The Role of Religion in the Political Future of Syria: State Muslimness versus Islamism

By: Jocelyne Cesari

March 24, 2021

Responding to: Religious and Sectarian Identity in Syria

The Role of Religion in the Political Future of Syria: State Muslimness versus Islamism

What started as the contestation of an autocratic regime and a demand for social and economic equity quickly degenerated into a horrendous war with more than 110,000 victims, widespread destruction, and more than 5 million refugees.

This extreme violence is the result of the failure to end the crisis both militarily and politically, on the one hand, and the continuous Islamization of the conflict framed as a Sunni versus Alawi alternative or more broadly as a Sunni/Shia fight, on the other hand. The research for my forthcoming book, We God's People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations, has highlighted how both internal and external factors played a significant role in this process.

The Pre-Existing Politicization of Islam

The internal factors refer to the pre-existing radicalization of the Islamic opposition under Assad and the pre-eminence of Islamic groups in the political opposition to the regime. 

The Assad regime had many confrontations with the Islamic opposition. For example, in his attempts to control the Islamic public sphere, on September 29, 1981, Hafez al-Assad sent various militia groups, including the Daughters of the Revolution (teenage girls backed by armed men) into the streets of Damascus and other cities to tear the hijab off Muslim women’s heads. In retaliation, two months later, the Islamic Front set off a huge explosion in the Azbakiyya quarter of the capital, destroying the state security court, the military intelligence department, and a recruitment center attached to the military intelligence department. As a result, ferocious repression ensued which culminated in the 1982 Hama Massacre. Up to 20,000 people were reported killed in the streets and underground tunnels of the city. Most of the members of the Islamic Front were also assassinated or went into hiding.

The regime coupled its repression of the Islamist opposition with a campaign to build more mosques and sharia institutes, including the Assad institutes for the recitation of the Quran. This officially endorsed Islam, aimed at closing all venues to Islamically based political opposition. The opposite happened: The state-defined Muslimness contributed to the rise and radicalization of Salafi groups.

The state-defined Muslimness contributed to the rise and radicalization of Salafi groups.

This pre-eminence gave the upper hand to Islamists in the armed conflict, leading non-Islamic forces like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to take part in common operations with Islamist or even jihadist groups, the ideological differences being far less important in this case than the pragmatic imperatives of fighting against the regime. As a result, Islamization affected both civilians and rebels, especially in the regions where Sunni conservatism was strong, such as Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo. It means that the “Sunnis” were the dominant political force if not the only one in the fight against Assad, even when people did not identify with the Islamists.

External factors have also played a decisive role, mainly the influence of regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, as well as the transnational Islamic ideologies and networks of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Regional and International Influences

The regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has sedimented the sectarian narrative and added a regional dimension to the conflict. The influence of Al-Qaeda has been reaffirmed, while the territorial loss of the caliphate does not mean that ISIS has disappeared. In fact, the political reconstruction of Syria has become a site of competition between regional powers, Western actors, and transnational Islamist groups. 

The political reconstruction of Syria has become a site of competition between regional powers, Western actors, and transnational Islamist groups.

The situation cannot be read anymore through the parameters of the national political competition which was at play since the Syrian independence. First, the divide between secular Baathist and Islamist has been replaced by the divide between Sunni and Shia. Second, this new divide is exacerbated by external factors such as the involvement of regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey); the influence of transnational Islamic mobilizations (Al-Qaeda and ISIS); and last but not least the political sway of international actors such as the United States, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union and the United Nations. These new circumstances are disrupting the previous modes of interaction between Islam and politics and consequently opening a negative sequence.

The Future of Political Islam in Syria

Based on the existing power distribution, the re-legitimization of the Assad system will probably translate into the acknowledgement of Islamic religious institutions and figures. Firstly, local and especially rural zones will be key to that strategy which started during the siege of the towns occupied by ISIS. Ongoing actions in different localities show that the socioeconomic role gained by religious figures during the conflict will be maintained. After Assad retook Aleppo in 2016, individuals that had any role in local government in opposition-held areas were deemed terrorists and pushed out. To avoid the creation of a vacuum, the government granted to religious institutions the capacity to operate in these areas. These government-supported entities are now establishing their own charities, as well as medical, educational, economic, and welfare services, which will lead to new societal structures and local networks, therefore influencing the balance of power between state and religion at the national level. This trend is also strengthened by the religious diaspora.

The re-legitimization of the Assad system will probably translate into the acknowledgement of Islamic religious institutions and figures.

Many of the sheikhs and clerics who left Syria after 2011 have built organizations such as the Syrian Islamic Council to stay strongly connected to their Syrian communities. Additionally, older diaspora organizations are gaining new opportunities after being disconnected from the Syrian context for decades. For example, since 2011, the League of the Syrian Ulema, established in exile in the 1980s, has harnessed powerful linkages with Syrian localities. As a case in point, Muhammad Sabuni, who was the league’s chairman in 2012, was granted full control over humanitarian relief efforts in territories previously occupied by the rebel group, Liwa al-Tawhid.

The state will also continue to assert its role as the privileged provider of religious legitimacy. Law 31, passed in October 2018, exemplifies the government’s attempt to further control Syria’s religious networks. The new legislation expands the presence and powers of the Ministry of Awqaf (Ministry of Religious Affairs) and its personnel; defines the “correct” version of Islam; determines the appointment procedures for religious positions such as that of the grand mufti; outlines the responsibilities, limits, and salaries of religious officials; and specifies penalties for violations committed by such officials. The document also confirms the government’s intention to strengthen the ministry’s socioeconomic role in the support of local clerics.

The state will posit itself as the protector of religions in general and Islam in particular, while Islamically based political opposition will be discredited as anti-national and against the interests of the country.

These actions are good indicators of the future of political Islam in Syria: The state will posit itself as the protector of religions in general and Islam in particular, while Islamically based political opposition will be discredited as anti-national and against the interests of the country. At the same time, Sunni political forces will not be able to create a united front because of conflicting allegiance to transnational Islamic movements like Al-Qaeda or ISIS and to regional political powers in the Gulf. 

Islam will be an important element of the reconciliation process. The most plausible scenario will be the reinforcement of the state “Muslimness” supported by Iran and Russia, while being contested by radical Sunni Islamist groups. These radical groups will seek support of the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey depending on their strategies and ideology. Following the withdrawal in October 2019 of American support to the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS, the military operation launched by Turkey in the north of Syria provides a hint at what the political future entails. The Turkish offensive has in fact reinforced the alliance between Syria, Iran, and Russia in the fight against Islamist armed groups, hence granting to the Syrian state the prevailing role. It also means that the U.S. leverage on the conflict has been significantly eroded. As a consequence, the polarization of Shia as the “oppressors” versus Sunni as the “oppressed” will maintain its political relevance.

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