Some defenders of the Syrian dictator have argued that, as secular ruler, he is an important bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, and that support for his ouster amounts to support for the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, or even Islamic State. But even setting aside its close alliance with Islamist Iran, or its own role in Islamic State’s rise to power, the Syrian regime is in many ways anything but secular. Explaining why this is so, Asser Khattab first notes that official propaganda never mentions 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.
Books coming from abroad have long needed to get the approval of the Ministry of Religious Endowments before reaching Syria’s bookstores. TV shows . . . also require the approval of religious authorities. . . . More generally, . . . 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.
During the five decades of the Assad clan’s reign, conservative Islamism never ceased to be useful to the regime. . . . [I]n Damascus in 2006 . . . the Danish embassy [was] burned down by angry Syrians (who also attacked the Norwegian embassy) after cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad were published in the two countries. The regime stood aside and allowed that to happen.
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.
More about: Bashar al-Assad, Middle East Christianity, Secularism, Syria