New Syria law may ‘create state within a state’

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Opposition says regime is trying to appease Sunni institutions, given vast majority of those killed in war were Sunnis
Sami Moubayed, Correspondent
A new law is making the rounds creating uproar on Syrian social media networks, giving wide and unprecedented powers to the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The law is raising eyebrows among Syrian minorities, mainly Christians and Alawites, who say they stand opposed to the “Islamisation of society”.

The proposed legislation, called Law No. 16, is still waiting for official ratification by the Syrian parliament. It’s 39-pages are also creating unprecedented cracks among regime loyalists, who see it as a painful concession granted by the regime to Sunni Muslim clerics. Meanwhile, the opposition claims that regime is trying to appease mainstream Sunni institutions, given that the vast majority of victims in the seven-year conflict have been Sunni Muslims.

They are drawing parallels with 1982, when after its crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian regime embarked on a nation-wide construction of mosques and institutes for memorising the Holy Quran, trying to fend off accusations that what happened in the midland city of Hama was a “war against Islam” as the Brotherhood had framed it.

With few exceptions, most senior clerics stood by the regime since the outbreak of the present conflict in 2011, forcing it — back then — to issue other concessions, described as “painful” by the Baathists, like closing the Damascus Casino, establishing a religious television channel called Al Nour, and lifting a ban on wearing the niqab in government schools, which was passed in 2010 and abolished only months later in mid-2011.

Unprecedented powers For starters, the proposed law allows the ministry to set up its own commercial establishments, whose revenue would go directly to the ministry’s treasury, giving it complete financial independence, without passing through the Central Bank or the Ministry of Finance. The ministry can now outsource its property, set up tourism projects (like restaurants, hotels, and cafes) and rent its land to investors. The Awqaf is already the richest institution in Syria, due to a constant flow of charity funds and the large tracts of property that it owns, registered as religious endowments since Ottoman times.

A ceremonial Grand Mufti

Secondly, the law authorises the minister to appoint the grand mufti of the republic, a right previously vested in the presidency, and limits his tenure to three years, renewable only through the minister’s approval. The present mufti, Ahmad Badr Al Deen Hassoun, has been at his post for the past 13 years while his predecessor, Shaikh Ahmad Kaftaro, held the job from 1965 to 2005. It also strips the mufti of the right to chair the Higher Awqaf Council, which every mufti has enjoyed since 1961, giving the job to the minister. It is an open secret in Syria that Hassoun and the Ministry of Awqaf are at daggers-end, with an open power struggle between them, over rights, duties, and funds, a conflict that clearly manifested in the proposed law, which would reduce Hassoun to a ceremonial figurehead.

Monitoring public vice

Third, the law authorises a new body called “The Religious Youth Team” to train mosque preachers, monitor public vice, and make zakat an obligatory tax for Sunni Muslims. It also establishes pre-university Sharia schools and religious councils in mosques, independent of the Ministries of Education and Higher Education.

Additionally, it mandates the creation of a Higher Scientific Fiqh Council, chaired by the minister, with 20 religious clerics, allowing Christians named by the church to sit in on meetings related to cross-religious affairs. There is no deputy chair for the council, which means that it will not meet, if the minister is absent. This council would be charged with all affairs of jurisprudence, independently from civil and religious courts, and the Ministry of Justice. Finally, it gives the ministry control over television, theatre, and film, with the authority to ban the screening or staging of works deemed “un-Islamic”.

Baathist MP Nabil Saleh, who leaked the legislation to the press, told Gulf News: “We already have 103 religious schools in Syria. Do we really need more?” He claimed that Ministry officials are accusing him of being a “sectarian atheist”.

“They need to make up their minds. An atheist cannot be sectarian. I believe in one God — and I am not affiliated with the Mufti, and I am not a business partner of his sons, as they are accusing me of being.”

On October 1, Awqaf Minister Abdul Sattar Sayyed appeared on television, saying the version of the law circulating on social media was “doctored” claiming that the full legislation was “a first-grade nationalist law” because it authorised his team to root out salafist and “takfiri” elements from Syrian society. He quickly added, however, that the law “was not a Quran”, saying deputies were free to debate and amend it, from within the chamber, when it comes up for debate.

Commenting on the minister’s words, Saleh said: “The Minister spoke a lot, but really said nothing!”

Amer Elias, a political analyst, told Gulf News: “The law shows the opportunism of the religious establishment, at a crucial juncture of Syrian history. The religious institution needs structural reform — not more powers. Expanding its authority, and doubling its immunity is not a solution.”

Syrian lawyer Ahmad Mansour gave a legal take on the law, telling Gulf News: “Never in the modern history of Syria has such a comprehensive law been issued, single-handedly abrogating 11 previous laws related to the rights of other ministries and institutions. This is a revolution in the rights and duties of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. It creates a state within a state, with ultimate authority vested in the Minister.”

Mansour, a board member of the Damascus Friends Society, wrapped up by saying: “The law creates a religious state within the civilian one — a state with its own laws and regulations.”