Table of Contents:
1- Syria between Secularism and the (political) Islam:
2- The Islamic Doctrine as the Origin of the Conflict with Secularism:
3- Secularism in the Islamic Doctrine:
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the world has witnessed a lot of prominent changes. With the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, first and second world war, colonialism, postcolonialism, and modernism being the most notable changes. However, the Islamic world has been, ever since, experiencing a retraction and a shrinkage caused by -but not only- those changes. This retraction and shrinkage have led the Islamic world to be in a constant and persistent state of a hostile confrontation with the Western world. In this confrontation, notions like secularism, democracy, modernism.. etc. which are the values that represent the Western world, were always highly controversial in the Islamic world. This controversy has separated the Islamic community into two main groups. The first group was calling for the rejection of any Western notions because, as this group claims, they oppose the Islamic values. On the other hand, the second group claimed that Islam as a religion and the values it calls for is not contradictory to the Western notions mentioned above. Yet, the opposing opinions of the two groups have caused confusion and moved the confrontation from being mainly social into being a confrontation between Islam and the West.
It was at this point, in my opinion, that the calls for the extreme and radical form of Islam have woken up because the Muslim community has had the feeling that the role of Islam, as one of the three main religions in the world, was being shrunk. This feeling led the Islamic world to experience the symptoms of the inferiority complex. As a consequence, the Muslim community was subconsciously forced to be in a defensive state with which Muslims have tried and are still trying to defend Islam. This defensive state, however, was propagated the most by the first group -which I mentioned above- who was calling for applying the radical form of Islam as the only and best means to defend Islam.
I chose to provide this short foreword in order to make clearer what this paper is going to talk about. In this paper, I will be examining the claim that Islam is a stumbling block in the way of the secularization process in Syria. In fact, I decided for Syria for two reasons. First, many scholars and writers actually claim that Syria is already a secularist country which is a highly controversial and debatable claim. Second, the (political) Islam in Syria does not have the same power it has in other Muslim Arabic countries and this makes Syria a somehow good candidate for becoming a secularist country.
This paper contains four main chapters and it is structured as follows: After the introduction, I will, in the first chapter, define and talk about secularism and secularization briefly and then I will explain why the religion Islam and the (political) Islam cannot be separated. In the second chapter, I will present the point of view which says that Islam is deep inside incompatible with secularism. On the contrary side, namely in the third chapter, I will present the other point of view which claims that Islam can very well come along with secularism. The fourth chapter will be my conclusion in which I will sum up and examine what was written in the previous chapters in order to reach an answer to the research question, if possible. Furthermore, a connection with Syria based on the content of the chapters will be made at the end of the first and the last chapter. Finally, a list of the literature and sources used in this paper can be found on the last page.
1- Syria between Secularism and the (political) Islam:
Secularism is a very sensitive and heated up topic in the Islamic world right now and it has almost always been like this. We can speak of a lot of different reasons but main ones are namely the Western origins of the notion of secularism, the insufficient knowledge about the actual and real meaning of secularism and consequently the fear of losing faith and beliefs if secularism is ever applied in the Muslim communities. The current hostility against secularism in the Islamic world is similar to what secularism faced in the middle ages in Church-controlled Europe. However, it is important for the goal of this paper to provide a definition of secularism and secularization and to present the possible differences between both terms.
According to Austin Cline -who was a regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) which is now a part of the Center for Inquiry (CFI)- defines secularism and secularization as follows: “Secularism is a system or ideology based on the principle that there should be a sphere of knowledge, values, and action that is independent of religious authority, but it does not necessarily exclude religion from having any role in political and social affairs.” [...] “Secularization is the process with which institutions throughout society - economic, political, and social - are removed from the control of religion” (Cline 2017, no page).
Based on those two definitions we could reach a way to differentiate between secularism and secularization. While the former is the notion which promotes the separation of religion and state, the latter is the broader process with which the society implements or applies secularism.
In other words, secularism is the means and secularization is the process that implements this means. Ergo, a country can only be secular, if it moves from theory (i.e. secularism) into practice (i.e. secularization).
