Secularism: A Solution for Syria (By Kevork Elmassian)

18 Apr

Secularism: A Solution for Syria

The war in/on Syria brought back the question of the Syrian identity and the role of religion in the political future. During the era of the Ottoman Empire, Syria was geographically divided into sectarian, tribal and ethnic bases. However, the Syrian elites agreed in the Syrian Congress in 1916 to unify the Syrian spectrum and reinforce the national identity, despite the fact that the French Mandate did actually divide Syria according to ethnic and sectarian basis (1).

After 68 years to the independence, the three years old conflict has brought back the ghost of the past. In general, Sectarianism has experienced a boost in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” following the fall of old regimes, ideological rifts has been provoked between Islamists and secularists, and between conservatives and liberals, as well as by religious divisions between Sunnis and Shias, Muslims and Christians. There is a regional strategic dimension to the growth of sectarian strife between the Shias and Sunnis in the MENA region. Naturally, the “Arab Spring” opened new opportunities of regional influence, thus tensions between Iran and the Gulf countries mounted. Syria has become an area for regional struggle of power, sectarian in its shape, but purely political in its content (2).

Sectarianism in Syria has turned into political classification and many intellectuals –mainly in the “opposition” ranks– have entered or pushed to the dark tunnel of sectarianism, by injecting sectarian logics within their supporters for political ends. Accordingly, any sectarian person, regardless of his/her intentions, whether aware or not, is in fact a toy-soldier against the interests of the Syrian people to achieve democracy and contribute effectively to human civilization.
Since sectarianism became a reality in Syria, at least for the time being, the intellectuals of the country should siege it. But if we want to fight sectarianism in the society, we must first take a position towards «sectarianism» and recognize its existence and brutality during the crisis. But how to fight sectarianism?

Education is the key to fight sectarianism and religious intolerance. The first step towards achieving this goal is to gradually change the societal values through modern and civil education curriculum and the indoctrination of new values such as secularism, democracy and human rights in the hearts and minds of Syrians in their early years. Personally, I don’t understand what the need for religion classes in primary and secondary schools. Religion and worship are personal issues between man and his creator. Syrian schools should not practice religious indoctrination and replace it with human rights –especially women rights– and respect for the opinions of others, and sow the principles of secularism, which allows future generations to think creatively apart from sectarian distortions and religious constraints that are imposed on our children from a young age.


Amend the constitution and the law of personal status. The Syrian government claims that it is a secular state, but this is not accurate. The constitution, the laws and regulations do not suggest so. But truth be told, the Syrian government gives the freedom to practice religious and cultural beliefs to preserve and ensure their continuity. However, it is well known that the most important reasons for sectarianism are ignorance, domestic rearing and some clergymen. Therefore, the Syrian government has to impose the separation of religion from the state, with all the sense of the word. How many clerics contributed in inflaming the situation in a certain region, and how many ignorant people ascended to pulpits and incited the public to go out for sectarian fighting?

If we want to contribute to human civilization, we have to keep pace with the intellectual and philosophical development the world has reached. Imagine that we are in the 21st century and it is still unacceptable socially and religiously and on the government level to intermarry between different religions and sects! Combating sectarianism should be done through introducing the sects to each other and providing legal protection for married couples from different religions or sects. The same applies to the Syrian Constitution, which prohibits non-Muslim Syrian citizens from participating in the presidential elections, which is by the way a flagrant violation for secularism. In addition to that, Syria must have uniform civil code ensures equal opportunity for all, regardless of religion, sect or gender.

Some would ask: how can we apply these reforms while a large part of the population is resisting the values of democracy and secularism? They are partially right, but the Syrian government is indeed responsible for changing people’s convictions and also responsible for the popular awareness and cognition. These convictions cannot be changed overnight, but we must start now in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past in the future. We should present a true definition of secularism to the public. Secularism does not contempt religions and it is not atheism. On the contrary, secularism means respecting all religions and religious beliefs, but to limit these practices at the community level, and separate it from the state and politics.

Every change has a price. Ataturk and Stalin did not establish a system filled with roses, but they have put their nations on the right track. To this day no ruler was able to change the intellectual base of these nations. Erdogan, for example, tried a lot, but his attempts failed. Therefore, national identity is essential, and in Syria, we have to unite Syrians under the umbrella of national political system and civil laws regardless of their sects, religions or any other beliefs. Secularism is the solution. Half measures and semi secular system might build a relatively stable state, but this does not mean that it will drag on, and the proof of that is what’s happening Syria.

Kevork Almassian is a Syrian academic and political analyst specializing in Middle East affairs. He’s also a presenter and programme producer at Al-Etejah TV English.


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