*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.

The preoccupation with secularity has never ceased even in countries such as France that have embraced radical secularity or what is sometimes referred to as solid secularity. Discussions regarding secularity, which is constantly confronted with challenges to its ability to absorb new developments and maintain a balance between equality rights and identity issues, have not settled down either. However, as the sons and daughter of impoverished countries that have not found their own mechanism to convene and produce political legitimacy apart from the logic of victory through violence, our preoccupation with secularity relates to several issues. These are the form of secularity we seek, the manner and extent of separation between religion and politics, and the exploration of secularity’s ability/inability to help extract the Muslim community, by which I mean the community where Islam constitutes the religion of most of the inhabitants, from the abyss of futile conflicts that consume its energy and resources and threaten its existence.

The broad trend we have witnessed in recent years in Syria and other Arab countries is a turn toward religious extremism and seeking to retrogress society to religious rule (caliphate, emirates, and shari‘a courts…) while accusing democracy and secularity of blasphemy. This is one of the consequences of our societies’ faltering development. Failure is a breeding ground for all sorts of extremism and irrationality, especially in dysfunctional nations, which, however, regard themselves as distinct, chosen, and carriers of a “message,” as in the case of the “Arab nation.” The Islamic extremism we have witnessed in recent years and the reversion toward a bygone past, whether in judgements or symbols and designation, are a childish protest against the dominant part of the world. However, it is also a protest or a reversion against the self. By that we mean that the failure of this religious extremism or this global or local religious jihadism is inevitable in our modern era. The determination and sacrifices made for these ideologies are merely an expression of a deep awareness of their futility and impossibility. There is no place, in the modern era, for the rule of religion that jihadist theorists call for. This conviction is not far from the minds of Islamic extremists themselves (e.g., the Taliban in Afghanistan, and perhaps Nusra Front in Syria). They merely seek to elicit recognition, as they have no other way to integrate into the world from a partner or affiliate standpoint. We could also say that this violent jihadism is an unconscious way to get revenge from one’s own “failed” self.

There may be people who have achieved a vast separation from reality to the point of full conviction in establishing a religious rule in the current era. However, the real question today is not related to the position toward the religious state; the real question is not a trade-off between a religious state and a secular state, but rather which secular state we want, and how do we realize secularity. Is it the separation of religion from the state or the separation of the religious institution from the state? What remains of religion in a secular state? One must also take into consideration many Syrians’ dislike of the word “secularity” due to its association with the Assad regime on the one hand, and because of Islamic propaganda that has flourished recently within the current conflict in Syria, on the other. Many secular Syrians now prefer to avoid this term while retaining its tenor. There are those who are proposing to replace it with another word with similar connotations such as “patriotism.” However, aside from the word, the majority of Syrians, in our view, are “secular” in substance, i.e., they do not lean toward the Sunni Islamic religious rule as called for by the clergy. This is evident in the vast rejection of the Islamic State (ISIS) and Nusra Front in the areas they controlled. The emergence and dominance of these Salafi and jihadist organizations and the exposure of their limitations and purely violent nature may be one of the few positive outcomes of the Syrian tragedy.

Between Secularity and Secularism

To start, a distinction should be made between “secularity” and “secularism.” The former concept belongs to the political sphere and presents a vision for a path that seems to its supporters, including ourselves, a just and useful manner to organize and manage public affairs because it liberates the management of society from the sacred sphere, as it removes sanctification and the absolute from the world of politics. The latter concept belongs to the ideological sphere as it turns “secularity” into some sort of worldly religion. Its supporters transfer “sanctification” from the unseen world to the witnessed world, resulting in the phenomenon of “worldly sanctification” which turns “secularity” into an absolute power.

There are two versions of secularism. The first is the Soviet version which corresponded to atheism. This version not only liberates politics from the authority of the religious establishment, but also prohibits religions themselves, restricts the freedom of religious people, and imposes a “material” culture on all aspects of society in order to eradicate religion. The Soviet version is based on a certain materialist philosophy that sees religion as an obstacle in the emancipation of society and considers religion as a manifestation of a childish humanity or a passing phase of human development. The Soviet version did not conceal its hostility to religions. It was part of a development project that sought liberation from “imperialism” but ended up in collapse. This experience showed that seventy years of general atheism could not eradicate religion from society, and that linking liberation or development to hostility to religions is narrow minded and ignores the firm status of religion in the human soul.