From secularism, we move now to the (political) Islam. It is notable by now that I keep putting the word political in brackets -which I will stop do at the end of this chapter-. The reason for this is to indicate that in my opinion (political) Islam and the religion Islam complete each other and cannot be separated. In other words, in order for Muslims to practice their religion fully and correctly, it is then an inevitable prerequisite to strive for an Islamic political system. Gudrun Krämer in her article (Modern but not secular) speaks of a similar thing when she explains that for Muslims Islam is not only a faith but also a religion that connects its followers and requires them to stick to certain practices and behaviors establishing therewith a way of living (Krämer 2013, p. 633). (Political) Islam is as old as the Islam itself and the Islamic history proves this point. And although the Qur’anic verses -if taken alone- do not explicitly constitute a comprehensive Islamic political system. The Islamic history, the biography of the Prophet, and particularly the Sharia do, indeed, form this system once they are combined with the corresponding verses from the Qur’an.
After Muhammad’s migration in 662 from Mecca to Yathrib -later on called Medina- he set the Constitution of Medina in which he provided a set of laws and regulations for the clans who were living there (Arjomand 2009, p. 555). For that time, the Constitution of Medina can be seen and understood as a spark for an initial political system of the then-young Islamic state. This also proves that Muhammad, unlike Jesus, was not only a prophet but a political leader as well.
Additionally, the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet combine together the principles of the Sharia Laws based on which (political) Islam is built. The Sharia Laws constitute a very comprehensive Islamic political system in which matters of every-day life, legal issues, decisions in war and peace, and fiscal and economical problems are all to be solved in accordance with Qur’anic verses and/or Prophetic Hadiths (i.e. Sunnah). This means that the Sharia constitutes the legislative power of the religion Islam because it brings religious values, rules, and regulations that are invoked by Islam into application in the real life. Yet, and since any type of Islamic governance, including (political) Islam, must use the Sharia Laws as a source of legitimacy and as a constitution, and since the Sharia is the means with which the Islamic legislative power can be applied, (political) Islam and the religion Islam cannot, therefore, be separated from each other. In other words, the connection between (political) Islam and Islam as a religion can be compared to the connection between secularism and secularization in the sense that the religion Islam has the same role of secularism whereas (political) Islam has the same role of secularization.
However, and due to space limitations, I will stop now and move to build the connection with Syria in accordance with secularism and political Islam. Syria is a very interesting country for this topic because its political system is neither secularist nor Islamic. However, and despite the latter fact, one can still bring this system closer to one of the two types. And to do so, I will provide a short general examination of the Syrian regime since Hafez al-Assad took over in 1971 until our present time.
Hafez al-Assad is regarded by many authors as a President who established a secularist government; a point of view that is shared by not only Islamists but also by, surprisingly, Western intellectuals. This is mainly because of his hostile confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood who led a revolution against al-Assad’s regime and his ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party in the late seventies and early eighties. This led al-Assad to pass the law Nr. 49 in 1980 (It is not applicable anymore in the present time) which stated that “Any citizen who is proven to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood shall be sentenced to the death penalty” (The Syrian Constitution (a), Law No. 49).
This law was best represented by the Hamah massacre in 1982. And Talal Asad, in his article (Formations of the Secular), uses this massacre as an example that Hafez al-Assad was a secularist President because he did not need the Qur’an to justify his massacre (Asad 2003, p. 10). However, Asad seems to have ignored some significant factors. First, Hafez al-Assad and later on his son Bashar al-Assad -who took over after the death of his father in 2000- have established a strong autocratic dictatorship and derived the strength of this dictatorship from Islam as the religion of the majority in Syria. For instance, it is well known for the Syrian people that around 80% (more than 7000) of the current Mosques in Syria were built under al-Assad regime between the years 1971 and 2010 (However, there are no official statistics supporting this information). Moreover, the Syrian Constitution states transparently in its very beginning that the Syrian President must be a Muslim and that the source of legislation in the country follows the Islamic Jurisprudence (The Syrian Constitution (b), Article No. 3).
