Karim Ghazzi - Image - Shop in Bab Touma, Damascus 2005

Shop window in Bab Touma, Damascus 2005. Photo by Karim Ghazzi. All rights reserved.

By Irina Papkova

In an earlier post, I began an exploration of whether Bashar al-Assad is correct in his assertion that his regime is the “last stronghold of secularism in the Middle East,” and if so, what this means for our understanding of the current crisis. This post continues the discussion, with a particular emphasis on the multiple meanings that may be found in the word “secularism” itself.

The first thing that comes to mind when we think of “secularism” is, perhaps, a political system in which religion and politics are legally separated. From this point of view, al-Assad is not obviously wrong.  A quick look at the map shows that much of the Middle East is governed by regimes that hold Islam as the state religion. The two notable exceptions are Turkey and Israel, where the constitutional order is officially secular (although the extent to which the concept of “secularism” really applies to either country in the twenty first century is another kettle of fish altogether, and worthy of its own lengthy analysis).  Then there is the anomaly of Lebanon, where the lack of a state religion coexists with a political system that allows religion a central role in public affairs. By the simple criteria of being a state in which the constitution is explicitly secular, then, al-Assad’s Syria is indeed unusual in the Middle East.

In my quest to avoid erroneous assumptions on this subject, I asked a noted Syria scholar (who wished to remain anonymous) what seemed to me the natural question of whether secularism under the al-Assads went beyond routine constitutional declarations. In response, my informant gently chided me for seeking to “put a round peg through a square hole.” He then pointed out that Ba’athism, which has been the state ideology of Syria since 1966, is fundamentally Arab nationalist, privileging an Arab identity above religious distinctions.  As such, Ba’athism holds secularism as a central tenet.   According to my anonymous scholar and other Syria experts  (for example, Patrick Seale in The Struggle for Syria and Robert Olson in Ba’ath and Syria), there is every reason to believe that both Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafiz (who ruled Syria from 1970 to 2000) embraced this position seriously and tried to implement it in his administration of Syria; we have no evidence to suggest that his son did not follow in his footsteps.

The problem is that once we unpack the concept of secularism, it turns out to have layers of meaning beyond the idea of church-state separation.  One relates to the religiosity of a particular society – scholars often find it difficult to label a country in which much of the population is devout as “secular,” even if there is formal separation of church and state.  The best assessments we have of Syria suggest that religion does play an important role in the lives of most of its citizens.  Still, according to my anonymous scholar, the secular Ba’athist ideology privileging Arab national identity above all other attachments was widely accepted in Syria, as it corresponded to an “ability to have many communities peacefully co-exist” that has been “critical to Syrian national self-definition…for centuries.”  In other words, in Syria secularism seems tied to an overarching Arab identity that allowed different religious communities to live together in peace without lessening the intensity of their religiosity.

One popular trope about Syria, bandied about by media pundits vying to predict the outcomes of the present conflagration, is that under the al-Assads, the Alawite minority ruled in a discriminatory fashion over a largely Sunni population, thereby fostering Sunni resentment and political radicalization.  The Alawites did so, the pundits tell us, in close cooperation with Syria’s Christian minority, which prospered under the al-Assads and therefore also evoked Sunni resentment.  The underlying assumption here is that, rhetoric notwithstanding, secularism in al-Assad’s Syria is a mirage, as in fact one religious group functionally dominates the others.   It is only natural, continue the pundits, that Alawites and Christians have much to fear from a Sunni-dominated regime that will come into power once Assad is (inevitably) overthrown.

Without seeking to demonize media pundits – who do, after all, have limited time constraints in which to convey a comprehensible narrative to millions of viewers – one must reject the above picture as distorted.  It is true that the al-Assad family is Alawite, and that when Hafiz al-Assad came to power in 1970 he did so with an inner circle heavily drawn from his family and members of an Alawite community that had been for centuries poor and politically marginalized by a Sunni majority.  According to the Dutch Middle East scholar Nikolaos van Dam (in The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society Under Asad and the Ba’th Party), however, Hafiz al-Assad relied on the Alawite community not out of a religiously-driven desire to oppress the Sunnis and other groups, but rather simply because this was the community he was from and from which he could easily identify trustworthy allies.

