Islam and secularism must go hand in hand in Syria

For the first time since the secular Baath Party came to power in 1963, one finds an interesting observation in “official” Syria.

The wives of top ranking officials, including Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Al Otari, are veiled.

In the past, Islam used to appeal to the urban poor. Now it has infiltrated high society and is an outlet for the urban rich.

The upper-class Malki neighborhood of Damascus is filled with veiled Damascene aristocracy. All the restaurants in the neighborhood, with the exception of one, do not serve alcohol.

The popular Sa’ad mosque in Malki is controlled by a women’s Islamic movement led by the scholar Munira Al Qubaysi.

Her team includes a “who’s who” of the notability of Damascus.

The women preachers include ladies from the Tarakji, Shishakli and Kuzbari families, explaining why Islam is becoming so popular among the urban rich.

All of this is interesting and new for a regime that has boasted of its secularism for over 40 years.

As Islamification is increasing in Syria, a small and still ineffective pressure group is being created to “preserve the secularism of Syria”.

This NGO, which is yet to be formed, is founded by a group of activists all dear friends of mine, who are appalled that secularism is eroding so rapidly in Syria.

Among others it includes Professor Rida Said, surgeon Dr Samer Lathkani, lawyer Hind Kabawat, and writer Wael Al Sawwah.

Will this group of fine, patriotic and truly secular Syrians, however, be able to obstruct the Islamification of Syria?

Syria was once very secular, from the immediate post-Ottoman era until the 1980s. So tolerant was Syria back then, for example, that prostitution was legal in Ottoman Syria.

Authorities reasoned that with or without government approval, prostitution would happen. Rather than have it occur behind closed doors, it was better to keep tabs on prostitution houses, monitoring them round the clock with curfews, health check-ups and taxes.

Greatly influenced

Coming out of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic caliphate, the Syrians continued to hold on to Islam but were greatly influenced by secular nationalism, brought along with the French when they invaded Syria in 1920.

The leaders from the 1920s onwards were not secular. But they differentiated between Islam as a way of life and politics.

The head of the Islamic bloc in parliament, Shaikh Abdul Hamid Tabba, firmly believed in Islam, but he strongly endorsed Faris Al Khury as prime minister in 1943, although his appointment meant that a Christian would now control the Office of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) in Syria.

President Hashim Al Atasi, for example, was a pious Muslim, who used to wake up for morning prayer and go to the Muhajirin mosque during office hours to pray.

The point is: He never prayed at the presidential palace. He appointed Faris Al Khury as prime minister and during his era, a proposal was debated in parliament to abolish an article specifying Islam as the religion of the state.

It never passed but the very fact that it was raised in 1950 speaks volumes about Islam, secularism and Syria. Syria was secular without really knowing that it was secular.

The strong shift towards Islam resulted from the clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime in 1982, along with the consecutive defeats in Arab politics.

The Syrians turned to Islam when Arab nationalism failed them. So did Baathism. So did Syrian nationalism.

The continued occupation of Palestine, the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq all contributed to a conviction that when all else fails, Islam is the solution.

Meaning, Islam is a direct result of the helplessness in Syrian and Arab society.

Another reason would be that the Islamic groups in the Arab World are to say the least not losing their battles. Hezbollah achieved liberation of South Lebanon in 2000.

Hamas led a very popular war against Israel since 2000 and has been voted into office in Palestine.

The Sunni insurgency has not given the Americans a day of peace and quiet in Iraq. And 9/11 proved that a small group with very limited means were able to inflict pain on the world’s only superpower through a firm belief in jihad and Islam.

Two schools of thought emerge in Syria today.

One revolves around moderate Islamic leaders, who preach tolerance and are supported by the regime, including the Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, the scholar Munira Al Qubaysi, the dean of the school of theology Dr Said Ramadan Al Buti, and the sons of the former Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro who administer his highly popular Abu Al Nour Mosque.


Obstructing these moderate thinkers are fundamentalists who are influenced by Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musaab Al Zarqawi, who believe in radical and violent political Islam.

Supporting this second group are hundreds of Syrians who are involved with international terrorism and Al Qaida. Although they don’t live in Syria, they certainly have connections in Syria.

To name a few are the infamous Abu Musaab Al Souri, who is accused of the horrific Madrid bombings in March 2004, the Iraq-based Al Qaida intelligence baron Abu Al Ghadia (Sulayman Khalil Darwish) and Imad Yarkas, the terrorist currently behind bars in Spain for his role in the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers.

One group for example, tried to attack a UN building in Damascus back in 2004. Another tried to detonate a bomb at the Damascus Palace of Justice. A third tried and failed to launch an attack on the Omayyad Square in downtown Damascus back on June 2, 2006.

They are former disciples of the Aleppo-based cleric Abu Al Qaqa, a regime-friendly cleric who preaches anti-Americanism.

He does not encourage violence against fellow Muslims and Syrians, and attracted a wide popular base since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

His followers, fed up with his moderation, took matters into their own hands and decided to carry out armed operations in Syria and elsewhere.

Standing in between both groups are the Baathists. Although traditionally opposed to the Islamists, they now feel they are in need of the Islamic street to create a united base in Syria against the pressure being applied by the US.

After the Muslim Brotherhood allied itself with former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam in 2006, the regime found itself in more need of flirting with the Islamists to counter-balance the Khaddam-Brotherhood alliance.

To do that, the regime needs to court the Islamists, yet also, walk the tight rope and keep them at bay to avoid further Islamification of Syria.

To strike this impossible balance, the regime needs to promote secularism simultaneously with the promotion of Islam. But at any cost secularism must prevail. It’s either secularism or chaos for Syria.

Gulf News, 27 June 2008