The first casualty of the Syrian war has been the Syrian people. Not merely in the sense of the brutality inflicted on ordinary civilians but in the shattering of the idea that all Syrians were somehow one, regardless of religion or sect.
Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, the Assad regime had carefully cultivated secularism as a way of moving away from sectarianism. Before the war, to even hint at a sectarian affiliation was criminalized by the regime and prosecuted as a political crime. It meant having to constantly push away what was to some a major part of their identity. To say you were Sunni or Shiite or belonged to any other sect was profoundly dangerous.
I experienced this fear firsthand in Syria during an interview with an intelligence officer before the final acceptance of an academic scholarship for which I was being considered in the mid-2000s. He asked me bluntly, “So, what do you follow?” I trembled at his query. I did not understand what he meant by “follow,” so with some timidness I asked him to explain.
“You follow Ali or Umar?” he said, using the names of two ancient caliphs to reference the Shiite and Sunni sects, respectively. “Do you go to the mosque? Which one? I mean, where do you pray?” he continued.
“I follow Muhammad,” I said, as a way to circumvent his query about my sect by stating that I am simply Muslim. To drive this point home, I added, “I pray when I can, and I don’t belong to any mosque.”
Having been exposed to the lessons of Kuftaru and al-Qubaisiat — two organized schools of religious teachings approved by the regime, the first based on the former Syrian mufti Ahmed Kuftaru’s teachings and the latter a women’s-only group — I had grown repulsed by the hierarchical structure within them because it mimicked that of the Baathists and their oppressive mentality. I had begun to view all religious institutions and organized groups with suspicion.
I had no doubt then that the officer already knew where I came from. My religion and sect — and practically everything else about my identity — must have factored into the process of nominating me for this scholarship in the first place. Indeed, such information was part of the vetting process, which was overseen by the state security apparatus. The interview I underwent was merely a formality, a way for the regime to remind me that they were all-knowing.
I recall another incident, this one unfolding after I was appointed as an assistant lecturer at Aleppo University. I was sharing a hotel room with a colleague whom I understood from her telltale dialect to hail from western Syria, around Lattakia, from which the Assad family and his core base come. We got to chatting, and she started talking about her family and traditions in her community. In a moment of absent-mindedness and naïveté, I broached a taboo topic with her and inquired about her sect.
She was shocked at my query. She responded with anger, delivering a thinly disguised threat. “Oh, be careful, this could take you to jail.”
It is because of these experiences and many more that, later in life, as I trained as a political scientist and an academic, I had grown frustrated by the endlessly repeated idea that the Syrian conflict is sectarian, a war between Sunnis and Alawites. It isn’t, although, given the decades of political marginalization that Sunnis, who make up the majority of Syrians, have experienced, it is understandable that Sunnis would think that.
That was certainly the response from Syrian Sunnis in November last year, when President Bashar al-Assad signed a decree that in the years before the war would have been utterly unthinkable: abolishing the position of the grand mufti, the highest Sunni religious authority in the country.
Many Sunnis interpreted this as an attack on their religion. Extremist groups seized the opportunity to declare that this was a further attack on Islam. But in fact, it is both more and less serious than that. The regime is not trying to destroy Sunni Islam. Instead, it is trying to remake Sunnism in the image of Assad.
Since 2011, the Baath regime has tried to position itself as the champion of “moderate” Sunni Islam, which has raised discomfort among the community about the prospect of state interference. In response, the political opposition outside the country has also tried to maintain a clerical arm in order to control the religious narrative, at least partially.
At the same time, militias within the country have, in turn, begun to mobilize Sunnism as a defiant identity to fight the regime. The Baath party’s religious power grab has had unexpected and far-reaching consequences.
In fact, before the 2011 uprisings, religious scholars maintained a fair degree of autonomy in Syria. Today, the regime’s approach to religion is even more strongly focused on coercion rather than suppression, such as in lectures, workshops and events sponsored by Baathist organizations to promote Assad’s view of what is termed “moderate” or “reformed” Islam. Whereas previously the Baath party was focused on controlling religious opinion, the uprising has made the party more determined to shape the religious message for its own ends — in effect creating an Assadist conception of Islam.This can be seen in the new partnership between the Ministry of Religious Endowments and party-affiliated organizations such as the Revolutionary Youth Union and the National Union of Syrian Students. These two Baathist organizations are known for their surveillance activities, with prominent members acting partly as agents for the “mukhabarat,” or intelligence service.