Second, and this is a very important point, al-Assad was an Alawite and Alawites are a religious minority that have stemmed from the Shiite Islam and are regarded by the majority of the Sunni Muslims to be non-Muslims and even, in the worst case, to be infidels. However, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad were always insisting that they are devout Muslims and were always participating in public prayers as well as in Islamic feasts. This point explains why political Islam never grew in Syria like it did in other Arab countries such as Egypt and it also explains how al-Assad regime was involving religion partially in the political sphere which is, mainly, why this regime was never a secular one.
Al-Assad’s regime led by both the father and the son established a dictatorial political system that, on the first hand, used Islam to control the country and to remain in power, and on the other hand, deceptively claimed to be that utopic secularist regime, which protects religious minorities in the country from the threat of the Islamic extremism. This evidence led me to question the accuracy and validity of Talal Asad’s claims of Hafez al-Assad being a secularist President.
To sum up, the previously mentioned facts leave no place for the claim that the Syrian regime applies secularism. On the other hand, those facts also show that the Syrian regime was not an Islamic one too. However, in the next two chapters, I will move away from the Syrian topic and examine deeply the in/compatibility of the Islamic doctrine with the concept of secularism.
2- The Islamic Doctrine as the Origin of the Conflict with Secularism:
The Islamic doctrine, as the heart of the religion Islam, was always in the spotlight especially after the beginning of the 21st century and the rapid rise of Islamic terrorism. Consequently, debates and discussions about Islam’s ability to adopt the Western model of modernity, democracy, and secularism have become louder and more essential than ever.
As a matter of fact, Islam has serious problems with secularism; and the Islamic doctrine represented by the Qur’an and the Sunnah makes it too hard for both the Islam and the Muslims to adopt secularism. As for the Qur’an, it contains several verses that are extremely incompatible with secularism. For instance, in Sura 5 / Verse 44 -which was revealed in Medina- the Qur’an says: “...Those who do not judge with what Allah has sent down are the unbelievers” (Qur’an 5:44). This is a verse that demands the application of Allah’s laws that were revealed by him to the Prophet. A verse that clearly contradicts the main principle of secularism about separating religion from the state.
Furthermore, and in Sura 4 / Verse 59 -also revealed in Medina- the Qur’an says: “Believers, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. Should you dispute about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is better and the best interpretation” (Qur’an 4:59). In this verse, Muslims are asked to solve any dispute according to what Allah and the Prophet have said. So again, another verse that clashes with secularism because disputes and legal issues in secular countries must be solved according to what the country’s constitution says and not according to religious norms or teachings.
Last but not least, in Sura 24 / Verse 51 -revealed in Medina too- the Qur’an says: “But when the believers are called to Allah and His Messenger, in order that he judges between them, their reply is: 'We hear and obey. ' Such are the prosperous” (Qur’an 24:51). This verse is even worse because it orders Muslims to obey Allah’s and Muhammad’s laws without even thinking about these laws leaving Muslims with no space whatsoever for the freedom of choice. This verse represents a clear conflict with secularism and its basic principles again.
The Qur’an is full with verses of a similar content, which is why I will suffice with those three examples in order to move to another problematic concept in the Islamic doctrine, namely the Sharia Law. I have mentioned in the previous chapter that since the Sharia is the source of legitimacy and legislation for any Islamic political system. However, now I will proceed further to explain why the Sharia Laws and secularism are two parallel lines that cannot meet each other. The main problem of Sharia -when faced with secularism- is the fact that it has a lot of rules and regulations which do not fit in the modern world today nor can they be compatible with secularism. The most famous rules in the Sharia are called boundaries (Arabic: Hudud ) which refer to a set of acts that are prohibited by Allah and considered as crimes; and if a Muslim commits one of those crimes, he or she must be punished in accordance with the Sharia sanctions. However, and for the aim of this paper, I will only speak about two boundaries, namely apostasy and adultery (also referred to as unlawful sexual intercourse) because these two boundaries extremely contradict secularism through their intervention with the private lives of people.