Boghos never expected to find himself in one of Syria’s underground dungeons.
He was a devoted Christian who opted for a literal interpretation of Romans 13:1-2, where Paul the Apostle writes, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God,” and, “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”
Therefore, Boghos, a resident of Damascus, did not even try to form an opinion about Bashar al-Assad, but chose to operate within the confines set by the regime.
“I was there for a few days … they accused me of attempting to convert people as part of a Western agenda,” Boghos, whose name has been changed for security reasons, said of his 2009 detention. “Then I was released but was told never to have a conversation about religion with anyone outside my church again.”
Six weeks earlier, Boghos, a Syrian-Armenian, had given a Bible and a few religious pamphlets to a man he had been conversing with and invited him to visit the church where he works as a teacher. The man, who had feigned interest during the conversation and asked for Boghos’ phone number, turned out to be an informant who later reported him to the intelligence services.
“It was somewhat of a shock to me,” Boghos said. “We had been repeatedly assured that religious freedom is a right in Syria and that people are free to choose how to practice their faith. … Unfortunately, there are limits.”
For decades, the Assad regime benefited from a reputation for being secular. Some Syrians and foreigners supported it for its perceived secularism and protection of minorities despite acknowledging the regime’s despotism and many of its crimes.
Syrian media and public discourse reminded people, every day, that there are Christians and Muslims living together in harmony in the country, but constantly pointing this out often drove some people to worry.
Muslim and Christian clerics once famously appeared on Syrian TV holding each other’s hands and reciting the prayers Our Father, Hail Mary, and Al-Fatiha (with necessary changes made to the Hail Mary prayer so as not to say that she is “the mother of God”), stitched together in a show of “national unity.”
The regime does not correct anyone who dubs it as secular, even though it never calls itself that.
But the official narrative about Syria never mentioned secularism. The country long dwelled in a gray area because the regime does not correct anyone who dubs it as secular, even though it never calls itself that and never ceases to court conservative Sunni currents at the same time.
The Syrian regime’s claim that it is a force against terrorism and extremism in the region hardly suffices for Syria to be regarded as a secular country. The same goes for the fact that Muslims and Christians, and their various sub-denominations, live together in peace in regime-controlled areas.
“The regime never was truly secular,” said Salam Kawakibi, the Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Paris. “It has instrumentalized religion in order to further tear apart society and deepen the sectarian abyss.”
Books coming from abroad have long needed to get the approval of the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) before reaching Syria’s bookstores. TV shows, an industry of which Syria is a leading country in the Arab World, also require the approval of religious authorities. Kawakibi told the story of a falling out, which he was privy to, between two Sunni authorities over a TV show that contained references to religion, years before the revolution.
“The number of mosques in Syria increased remarkably during the Assad era,” Kawakibi said. “And the approach to religion was purposefully reduced from contemplating the thoughts, ideas, and messages of religion to concerning oneself with marginal practices, such as with which foot one should first enter the WC.”
To deal with the many religious denominations and their differences, Syria adopts Personal Status Laws, which are a set of legal regimes that control several aspects of personal and family life such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and they are applied to people depending on their religion.
Even for the many Christians who live in the country, as Boghos’ experience attests, it’s not always easy. Boghos, who converted from one Christian denomination to another more than 25 years ago, said that it did not come without trouble from the powerful religious authorities.
“Even things that might be permitted by law could sometimes be difficult because of the pressure from the church or from the family,” Boghos said. “There is no one to protect you from the religious authorities or to hold them accountable.”
More generally, however, Article III of the Syrian Constitution states that the president of Syria must be Muslim and that Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is a principal source of legislation.
So, while the secularism issue is taken for granted by many regime proponents in and out of Syria, citizens do not recall being told that they live in a secular country and are not used to hearing the word secularism in the media or public debate, and many of them mistake secularism for atheism.
“Assad’s narrative regarding secularism has always been unclear, always rather ambiguous,” said Thomas Pierret, Senior Researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research’s Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds. “Secularism, to him, had been the discourse reserved for external consumption; the term never appears in the domestic discourse.”
Pierret explained that the regime normally avoided calling itself secular and relied on sympathetic outsiders to convey that to the world.
Until last year, Syrian law still handed out a reduced sentence to those who commit so-called honor crimes. The Syrian Penal Code condemns “unnatural [sexual] intercourse,” which is usually taken to refer to homosexuality.
