? What would its role be? What role might traditional and extremist forces play within the structures of the future state? And with it, how will Syria's identity be rebuilt?

How will secularization materialize?

Another question following on from this might be: how will secularization materialize? Will it be through a top-down or bottom-up approach? Will it be socially introduced to the minorities as a kind of self-defense?

If this is the case, the whole issue will be repeated again: a limited social base acting as a lever and the traditional financial, religious and social forces thwarting the implementation of secularization.

In its current state, Syria is unwell, in need of treatment. That treatment presents two options: the first, the survival of a tyrannical regime with a secular appearance on the surface; and the second, a possible extremist religious state that abolishes what remains of the country's civil institutions and state structures.

Given the current balance between internal and external powers, secularization is not on their respective agendas. Therefore, the solution will not materialize without a secular democratic state based on equal citizenship. The state will remain hybrid (because of that balance of powers) without power-sharing. The two tracks (secular and hybrid) might break apart and we could find ourselves in the realm of sectarian quotas. This will be the most dangerous road for Syria because it paves the way for future civil wars.

And yet, a new elite could arise from the rubble and convince Syrians of the need for secularization and a state of law.

Until then, we are faced with an urgent mission: to pressure the newly formed Constitutional Committee to draft a secular and democratic constitution that preserves the rights of all citizens in a torn country made up of a mosaic of sects, doctrines, nationalities and religions; a constitution that is based on the principle of equal citizenship.

I am not optimistic because religious powers will try to inhibit this, especially because the United States and other countries are working on a sectarian constitution, as in Lebanon and Iraq. This was set clear by leaking some of the proposals discussed in a meeting of the United States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other western countries in 2018, along with proposals from western envoys regarding a “harmonious democracy.”

And will the Syrian people and its elites accept proposals like these?

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