Proposed law puts Syria’s religious diversity at risk

  • Written by:

Critics say the law would “Islamise society” and transform Syria into a virtual theocracy.
Between the cracks. Syrian President Bashar Assad (C), Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun (R) and Minister of Awqaf Mohammad Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed arrive to attend prayers at Khadija Mosque in Tartus city, last June. (Syrian Presidency)

BEIRUT – Major cracks are emerging in the pro-regime street in Syria — unprecedented since 2011 — over a controversial measure that is yet to be enacted, giving unprecedented powers to the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf).

Law #16, which has the backing of the powerful Sunni Muslim clerical community in Damascus and Aleppo, is being challenged by secular Muslims, Christians and Alawites, who say it is an infringement on state secularism, arguing that it “Islamises society” and transforms Syria into a virtual theocracy.

Backing them, ironically, is Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, the highest religious authority in Syria, who is in an open battle with Minister of Awqaf Mohammad Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed.

Sayyed claims, in private, that the mufti was parachuted into his job, despite lacking strong religious credentials and is useful only when it comes to speaking to foreigners because of his moderate views on religious coexistence.

Among other things, Law #16 would give the minister the right to appoint the grand mufti — a decision previously vested in the presidency — and limits his tenure to three years, renewable by ministerial permission only.

If legislation passes, it would mean the automatic ejection of Hassoun, who has been at the job since 2005. The measure would also strip the mufti from the right to lead the Higher Awqaf Council, as decreed by a law in 1961.

Supporting the mufti’s behind-the-scenes lobbying against the law are a handful of intellectuals and MPs, including secular writer Nabil Saleh, who leaked the controversial measure to the media and was accused of being “a sectarian atheist.” An online campaign, called “I am a Syrian opposed to Law #16,” was begun and some critics are planning a sit-in at the gates of the Awqaf Ministry to voice their objection.

The legislation gives the ministry the right to set up its own venture capital arm, establish investment projects, whose revenue would go directly to its treasury rather than to the coffers of the Syrian government. The Awqaf Ministry is the richest institution in Syria, thanks to the non-stop Islamic charity that it receives and the large amount of property that it owns, all registered as religious endowments since Ottoman times. If the measure passes, the ministry would get total financial independence, making it a state within a state.

The legislation mandates a task force, known as the “Religious Youth Team,” to train mosque preachers and women teachers of the Quran, in addition to monitoring public vice, with suggestions that they have final say on what is presented on stage, cinema and television.

It also allows the ministry to establish pre-university sharia schools and “religious councils” in mosques, bypassing the ministries of education and higher education. It would also get the right to collect the zakat — charity mandatory in Islam — transforming it into an obligatory government tax.

The ministry would establish the Higher Scientific Fiqh Council, of which the minister is chairman. Twenty clerics would sit on its board, deciding on all matters of religious jurisprudence. There would be no deputy chairman to the council, meaning that, if the minister is absent, no legislation could pass.

Supporters of the law argue that it empowers the ministry to eradicate fanatical preachers, those who spread “Wahhabism and al-Qaeda thought in Syria.” On October 2, the minister appeared on Syrian TV passionately defending the legislation and describing it as a “first-rate nationalist law.”

Cuddling up to religious institutions is not new in Syria, especially in times of upheaval. When taking power in 1970, Hafez Assad courted the country’s leading clerics, appointing many of them to his first parliament. When they opposed a suggested constitutional amendment, which cancelled specification of the president’s religion as Islam, he quickly restored Article 3 to the Syrian Charter.

After a bloody battle against the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, Assad embarked on an ambitious project to build mosques and institutes for Quranic memorisation. Fifteen years ago, after the US invasion of Iraq, anti-American clerics were allowed to speak freely on pulpits, even praising the then-called Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, worked and preached freely in Syria, with access to its airwaves. The government allowed celebrations on the anniversaries of the Prophet’s birthday and ignored private Islamic lessons, which were both banned in the early 1980s.

That changed — albeit briefly — in 2010 when bold secular measures were taken, raising the ire of the clerical establishment. A casino was opened near Damascus Airport, the first of its kind since gambling was outlawed in the 1970s, and a ban on wearing the niqab at schools and universities was enforced.

A controversial television series came next, which aired on Syrian TV, depicting, in a very negative manner, the inside world of a prominent Muslim sisterhood called the Qubaysiyat. A crippling drought hit the country, prompting prominent cleric Said Ramadan al-Bouti — preacher at the Umayyad Mosque — to blame it on Syria’s worrying distance from Islamic values.

When the present conflict erupted in 2011, however, Bouti put his full weight behind the government, saying that, by Islamic law, one cannot rise against a ruler unless he fails to call believers to prayer.

Bouti was a ranking authority in Sunni Islam, respected in the Muslim world. He quietly set a series of demands, described as “painful” by the Ba’athists, who nevertheless responded affirmatively, including shutting the casino, lifting the niqab ban and establishing a religious television channel called Noor Sham. In 2013, he was assassinated by the armed opposition in Damascus, accused of being an “agent of the regime.”

The cuddling between the government and the religious establishments is yet another step in that marriage of mutual convenience between the state and Islamic institutions.