WRITTEN BY JEAN -PIERRE FILIU, translated by Mary Rizzo
Among the arguments put forward constantly by proponents of the Syrian dictatorship , standing out is the presumed ” secularism” of the Assad regime. It is striking that “secularism” is associated with the illusory protection of minorities (while the percentage of Christians in the Syrian population has halved since the advent of Hafez Assad in 1970) and the promotion of women’s rights.
Yet these two concepts have nothing to do with secularism, which expresses the neutrality of the State towards all faiths, whether they can be labelled as religious or not. The French Republic had built its secularism during the crisis with the Catholic Church and the events that emerged thereof.
The separation of church and state in 1905, in France came 40 years before the right to vote for women. And the French Revolution had, according to the famous formula of one of its members, recognised establishment of the rights of religious minorities as rights due to citizens, and not to a community.
This has not prevented the Arab dictators to enhance the idea of their “commitment” to the emancipation of women (Ben Ali in Tunisia) or for the protection of minorities (Copts in Egypt by Mubarak). This has brought about a paternalistic strategy of their propaganda towards the population (“without me, poor subjects, there exists only the greatest threat), and their seemingly “progressive” appearance on the international scene (I’m the only bulwark against the forces of darkness, Islamism, or Al Qaeda).
Yet, never has been such a lie been brought to the level that the Assad regime has taken it.
Hafez al-Assad, the founder of the dynasty, took power in 1970 against those who drafted – the year before – the only constitution in the history of Syria that could actually be described as “secular “. Assad the father “regulated” his manoeuver with a masquerade election, in 1971, attributing 99.2% of the votes to its sole candidate.
It amended the Constitution in 1973 to guarantee the explicit belonging of the Head of State to the Muslim religion.
The term “secularism” is absent from the official propaganda, which celebrates its successes with the words “socialist” and “nationalist” of the Assad regime. In 1979, the Syrian Baath Party, officially “Arab” and “socialist”, had allied with the Islamic Republic of Iran against the Iraqi Baath Party. This alliance, sealed by the war launched by Tehran against Baghdad in 1980, remains the same until this day.
Assad father and son support a Ministry of Religious Affairs (known as “Waqf”) and a Mufti of the Republic to establish an Islamic bureaucracy. The management of a body of religious officials is the exact opposite of the secular separation of religion and state. In Syria, the Imams are expected every Friday to celebrate the glory of the Head of State and his achievements.
In addition to this ministry integrated with the machine politics of the dictatorship, Assad has co-opted Sunni personalities, responsible for consolidating the presidential legitimacy in the ranks of the majority community in Syria. We should remember that, in the absence of official statistics, the percentage of Sunnis in Syria is estimated at four-fifths (mainly Arabs, with a Kurdish minority) and 12% are Alawites (all ethnically Arabs).
Among these public figures, the most notable were Kaftaro Sheikh Ahmad, who died in 2004, and Sheikh Ramadan al-Bouti, who was killed in a bombing in 2013. Both were known for their unconditional support to the Assad regime, and their vigorous attacks against the principle of secularism, which was considered as godlessness.
In February 2006, it was in Damascus where there were the most violent protests against the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in the press of the West: the Syrian secret police organised events that led to the attack of the French Embassy and the destruction of the embassies of Denmark and Norway.
Those who still believe in the “secularism” of Bashar al-Assad could, for example, see this press release by Government Information (SANA) relative to the preaching at the end of Ramadan 2012 (Eid al-Fitr): “The sheikh leading the ceremony praised the struggle of the Head of State at the service of Islam against “conspiracy and terrorism.”
But there are none so deaf as those who will not hear …
* Jean -Pierre Filiu is a university lecturer at Sciences Po (Paris).
Arabist and historian, specialist in contemporary Islam.
After a long diplomatic career, he devoted himself to academic research, and has held various positions at prestigious American universities. He is the author of several important books on the Middle East and his essays have been published in a dozen languages .
One of his latest books is dedicated to Syria: “I am writing of Aleppo” (Denoël , 2013).