*This new roundtable with SyriaUntold and Jadaliyya will pose questions about the prospects for secularism in Syria’s future. The full roundtable in Arabic can also be found here.

A great deal of confusion and distortion have overshadowed our society regarding the concept of secularism, as it has been considered the antithesis of religion and a coequal of blasphemy and atheism. This is a deliberate distortion which the legacy of the Ba‘thist era contributed to, which in turn claims secularism through tools of despotism and exclusionary positions that are hostile to religion, faith, and believers, as well as to all those who are not under its banner, following the suit of totalitarian communist despotic regimes.

This era extended for almost five decades, during which the state monopolized the public affairs sphere and political action. It also monopolized the economy and the country’s wealth. It fenced itself off with security apparatuses and an ideological army that adopted the ideology of the leading party, which gradually replaced loyalty to the nation and citizens’ rights. It also domesticated all manifestations of civil society and unions, which became affiliated to the National Security Bureau under the leadership of the Ba‘th party, the leader of the state and society under the constitutional text.

Regimes that Claim Secularism

Nevertheless, these regimes–which claim secularism–did not hesitate to employ the notion of religious and national particularity and take advantage of the religious emotions of the Muslim public as tools in their conflict with political Islam. So, we had al-Sadat, the faithful president in Egypt, Saddam Hussein who added “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) to the Iraqi flag in 1991, and the al-Assad regime which fostered the huge surge in mosque construction, in addition to the establishment of al-Assad Institutes for the Memorization of the Qur’an. Most importantly, these progressive and secular regimes were keen, in all the constitutions they produced, to stipulate in various forms that “the religion of the head of the state is Islam” and that “Islamic shari‘a is the main source of legislation!”

Based on its position in power, this pragmatism insists on consorting with the crowd of popular Islam through fatwa and endowment institutions and mosque preachers, and through bribing this crowd with some slogans, building some mosques, or allowing some of them to leave their jobs for an hour or so on a daily basis under the pretext of noon prayers!

On the other hand, this pragmatism found no harm in consorting with some secular intellectuals and forces in their societies, motivated by the need to respond to Western pressures or demands of international organizations to modernize laws concerning public freedoms and human rights, especially the rights of women and children.

Laws that Went into Drawers and Never Came Out

In this context, I worked with a legal team of colleagues who worked with the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, which was established by Decree 42 of 2003, with the aim of modernizing the legal and constitutional structure of the state. I was granted the right to work on amending all legislations leading to promoting gender equality.

We practically completed the Syrian Child Rights Law and the Parties and Associations in Syria Law. We were going to develop a modern family law as an alternative for the Civil Status Law. The completed laws were discussed with a group of Syrian legal experts and then with representatives of the European Union and international organizations in Damascus. These draft laws were then sent to the competent authorities for discussion and endorsement. However, they went into drawers and never came out.

This renaissance was not meant to last for long as the portfolio of modernizing and developing the legal structure in Syria was quickly closed, especially in regards to the civil status law and women’s and children’s rights. Moreover, a new civil status draft law was presented in 2009 that reflected a fundamental tendency that was more backward and discriminatory, and violated women and their rights. This irritated most Syrian intellectuals, so they delved in discussions to refute it, eventually succeeding in preventing it from being passed.

Retreat to a Pre-State Situation

In an atmosphere of Ba‘thist/military tyranny and the great absence of the state from its functions in the domains of services, development, and securing its citizens, new forms of retreat emerged that resembled societal and ideological structures that belong to the pre-modern state, from the family to clans and tribes all the way to sects and even regional and local affiliations. This constituted a suitable atmosphere for the revival of all forms of religiousness, from Sufism to Salafism and all the way to political Islam and jihadist movements which the regime directed toward its historical rival represented by the Ba‘th authority in Iraq–but then they rebounded against the regime itself after the eruption of the Syrian spring uprisings in 2011.

Also, within the context of this uprising, a great number of religious, sectarian, tribal, clan, and ethnic affiliations emerged, which the Ba‘thist tyranny had denied the existence of before the fall of its statues. Therefore, we can say that this spring, despite its current repercussions, has succeeded in exposing the bipolar Ba‘thist and religious tyrannies. The former defended its survival against the people by creating sectarian, ethnic, and regional polarizations and resorted to countries and militias that contributed to the destruction of the country, society, and state structures. Political Islam and its historically outdated powers went in the same direction reversing only the orientation as they adopted a sectarian and divisive rhetoric, resorting to more backward and brutal powers that contributed to the destruction of Syria and the killing and displacement of Syrians.

The Problem of Political Islam

The problem of political Islam is that it refuses to separate between the domains of faith and worship on the one hand and state affairs on the other. It considers that Islam not only covers the faith aspect of the creed, but also regulates the affairs of people in regards to food, clothes, and dealing with people. Its preachers add that during the time of the Islamic caliphate, the caliph or sultan was entrusted with both religious and political powers. Thus, he was both the ruler and the imam at the same time. In their opinion, this is contrary to the norms of other monotheistic religions. That is why they insist on the slogan “Islam is the solution,” ignoring changes over time and the needs of modern times on the one hand, and the problem of plurality and divisions between religions, and even within the same religion, on the other hand.