The second version of secularism was part of the ideology of tyrannical “progressive” powers, which quickly became degenerate powers lacking any developmental or liberal projects and seeking only to perpetuate. They designed all the mechanisms of societal management to be oriented toward perpetuating their authority. The “secularity” of the Assad regime belongs to this version. This version of secularism, unlike the first one, does not stand against religion or separate religion from state, but rather it morphs into a sort of adjoining worldly religion where the authorities, or the head of the authorities, replace god in the religious religion. The official institutions of religious religion collude with this “religion of the authorities” and become its servants from their position as representatives of the divine religion.

The degeneration of this version of secularism stems from the degeneration of the authorities that adopt it. The truth is that the only relevance these authorities have to secularity is limited to the fact that they are not religious authorities, i.e., they do not impose the application of religious laws (although they require that the head of the state be of a particular religion or sect), thus protecting certain aspects of individual freedom, such as not imposing head coverings for women or the prohibition of alcohol. Many people regard these “freedoms” as signs of progress. However, such “freedoms” accompanied by the domination of an authority imposed on the governed people, along with the spread of repression, corruption, and implicit and explicit forms of discrimination, produced a reaction against these freedoms, which have become part of the authoritarian system in the general public consciousness. In the few years before the outbreak of the revolution in Syria, a popular tendency of rejecting these freedoms emerged in a return to religion and religious dress, a return to commitment to religious rituals, and demands for the separation of the sexes. This return to the “divine” religion has had an explicit presence in the body of the Syrian revolution since its onset: a return to the divine religion as a form of rejecting the “worldly religion” or the “religion of the authority” which recruited the divine religion to its favor by taking control of its official institutions, which in turn adapted to this domination from the standpoint of common interest. Therefore, the return to the divine religion was a form of rejecting the political authority and its symbols. Attention is drawn to the emphasis on “symbols” in the fixed “cliché” objective, the “overthrow of the regime and all its foundations and symbols,” that was used and reiterated by Syrian opposition institutions for a long time. The word “symbols” includes the flag, national anthem, and patriotic songs used by the regime, as if, for the rebels, these symbols were rituals for the religion of the “secular” authority.

Strange Alignments

The Syrian revolution highlighted strange alignments among elite intellectuals, activists, and those interested in public affairs. The brutal repression resorted to by the “secular” regime led to its total rejection, including the rejection of its “secularity.” On the other hand, the religious character that increasingly dominated the demonstrations, and the armed transition that followed, led others to reject the “religious” revolution. The priority given to standing against the regime pushed some secularists to approach non-secular powers, and the priority given to fighting political Islam led long-standing opponents of the regime to approach it in the face of the rise of Islamic non-secular powers or “Islamic fascism,” as they call it. Thus, the portrait of the conflict became complex and strange. The strangest thing about it was that Islamic religious powers spearheaded what was supposed to be a democratic revolution, and that democratic secularists found themselves alongside powers that accuse democracy and secularity of blasphemy, whereas other democratic secularists found themselves alongside a brutal and tyrannical regime waging a war of extermination against its own people. Regardless of the political logic of both sides,  the biggest loser in this alignment are the democratic secularists themselves and their neglected cause.

How is secularity distinct from religious rule?

Secularity includes two essential parts. The first is the establishment of a united reference for all the people in the country, which is the reference of belonging to this country (the nation), and making this belonging a priority in worldly and political affairs, i.e., making it above all belongings from a constitutional and legal standpoint. The second is fortifying the political sphere against the dominance of religion and protecting it from “god’s representatives on earth,” who judge people on their spiritual beliefs and sort them accordingly, leaving no place in the country for atheists, for example. The result of these two parts is that the people of the country are equal before the law regardless of what spiritual or religious beliefs they adhere to, and that the administration of their country is up to them and to what they find appropriate for their development, without dependence on any reference other than the reference of reason and the will of the majority. This evidently unites the people of the country as citizens rather than separating them as followers of certain sects and religions, as happens under religious rule. This also allows the people in the country to think freely, so that they can find solutions to the problems they face, while benefitting from modern experiences without the need for a “passport” from the scriptures or from “jurisprudential” parties that cling to the constitution on the false pretext of respecting religion and identity.