All of this is why many were surprised to hear Assad give the domestic sphere a rare taste of his views on these matters on Dec. 7, 2020, before an assemblage of Sunni Muslim scholars.
“Some people believe that one of the requirements of secularism, or the essence of secularism, is separating religion from the state,” Assad said while seated between the Minister of Awqaf and the Grand Mufti of Syria. “This is wrong: there is no relation between secularism and separating religion from the state.”
Assad has repeatedly managed to shock the world with his atrocities. But, before the speech, not many expected him to shock them with his words. The 55-year-old president, who often seeks refuge in attempts at obfuscation with bureaucratic terms or oversimplifying matters when he speaks publicly, manages to make even some of his terrified supporters sitting in the audience yawn or almost nod off.
But his Dec. 7 speech was different. For many, it was unexpected; for some, it was rather disturbing. Social media platforms exploded with posts and comments about what Assad was saying immediately after he said it, as people watched the livestream of his speech; many of them were in shock.
“Had the transcript been shared with a group of 100 Syria experts a day before the speech, I doubt more than one or two would’ve been able to tell it comes from Bashar al-Assad,” tweeted Syrian researcher Karam Shaar. “I think this disturbing speech marks a shift in Assad’s approach to appealing to his support base.”
Assad’s version of secularism, redefined in order to suit the Sunni religious figures seated in front of him whom he was trying to court, promptly drew astonished and incredulous remarks online.
“What is the difference between a human and an animal?” he said, taking the tone of a teacher as no one in the audience showed any approving or disapproving reaction to his statements. “Humans have feelings and animals have feelings. … Humans speak and parrots speak … animals have brains and they learn. … The difference between a human and an animal is just one thing that human beings have: creed.”
Some Syrians and Syria watchers, however, were not as surprised to watch Assad’s speech as others.
“The speech was rather empty talk,” Pierret said, using a popular Arabic term. “He wants to make Ulema [clerics] happy; he is giving them what they want to hear. If it were before parliament he would have spoken differently.”
Pierret said that this does mean that the regime is opening a new page with the Sunni Ulema, as it has courted them at times or marginalized them at others, knowing that Assad is not fearful of them.
“Look at what happened in the past few years: The 2020 parliamentary elections saw Sunni religious figures leave parliament for the first time in the Assad era. And the changes that were made to the Personal Status Laws in 2019 were not in favor of conservatives … the Personal Status Laws themselves, however, are not a secular thing; they are a religious thing.”
The 2019 changes to the Personal Status Law mostly aimed to bridge the legal gap between men and women when it comes to issues such as marriage, divorce, and parenting. It raised the legal age for marriage to 18 for women and men, albeit with exceptions, and made the financial rights of the divorcee more easily obtainable, among other things.
During the five decades of the Assad clan’s reign, conservative Islamism never ceased to be useful to the regime. Pierret was in Damascus in 2006 and saw the Danish Embassy being burned down by angry Syrians (who also attacked the Norwegian embassy) after cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad were published in the two countries. The regime stood aside and allowed that to happen.
“They like to play the religion card,” Kawakibi said. “In 2003 the regime wanted to turn the lives of Americans in Iraq into hell, so they trained Syrian and foreign jihadists in Syria and sent them to Iraq.”
When those jihadists started to flock back into Syria, Kawakibi said, the regime threw them into the notorious Sednaya prison “only to release them in 2011 with the knowledge that they would contribute to the radicalization of the revolution.”
Control over the Christian clergy is important to the regime, too. Protestant pastors often complain in private about the persecution and shutdown of their churches in Syria over the decades as a gift that the regime gives to the incomparably larger Catholic and Orthodox churches, the heads of which are key allies of the Assad regime.
Boghos said several people he knows were also arrested during the past two decades for their activities at church, whether it had to do with charities or missionary work or simply taking a different approach to religion from that of the mainstream churches.
“I believe in secularism, for sure,” he said. “But I don’t think it stops at preventing others from killing me because I am different.”
Assad said that anything outside his definition of secularism is a neoliberal agenda that aims to achieve “total depravity” in society. He said that religion cannot and should not be separated from the Syrian state because that would separate the state and society.