Before the 2011 uprisings, the Baathist party had increased its micro-surveillance over religious discourse, often in the form of security agents checking Friday sermons before they were delivered, to ensure nothing was said against the state. Their concern was that any opposition to Assad’s rule would come from the mosques.
That proved to be wrong. The mosques were not themselves the wellspring of the early demonstrations of Syrians opposing the regime in 2011. Yes, mosques played a central role in the uprising, in large part because before the current conflict they were one of the less-controlled arenas for community discussion and mobilization in Syria. But the initial revolutionaries of 2011 did not have a particular Islamic agenda.
Still, the regime has found it useful to label those opposed to it as religious fanatics, in particular after notable Sunni leaders defected to express support for the opposition. Assad found it convenient to label the uprising as a sectarian and Islamist movement and to associate it with terrorism and “radicalization.” As a result, Assad has endeavored to politicize Islam in the conflict, by adopting a new turn toward religious rhetoric and describing the regime as the defender of “moderate” Islam against radical interpretations.
Far from suppressing religion, Assad has instead granted it greater state support and a broader voice in public spaces since 2011. Baathism has historically been a secular ideology, but after the start of the current conflict, Assad increasingly made statements equating religious faith with national identity.
Some commentators have viewed this as a concession to religious conservatives, but it is more accurately understood as an attempt to lay claim to a particular interpretation of religion as a new way to enhance the regime’s legitimacy.
In 2018, Assad announced a number of presidential decrees that aimed to draw the religious establishment under state control by regulating the process of appointing religious scholars at the Ministry of Religious Endowments. The regime also set three-year term limits for the position of grand mufti. (Previously they served for life.)
These changes had the effect of simultaneously strengthening the religious establishment — by giving it the imprimatur of state authority — while at the same time co-opting the right to dictate what is acceptable religious behavior in Syria. Thus, the state gets to decide what is “moderate” religion — and the opposition is tarnished with the more destructive aspects of religion. The Assad regime is determined to define what Syria’s religion is.
The regime has attempted to redefine Islam by tying it explicitly to obedience to the state and more particularly to the Assad regime. The perspectives on Islam presented by Assad and his loyalists place a strong emphasis on the cultural hegemony of the state and the views of its leaders. Religion becomes the arena of a contested battle for power between the regime and the opposition.
The Assad regime is not particularly subtle about this. One regime-sponsored religious lecture that attracted ridicule among the opposition was titled “Interpreting the Quran in Light of Assad’s Intellectual Foundations.” Similarly, the current head of the Ministry of Religious Endowments has indicated in interviews that the ministry’s role in conflict resolution and religious programming is now based on the wisdom of Assad’s interpretations of Islam.
Many Syrians from across the political divide have taken exception to the regime’s effort to meddle in religious interpretation, which goes beyond even the more prosaic co-optation of religious leaders. Instead, what is going on is a direct conflation of state and religious authority. One might describe this as the “Assadization” of the religious domain, particularly as Assad in his speeches now consistently describes patriotism toward the Baathist state as a religious requirement. He has made the link between his religious rhetoric and the security of the regime overt, for example stating in a speech given to loyalists on Aug. 25, 2011, “Our way to political resilience is faith. Faith is security and safety.”
This new relationship between faith and state security in Syria is not mere rhetoric. The regime has pushed for revisions in religious education literature.
In 2014, the ministry put forth a series of publications and website materials that it called the “Jurisprudence of Crisis.” This literature was intended, in the words of Assad, to “correct 14 centuries of false interpretations of Islam.” The materials quoted extensively from Assad’s speeches and emphasized the need to reformulate religious faith so that it is understood to prohibit any kind of political activism against state authority. Given the uncertainty of the political landscape, Assad wanted to ensure that the state’s power infiltrated all religious establishments in Syria.