This explains the animosity and rejection of the radical Islamic discourse toward secularism. The former aims at alienating the incubator of non-radical popular Islam away from the latter and away from intellectuals and social and political powers who call for this concept. Islamic discourse considers secularism as blasphemy and libertinism, a departure from the shari‘a and inherited traditions of our conservative societies, and even a sabotaging and destabilizing factor of these traditions and societies.

Anyone who follows the happenings of the conflict between the military and religious tyrannies in Syria will discover that it is a conflict of interest and the mundane, and that it was never about religion and secularism. This contributed to the formation of a simplistic ideological polarization that left Syrians, and even segments of their intellectuals and political and civil actors, stuck in a bipolar tyranny. This hindered the development and modernization of society because of the need for an atmosphere of freedom and democracy, including the freedom of faith and freedom to exercise religious rituals and rites, which no religious state can provide.

A Religious State is Tyrannical by Necessity

Religious states throughout history have been tyrannical by necessity because they exclude other religions from the state’s political sphere, which they monopolize, as we see in Israel, for example. Not to mention that religions in general, and Islam in particular, are historically divided into doctrines and sects, which would be excluded or persecuted in any religious state, such as in the mullahs’ regime in Iran in all its internal policies and external wars. How do we get out of this impasse then?

Shaykh Ali Abdul Razzaq tried to address this issue in his book Islam and Origins of Rule in 1925. He rejected the notion of Islamic rule, adding that “Islam is a message not a rule. It is a religion, not a state.” He also said, “the caliphate is a religious system, the Koran did not demand it or refer to it. Islam is innocent of the caliphate system.”

Therefore, we need alternatives for the religious caliphate state, which divides the society and does not unite it, destroys the economy and does not make development, and stands against modernity and history and does not develop science and society. We need a modern state that adopts the principle of secularism and a pluralistic democratic system, which ends the era of tyranny, stops the ongoing wars and fighting, and unites all citizens under the constitution and law, rendering them a people capable of making their own future.

Secularism Is Not Against Religion

Secularism is a philosophical, social, and political system that is based on the principle of separating religion from the state, without being against religion or faith. It considers that religion is related to natural or real persons and that its sphere is within the personal conscious of individuals or within intellectual and faith beliefs. It should not be linked to the state, because the state in the modern political thought is a nominal entity–like any other administrational institution–in which residents can believe in a religion or religions or not believe in anything of this sort. The state has to be neutral toward all religions and toward the various sects and beliefs of its citizens.

With a quick look at Western countries, which adopt the principle of secularism in their constitutions, and despite many lapses, one can see that these states maintained their neutrality toward religion or religions in general, without hostility or being against them. Secular states respect all religions and protect them because of their democratic nature. They respect all religious people in all their variations and denominations and defend their right to believe and exercise their rituals and rites, and they also respect those who reject religion. However, they prevent encroachment by any religion or religious people into the public sphere of the state’s administration and regulations, which have no religion.

There Must Be a Democratic System Rooted in the Principle of Secularism

In our observed reality as Syrians, and in a country that witnessed war or wars over its land and the settling of regional and international scores for many years, and after nearly half the population became displaced people or refugees, we are now in desperate need of a massive force to restore the unity of Syrians that was lost due to military and religious tyrannies, neither of which seem capable of achieving this unity now or in the future. There must be a democratic system rooted in the principle of secularism as the only possible solution in this gray portrait. It is a historical necessity for any national and democratic project for Syria’s future: a project for a non-religious state with a mission to control the political sphere and the general administration through a social contract with all its citizens. This social contract is what unites all citizens in the state under the constitution and law and makes them a people, regardless of their beliefs and sects.

Western Secularism as an Example

History is the best proof. Western Christianity went through various bloody conflicts and sectarian divisions that began with the religious reform led by Martin Luther in 1517. Millions of victims paid for these divisions in Europe before the Holy Roman Empire signed the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the era of religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics.

The importance of this peace is that it established a new system in Europe based on the independence of each state within its territorial border i.e., the sovereignty of states in the political and administrative sense inside their geographical border, as opposed to the sovereignty of the church or the holy, which have no border. In other words, it was the separation of the religious institution from the state institution, and not abolishing religion or fighting it. This consequently allowed the development of governance, administration, and economic systems apart from the dominance of the religious scripts and interests of the church.

Absence of Religious Islamic Reform

Unfortunately, Islamic societies have not been through this era of religious reform. The decline of the Ottoman empire in its last days encouraged European colonialism to share the legacy of the ill man. Subsequent independence regimes did not achieve any societal and democratic development in the structures of the state. Successive military coups in Syria contributed to the transition toward Ba‘th tyranny and the one-party dictatorship, which produced a catastrophic failure on all ethical, political, and developmental levels.

It is a sad paradox in Syria–and the region in general–that five hundred years after the religious reform of Christianity and Europe we go back to the worst version of Islamic caliphate in a backward tyrannical form. This was manifested by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which led to the destruction of the political and economic sphere, the general field of administration, and civil society. It showed contempt for the essence of the faith when it brought people back to the nomadism of the desert and the ignorance of princes and clerics who beheaded people, captured women and sold them as bondmaids in slave markets, and conspired against the people in the name of religion and god. This produced the current historical failure of political Islam, which stands in contrast to the world, history, and interests of the peoples.

Yes, the reality is dire, and there is no way to rise except within a national democratic project that adopts secularism as a constitutional framework to build the state.