Syria: Stronghold of Secularism?


Roadside mural of Bashar al Assad along the Damascus-Aleppo highway, 2008. By James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Irina Papkova

On November 8, 2012, Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad told a Russian television network that his regime is the “last stronghold of secularism” in the Middle East. In other words, al-Assad was implying that his downfall would lead to a victory for militant Sunni Islamists, who would turn Syria into a state governed by Sharia law, intolerant of religious dissent. Such an outcome would pose a danger to Syria’s religious minorities, including the 10% Christian population and non-Sunni Muslims. How can we assess al-Assad’s assertion? Is his regime truly the last secular state in the region? If so, has it really protected religious minorities in the face of an expansionist Islam? These and other questions will be addressed in a series of post on Syria and the meaning of secularism.

Answering these questions is not an easy task. Another question lurks beneath them, one that is difficult for liberal Western politicians to articulate without being accused of Islamophobia.  Namely, is the anti-Assad revolution in Syria Islamist, and if so, how do the revolutionaries plan to treat the religious minorities of Syria in a post-Assad era?

Sociologists have been speaking of the “resurgence of religion” for almost two decades. Since 9/11, other scholars and, perhaps more importantly, policy makers have begun to catch up. Jürgen Habermas, among others, has described our age as “post-secular.”  At the same time, the secular state is still held up across the Western world as a crowning achievement of modernity; the only type of political framework that can reliably guarantee minorities the right to dissent from dominant religious views without incurring persecution. The Arab Spring has brought issues of the interrelationship between modernity, religion, secularism and democracy into high relief as never before.

The question of the interconnection between modernity and secularism is not just an academic debate.  From the Age of Enlightenment onward, educated Westerners were inculcated with the idea that religion and government are things best kept separate.  What that means exactly was never definitively answered.  In Europe, the French led the way by completely laicizing the state, moving religion into the private realm as much as they could.  In the United States, the Founding Fathers never meant for the separation of church and state to be equivalent to the removal of religion from politics. What they wanted was something quite different – a guarantee that the state would not meddle in religious affairs, and that no one religion would be raised above the others.    This is why today’s Europeans have such a hard time understanding the public role of religious organizations in the United States. Either way, the concept itself was established: separation of church and state is widely understood as a fundamental prerequisite of a modern society.

The twentieth century saw the widespread implementation of that concept across the non-Western world.  Two factors influenced this process, sometimes simultaneously. The first was the role of Marxism in the Russian Revolution in 1917, in which religion was understood as a dark force preventing the modernization of Russian society.  In that case, the revolutionaries did everything they could to eradicate religion completely; their example was followed by Mao Tse-Tung in China and by other successful communist regimes around the world.   Simultaneously, the process of decolonization triggered the creation of hundreds of new countries, all of them seeking to be modern.  As this new reality emerged, dozens of development professionals in the United States were eager to give the new governments advice on how to bring their societies into the paradise of economic modernity. The toolkit these development professionals offered contained something familiar – secularization.  Many of the new nationalist governments that sprung up across the Middle East in the wake of decolonization grasped the lesson offered both by Marxism and by the American development gurus, and proceeded to implement regimes with a strongly secular flavor. The trouble was, of course, that these regimes were authoritarian, meaning that in some Middle Eastern countries, secularism was equated with the abridgment of the democratic rights of actively Muslim populations.  Consequently, in the the secularist regimes of the Middle East, Islamist movements arose as an alternative with a democratic face.  But the West is reluctant to welcome these popular movements, precisely because they are afraid that the victory of Islamists will move the societies in question back to a supposed religious dark age, away from ever-prized modernity.

Nowhere are these issues more contentious (and life-threatening) than in today’s Syria.  The al-Assad regime’s modus operandi was in crucial ways shaped by the developmental model described above, with secularism a central part of the dominant Syrian ideology since at least the 1960s.  The revolt against the regime has, according to the best reports we have, taken on an increasingly Islamist character. This has certainly played into the reluctance of the United States to offer the rebels support beyond rhetorical flourishes about democracy and characterizations of Assad as yet another evil dictator to be overthrown.  The rebel Syrian National Council was, for months, touted by the US authorities as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people; the SNC’s fall from favor had everything to do with its failure to marginalize the Islamist voices in its ranks.  Given the ongoing Syrian crisis, it is pertinent for The Revealer to ask some questions about secularism in Syria, and about the implications of a rebel victory for our understanding of religion, democracy and modernity.

The question of whether or not Syria is a secular state is, on the surface, easy to answer with a simple “yes.” The Syrian government does not favor one religion over any other, and legally there is no state religion in Syria.  In 2010, for example, in an attempt to demonstrate the deeply secular nature of the state, the al-Assad government banned women from wearing hijabs in universities.  The ideology of the ruling regime rests on the premise that a secular government is the only way to ensure that Syria’s religious groups live together in peace. In particular, the regime has consistently emphasized its role in ensuring the peaceful coexistence of the majority Sunni population with minorities such as the diverse Christian denominations, the Alawites, the Shiites, and the Druze.

In practice, however, the situation is far more complex than this simple picture suggests.  First, at the moment there is no such thing as the “Syrian state.” The civil war has led to a near-total collapse of authority; the country is now divided into enclaves controlled by the government, various rebel groups, and in some cases, by no one at all. Whatever the outcome of the civil strife, the “state,” as  defined by political science, no longer exists, and thus any discussion of its characteristics – secular or otherwise – must be carried out in the past tense (until such a time as it is reconstituted, whether as a reconstructed state headed by al-Assad or by some other party.

Second, despite the self-proclaimed secularist nature of the al-Assad regime, the Syrian government never undertook a radical separation of religion and state.  Since gaining independence in 1946, Syria maintained a dual system of Islamic Sharia and civil courts, while non-Muslim communities had their own religious courts applying their own religious law to matters such as divorce and inheritance disputes. In this, pre-civil war Syria was very much like neighboring Lebanon, where an ostensibly religiously-neutral state has delegated significant powers to leaders of religious sects. This is a far cry from a secular state such as pre-Erdogan Turkey, not to speak of France or even the United States.

The question remains whether this system – let’s call it one of modified secularism – fulfilled its ostensible purpose of providing adequate protections for minorities, and whether or not it could ever be considered a “stronghold of secularism” in the Middle East, let alone the “last” such stronghold. This and other related issues already alluded to here will be explored in Part Two of this article.


Irina Papkova is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University and has previously taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. Her book, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” was published by Oxford University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press in 2011. Irina’s current research includes Lebanese politics and the Secular Lebanon movement. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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