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Syria’s Mission: Religious Reform
April 2009
Religious moderation is Syria’s distinctive characteristic. The cultural heritage of the Syrians reflects the evolved cultures of the East and the West over the long sweep of history. Of particular significance is the tolerant attitude of the average Syrian towards other religions and ethnicities. In a Middle East afflicted by religious dogma, extremism, bigotry, discrimination, and violence in the name of God the Syrian society is a refreshing model of tolerance and moderation.

A moderate climate, a well diversified natural resources endowment, and a strategic location at the center of Asia, Europe, and Africa have combined to make Syria a cradle of nearly three dozen different civilizations over the past twelve millennia. The interaction among these civilizations arguably evolved into the earliest models of settled agriculture and urbanized societies, the earliest forms of alphabet and writing, and, significantly, the invention of Semitic deities plus the monotheistic faiths.

Might Syria be true to its heritage of religious creativity? Might Syria produce the future Muslim Martin Luther; or, at the very least, might Syria succeed in separating religion from the state; thus, setting an example for the Arab world, like Kemal Ataturk’s success in separating Islam from the Turkish State following the First World War?

State secularization and Islamic reform are important for two reasons. The first is to set free peoples’ creativity and intellectual reasoning. The hold of the ulama class on Muslim minds is the worst form of slavery. Continued control by the clerics will continue to manacle Muslims to seventh century laws and dogma of the Arabian Desert. Unless this control is ended the Arab and Muslim peoples will sadly remain intellectually barren, trapped in poverty, the object of ridicule and exploitation by the developed world.

To join the ranks of the developed world is to manumit the mind from the spell of the ulama. Such would free people from the debilitating demagoguery of the belief in predestination, fate, superstition, and psychotic explanations of the evil eye and the machinations of angels and djinn. Release from the ulama’s hold would end personal status laws that reduce women to chattel. Release from the ulama’s influence would also mean becoming free to study the historicity of the Quran and the Hadith scientifically without the fear of being persecuted under blasphemy laws.

The demand for the clerics’ services should be reduced. Muslims can learn from the European experience. Had it not been for separating Christianity from the European state, for ending the tyranny of the church’s clergy, the industrial revolution might not have happened when it did and Western modernity might not have become what we see today. Muslim governments ought to separate religion from the state, institute modern laws and judicial systems, and emphasize in the educational curriculum and public discourse the peaceful and creative parts in the Islamic creed. Separating religion from the state does not mean, however, relegating the religious preferences of individuals a secondary role. The relationship between God and man is a personal matter and must be respected.

The second benefit from state secularization and religious reform is to sharpen the fight against jihadism and terrorism. Release from the control of extremist clerics, who preach violence, martyrdom, and intolerance against other religions and Islamic sects, like what the Saudi Wahhabi clerics teach with impunity, could reduce jihadism and terrorism. Is it a coincidence that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who committed the September 11 atrocities, along with Osama Bin Laden and many of his lieutenants, are all Saudis? This is not to imply, however, that 9/11 was a state-sponsored atrocity.

Attempts at secularization and modernization in independent Syria date back to the country’s first coup in 1949, led by General Husni Al-Zaim. During his short four-and-a-half-month rule, Husni Al-Zaim set in motion fundamental changes akin in some respects to the Ataturk reforms in Turkey. For example, literate women were given the vote; the process of breaking up the awkaf (or religious endowments) and of substituting modern civil, criminal, and commercial codes for the Muslim Shari’a law was advanced (Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria, 1986, 58).

Syria’s successive governments since independence from the French mandate in 1946 maintained a drive towards modernization. However, religious reforms have been lacking. Shari’a courts, for example, still hear cases involving personal status, family, and inheritance disputes of Muslims (non-Muslims follow their spiritual courts). Further, although Syria’s constitution is the only constitution in the Arab world that does not make Islam the religion of the state, it specifies, however, that the president must be a Muslim.

While it is safe to say that most Syrians are conscious of the threat Islamist extremism poses to their way of life and age-old religious and ethnic harmony, the forty-year old rule by the “secular” Baath Party has been timid in effecting serious religious reforms. The caution may be attributed to the government’s inability to confront hostilities from two quarters simultaneously; namely, Washington’s political hostility towards Damascus plus the opposition that religious reforms could provoke, especially among the orthodox element of Syria’s Sunni population. Orthodoxy has been on the rise alarmingly in the recent decades as a reaction to political frustrations at home and from abroad.

To fortify against Washington’s pressure, the government projects an image of Islamic piety in order to benefit from Islam’s injunction that Muslims must obey the Muslim ruler blindly. God orders in 4:59 of the Quran: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” Further, the Prophet Muhammad was reported as saying, according to Muslim’s Hadith collection, “He who obeys me obeys God; he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the ruler, obeys me; he who disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.” Abi Dawood and Ibn Maja, also, quoted the Prophet in their Hadith collections as ordering the faithful to hear and obey their ruler, even if he were an Ethiopian slave.

For Syria to embark upon a serious program of secularization and religious reforms, the government needs to concentrate all of its resources to confront domestic religious opposition to secularization and religious reforms, without foreign distractions. Good relations between Washington and Damascus could go a long way towards enabling Syria realize its religious reforming potential.