“This neoliberalism is the one that marketed the idea that a child cannot choose its own religion, and therefore [giving it the religion of its parents] is a violation of its right,” he said. “He is born without a religion and can, later, when he grows up, choose his religion [it says], even though this is contradictory to human nature.”
Assad also offered his views on homosexuality, same-sex parenting, and gender identity.
“Neoliberalism is the one that marketed same-sex marriage … and now they can have children, and I think that it is different from adoption, a child who is not a child, how could there be a child?” he said.
“This is the same neoliberalism that marketed the novelty that a child is born neither male or female but can rather choose whether it is male or female. Incredible,” he continued, with a tone of mocking incredulity.
These comments also did not resonate well with supporters who had hoped that the regime would become more tolerant with time. Unable to mock or attack Assad publicly, fearing repercussions, hundreds targeted his Minister of Awqaf, Abdel-Sattar al-Sayyed, for saying virtually the exact same things during his recent media appearances and Friday sermons.
Moreover, some of the social issues Assad addressed, such as gender identity and sexual orientation, are not part of the debate in Syria. Nonetheless, in mentioning them, Assad shows that he has been following the debates in the West, particularly as mouthed by the far right and far left, and co-opting the language for domestic consumption while trying to resonate in the international sphere.
The party issued a statement condemning the minister’s remarks, largely ignoring that they are condoned by the president.
The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), one of the largest political groups after the Baath Party in Syria, was outraged when al-Sayyed said that there is no such thing as a Syrian Nation, but that for Syria, there only is an Arab and a Muslim nation. The party issued a statement condemning the minister’s remarks, largely ignoring that they are condoned by the president.
Sheikh Amr Rahmoun, a “reconciliation” official close to the regime, tweeted in the aftermath of this statement that the SSNP may be dissolved soon.
When a new Awqaf law was introduced in 2018, a wave of public panic swept through Syrian Facebook as people feared the increasing powers that were being given to the Ministry of Awqaf. The law gave the ministry power to create hundreds of official religious institutions across Syria, and assign muftis to them, and to control the education of young imams and Quran teachers. The law also made the minister responsible for choosing the grand mufti of the country, for a non-extendable three-year period, after it had been the president’s choice and a permanent position.
“Rather than it being a move towards an Islamic country, which is what some politicians were warning about at the time, the move was aimed at tightening the regime’s grip over religious institutions, and not increasing the institutions’ authority over the people,” Pierret said.
Assad’s speech before the Ulema in December could have been similar to the consolidation of religious power in the hands of the Ministry of Awqaf, that is, the government that he can control. He spent the first few minutes teaching them how they should respond to events such as Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the prophet in France, which recently resulted in calls to boycott French products across the Muslim world.
The regime knows, however, that ordinary Syrians are unable to discuss their grievances, beliefs, gender identities, or sexual orientations in the current circumstances, nor are they welcome to, even if its reliance on societal control over people’s lives spares it of having to directly intervene all the time.
Meanwhile, the economic situation continues to worsen, affecting the living conditions of those who live in government-controlled areas like never before. In 2020, Syria suffered historic fuel and wheat crises that saw people queuing for hours every day to get bread to eat or fuel to keep their homes warm. Neither crisis has vanished with the start of the new year, and there are no indications that the country will start recovering soon.
“Ultimately, Assad’s speech doesn’t have any concrete impact on the lives of people,” said Pierret. “What does have an impact is the economic situation, and the provision of services, and this is what Syrians are worried about most today.”
The vast majority of Syrian refugees scattered around the globe are Sunni Muslims. Assad seems to consider those who remained as unthreatening to his grasp and power, and therefore he did not mind telling loyalist Sunni scholars what they wanted to hear about the place of religion in the core of the Syrian state and society, and about Syria’s Arab identity.
The Assad regime long scared minorities into supporting him by ensuring that they feel certain that if the regime ever goes down, they will go down with it. The regime’s contribution to the radicalization of a part of the population, then facilitating that part’s hijacking of the Syrian revolution, made minorities, including those of them who despise the Syrian regime, feel stuck with it.
But even some of those who contented themselves with the regime because they feared the alternative often wonder about the genuineness of Syria’s secularism. Even Boghos, who had chosen not to defy temporal powers and concentrate on the afterlife he believes in, has his doubts about it.
“Protecting people from different religions is great, and it’s necessary,” Boghos said. “But people should be free to make their choices in life, to believe or not to believe.”