Furthermore, secularity distinguishes between a public sphere (the political sphere) where people in the country are equal as citizens who have rights and responsibilities defined by the constitution and laws, and the private spheres where people are different according to their own beliefs and practice their religious authorities, spiritual activities, rituals, and traditions in full freedom. This means that secularity is against religion if it seeks to break into the public sphere, i.e., if it turns into an ideology of political authority. “Religion is religion within its own limits, and an ideology outside of them,” according to Azmi Bishara in his book Religion and Religiosity, a Prolegomena to Volume One of Religion and Secularism in Historical Context, in which he argues that secularization is a long historical process of distinction between religion and the modern world.

The problem with discussing secularity in the Muslim community is that Islamists do not accept the idea of distinction between religion and the modern world. Islamists insist that Islam is both religion and the modern world, and that in Islam, one cannot separate between worship and shari‘a, and that secularity assaulted Islam because it excludes shari‘a (Yusuf al-Qaradawi). This firm statement by Islamists leads to one conclusion that states, borrowing from Labid’s poetry:

Every thing, but (Islamic religious rule), is vain

Can the Islamic religious discourse be secularized?

A number of intellectuals tried to solve the previous problem by accepting the relevance of religion and the modern world in Islam, and working to expand religion to an extent that makes it capable of assimilating the modern world and its increasing demands, including secularity, into its development. These intellectuals attempted to “secularize” the Islamic religious discourse, once by relying on linguistics, as the Syrian Mohammed Shahrour did in his book The Book and Koran, A Modern Reading, and in another instance by relying on deriving the meaning of the religious discourse by putting it in the context of its formation or “occasion for revelation,” thus, taking the lesson and meaning without adherence to the literal text, like the Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd did in his book The Concept of the Text: A Study of the Qur’anic Sciences. In yet another instance the Sudanese Mahmoud Mohammed Taha returned to the Mecca Islam and not that of Medina. These attempts at compromise find it hard to compete with mainstream Islamic dominance over the public because they seek to fight it in its own arena and with its own weapons.

These attempts involve a profound contradiction: joining holy matters that are not controlled by ration with rational matters. They acknowledge the sacredness and inimitability of the text one the one hand, and advocate for rationality on the other. This is a crippling endeavor, as it seeks to plant rationality in what is irrational, and wants religion to abandon its religious character.

This problem can only be solved by separating the political sphere (relative, common, variable, and worldly) from the religious sphere (absolute, fixed, private, and spiritual). The boundaries of separation between the two spheres remain the subject of research and deliberation because they relate to the history and composition of the concerned community. One can even say that each society has its own secularity.

Worldly secularity vs. heavenly secularity

What the missionary activity of Muhammed accomplished from a political standpoint, and what constituted the foundation of its success, is the establishment of a sole bond between the members of various Arab tribes that was able to unite everybody and present them to the whole world in that era. Everybody is equal under this bond–Islam–which was a common denominator for all that did not contradict with tribal bonds and affiliations. This was the case before Islam became various doctrines and sects, turning into a source of division and not a source of unity, as was the case in the beginning of the Islamic call.

Thus, the political act of the binding affiliation brought forth by Muhammed is exactly what we want from secularity, i.e., the neutralization of religious affiliations (tribal affiliation) versus the affiliation to the nation (to Islam), and the equality of all under the constitution and before the law regardless of their religious and sectarian backgrounds. Some say that Muhammed’s “followers” these days, who are advocates of religious rule, are in fact working in contrast to what Muhammed did. They are dividing the people of the same country according to their doctrines and religions and leading them to dispersion rather than unity. Adhering to a common denominator between people that protects them from various forms of discrimination, while respecting the common denominators of each individual group, is equivalent to the political act accomplished by the Prophet. The difference is that the Prophet linked the affiliation to the heavens while secularity links it to earth.