In these publications and on the website, Assad’s words are displayed as formal and official guidance. The quotes from his speeches are carefully chosen to reflect the “moderate” approach that Assad has strived to construct in speeches. This is intentionally crafted to contrast with what Assad called the protesters’ “extreme” interpretation of Islam. This series of publications further attributed the national crisis in Syria to conflicts in religious views (or more specifically, to some people having the “wrong” religious views) and indicated that peace will only come when the political opposition adopts the true faith, which is equivalent to unquestioning faith in the regime.
The regime has also used women to “Baathify” and ‘‘Assadize’’ religion through the claim of “modernizing it.” Women have been appointed to positions in the Ministry of Religious Endowments and in another recently established institution, the Majlis Al Ilmi, or Council of Jurisprudence Scholars.
The official inclusion of women in the religious domain aligns with Assad’s struggle for political survival; he has become willing to expand the authority of religious institutions for his own political expediency.
To ensure the loyalty of these female preachers, Assad launched “al-dawah al-nisa’iyyah” (Women’s Preaching Department) in 2015. He described the initiative as a long-awaited act of female empowerment in the religious sphere. In a seemingly “feminist” tone, Assad alludes to how “dawah” (preaching) has long been dominated by male scholars and critiques how the terms used to describe the two genders are discriminatory. Assad highlights how women who work in dawah are merely called preachers, instead of the more prestigious Arabic term “‘alimat,” which denotes specialist knowledge of theology.
However, the true purpose of these changes is not to empower female preachers but to co-opt them.
Female preachers have long existed in Syria, but previously the Baath regime maintained a confrontational attitude toward them, forcing them to stay clandestine. However, starting in 2006, the state instead sought to regulate them, placing their lessons in state-monitored mosques.The same year, the state allowed al-Qubaisiat, then an underground women-led Islamic movement, to give their lessons in mosques after 40 years of operating in strict secrecy. Still, the long history of official opposition to female preachers means their current welcome into the state’s institutions is precarious — and the preachers know it. Only through allegiance to Assad can they be sure they will not be forced to return underground.
The Syrian opposition has been slow to respond to this morphing of religion and state.
Even after seven years of war and a marked change in Assad’s rhetoric about religion, it wasn’t until 2018 that opposition-affiliated Sunni leaders established a parallel religious authority in exile, the Syrian Islamic Council, which operates from Istanbul.
Like its state-sanctioned counterpart within the regime, this council is also concerned with laying claim to the mantle of “moderate” Islam and the rejection of fundamentalist or Salafi ideology. Its overt goal is to contradict Assad’s claim that the Syrian regime is the standard-bearer for such views and to contest the regime’s attempt to link the political opposition to religious terrorism.
The tension between this new council and the Syrian state religious ministry demonstrates the extent to which the Syrian conflict has devolved into an ideological struggle over who has the right to represent Islam and its identity. It is, in part, an attempt to re-create a sense of communal identity that has been lost through the war.
Baathism may have enforced an oppressive secularism — one that mainly benefited the regime — but it at least offered a sense of secure identity. The war has taken that away.
The response, both in the recent actions of the regime to co-opt religion and in the response of the opposition to increasingly focus on Sunni identity as a mode of resistance, can be seen as an example of what political science professor Jennifer Mitzen identified as a need for “security of identity.” In the absence of physical national security, people seek psychological reassurance through figuring out where the boundaries of their identity lie.
But in truth, no matter how tempting it is, these sectarian identities are a dead end for the purposes of building — and rebuilding — a country. Instead, Syrians must look to a pluralistic and inclusive sense of themselves, where belonging is not determined by narrow classifications such as sect. If the Syrian opposition wants to defeat Assad’s attempt to co-opt religious identity, it cannot fight him on the same battlefield. Trying to stop Assad’s attempts to “Baathify” Sunni Islam is the wrong approach — what is needed are a way to de-Baathify the entire Syrian national identity and an inclusive reconciliation process that does not exclude any ethnicity or pit any sect against another. Therefore, Syrians should find other meanings and approaches to make the transition to democracy, with the understanding that an end of authoritarianism might not be achieved by the overthrow of Assad. Rather, successful reconstruction and political reconciliation must start with Syrians looking inward and finding ways to establish a new form of political structure and active citizenry, one that doesn’t depend on a sectarian narrative as a safe haven.