Furthermore, the fact that the regime helped lift some Alawites out of obscure poverty into positions of prominence within the Syrian elite did not automatically mean the marginalization of other religious groups. Under both Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad, Christians and Sunnis held positions of power and wealth. For example, according to my anonymous Syria scholar, the Assads formed strong alliances with both Christian and Sunni businessmen, and financially supported rural Sunni communities.  Nor did being Alawite guarantee prosperity and success under the al-Assads: to this day, the heavily Alawite area around the city of Latakia remains far less developed economically than such Sunni-dominated centers as Damascus and Aleppo.   Moreover, the idea that the al-Assads intended to raise up the Alawites at the expense of repressing the Sunni majority must also somehow grapple with the fact that Bashar al-Assad’s wife is herself Sunni.  At the same time, both according to some of the scholarly literature (for example, Nikolaos van Dam’s book referenced above) and to members of Syria’s opposition whom I interviewed in Beirut, the fact that the al-Assad family draws some of its most prominent supporters from the Alawites has made it easy for non-Alawites to blame that group for the country’s ongoing economic and social problems in the years leading up to the revolution.

What does all of this mean for our understanding of the current Syrian civil war?  Recall that the unstated implication of Bashar al-Assad’s contention that Syria is the “last stronghold of secularism in the region” is that, should his regime fall, Syria would be overtaken by angry Islamists ready to impose Sharia rule in the fashion of the Taliban. Such a scenario sends chills down the spines of Western policy makers, in the context of increasingly authoritarian rule by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and (just this week) in the face of shocking news stories about the obscurantist behavior of Islamist insurgents in Mali and Algeria. It is reasonable to assume that al-Assad’s description of his regime as “not THAT” was meant to persuade foreign governments that a secular Ba’athist Syria was worth supporting and that, logically, the rebels should be condemned as seeking to overthrow that order.

The question of the degree to which Islamist forces (both domestic and imported) are playing a role in the Syrian insurgency is not one easily answered, and certainly is a matter being currently greatly debated by many people, not least Western secret service agencies.  Access to Syria remains limited, as few professional reporters, let alone casual observers, are able to access its battlefields.  The most this article can claim is to assess the preconditions for an Islamization of the rebellion, and, more significantly, of a post-Bashar regime. Based on the factors discussed above, I am inclined to agree with Omar Hossino, writing in Foreign Policy Magazine, that the spirit of the Syrian revolution is not, at its core, Islamist. True, the Alawites are a particular target of the rebels, for the reasons mentioned above. Yet, the concept of Syria as a place with a secular ethos enabling different religious groups to intermingle peacefully was strong enough during the pre-revolutionary years that it can fairly be said to be a fundamental part of Syrian national identity. To be sure, there are radical Islamists among the opposition, some of them Syrian and some of them foreign fighters.  But they share the struggle against Bashar al-Assad with moderate Sunnis, some Christians, members of Syria’s Kurdish minority, among other groups, all of them fighting for democracy and an end to decades of despotism.

There are even atheists among the opposition. For example, last week in Beirut I met “Hassan,” a well-educated young Syrian professional who had fled Damascus several months ago after being harassed by the authorities for his involvement in the opposition.  During the course of our conversation, Hassan identified himself as a “secular humanist, an atheist,” and expressed his conviction that a post-Assad Syria should be a secular state, one in which religion should play no role in politics. When asked about the danger of an Islamist takeover once Bashar al-Asad’s regime falls, Hassan admitted that there are fundamentalist Muslim elements among the opposition, but explained this radicalization as a natural response to the regime’s repressive policies. He expressed the hope that “the fundamentalism fad may disappear once the pressure from the regime is gone,” in other words, that a democratic Syria may provide non-religious outlets for people’s frustrations.  With the situation on the ground changing every day, only time will tell how this story will play out.


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 religion and politics in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

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