However, adherence to religious affiliations in our era and giving them superiority over other forms of affiliation is equivalent to adherence to tribal affiliation at the time of the Prophet and giving it superiority over the Islamic affiliation, which was a binding factor at the time.

The secularity of religious and sectarian minorities

The sectarian minorities in Syria do not have a “shari‘a” and do not produce political expressions that speak on behalf of the “nation.” They are not capable of this, either in terms of numbers or in terms of sectarian structure. These minorities do not have projects for religious rule. The only project for religious rule in Syria is the Islamic Sunni project. Therefore, members of the sectarian minorities consistently support secularity instead of religious rule, because the latter renders them subjects, wards, dhimmis, or second-class citizens in their own country.

Faced with the Islamists’ quest to establish “shari‘a law,” minorities will tend to accept any other option, even if it means clinging to a regime that tyrannizes them and even if this regime establishes a “worldly religion” that imposes a tangible and personalized god called “the authority.” They accept equality under a repressive “secular” sword rather than being under the inevitably discriminatory sword of Islamic religious rule that will classify them according to their birth. They feel that the “secular” sword is less brutal on them than on the majority, which they always fear might call for a shari‘a law. It is not, then, surprising that minorities tend to accept even foreign actors in the face of attempts by “shari‘a rule” to reach power. This is evident in their position on the Iranian and Russian intervention.

Therefore, when the project for religious rule is in offensive mode and engages in a direct conflict for power, minorities will turn into a conservative power against this project and secularism will become an ideological instrument used by the minorities in their position against Islamists. The minorities’ alignment with “secular” political tyranny against the Islamic attempt for change is not the result of a fundamental progressiveness of minorities, as one might think, but rather a defensive position that leads to, in the Syrian case, the strengthening of tyranny and the stifling of secularity itself. Thus, it is not a question of progressive or retrograde minorities, but of clear calculations of interest.

In the context of the Syrian revolution minorities in general–to different extents among different minorities (the Alawites most notably for various reasons that I believe have been dealt with and discussed and are now understood)–were afraid from the onset, started to investigate the Islamic nature of the revolution in the very first days, and aligned with the regime as the Islamic character of the revolution increasingly emerged. This alignment was definitive, in the sense that minorities, in fear of the advancement of the Islamic project, totally abandoned their critical position of the regime, or to be more precise, confined it to supporting the regime in the name of supporting the state or supporting the national army or supporting “secularity,” etc. This position was unchangeable despite everything; despite the regime’s persistent repression, killing, and destruction; despite dependence on foreign countries such as Iran and Russian; and despite mutual complicity between the regime and the official Islamic institutions allied with the regime. Minorities did not dare to seriously revise their position on the regime, even when regime apparatuses practiced oppression against their sons, and even when the regime gave the Ministry of Endowments unprecedented powers to control education and state institutions. Minorities, especially the Alawites, became dependent on the regime as much as the regime was dependent on them.

In reality, the secularity of minorities does not reflect their progressiveness, as they supported a “secular” tyranny and not a democratic secularity. At the same time, the secularity of the Islamists does not reflect a retrograde majority, as they rose up against a tyranny that manipulated secularity and trampled over its principles with implicit and explicit sectarian practices. In both cases, each party rushed to back what it believed would protect its existence and interests. In the sharp division created by the ongoing conflict in Syria, both sides demonstrated contempt for human dignity and the principles of human rights. Today, the Syrian public is not divided on a secular or non-secular basis, but on alignment with or against the regime or alignment with or against the Islamists. There is no space for discourse on secularity, and there is no influential party in Syria today that truly expresses democratic and secular principles.

If our above characterization is correct, then the task of intellectuals and those interested in Syria’s future is to save secularity from the distortion of the Syrian regime and the counter-mobilization by Islamists, because secular democracy, we believe, is the only possible prospect for a united and dignified Syria.