Where Will Islamists Lead Syria's Secular Revolution?

Article Summary
The French Revolution ushered in a secular state by separating religion from state affairs. The Syrian revolution started out with secular goals but its rhetoric has become more and more Islamist and less tolerant of diversity. Sawzan Jamil Hassan asks if there is time enough for a course correction.

France went through fierce religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. But today, in a French classroom, sit students who are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, non-religious, or who belong to other religions, coexisting without any problems. There are also many immigrants for whom France is trying to pass laws and integrate.
I am not here to discuss the French experience in founding the modern state based on the principle of citizenship. But I want to point out that a secular state does not differentiate between citizens and classify them according to their religious affiliations. These principles were set by the 1789 French Revolution and are firmly rooted in the republican system. They were then codified in a constitutionally-guaranteed law separating church and state (Law 8-1905). This law did not harm any religion. And today France has more than 2,000 mosques with more to be built if, according to a magazine interview with Minister of Urban Planning Maurice Leroy a year ago, the government and local organizations can overcome the legal obstacles and secure the funding.

Building mosques is not contrary to the principles of the French Republic, which is built on a rational basis whereby religion and state are separated in order to have a state based on citizenship, which in turn does not contradict religion or lessen the respect for its rituals because religion is private matter for individuals. On the other hand, Arab countries, including Syria, saw a boom in the construction of mosques and religious schools with the governments’ blessings. The role of those mosques and schools was not only religious but also political, and in some cases they promoted religious extremism.

The slogan “religion is for God and the homeland for all,” which was raised when Arab states were gaining their independence, is but the manifestation of the Arab dream of building a modern state based on citizenship. The dream and the ambition were great but the decades that followed killed that dream, and the Arab regimes came to power. These despotic regimes seized power and used it to serve their interests. They tried to impose a particular ideology by singing the glories of the past and by stifling rationality, innovation, and renewal. The interests of the regimes and of some religious figures intersected, so the latter praised the regimes and promoted the idea that disobeying the ruler is disobeying God. All that was done in the name of the “secular” state and “secular” parties, to the point that the people started hating that word.

The Arab Spring in Syria started out with a dream of democracy, social justice, equal opportunity, and state institutions that fight corruption. But the popular revolt was complicated by the interference of external parties. The Syrian people are no longer the ones shaping their destiny. Syria is now the arena where different interests battle. A new ideology, which had previously not found fertile ground in Syrian society, has entered the country. It is the jihadist and takfirist ideology (takfir is the practice of one Muslim declaring another Muslim an unbeliever). Making things worse were the violent methods used by the regime to deal with the protests from the beginning and the sectarian propaganda from all sides. This has caused some Syrians to stay away from the revolution. Initially, the slogans were “The Syrian people and one” and “God, Syria, freedom.” Now we hear and read of slogans such as “God, Syria, Islam.” Black banners and other Al-Qaeda symbols have appeared. That has caused more people to stay away and others to panic and see in the regime a guarantor for their rights and the country.

Historically, Syria’s religious and ethnic diversity was part of the national life. Syria has never witnessed a civil war in the true sense of the word. There were some sectarian conflicts on a limited scale, but they never affected public life or the societal construct because of the positive interference by religious men and politicians. Civil conflict has always been foreign to Syrian society.

If the revolution were to move out of its dark reality toward something better where it can achieve self-realization, it must set the revolution’s ethics and demonstrate the legitimacy of the goals for which the revolution was Islamized.  We can see that Islamization in the new slogans, the Islamic names of some Free Syrian Army brigades, and the overtly sectarian discourse by some opposition figures abroad and some spokesmen of the coordinating bodies in the interior. Some satellite channels have been trying to promote that side of the revolution. This has caused some to have apprehensions. Some opposition groups have committed ugly acts, such as executions and bodily mutilations, thus depriving the people from eventually prosecuting their attackers according the law, which is supposed to be the mainstay of any civil state.

History has recorded what happened during revolutions and uprisings by oppressed people, including the abuses, the actions and reactions, the mistakes, the betrayals, the interference by outside parties, the chaos, etc. Therefore it would be wise to study history and learn its lessons. What happened during the French Revolution, which paved the way for the civil state based on citizenship, should be a big lesson for the modern revolutions. Is it too late for a course correction? Or is there some hope left?­­­

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Found in: antitank weapons, syrian, syria, secularists, jihadists
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